United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNOHCHR) Volker Turk
UN rights chief on Friday urged Belarus to end the "systematic repression of perceived critics and immediately release all detainees held on political grounds."
Volker Turk's remarks came in a UN Human Rights Office report published Friday that concludes gross human rights violations are being committed across the country.
According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) statement, the report "documents widespread and systematic violations of international human rights law, including unlawful deprivation of life and numerous cases of arbitrary deprivation of liberty, torture and ill-treatment, as well as sexual and gender-based violence, violations of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and the denial of due process and equal protection of the law."
"Our report paints an unacceptable picture of impunity and the near-total destruction of civic space and fundamental freedoms in Belarus," Turk said. "The Government owes it to its people to bring a halt to this mass repression and to conduct impartial and transparent investigations to ensure that those responsible for grave violations are held accountable."
The report said violations appear to have been a part of a deliberate campaign of violence and repression against people who were -- or were perceived to be -- opposed to the government or had voiced critical views. Some of these offenses may constitute crimes against humanity, according to the report.
"The beating of thousands of peaceful protesters in the immediate aftermath of disputed elections, from 9 to 14 August 2020, was approved at a high level within Government, coordinated and openly incited," the report found, adding that the investigation also uncovered solid evidence that at least five people died as a consequence of the use of "excessive force" against protesters and detainees.
"Given the widespread unlawful use of force, the widespread and systematic practice of torture and inhuman treatment, including denial of medical care, and the overall situation of impunity, the actual death toll during the protests and related arrests may have been higher and further investigation would be required," it noted.
The UN Human Rights Office collected dozens of first-hand accounts of torture and found hundreds of complaints to be credible and also documented over 100 cases of sexual and gender-based violence against detainees, but the scale of sexual and gender-based violations and abuses is likely to be under-reported.
"Severe sentences passed by the courts are illustrative of the instrumentalization and abuse of the justice system against opposition figures, bloggers, journalists, human rights defenders, trade union activists and lawyers," the report noted, saying that more than a dozen legislative amendments have been passed since 2021.
"The appalling practice of pursuing and punishing people for carrying out legitimate human rights work continues," said Turk, noting the long prison sentences handed down in recent weeks, including against opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushko; Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski and three other members of the Viasna human rights centre; journalist Andrzej Poczobut; and 10 members of the Workers Movement Rabochy Rukh.
As of 17 March, 1,462 people are in detention in Belarus on politically motivated charges, the report said, while the authorities had shut down 797 NGOs, while 432 others had closed to avoid potential prosecution by February.
"Most independent Belarusian media outlets have been forced to close – with some declared 'extremist' – along with, recently, the Belarusian Association of Journalists," it added.
"It is disgraceful that Belarus authorities are determined to pursue those convicted of so-called 'extremist activities' and even go so far as to strip them of their citizenship. Such arbitrary deprivation of nationality will in some cases risk rendering a person stateless," the high commissioner said.
The report urges UN member countries to consider working towards accountability through national proceedings based on accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction.
The report is based on 207 victim and witness interviews, as well as a review of more than 2,500 pieces of evidence, such as images, videos, and judicial and medical records.
It spans the time period from May 1, 2020 to Dec. 31, and presents the results of the office's investigation into Belarus' human rights situation, as required by the UN Human Rights Council.