With the number of political prisoners growing and a shutdown of civic space, people in Belarus are being deprived of their rights to freedom of expression, assembly and more, a new UN human rights report presented on Wednesday has revealed.

Focusing on developments in 2023, the report builds on previous findings in the aftermath of large public protests which erupted in 2020 following a disputed presidential poll. Despite a lack of cooperation from Belarusian authorities, the UN human rights office (OHCHR) said evidence gathered shows that the scale and pattern of violations has continued.

“The Office has found that the cumulative effect of violations of freedom of expression, association and assembly since 1 May 2020 has closed independent civic space and effectively deprived people in Belarus of their ability to exercise these rights”, said Christian Salazar Volkmann, Director of Field Operations and Technical Cooperation at OHCHR, briefing the Human Rights Council.

He noted that no opposition party could even register for the parliamentary election held last month, raising concerns as Belarus approaches new presidential elections next year. Laws adopted or amended since 2021 have led to the oppression and punishment of opposition voices while several prominent human rights defenders, journalists, and trade unionists have received long prison terms. Thousands have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for exercising freedom of expression and assembly, some for actions dating back to 2020. Arrests have continued into 2024.

Since 2020, thousands of Belarusians have suffered cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in detention facilities across the country, the report said. Some cases of torture have resulted in severe injuries and sexual and gender-based violence. The UN rights office also found violations of the right to life due to medical negligence and two recorded deaths in custody in 2024. Expressing alarm over possible enforced disappearances of well-known opposition members who were facing politically-motivated charges, UN officials urged authorities to provide information on their fate and whereabouts.

With many young people driving the 2020 protests, OHCHR found widespread arbitrary arrests of children in the aftermath, with over 50 politically motivated criminal trials of individuals under 18 lacking protections guaranteed by international law. Authorities have used a pretext of “socially dangerous situations” procedure to remove children from their parents, leaving some without care or in the custody of relatives or friends.

Up to 300,000 Belarusians have been forced to leave since May 2020, the report estimates, with the Government restricting rights of those in exile, including preventing passport issuance abroad and a policy of arresting returnees. “Reportedly, at least 207 persons were arrested in 2023 when returning to Belarus and arrests have continued in 2024. It is currently not safe for those in exile to return to Belarus,” Mr. Volkmann said, calling on Member States to facilitate international refugee protection for those in exile.

The report said there are reasonable grounds to believe “the crime against humanity of persecution may have been committed”. OHCHR is urging Belarus to release all arbitrarily detained individuals and end the ongoing rights violations, while calling on Member States to do all they can to bring Belarus into compliance with international law.

Source: The UN

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