Belarus

Last Updated 24 August 2020

Belarus, a former soviet republic, attained independence in 1991. Belarus’ ties with Russia influence both its economic and political direction. President Lukashenko is often dubbed “Europe’s last dictator”. He has been in power since 1994. In August 2020, the largest protests in the country’s history began to demand Lukashenko’s departure after he was re-appointed president in an election that was widely perceived to have been rigged.1https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53796436

On 28 June 2012, the Human Rights Council established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus (the “Special Rapporteur”).

 
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination

Constitution and government

The Belarus Constitution, Article 33 reads:

“Everyone is guaranteed freedom of thoughts and beliefs and their free expression.
No one shall be forced to express one’s beliefs or to deny them.
No monopolization of the mass media by the State, public associations or individual citizens and no censorship shall be permitted.”

In practice these freedoms are severely restricted by law.

Demography

There are few reliable statistics about non-religious or religious affiliation in Belarus. Belarus inherited its atheist stance from the former Soviet Union. There are no known humanist, sceptic or freethinker groups in Belarus. One survey suggests that 68% of the 9.4 million population is linked to the Belarusian Orthodox Church (BOC). Other religions have much smaller populations.

Religious discrimination

In 2002 Belarus adopted the Law ‘on freedom of conscience and religious organisations’. The law created formal registration requirements for religious groups to operate. The Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur noted that she remained concerned “about cumbersome regulation and extensive control over the registration and activity of religious communities”.2https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/089/03/PDF/G2008903.pdf?OpenElement

To register, a religious community must submit an official application including: a list of its founders’ names, places of residence, citizenship, and signatures; copies of its founding statutes; the minutes of its founding meeting; and permission from the regional authorities confirming the community’s right to occupy or use any property referenced in its founding statutes.3https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BELARUS-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf The government selectively denies registration to minority religions, while others report being deterred from registering by the fact that they must provide the State with a list of full names and addresses of all members, which they do not trust the government not to misuse.4https://belarusdigest.com/story/religious-freedom-in-belarus-worse-than-in-ukraine-better-than-in-russia/

>The law bans all religious activity by unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from unspecified fines to two years in prison.5https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BELARUS-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf

Although there is no ‘official’ state religion, the government in practice uses provisions of the religion law to hinder or prevent activities of groups other than the BOC. A 2003 concordat between the BOC and the government provides the BOC with autonomy in its internal affairs, freedom to perform religious rites and other activities, and a special relationship with the state.

The law requires all religious groups to receive prior governmental approval to import and distribute religious literature. The government harassed members of minority religious groups, denied them permits to obtain places of worship, raided their private residences and, in one case, arrested a religious official. Members of religious groups reportedly continued to be reluctant to report abuses and restrictions, fearing intimidation and retribution.

Education and children’s rights

The concordat provides a framework for individual agreements between the BOC and various state departments. At least 12 such agreements are in existence, including with the Ministries of Defense, Healthcare, Information, and Education. The agreement with the Ministry of Education provides for joint projects between the state and the BOC for the “spiritual and moral education” of students based on BOC traditions and history.6https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/belarus/

Persuant to the agreement, school administrators may invite BOC priests to lecture to students, organize tours to BOC facilities, and participate in BOC festivities, programs, and humanitarian projects.

Family, community and society

The 2020 Annual Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus highlighted significant problems in Belarus, including the continued use of the death penalty,  torture and ill-treatment in prisons and the use of arbitrary detention against civil society activists, peaceful protesters and independent journalists.

Death penalty

Belarus is the only European country to use the death penalty. Its use is provided for by the Constitution of Belarus, Article 24 of which states that the death penalty may be applied as an “exceptional measure of punishment for especially grave crimes”.7https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Belarus_2004.pdf?lang=en In practice, according to one source, since 1981 the death penalty has largely been applied in cases involving murder committed under aggravating circumstances.8https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/belarus683angbassdef.pdf

Those condemned to death are executed in a cruel and inhumane fashion – by a shot to the head. Moreover, the executions themselves are shrouded in secrecy, characterised by a failure to inform family members of execution dates, to release the bodies of executed prisoners to their families (so that they may be buried in accordance with family traditions and beliefs) or even to reveal their place of burial. While the exact number of persons convicted to death and executed in Belarus is unknown, human rights defenders estimate that since Belarus gained its independence in 1991, over 300 people have been sentenced to death and about 400 have been executed.9https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20Documents/BLR/INT_CAT_CSS_BLR_30786_E.pdf

Detainees are put under strong psychological pressure to self-incriminate during pre-trial detention, leading to gross due process violations at trial. A report by the International Federation for Human Rights records how detainees on death row are mistreated in prisons:

According to evidence obtained, persons sentenced to death are kept in total isolation, they are forbidden to take walks, and prison staff treat them as if they are no longer ″among the living. Isolation makes them especially vulnerable to physical and psychological coercion. Conditions of detention on death row have repeatedly led to suicide attempts.”10https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/belarus683angbassdef.pdf

Torture and ill-treatment in detention

Reports of torture and ill-treatment in the criminal justice system remain endemic. During the crackdown on peaceful protesters by Belarusian authorities in August 2020, Amnesty International and local human rights groups recorded the mass use of torture against protestors, including reports of individuals being stripped naked, beaten, and threatened with rape. Members of the public reported that the screams of torture victims held in a detention centre in Minsk were audible outside the facility.11https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/08/belarus-mounting-evidence-of-a-campaign-of-widespread-torture-of-peaceful-protesters/

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Belarus has been heavily criticised by rights bodies for suppressing free speech, muzzling the press and denying the opposition access to state media.

Article 17.11 of the Code of Administrative Offences penalizes the “distribution, production, storage or transportation of extremist information”. In practice, this law is used against activists, journalists and bloggers who criticize the Government and voice dissenting views.12https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/17/belarus-media-under-attack-european-games-loom

Freedom House reports that the internet remains subject to strict state control, with the government blocking numerous news websites on dubious grounds and without judicial oversight. The popular independent news site Charter 97 has been blocked for spreading “extremist” content since 2018, and during the lead up to the June 2019 European Games a presidential decree was passed which empowered the government to block internet resources calling for protests during games.13https://freedomhouse.org/country/belarus/freedom-net/2019

Freedom of Assembly

The largest protests in the country’s history took place in August 2020 against what was widely seen as a fraudulent attempt by President Lukashenko to retain his hold on power. Lukashenko’s government responded to the protests with excessive force. Riot police violently dispersed protesters with rubber bullets and tear gas, at the time of writing at least 2 people have died of injuries and 6,000 have been arrested.14https://www.euronews.com/2020/08/11/belarus-protesters-incited-to-change-tact-for-third-night-of-demonstrations An Internet blackout was also imposed in an attempt to stifle dissent and prevent protesters from organizing.15https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-internet/internet-blackout-in-belarus-leaves-protesters-in-the-dark-idUSKCN2571Q4

 

References   [ + ]

1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-53796436
2. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G20/089/03/PDF/G2008903.pdf?OpenElement
3, 5. https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/BELARUS-2018-INTERNATIONAL-RELIGIOUS-FREEDOM-REPORT.pdf
4. https://belarusdigest.com/story/religious-freedom-in-belarus-worse-than-in-ukraine-better-than-in-russia/
6. https://www.state.gov/reports/2019-report-on-international-religious-freedom/belarus/
7. https://www.constituteproject.org/constitution/Belarus_2004.pdf?lang=en
8, 10. https://www.fidh.org/IMG/pdf/belarus683angbassdef.pdf
9. https://tbinternet.ohchr.org/Treaties/CAT/Shared%20Documents/BLR/INT_CAT_CSS_BLR_30786_E.pdf
11. https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/08/belarus-mounting-evidence-of-a-campaign-of-widespread-torture-of-peaceful-protesters/
12. https://www.hrw.org/news/2019/05/17/belarus-media-under-attack-european-games-loom
13. https://freedomhouse.org/country/belarus/freedom-net/2019
14. https://www.euronews.com/2020/08/11/belarus-protesters-incited-to-change-tact-for-third-night-of-demonstrations
15. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-belarus-election-internet/internet-blackout-in-belarus-leaves-protesters-in-the-dark-idUSKCN2571Q4

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