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Belarus

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the Committee for State Security (KGB), riot police, and other security forces, without identification and wearing street clothes and masks, regularly used excessive force against detainees and protesters. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police regularly beat and tortured persons during detentions and arrests. According to human rights nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and former prisoners, prison authorities abused prisoners. In a November 19 interview with the BBC, Lukashenka admitted protesters were beaten in the Akrestsina detention center. Human rights groups reported abuses in police custody continued during the year, including severe beatings, psychological humiliation, efforts to exhaust detainees mentally, removal of hearing devices from hard-of-hearing individuals, and forcing detainees to undress to humiliate them.

On February 3, a Minsk district court sentenced five individuals, including Artsiom Anishchuk, to six years in prison on charges of malicious hooliganism for allegedly damaging a car in September 2020 that belonged to the spouse of a Ministry of Internal Affairs officer. Anishchuk was originally detained in September 2020. Human rights groups reported all defendants were beaten, and one of the detainees stated they were shocked with an electric stun gun approximately 40 times at the time of detention. According to independent observers, there was credible evidence that security officers, not the defendants, damaged the car. Anishchuk’s spouse told the press Anishchuk was repeatedly tortured and beaten in jail beginning in April, especially after he filed complaints and reported the abuses. In June Anishchuk’s spouse said Anishchuk had suffered violent treatment in detention and during repeated stays in an isolation cell. In response, authorities further restricted his freedom by reducing access to his lawyer, family members, correspondence, walks and exercise, and parcels. According to Anishchuk’s spouse, Anishchuk’s treatment was retaliatory in nature, as the head of the Mahilyou prison where Anishchuk was serving his sentence was reportedly a friend of the officer and spouse whose car was allegedly damaged in 2020.

On March 18, Ministry of Internal Affairs officers stopped Volha Zalatar as she was driving one of her five children to music school. Officers took her home, conducted a search, and detained her, citing the reason as her “active protest activity.” Authorities claimed she was the administrator of a local opposition chat group and organizer of “unauthorized” mass events. On March 29, Zalatar was charged with “creating an extremist formation or leading such a formation.” According to human rights observers, Zalatar was reportedly tortured in detention and forced to provide evidence against herself. She claimed police physically and verbally pressured her into revealing passwords for her cell phone and encrypted Telegram messaging application. Zalatar claimed police beat her on the head, strangled her, laid her on the ground, and pressed her to the floor. Zalatar reported the beatings at the first interrogation, but the investigator ignored the report, and she was not examined by a forensic examiner to record the injuries. Zalatar’s trial began on November 15.

As of year’s end, there was no indication that authorities had investigated or taken action against officers involved in abuses following the August 2020 election. According to documented witness reports, in August 2020 security officers physically abused the majority of the approximately 6,700 persons detained during postelection civil unrest inside detention vehicles, police stations, and detention facilities across the country. The human rights NGO Vyasna documented more than 500 cases of torture and other severe abuse committed in police custody against postelection protest participants and independent election observers, opposition leaders, civil society activists, and average citizens. Among the unpunished abuses by authorities documented after the August 2020 election were severe beatings; psychological humiliation; the use of stress positions; at least one reported case of rape and sexual abuse; use of electric shock devices and tear gas; and up to three days intentional deprivation of food, drinking water, hygiene products, the use of toilets, sleep, and medical assistance.

Impunity was a serious problem in the security forces. For example, as of year’s end, there was no indication that authorities had investigated or taken action against any officer involved in the alleged abuse or torture of persons detained during the popular unrest that followed the August 2020 election.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained poor and in many cases posed threats to life and health.

Physical Conditions: According to former prison inmates and human rights lawyers, there continued to be shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, personal hygiene products, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Inmates reported that prison officials deliberately denied access to food, water, hygiene products, and necessary medical care, sometimes for several days, as a form of retribution. Overall sanitation was poor. Authorities made little effort to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in prisons, but at the same time they used COVID-19 as a pretext to restrict access to visitors and distribution of food, hygiene, and clothing parcels.

Although there were isolated allegations that police placed underage suspects in pretrial detention facility cells with adult suspects and convicts, authorities generally held juvenile prisoners separately from adults at juvenile penal colonies, arrest houses, and pretrial holding facilities. Conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were generally better than for adult male prisoners.

Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV, AIDS, COVID-19, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care. Former detainees reported that individuals with COVID-19 symptoms were rarely isolated and did not receive proper medical assistance. In September a political detainee serving a 15-day sentence contracted COVID-19 but was not given appropriate treatment. After her condition deteriorated severely, she was moved to a hospital but died, reportedly from a lack of immediate care.

Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole often depended on bribes to prison personnel. Parole could also depend on a prisoner’s political views.

Individuals detained for political reasons prior to the August 2020 election or during the subsequent protests and during the year appeared to face worse prison conditions than those of the general prison population, including more reports of torture and severe abuses.

In Minsk individuals who received up to 30-day jail sentences in July and August on charges widely viewed by observers as politically motivated reported that prison conditions were designed to punish those who had sought to express their political views freely. This included routinely forcing 30 individuals into cells designed for five individuals, although nearby cells were empty. Former detainees told independent media that while nonpolitical inmates were allowed short walks and showers, political inmates were intentionally deprived of mattresses, food parcels from families, drinking water, ventilation, or sanitation, and rats and other vermin were common. One male inmate told independent press that he and a number of his cellmates were kept in an outside area designated for short walks all night long in the mud and rain.

In mid-November authorities converted a state-run logistics warehouse in Bruzgi (near the Polish border) into a shelter for migrants and asylum seekers. At its maximum, 1,833 migrants were held there. Authorities allowed humanitarian organizations, including the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration, and media to visit the center on a limited basis. International humanitarian organizations stated the shelter was overcrowded, cold, and lacked adequate health and sanitation facilities for the number of persons held there, noting a lack of adequate hygienic measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The shelter had only eight biotoilets, not separated by gender, and no shower facilities. Migrants slept on wood pallets on a cement floor. Authorities established a medical clinic at the shelter on November 29.

Administration: Former prisoners and their defense lawyers reported that prison officials often censored or did not forward their complaints to higher authorities and that prison administrators either ignored or selectively considered requests for investigation of alleged abuses. Prisoners also reported that prison administrators frequently refused to provide them with copies of responses to their complaints, which further complicated their defense. Complaints could result in retaliation against prisoners, including humiliation, death threats, or other forms of punishment and harassment. Former prisoners claimed some prison administrators’ repeated harassment resulted in suicides, which authorities neither investigated nor made public.

Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and meetings with families were denied for political detainees or as a common punishment for alleged disciplinary violations. In 2020 authorities restricted visits to all detainees in a reported attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19 in facilities but removed the general restriction on visits on June 30.

Authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations, despite legal provisions for such practice. Belarusian Orthodox churches were located at a number of prison facilities, and Orthodox clergy were generally allowed access to conduct services.

Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, government officials refused to approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities and speak with the inmates. The government did not cooperate with international monitoring bodies. Authorities worked to minimize observation of detention conditions by independent observers, hindering the verification of conditions which former political prisoners reported as purposefully decrepit and designed to punish individuals for their political dissent.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, and the government appeared to prosecute regularly officials alleged to be corrupt. The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators reflected that corruption was a serious problem in the country. In 2019 the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) declared the country noncompliant with its anticorruption standards. The government did not publish evaluation or compliance reports, which according to GRECO’s executive secretary, “casted a dark shadow over the country’s commitment to preventing and combating corruption and to overall cooperation with GRECO.” In 2019 GRECO’s executive secretary repeated its concerns regarding the country’s “continuous noncompliance.”

Corruption: According to official sources, most corruption cases involved soliciting and accepting bribes, fraud, and abuse of power, although anecdotal evidence indicated such corruption usually did not occur as part of day-to-day interaction between citizens and minor state officials.

There were reports that individuals connected to Lukashenka received preferential treatment from his regime in the form of monopolies, tax breaks, favorable contracts, and other mechanisms, often codified by presidential decrees signed by Lukashenka himself. In exchange, they reportedly provided funds to Lukashenka and his inner circle, financed Lukashenka’s personal projects, and supported the regime publicly.

The absence of independent judicial and law enforcement systems, the lack of separation of powers, and a virtually eradicated independent press largely barred from interaction with a nontransparent state bureaucracy made it virtually impossible to gauge the scale of corruption or combat it effectively.

The most corrupt sectors were state administration and procurement, the industrial sector, the construction industry, health care, and education.

On October 4, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that authorities detained the general managers of state-run meat-processing factories in Pinsk and Slutsk and directors of unspecified “commercial entities” allegedly associated with the factories. The former reportedly accepted bribes for unconditionally expediting shipments of high-demand meat products via commercial intermediaries to Russia and other Commonwealth of Independent State countries. According to the ministry, individual bribes were as high as $10,000, and the suspects were being held in pretrial detention.

On December 30, a Minsk district court convicted five former general managers of state-run sugar refineries, including the head of the Belarusian Sugar Company, on charges of giving and accepting multiple bribes up to $150,000 each and sentenced all to up to 13 years in prison. The court also ordered defendants to compensate more than 11 million rubles ($4.4 million) in damages. When they were reportedly detained and charged with accepting “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in bribes in January 2020, Lukashenka accused them of “pocketing kickbacks and corruption” for allegedly selling sugar at low prices through intermediaries that exported it to Russia and illegally reimported it at higher prices. Additionally, state media reported in January 2020 that police also detained the former deputy head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption, Uladzimir Tsikhinya, who allegedly facilitated defendants’ illegal activities and forewarned them of possible checks and inspections at refineries. When court hearings of the criminal case commenced on July 27, Tsikhinya did not attend any either as a witness or a defendant, and there were no reports regarding his status in the case. In general, corruption prosecutions remained selective and nontransparent.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of women and men in general but does not include separate provisions on marital rape. The penalty for conviction of rape with aggravating factors is three to 15 years’ imprisonment. While sexual assault and rape continued to be significant problems, authorities generally prosecuted cases against nonspousal rape. For example, in October police in Barysau arrested a 57-year-old man on charges of raping a 16-year-old girl. According to police the case was considered under the law as rape of a known minor, which is punishable by imprisonment for a term of five to 13 years, and the abuser had been previously convicted on similar accounts. According to NGOs, authorities often did not adequately consider spousal rape incidents and did not prosecute such cases unless they involved severe aggravating factors and direct threats to victims’ lives or deaths.

Domestic violence was a significant problem, and authorities did not take effective measures to prevent it or its root causes, such as substance abuse, unemployment, and other economic, cultural, and social problems. For example, police in a village in the Lida region reported that a man continuously abused his common-law spouse. The man was sentenced in June 2020 to three months in prison for abuse, but in July 2020 before beginning his sentence, he attacked his spouse with a knife, injuring her face and chest. For the attack, in March he was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of attempted murder. Nevertheless, the woman continued to claim she had no problem with her spouse and told doctors her injuries were accidental.

Authorities continued to issue protective orders mandating the separation of survivors and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated 138 crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to survivors.

The law establishes a separate definition of domestic violence and provides for implementation of protective orders, which are from three to 30 days in duration. The law requires authorities to provide survivors and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the law prescribes a substantial fine or detention for up to 15 days for violating protective orders, battery, intended infliction of pain, and psychological or physical suffering committed against a close family member.

According to women’s rights advocates, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of the rights of survivors. Efforts to prosecute offenders and ensure legal and other remedies to correct their behavior were also lacking. NGO experts continued to note the lack of state-supported designated shelters and specialists who work with survivors, children, and aggressors.

According to a senior Ministry of Internal Affairs official, as of April officers were monitoring more than 8,000 individuals who had committed domestic violence-related crimes, including more than 10,000 administrative cases filed from January to March. The official stated the number of severe crimes related to domestic violence decreased from 109 to 78 cases in January through March, compared with the same period in 2020, and the number of persons killed by their spouse declined from 27 to 22. On October 25-30, Minsk city police reportedly inspected residences of families with a record of domestic violence or that were in vulnerable conditions and held “preventive” talks with them.

On July 15, the NGO Gender Perspectives stopped operating a nationwide hotline for domestic violence after authorities searched its offices and interrogated several personnel on July 14 in the framework of a broad crackdown on civil society (see sections 2 and 5). In 2020 it had also stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of April the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, associating this with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Health Care and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence,” that was held on April 5-9. The campaign was covered by state media.

On September 28, authorities liquidated Gender Perspectives, which in addition to operating the hotline, had cooperated with authorities to play a nationwide role in assisting domestic violence and trafficking survivors, advocating for their rights, promoting a separate law on countering domestic violence, and assisting victims. The NGO was one of many civil society organizations closed in cases widely seen as politically motivated (see section 5).

Despite numerous inspections by the government throughout the year, as of December the NGO Radislava continued to operate a private shelter for survivors of domestic violence, to advocate for their rights, and to assist women and their children with medical care, legal aid, employment, social reintegration, and psychological therapy. On November 9, police detained the former coordinator of Radislava’s shelter and leading women’s rights advocate for allegedly coordinating protests in 2020. As of December she remained in pretrial detention.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment reportedly was widespread, but no specific laws, other than those against physical assault, address the problem. Victims of sexual harassment did not have access to criminal or civil remedies for sexual harassment that occurred in the workplace.

Reproductive Rights: In prior years women with disabilities, especially those who were institutionalized, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. While there were no indications that the practice had changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.

Institutionalized individuals with disabilities had no political or civil rights, and courts recognized the directors of these institutions as the legal guardians of these individuals. Institutionalized individuals were not able to provide informed consent to medical treatment affecting their reproductive health, including for sterilization, due to mental or other disabilities.

Although comprehensive education on reproductive health or pregnancy was not provided in schools, access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some groups may oppose it on religious grounds. While there were no legal or cultural barriers to skilled health attendance during pregnancy and childbirth and skilled postpartum care was widely available, there were fewer professionals with the skills to assist with difficult pregnancies outside of Minsk. Authorities provided access to emergency health care, including emergency contraception for survivors of sexual violence.

Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to religious, personal status, and nationality laws, as well as laws related to labor, property, inheritance, employment, access to credit, and owning or managing businesses or property. Women generally did not experience discrimination in such areas as marriage, divorce, child custody, education, the judicial process and other institutions, and in housing.

Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment, in access to economic resources, as well as discrimination in the workplace.

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