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Brutal Crackdown in Belarus

Pavol Stracansky

PRAGUE, Feb 9 2011 (IPS) - Repressions in Europe’s last dictatorship show no signs of abating despite EU sanctions and international condemnation. International rights watchdogs warn that human rights abuses in Belarus have reached a “new low”, and activists say that no one appears safe from Alexander Lukashenka’s brutal crackdowns in the wake of his controversial re-election as president.

The events in Belarus echo have emerged in many ways as a European parallel of what is happening in Egypt and much of the Arab world.

Daria Vashkevich of the Assembly of Pro-Democratic NGOs of Belarus told IPS: “There are repressions all over the country and it’s not just NGOs that are being made to suffer. Human rights organisations, people who were monitoring elections and checking on rights violations, are the ones being targeted for repressions first, but it’s impossible to be sure of anything at the moment.”

The brutal crackdowns by Lukashenka’s security forces began immediately after the announcement that Lukashenka had been returned to power with 80 percent of the vote in presidential elections on December 19.

Angry voters and opposition candidates massed in Minsk’s central square following the vote. And although some analysts had predicted that Lukashenka would let any such demonstration pass in peace as he looked to placate the West, which had been promising billions of euros in aid to the country, he instead launched a brutal wave of repression that is already being compared to the worst terrors of the Soviet regime.

Hundreds of protestors were arrested and beaten, one opposition presidential candidate had his legs broken when he was jumped on by riot police, and another was taken by security forces from hospital – where he had been admitted after suffering serious head injuries at the hands of police.

Amnesty International has claimed that people walking hundreds of metres from the square were attacked by police and one student was left needing surgery after being beaten by security forces.

Arrests have followed in the days and weeks since. There have been accounts of people being hauled off by police at all hours of the day and night for having been even in the vicinity of the demonstrations, and denied contact with lawyers and family. Those later released from special secret police – KGB – jails have spoken of “inhuman” conditions they were kept in.

Authorities have released some people into house arrest. Local rights groups including Charter 97 have reported that they are under constant surveillance by the secret police.

Scores are also now facing up to 15 years in jail on charges of inciting riots. Those accused say they are being de facto denied legal representation. In one case a lawyer who had agreed to represent campaigning journalist Iryna Khalip, the wife of former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, suddenly refused to represent her. It emerged that the secret police had told her she would have her licence to practise revoked if she took the case.

Third sector organisations, human rights defenders and any groups seen as being even remotely anti-regime are facing similar repressions. Vashkevic told IPS that “organisations are being raided every day” while local human rights groups say they have had their offices ransacked and property confiscated.

Lukashenka justified the post-demonstration repression as necessary to avoid a revolution like the one that swept his friend Kurmanev Bakiyek from power in Kyrgyzstan last year. A revolution, he claims, was being planned and sponsored by Western states.

The international community has condemned the crackdowns and last week the EU announced a raft of sanctions against more than 150 members of Lukashenka’s regime, including travel bans and the freezing of their assets within the EU.

Western states have meanwhile pledged tens of millions of euros in aid for third sector organisations, students and opposition groups in an effort to bolster anti-Lukashenka movements.

But some observers have questioned the effectiveness of such moves. It has been reported that some members of Lukashenka’s regime put on the EU’s blacklist have already managed to circumvent the travel ban. Others have openly mocked the sanctions, saying that Lukashenka has been on similar lists in the past. They also doubt that the sanctions will stop the repressions any time soon.

Rights watchdogs warn that the situation in Belarus is as bad now as it has been at any time since Lukashenka came to power in 1994. Amnesty International has said human rights abuses have reached a “new low” in Belarus.

But there are also fears that the repressions may have put an end to what was described by NGOs in the country just late last year as a recent ‘thaw’ in the repression of third sector and government opponents. Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, told IPS that prior to the election crackdowns “things in civil society were going better” and pointed out that there had been no criminal cases brought against human rights defenders for their activities during the last two years.

He said that there had also been at the time serious hopes that a campaign to bring in a moratorium on the death penalty, which Belarus still actively uses, could be successful this year.

But with the repressions of rights activists continuing there is growing uncertainty over the future work of any independent groups in Belarus. Asked about the future for third sector organisations in Belarus, Vashkevic said: “There is no way of knowing now what will happen.”

 
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