The IRCT does not currently have any member centres in Belarus.
A Coordinated Policy of Torture
Released in November 2021 following nine months of work, the IRCT’s ‘Belarus: A Coordinated Policy of Torture’ was the first such published report by forensic experts and found “compelling evidence” of “a coordinated policy and practice of systematic torture and ill-treatment against Belarusian citizens” detained for protesting 2020’s rigged presidential elections in Europe’s last dictatorship.
‘Justice Starts With Truth: Torture in Belarus’
A team of medical experts from IRCT’s Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) collaborated with local civil society actor, the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus (ICITB), to examine 50 cases of detainees selected at random from a database of some 1,500 and found “highly patterned evidence of injuries” inflicted at 15 different police stations across Belarus.
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
“This report, which is one of the first by experts to review the available forensic evidence, firmly establishes the existence of medical and visual evidence that is consistent with and corroborates the allegations of torture and ill-treatment by complainants in every case we examined.”
The report, made possible through a Swiss government donation, was widely published online and garnered interest from foreign ministries, NGOs and journalists. The UN Investigative Mechanism to investigate and document human rights violations in Belarus adopted the IRCT’s findings in its latest report and the IRCT has been collaborating with the mechanism to gain access to evidence.
A Russian translation of the report was published simultaneously by the ICITB. IRCT’s report concluded that individuals appeared to have been targeted due to suspected participation in or support of protests – irrespective of whether they were actively engaged in any such activities at the time – and that the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ ‘Special Purpose Police Detachment’, known by its Belarusian acronym OMON, was a leading perpetrator of the torture. The OMON serve as riot police, and members wear balaclavas to keep their identity secret.
‘I was silent. They continued to beat me.’
“On the evening of 10th August, I was walking home. The riot police officers stopped me. They started beating me. Beating with feet, batons, then grabbed me by the arms and legs and carried me into the paddy wagon. While they were carrying me, they stopped several times and beat me again. They put me on the ground near the paddy wagon and started shouting, ‘Who did you vote for?’ All this was accompanied by obscenities. I was silent. ‘For Tikhanovskaya?’ [Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the opposition candidate for president] I was silent. They continued to beat me.”
A man from Baranovichi, a small city in Western Belarus, describing his detention in a police truck.
Want to learn more?
An Interview with Professor Dr Djordje Alempijevic, explaining the role of forensic experts in substantiating allegations of torture, and his work on cases from Belarus.
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
Inside a Forensic Expert Assessment
Who are IFEG?
Established by the IRCT in 2009, members of IFEG are preeminent medical experts in the forensic examination of victims of torture, and its 42 members have examined around 40,000 cases and testified in court and other forums over 4,000 times.
What is a forensic expert analysis?
Forensic expert analysis on torture involve a comprehensive examination of all of the evidence of torture by medical experts, an assessment of that evidence against current best medical knowledge, and then the issuing of a qualified conclusion, such as a likelihood ratio, about how closely the evidence of torture matches the allegation of torture. In the Belarus report, IFEG found “compelling” evidence of a “coordinated policy” of torture. Had the evidence not been so strong, for example, the experts might have found merely “significant” evidence of “incidents” of torture.
What evidence was available to IFEG?
In total, the 50 case files, chosen at random from some 1,500, included 130 documents with 613 pages, 286 photographs and four videos. Every case file contained an interview with an individual claiming to have been arrested between 9-12 August 2020 and subjected to torture or ill-treatment by the police and security forces during and/or subsequent to arrest. Almost every case file (49 cases) also included photographs of the complainant’s injuries taken at or before the time of interview. In addition, 35 cases included medical documentation. All case materials were translated by the ICITB from Belarusian to English.
Why did the IRCT intervene in Belarus?
Because we have the expertise and situation required it. In the wake of President Alexander Lukashenko rigged re-election, Belarus’ state-run Investigative Committee reported receiving some 5,000 complaints of torture and ill-treatment. However, in August 2021 the Committee announced it would not initiate any criminal proceedings because the State’s use of force was in accordance with Belarusian law, “in the suppression of offences”. In response to this statement, IRCT and IFEG asserted the importance of conducting effective forensic investigation of torture reports according to the international agreed principles set out in the Istanbul Protocol with a view to ensuring accountability and reparations for victims of these extensive human rights violations.
The activists of ICITB had gathered huge amounts of evidence of alleged torture. IFEG has the world-leading expertise to substantiate the allegations, and thus maintain pressure on international actors to sanction Lukashenko and his regime. A year after our intervention, 21 States, working together with IRCT member in Denmark, Dignity, the UK’s Redress and 14 other Belarusian and international NGOs established the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB). The IAPB is mandated to gather evidence of crimes under international law committed by Belarusian authorities in the run-up to, during and after the 2020 presidential election, with the aim of contributing to accountability mechanisms, including eventual trials of perpetrators. The IRCT is a member of IAPB’s Advisory Council.
CREDIT: GETTY IMAGES
What comes next?
That largely depends on how the 21 States of the IAPB choose to use the evidence they now have. Torture in Belarus has been credibly exposed and the silence well and truly broken. The path to a day in court for survivors of Lukashenko’s torture policy is likely long and winding. Belarus is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and its appalling record on human rights means it is not a Member of the Council of Europe and has not ratified the European Convention on Human Rights, meaning no case against it can be brought to the European Court of Human Rights.
Although torture and inhuman treatment is a criminal offence in Belarus, and its criminal code Article 128 outlaws ‘Crimes Against the Security of Mankind’, Amnesty has documented how those reporting torture have been targeted and charged with criminal offences. Nor does Belarus recognise the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. However, under the principle of universal jurisdiction, crimes against humanity, including widespread or systematic abuses directed against a civilian population, can be tried in any jurisdiction, as demonstrated recently by German courts which tried and convicted Syrian officials for their role in torturing thousands of protesters in Damascus. Inspired by those trials, in May 2021, ten Belarusians in Germany filed criminal complaints under the principle of universal jurisdiction against Lukashenko alleging torture and crimes against humanity.