17 Sep 2021
Belarus: Support to Torture Survivors Imperative in Absence of Accountability

Supporting Belarusian torture survivors, their families and communities is an imperative for the international community, the IRCT said today on the one-year anniversary of what a UN expert has called “a full-scale assault against civil society” by the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

“The IRCT, along with many other human rights organisations, has documented forensic evidence of systemic torture by the Belarusian security forces on protesters,” said Lisa Henry, IRCT’s Secretary General. “But we know that with Lukashenko in power and Russia backing him at the UN, trials of perpetrators could take time. The needs of survivors, however, are immediate, starting with psychosocial support.”

Belarus: Support to Torture Survivors Imperative in Absence of Accountability

Protests against Belarus' fraudulent 2020 presidential election triggered an unprecedented crackdown, including torture by security forces.

While the IRCT does not have member centres in Belarus to provide rehabilitation, IRCT member in Georgia, the Georgian Center for Psychosocial and Medical Rehabilitation of Torture Victims (GCRT), has provided a number of online mental health and psychosocial trauma support sessions to Belarusian human rights defenders and capacity building for mental health professionals on the ground.

“The scope of human rights violations is unheard of, especially given that this is taking place in the heart of the EU. Every single person who is an activist could be arrested tomorrow. There is a total feeling of fear, even if you are not a celebrity dissident, but just a regular person trying to voice your opinion,” said Lela Tsiskarishvili, GRCT Executive Director.

On 17 September 2020, Lukashenko’s regime launched a crackdown against the Human Rights Center Viasna, one of Belarus’ leading civil society organisations, with the first in a string of arrests of its volunteers, culminating in the detention of its chairman Ales Bialiatski, board member Valiantsin Stefanovic, and the group’s lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich. Today, seven members of Viasna remain in prison on charges of ‘violating public order’.

Viasna was created in 1996 during a pervious democratic uprising against Lukashenko, a former Soviet state farm administrator who has ruled Belarus since 1994. His latest re-election in August 2020 was rejected as fraudulent by both the EU and the OSCE, which said human rights abuses since the vote "were found to be massive and systematic and proven beyond doubt".

In a joint statement this month, 15 UN human rights experts, including Nils Melzer, the Special Rapporteur on torture, said they had received 450 documented cases of torture and ill treatment since the crackdown on pro-democracy protests began in August 2020 and called on Belarus to stop torturing detainees and bring to justice those police officers responsible.

“As the legal and judicial systems in Belarus protect the perpetrators of grave human rights violations, continuing impunity means that there is no guarantee of non-reoccurrence,” Anaïs Marin, an expert on Belarus appointed as Special Rapporteur to monitor human rights violations in the country, told the UN Human Rights Council in July.

“Hence the international community should keep on demanding the release and rehabilitation of all those still detained on political grounds, and support initiatives aiming at bringing perpetrators of the most serious crimes to account.”

The IRCT and its Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) is collaborating with the International Committee for Investigation of Torture in Belarus (ICITB) to analyse evidence from cases of alleged torture. Due to report by early next month, the IRCT is reviewing 50 cases randomly selected from a database of hundreds. Preliminary analysis shows that they provide evidence of the systematic punitive use of force against Belarusian protesters at 11 different police stations, suggesting “a coordinated policy of systematic torture.”

Viasna is a founding member alongside IRCT member in Denmark, Dignity, the ICITB, the UK’s Redress and 14 other Belarusian and international NGOs of the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB). The IAPB is supported by 21 states and 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. 

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Belarus is often referred to as Europe’s last dictatorship and its appalling record on human rights is an obstacle to bringing accountability for its widespread use of torture. In the fifth periodic report on Belarus’ compliance with the Convention Against Torture, which it ratified in 1987, the Committee Against Torture found confessions obtained through alleged torture remained admissible in court and that the criminal justice system continues to execute prisoners convicted of 13 serious offences.

That continued use of the death penalty is one of the reasons Belarus 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, ten Belarusians in Germany filed criminal complaints under the principle of universal jurisdiction against Lukashenko alleging torture and crimes against humanity. 

"Torture by Belarusian security forces is systemic, but trials of perpetrators could take time. The needs of survivors, however, are immediate, starting with psychosocial support."

Lisa Henry, IRCT Secretary General

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