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Belarus: Escalating crackdown on human rights defenders partners continue to denounce the repression and persecution of Belarus human rights defenders, which has steadily worsened since the results of the 2020 Presidential election were announced on 9 August. The partners condemn the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders and journalists and urges the authorities in Belarus to immediately put an end to the persecution and harassment, including at the judicial level. Only in the recent weeks:

Since the early morning of February 16, 2021, at least 25 human rights defenders and journalists across Belarus have seen their houses and offices searched. Many among them have been detained. The Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” are amongst the main targets.

Police officers have conducted searches at the apartments of  Pavel Sapelko, Viasna lawyer and Andrei Poluda, Viasna’s coordinator of the campaign «Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”, at the offices of members of the Mahiliou branch of Viasna Aliaksei Kolchyn andBarys Bukhel, at the house of the head of Mazyr branch of Viasna Uladzimir Tselepun and at the house of the head of Svietlahorsk branch of Viasna Alena Masliukova. Another search was initiated at the house of Natalya Satsunkevich, member of the Minsk branch of Viasna. Dmitri Solovyov, Viasna staff member, has been arbitrarily detained.

Viasna’s main office in Minsk has been raided, with Valentin Stefanovich, Viasna’s Deputy Chairperson, as a witness of the search. At the time of publication of this statement, the house of Ales Bialiatski, Viasna’s Chairman, was being searched.

The arrests and raids are supposedly linked to a criminal case opened under Article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code (“organisation and preparation of actions that grossly violate the public order, or active participation in them”).

Simultaneously, in the morning of February 16, 2021, the press secretary of BAJ, Barys Haretski, published an alert on social media as police officers were banging on his door. He was not detained but his equipment and money were confiscated. The house of Aleh Ageyeu, BAJ Lawyer, has also been raided, as has the house of Yevgenia Parashchenko, press secretary of the Boris Zvozkov Belarusian Human Rights House. Andrei Bastunts, BAJ Chairman, was taken by police officers of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Minsk City Executive Committee to witness the search of the BAJ offices in Minsk.

On 18 January 2021, human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka was detained in Gomel as part of an investigation relating to the “organisation and preparation of actions, grossly violating public order, or active participation in them.” On the same day, Leanid Sudalenka’s colleague Maryia Tarasenka was also detained and held for three days before being released on 21 January 2021. Leanid Sudalenka is a prominent human rights defender, lawyer, and  heads the Gomel branch of the Human Rights Centre Viasna (HRC Viasna). He is also an active campaigner and advocate for the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. Leanid Sudalenka is laureate of the 2018 ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’ Human Rights Prize of the French Republic. Maryia Tarasenka is a woman human rights defender and a volunteer of the Gomel branch of the HRC Viasna. She has actively opposed the unpopular presidential tax decree against “social parasites” targeting those who do not have an official job. The Gomel branch of the HRC Viasna provides legal support to victims of human rights violations and helps them to prepare individual complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.

On 12 January 2021, human rights defender Andrei Alexandrov was detained on the suspicion of “education or other preparation of persons for participation in group actions that grossly violate public order, as well as financing or other material support of such activities”. The human rights defender is being accused of financing the protests in Minsk by paying fines and reimbursing the costs for detention in temporary detention facilities for those detained during protests in Minsk. Andrei Alexandrov is human rights defender and a prominent media manager in Belarus. Between 2009 and 2012 Andrei Alexandrov worked as a deputy head of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and from 2014 to 2018, he was the deputy director of the BelaPAN news agency.

In late December 2020, five human rights defenders and members of the Belarus Press Club,  Yulia SlutskayaSergey Olshevsky,  Alla SharkoSergey Yakupov and Petr Slutsky were detained in Minsk. They were all questioned by the Department of Financial Investigations on the suspicion of tax evasion. Sergey Yakupov was later released from the pre-trial detention centre and was deported to Russia on 31 December 2020. The four other human rights defenders were indicted and remain in detention. Belarus Press Club is a platform for the professional development of Belarusian independent media and journalists, and a member of the International Association of Press Clubs (IAPC). Press Club conducts educational trainings, provides space for professional discussion and development of new media projects and monitors compliance of Belarusian media materials with journalistic standards.

According to RSF, in Belarus (ranked 153 in the 2020 World Press Freedom Index), critical journalists and bloggers are threatened and arrested, leading news sites are blocked, access to information is restricted and media diversity is unknown. The state exercises total control over all TV channels. A few independent media outlets exist but many are forced to base themselves abroad and the authorities continue to harass them.