UN says Belarus may have committed crimes against humanity

Belarus has staged a crackdown on those who challenge President Alexander Lukashenko’s claim that he won a sixth presidential term in 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA - The United Nations said on Friday that rights violations committed against people thought to oppose Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko may amount to crimes against humanity.

A UN Human Rights Office report published on Friday concluded that gross human rights violations were being committed across the country.

“Violations appear to have been part of a campaign of violence and repression intentionally directed at those who were – or were perceived to be – opposing the government or had expressed critical views,” the office said.

“Some of these violations may amount to crimes against humanity.”

The report was published just hours before Belarus handed long jail terms to senior staff at the country’s largest independent news site, which has been forced to close.

The verdicts were the latest in a crackdown on journalists, opposition figures and activists who challenge Mr Lukashenko’s claim he won a sixth presidential term in 2020.

The report, covering the period from May 1, 2020, to Dec 31, 2022, draws on interviews with 207 victims and witnesses, and more than 2,500 items of evidence, including photographs, videos, medical and court records.

“It documents widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law,” rights office spokeswoman Elizabeth Throssell told reporters.

‘Mass repression’

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk called on Mr Lukashenko’s government to end the “systematic repression” of critics and release detainees held on political grounds.

“Our report paints an unacceptable picture of impunity and the near-total destruction of civic space and fundamental freedoms in Belarus,” Mr Turk said.

“The government owes it to its people to bring a halt to this mass repression and to conduct impartial and transparent investigations to ensure that those responsible for grave violations are held accountable.”

The crackdown followed a historic protest movement in 2020 that erupted after Mr Lukashenko’s controversial re-election in a vote observers said was marred by widespread fraud.

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The UN report concluded that the beating of thousands of peaceful protesters following the election had been approved at a high level within the government.

Disproportionate force resulted in at least five deaths, the report added, but given the “widespread and systematic practice of torture and inhuman treatment”, the true toll might be higher.

Severe sentences passed by the courts illustrated the abuse of the justice system against opposition figures, bloggers, journalists, human rights defenders, trade union activists and lawyers, it said.

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As of Friday, 1,462 people are in detention in Belarus on politically motivated charges, said the UN rights office.

As of February, the authorities had shut down 797 NGOs and another 432 others had closed to avoid potential prosecution.

That amounted to nearly all the country’s rights groups, said Ms Throssell.

“Most independent Belarusian media outlets have been forced to close, with some declared ‘extremist’,” she added. AFP

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