Belarus: New Wave of Repression Against Political Critics

Published: 26 January 2024

Arrests BelarusThe Belarusian authorities continue with the persecution of political dissenters. (Photo: Viasna, License)

By Zdravko Ljubas

The European Union strongly condemned on Thursday the recent surge of repression against former political prisoners and the relatives of political prisoners in Belarus, where over 100 people have been detained in the past few days.

“The Lukashenka regime continues its deplorable tactics of intimidation and repression against its critics and potential political opponents ahead of the ‘elections’ in February,” Josep Borrell, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, said in a statement.

The EU called on Belarusian authorities to abstain from additional repression and violence against their people and emphasized the need for compliance with international human rights obligations, urging the immediate and unconditional release of all arbitrarily detained individuals and an end to abusive prosecutions.

As part of an ongoing crackdown on activists, journalists, and opposition politicians, the Belarusian State Security Committee, also known as KGB, apprehended over 80 individuals on Tuesday, according to the country’s exiled Human Rights Center Viasna (Spring).

The KGB reportedly focused on former political prisoners and the families of current political prisoners, checking for potential involvement in “financing extremist activities” and “participation in extremist formations.”

“Some of them were detained, while some of them were simply searched and released,” Viasna reported. The human rights watchdog claims that the security forces have been obtaining non-disclosure agreements from people – a legally binding contract that establishes a confidential relationship between the parties.

Viasna also alleged that certain KGB employees were informed that the detentions and searches were purportedly connected to the “INeedHelpBY” project, designed to offer emergency food assistance to those who lost income due to political activities in Belarus.

As Viasna pointed out, the regime in Minsk had labeled the project as an “extremist formation.”

The human rights organization warned that the new year in Belarus has witnessed the continuation of “detentions, searches, torture in detention centers,” with increasing pressure on political prisoners and a growing number of independent media products marked as “extremist materials and formations.”

Earlier this month Viasna stated that as of the end of 2023, it was aware of 4,248 people sentenced to various types of punishment on politically motivated charges, including 910 women.

The courts reportedly “issued at least 4,466 rulings in administrative trials, of which fines were imposed in 1,822 cases and terms of administrative imprisonment were ordered in 2,005 trials; 38 cases were dismissed; while the outcomes of the remaining cases are unknown.”

According to the latest data, the organization warned that 1,419 people in Belarus were considered political prisoners.

The global human rights watchdog, Human Rights Watch (HRW), based in New York, cautioned in its latest report – the 740-page World Report 2024 – that Belarusian authorities conducted an extensive and systematic crackdown on dissent and the dissemination of information about human rights abuses throughout 2023.

“Over the past year, Belarusian authorities doubled down to create an information vacuum around raging repressions by cutting political prisoners off from the outside world and bullying their lawyers and families into silence,” said Anastasiia Kruope, assistant Europe and Central Asia researcher at HRW.

She warned that “widespread repression continues in an expanding information void.”

Reports from various international organizations, including the HRW report, indicated that Belarusian authorities have been increasingly holding political prisoners in incommunicado detention – without contact with relatives or lawyers; subjecting them to torture, isolation in punishment cells, and other forms of ill-treatment.

The country’s borders are not limiting authorities in Minsk in targeting Belarusians in exile for their activism and in trying to undermine their credibility.

HRW highlights that the Minsk regime, in the past year, enacted legislative amendments enabling authorities to revoke the citizenship of Belarusians residing abroad, even if they hold no other citizenship, upon conviction for charges such as “participation in an extremist organization” or “grave harm to the interests of Belarus.”

The extent and severity of human rights violations in Belarus are so substantial that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), in its report last year documenting systematic, widespread, and gross human rights abuses by Belarusian authorities following the 2020 elections, suggested that some of these actions might constitute “crimes against humanity.”