Belarus: The EU and International Community Must Act Against Lukashenka’s Atrocities

Alexandr Lukashenka’s hijacking of a civilian plane and arrest of prominent independent journalist Raman Pratasevich and activist
Sofia Sapega stirred up large international outrage reactions from the heads of EU member states. But this is not an isolated event, it is the continuation of the repression of human rights that has reached new heights with the elections in August 2020.  

Current situation for independent media and human rights defenders: 

  • The crack-down by the Belarusian authorities against independent media civil society intensifies and the situation continues to deteriorate. Thousands of protesters have been wrongfully detained and there are more than 1000 cases of reported torture. Cases against journalists were handled as administrative before but are now handled as criminal cases. As of 27 May 2021, 34 journalists are behind bars (BAJ). According to the human rights organisation Viasna, there are currently 421 political prisoners.   
  • The attack on Raman Pratasevich takes place in a context wherein there are daily examples of human rights violations by the authorities who are fiercely cracking down on all peaceful dissent. Leading up to Sunday’s events, last week on 18 May Belarus’s largest independent online media outlet had its site blocked and offices and homes of its staff raided under the claim that it had violated media laws. The leadership of now faces a criminal case on the grounds of Article 243 of the Criminal Code – evasion of taxes and fees, a law that is actively used to justify repressive measures against human rights defenders and journalists. At present there are 14 staff members and workers from the company who remain in custody, along with the widow of founder Yury Zisser, Yuliya Charnyauskaya, who is under house arrest.     
  • Two days later Belarusian security forces raided the Minsk studio of Polish-based tv channel Belsat, detaining 6 people.   
  • The same day, 21 May, political prisoner Vitold Ashurak, who was serving a 5-year sentence in a penal colony was found dead, the reported cause of death by authorities was cardiac arrest although he had no issues with his heart. When Ashurak’s body was returned to his family his entire head was bandaged with only his mouth visible, the explanation his family received from the authorities was that his body was “dropped” in the morgue.    Later, surveillance footage was published allegedly showing that Ashurak sustained those injuries due to a fall prior to his passing. The identity of the man captured on the video is disputed, and it is unclear what caused him to fall several times. The cut of the video, the changing explanation, and the reports of inhumane treatment of prisoner’s casts doubt on the official narrative. 
  • Less than twenty-four hours after the forceful grounding of Raman Pratasevich’s flight in Minsk, Lukashenka quietly signed into law an amendment which allows the Prosecutor General to restrict access or shut down a media outlet without a court order and to restrict internet resources and online publications which promote extremist activity, or which may harm national interests. Another important point is that live coverage of unauthorised protests is banned, and the amendments contains the prohibiting of posting the results of any public opinion poll related to the socio-political situation in Belarus. These amendments will be applicable in the next 30 days.    

We the undersigned bodies urge the European Union, International Criminal Court, and the UN Human Rights Council to act on the following:  

  • The EU and the international community must give a clear response to the atrocities of the Lukashenka regime, otherwise the crackdown will continue. There has been no accountability for the human rights violations so far.
  • The EU should impose a new round of serious targeted economic sanctions and travel bans towards Belarusian perpetrators of systematic human rights violations and those who provide support to the perpetrators, as well as persons associated with the perpetrators and the supporters. This process must be fast tracked, and the current list of sanctions immediately expanded. For a more effective process, civil society organizations should be empowered with the ability to suggest sanctions. 
  • The international community must use all its tools to seek justice for human rights in Belarus notwithstanding further sanctions on the regime. Despite Belarus not being a direct member of the International Criminal Court, the ICC does have the jurisdiction over Rome Statute crimes that have taken place in the countries surrounding Belarus. Following the subsequent precedent set in Myanmar, Venezuela, and Bangladesh the ICC can prosecute crimes against humanity in Belarus. The forced displacement of thousands of Belarusians due to the constant threat of harassment by authorities, as well as documented threats to livelihood and well-being, facing torture in prison, and possible loss of child custody has caused people to flee from the cross hairs of the regime.  
  • Sunday’s events are a ramification and progression of Lukashenko’s regime in its mission to dismantle independent media and journalists in Belarus in the hopes of silencing those who are covering the continuous wave of dissidence and protests since the widely disputed election results last August. This sharp escalation of repression must signal a dire threat to the EU – if there shall not be a serious and actionable response to this behavior it sends a clear message for dictators worldwide that their actions go unchecked.  For this reason, there must be an engaged response from the EU, as Sunday’s actions demonstrate the dire situation of the Belarusian people who are at the mercy of a dangerous dictator. The latest series of event is a clear signal that there is no limit for the regime for punishing the peaceful critics  
  • Call on the International Criminal Court to initiate an investigation into the situation in Belarus, following the precedent set by the human rights situation in Venezuela, Myanmar, and Bangladesh.    
  • Call on the International Civil Aviation Organization to fully investigate the hijacking of flight FR4978 to kidnap and arrest Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega.   
  • The UN Human Rights Council to fully support and immediately mobilize the creation of an external body to examine the human rights violations that have occurred and continue to occur in Belarus since August 2020.   
  • Demand the immediate release of Raman Pratasevich and Sofia Sapega and all political prisoners in Belarus. 

Undersigned organisations  

Civil Rights Defenders 
Norwegian Helsinki Committee  
Östgruppen – Swedish Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights 
People In Need 

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