Belarus: Human Rights Center “Viasna” faces persecution, as crackdown on protests continues

The Right Livelihood Foundation expresses deep concern at the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders in Belarus, and in particular of members and volunteers of 2020 Right Livelihood Laureate Human Rights Center “Viasna”, who have been facing intimidation and reprisals in retaliation for their peaceful human rights work.

As the Belarusian government continues the brutal crackdown on peaceful protests against Alexander Lukashenko’s regime, mass repression and widespread human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests, prosecutions under trumped-up charges and torture and other ill-treatment, have become a daily occurrence. We are deeply troubled by the persecution and judicial harassment of several members and volunteers of 2020 Right Livelihood Laureate Human Rights Center “Viasna”, as a clear attempt to undermine the organisation’s legitimate human rights activities.

Since May 2020, in the run up to the presidential election of August 9, more than 1.300 individuals were arbitrarily detained for exercising their basic freedoms. These arrests have targeted, among others, Viasna’s human rights activists Aliaksandr Burakou and Uladzimir Vialichkin who were accused of “participating in an unauthorized mass event”. They were sentenced respectively to 10 days of administrative detention and a fine of 1350 rubles. Journalist Ales Burakou was also the victim of an attempted arrest by police forces in the same period. Furthermore, criminal investigations were opened against Alena Masliukova and Andrei Miadzvedzeu on allegations of public insult. On election day, seven members of Viasna’s regional offices were also arbitrarily detained. Most of those arrested have been released, but dozens of activists remain behind bars on politically motivated charges.

Most recently, in the aftermath of the election, three cases affecting Viasna’s members were brought to the attention of the Foundation. On September 17, in the context of an unprecedented level of mass repressions, Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service, was arrested on charges of “training or other preparation of persons for the participation in mass riots, or financing of such activities”. As part of her human rights activities, she observed peaceful assemblies, and documented evidence of torture of detained protesters. She is now in prison facing up to three years’ imprisonment. On November 2, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, Ms. Mary Lawlor, released an official statement expressing concern about Ms. Rabkova’s arrest and claimed that “the charge against Maria Rabkova is tantamount to the criminalisation of human rights work”. She also added that “Belarusian authorities must release her immediately and drop all charges against her”.

On October 2, Viasna’s volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, was arrested and a few days later charged with “participation in riots”. His crime is to have assisted political prisoners with the aim of protecting their rights. He remains in prison.

On October 30, in their last move against the organisation, the authorities arrested journalist Maryna Kastylianchanka in a café in Minsk, on charges of “participating in an unauthorized mass event” and of “disobedience to the legal demands of a police officer”. She has been accused of allegedly taking part in an unauthorised picket on the same day, chanting slogans and disobeying police officers. However, according to Viasna’s information, she didn’t take part in any picket that day and therefore couldn’t commit the offense she is being accused of. She was sentenced to 15 days in prison. 

The Right Livelihood Foundation welcomes the Human Rights Council’s resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, adopted subsequent to the urgent debate held in the Council on September 18, and believes that continued scrutiny of the international community is necessary to prevent any further escalation of violence. However, we remain deeply concerned that blatant violations of fundamental freedoms, including freedom of opinion and expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as the authorities’ determination to violently suppress all forms of dissent, continue to take place.  

We therefore call on the international community, and in particular on Member States of the Human Rights Council, to: 

  • Urge Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release Viasna’s human rights activists Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapiuk and Maryna Kastylianchanka, and stop the prosecution against them, as well as against all political prisoners, demonstrators, journalists and lawyers who are being prosecuted only for exercising their fundamental freedoms;
  • Ensure that Belarus acts in line with its Constitution and with international human rights obligations by allowing civil society and human rights defenders to carry out their peaceful human rights activities free of any form of intimidation and reprisals;
  • Ensure that all individuals responsible for the current crackdown and human rights abuses are investigated and prosecuted, with a view to ensuring full accountability.