For more than a month now, Belarus has been gripped by mass demonstrations that center around the contested 2020 presidential election, during which President Alexander Lukashenko sought his sixth term in office. The protests are on an unprecedented scale, being the largest series of anti-government demonstrations since Mr. Lukashenko took office in 1994. From the night of the election onwards, it has become evident that police forces utilized indiscriminate violence against largely peaceful demonstrators, and reports have also emerged of excessive ill-treatment of protestors who were detained and arrested.
Ahead of the election this year, there was a government crackdown on opposition candidates, with two jailed and another forced to flee the country. Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – currently the main opposition candidate – registered in place of her husband, Sergei Tikhavosky, who was considered among the top candidates before he was jailed. Brewing discontent with Mr. Lukashenko’s government was already apparent, with over 10,000 people rallying in support of Ms. Tikhanovskaya before the election.
Indicators of possible election fraud were apparent on August 9, voting day, with no independent observers invited to the election, and the commencing of an internet blackout lasting several days. Exit polls were released that evening, suggesting that Mr. Lukashenko won a landslide victory of 80% of the vote and that Ms. Tikhanovskaya only gained about 10%. However, she insisted that she polled 60-70% if the votes were counted fairly. The next day, Ms. Tikhanovskaya tried to complain about the falsified results to election authorities, but was detained and forced to leave for Lithuania.
Protestors quickly took to the streets – the night after the election, there were 3000 arrests in Minsk and other cities, with further nights seeing violent clashes and mass arrests throughout the country. During these post-election clashes, there have been widespread reports of alleged police violence against protestors. Video footage displays black-clad riot police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, stun grenades, and water cannons to disperse largely peaceful crowds, killing at least one person. In Brest, police fired live rounds at protestors, injuring one. Last week, hundreds of women were detained during the ‘Sparkly March’ – the most recent in a series of all-women protests – and ambulances were called after several reportedly became unwell during their detentions.
By 19 August, at least 2000 of 7000 people who were detained by riot police were freed, and reports quickly emerged of ongoing ill-treatment of protestors in the detention facilities, such as repeated beatings, rape threats, and forcing protestors to endure overcrowded cells.
Student Sasha Vilks showed a reporter his back and legs, badly bruised from truncheon blows. “They called us terrorists and beat us severely on our legs and our backs,” he told reporters. “They would beat us first and then ask questions.”
Instances of violence and attempts to suppress journalists have also been recorded. At least 50 journalists, most of them citizens, were detained and many were deported. Yegor Martinovich, journalist, and editor of the independent online newspaper Nasha Niva, was detained in the crackdown and said that he and several others were beaten and refused food for half a day. Mr. Martinovich said that he, alongside 27 others, was put in a cell intended for only 12 people, and after his release, 10 more people were put in.
Later, the national police chief apologized to people “targeted indiscriminately” by the police, while the Interior Ministry opened a hotline for relatives trying to locate their loved ones. Yet the police force has failed to take accountability for excessive and indiscriminate conduct wielded against protestors. Amnesty International stated that no criminal cases were filed against police who injured and tortured hundreds of peaceful protestors, while dozens of cases were launched against protestors, with many lacking credible evidence of wrongdoing. In a statement, Amnesty International’s Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia, Marie Struthers, said, “The Belarusian authorities have to date refused to engage in a dialogue with the protesters, nor, apparently, have they taken steps to investigate the massive human rights violations committed by the police during the first few days of the post-election protests.”
Meanwhile, the opposition’s efforts continue despite Ms. Tikhanovskaya’s exile. She launched a Coordination Council, constituting civil society activists and lawyers to negotiate a transfer of power, and has made several appeals to the international community for support to establish democracy in Belarus.
Mr. Lukashenko has reacted with continuing hostility and refused negotiations with the council, and many senior members of the council were arrested on criminal charges. Later, he blamed the protestors and claimed that they assaulted the police, who were justified in their actions. On Wednesday, he took his oath of office in an unannounced inauguration ceremony in Minsk, taking local journalists and opposition by surprise. The ceremony has been described as a “thieves’ meeting” and a “farce” by leading opposition figures.
The accounts of violence and apparent impunity on the part of the police, as well as Mr. Lukashenko’s inauguration, has fuelled further outrage and large-scale demonstrations. On Sunday, at least 100,000 people gathered in Minsk to demand Mr. Lukashenko’s resignation and investigation into these human rights violations, in one of the largest gatherings in the country’s modern history. Tensions continue to rise in the capital since the inauguration, with protestors attempting to block roads and police vehicles – and video footage displays masked riot police using water cannons and batons against crowds as a response, resulting in bloody injuries to their heads.
International efforts to support Belarus are ongoing, with most of the world, including the UN, condemning the violence. 40 Belarusian officials face asset freezes and travel bans due to their role in the crackdown; and the European Union is preparing sanctions against Belarus – though foreign ministers currently face a deadlock over sanctions after a veto by Cyprus. Although Russia, traditionally Belarus’ closest ally, has endorsed the election results, many high-profile Russian politicians allied with the Kremlin called the election falsified and urged the president to step down. Police violence and failure to take accountability has also been denounced by UN High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet as a “clear violation of international human rights standards.”
What’s Happening in Belarus?: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53799065; https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/13/world/europe/belarus-protests-guide.html
Belarus: Police must be held accountable for violence: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/08/belarus-police-must-be-held-accountable-for-violence/
‘Beating me without mercy’: Protestors freed from Belarus jails recount extreme police brutality: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/belarus-election-protest-police-brutality-alexander-lukashenko-a9672206.html
Lukashenko’s surprise inauguration: https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/23/europe/alexander-lukashenko-inaugurated-belarus-intl/index.html
Hundreds of women detained during Belarus protest march: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/sep/19/hundreds-of-women-detained-during-belarus-protest-march-alexander-lukashenko
Belarus: Mass protests after Lukashenko secretly sworn in: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-54262953
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Author: Nikita Nandanwad
Editor: Zora Stanik
Editor in Chief: Zora Stanik