Presidential election in Belarus: repressions to step up?

In Belarus, the ongoing presidential election campaign is marred by harsh pressure on the opposition and attempts to fully crush the resistance ahead of the election scheduled for August 9, 2020. As the election date nears, repressions grow stronger.

As a result, the wave of protests mounts in Belarus. Frequent are peaceful rallies when people take to the streets, line up on the roadside and applaud. These rallies are often brutally interrupted by police, particularly, by riot police (OMON) units.

According to human rights defenders, the number of arrests made since the beginning of the election campaign now exceeds 1,140. Arrested were members of “solidarity chains”, activists and group leaders, politicians, bloggers, journalists, cyclists and passersby. Political persecutions resulted in 2,607 days of arrest on administrative charges for a total of 190 persons; 333 persons were fined 265,275 Belarusian rubles (over USD 110 thousand).    

According to the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Viasna”, following the clashes with police on July 14 and 15, 420 persons were arrested in Minsk and ten big cities across the country. Among them are journalists, bloggers and random passersby. Arrested are also opposition leaders Mikola Statkevich and Paval Sieviaryniec, an unregistered candidate for president Viktar Babaryka and his son Eduard, bloggers Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Ihar Losik. Amnesty International started an international support action for Paval Sieviaryniec, arrested on June 7 and still in custody in Okrestino. Since 1997, Sieviaryniec, a dissenter of Lukashenko’s regime, was arrested over a hundred times. 

Kyiv-based Belarus Information Center holds press briefings and provides up-to-date information. Last week, the Center reported 220 arrests. This week’s number has doubled. It is quite possible that the number of political prisoners and those arrested on political charges will have grown by the election date, the Center said. Twenty five persons were recognized prisoners of conscience.

“According to Belarusian journalist Katsyaryna Andreyeva, following the events of July 14, a criminal proceeding was started under Article 342 (referring to ‘organizing, preparing or participating’ in ‘actions that blatantly violate public order’), a big investigation group was established and 450 suspects are to be questioned,” said Vyacheslav Sivchyk, leader of “Razam” solidarity movement. “Four persons have already been charged with resisting police and using force against police. It is absolutely unjust that the 25 persons who tried to protect the Belarusians during the rallies are in custody. The pressure on them in Belarusian jails is too high. Torture is a wide-spread practice in administrative jails and during pre-trial detention,” Sivchyk proceeded.   

Vyacheslav Sivchyk, leader of “Razam” solidarity movement

Over 200 independent journalists signed off a letter appealing to the head of the Interior Ministry of Belarus and other officials, reacting to journalists’ arrests and the attack on Radio Liberty journalist Anton Trofimovych. Pressure on Gomel-based journalists Alena Germanovich and Pavel Mitskevich is exercised through the arrest of their 18-year-old son, charged with petty hooliganism and facing prospects of a several-year sentence, if his parents “continue writing”.

Oleksandr Irvanets, head of the Belarus Information Center called on everyone to join the solidarity action “I Love Belarus”: “You can record a short video saying that you love Belarus and explain why. We’ll proceed with more actions.”

Oleksandr Irvanets, head of the Belarus Information Center

Yuriy Syrotiuk, director of the center “Ukrainian Strategic Research Studies” (Ukrainski studii stratehichnyh doslidzhen) said that next week the Belarus Information Center will discuss implementation of the Russian scenario tailored for Belarusian election.

“Election is a handy way to occupy Belarus. Russia is waging a hybrid war against Belarus, not by military means, like against Ukraine. We will be also covering the election night in Belarus and next day’s developments,” Syrotiuk added.

Olga Sieviaryniec, the wife of the arrested opposition leader Paval Sieviaryniec, revealed details of her husband’s detention:

“Paval has been in custody for 45 days. It all started on June 7, when he was arrested for 15 days at the rally in support of the candidates for president, the arrest was then extended for 15 more days. Paval’s participation in the rally was pre-agreed with the candidates and his arrest is illegal.”

At one of the court hearings, Olga learnt that Paval cut his veins to protest the cruel conditions in detention. “He was held in a prison cell for 20 days, he was provided with neither a mattress, nor a cushion, the prison bed was made available from 10pm to 6am, there was no water. He was given a bottle of water for the whole day for all needs, at night it was cold. There were no books, no TV. He was in the news vacuum,” said Olga Sieviaryniec. She added that arrested may get sick inmates so that they get sick too. Sometimes chlorine can be poured into the cell or the prison authorities can instigate inmates’ aggression towards the arrested. “Political prisoners are held in inhumane conditions that are equal to torture. According to United Nations conventions on human rights his right to freedom was violated and he is tortured. Today we’ve learnt that he will be set free, it comes as a shock and joy for us,” Sieviaryniec said.