GENEVA (5 June 2020) – A group of UN experts today expressed serious concern about an intensified crackdown on civil society in Belarus, saying the country’s government must protect the right to freedom of expression and stop silencing critical voices.
In May, at least 195 people – notably human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers, medical workers and other members of civil society – were arrested for having expressed their views, the experts said, or for having participated in peaceful protests and pickets to collect signatures and nominate candidates for the presidential election, scheduled on 9 August.
“We are gravely concerned that these arrests that are connected with the exercise of the fundamental freedoms of peaceful assembly and freedom of opinion and expression have a chilling effect on civil society, independent journalism and the unhampered expression of dissenting views,” said Anaïs Marin, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
Most of the incidents followed the arrest of well-known blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski on 6 May. The arrest sparked protests across the country in which demonstrators demanded his release. While in detention Tsikhanouski announced his intention to run for president. His registration was declined however, a decision which sparked new protests in several Belarusian cities, notably in Hrodna where he was subsequently arrested again on 29 May.
So far, police have fined at least 72 individuals and sentenced 69 to up to 15 days of detention on charges of violating the procedure for holding mass events.
“We are concerned that the charges could be used as a tool to silence the critical voices of opposition candidates, human rights defenders, journalists, bloggers and other members of civil society, including medical workers. Restrictions to the right to freedom of expression are particularly serious when done in the lead-up to elections,” Marin said.
The Special Rapporteur’s remarks were endorsed by the Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health and Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
“Two months ahead of the Presidential elections, we urge the Government to stop the practice of silencing members of civil society and to safeguard a pluralistic environment in which all people can safely and freely exercise their right to seek and disseminate information, their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association,” Marin said.
*The experts: Ms. Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus; Mr. Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association; Ms. Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the freedom of opinion and expression; Mr. Dainius Pūras, Special Rapporteur on the right to physical and mental health; Diego García-Sayán, Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers.
Ms Anaïs Marin (France) was designated as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus by the UN Human Rights Council in 2018. She is a researcher with the University of Warsaw, Poland. A political scientist specialising in international relations and Russian studies, she holds a Ph D from Sciences Po, where she studied international public law and comparative politics with a focus on post-communist transformations in Central and Eastern Europe. She has also taken part in OSCE/ODIHR election observation missions, including in Belarus. She has published extensively on Belarusian domestic and foreign policies.