Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
During the year there were reliable reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, and deaths from torture were reported.
In the wake of the August 2020 presidential election, riot police, internal troops, and plainclothes security officers violently suppressed mass protests. As of December at least two individuals in 2021 and four individuals in 2020 died as a result of police violence or abuse, shooting by members of the security forces, or authorities’ failure to provide medical assistance. No criminal cases or charges were brought against security officials in connection with these killings. When investigations were conducted, authorities absolved security officials from blame and alleged the victims were “intoxicated” or were responsible for their own deaths, even when evidence discredited government narratives or allegations. Individuals who released factual information that contradicted the government were arrested and faced fines and jail sentences.
On May 21, political prisoner Vitold Ashurak died in prison under disputed circumstances, but ultimately under authorities’ supervision and care. Authorities initially told Ashurak’s family he had died of a heart attack, but his wife told independent press her husband had no previous heart problems. In a May 25 press release, the Investigative Committee, the law enforcement body charged with investigating violence in the country, claimed Ashurak died from a fall and resultant head injuries. The Investigative Committee also publicly released a heavily edited video purportedly from a closed-circuit camera in Ashurak’s cell, showing him stumbling and then falling twice, then cutting to a clip of him receiving medical attention from a uniformed person. The committee asserted that prison officials properly treated Ashurak for the falls – an assessment challenged by medical experts on social media – and claimed Ashurak had refused further treatment. Ashurak’s family called upon authorities to release unedited video of the events that led to his death and stated they had many unanswered questions.
On May 26, Dzmitry Stakhousky committed suicide following an interrogation by the Investigative Committee on May 25 for his alleged participation in protests in August 2020. The 18-year-old posted a suicide note on his VKontakte account stating, “The Investigative Committee is to blame…if they did not continue to pressure me mentally, I think I would not have dared to commit a terrible act like suicide. But my strength was running out.” On May 26, the committee reported that authorities found Stakhousky’s body with signs he had fallen from a nearby building, alleged he had a high blood alcohol content, and stated he was a suspect in a criminal case in connection with the August 2020 protests.
On February 19, Investigative Committee chairman Ivan Naskevich asserted a nonlethal bullet had killed Alyaksandr Taraykouski, a protester killed in an August 2020 demonstration. Naskevich stated criminal proceedings against the offending officer would not be initiated because Taraykouski had been intoxicated and “provoked law enforcement officers,” protesters present had “explosives and weapons,” and police had fired from a safe distance. The government presented no independently verified evidence to the public that Taraykouski had been intoxicated, and independent observers criticized authorities for a lack of evidence, for suggesting intoxication was a justifiable reason to kill, and for asserting the distance was “safe” when an individual had died. Authorities previously claimed that Taraykouski was killed when an explosive device he was holding detonated. That story was contradicted by eyewitness accounts and video footage of the incident, in which security forces clearly appeared to shoot Taraykouski in the chest as he approached them with his empty hands raised. The Investigative Committee initiated an investigation into the case but suspended it in November 2020. During the year authorities rapidly destroyed memorials in Taraykouski’s memory and detained or fined individuals who laid flowers at the place of his death, including a 78-year-old pensioner, Halina Ivanova, who was fined 4,350 rubles ($1,740) on June 1 for laying a tulip.
On February 25, a Brest judge found protester Henadz Shutau posthumously guilty of disobeying a police order and convicted Alyaksandr Kardziukou for resisting law enforcement officers and attempted murder of plainclothes officers. In August 2020 independent media reported that Shutau and Kardziukou had been on the outskirts of a protest when they were confronted by two plainclothes officers, one of whom pulled out a gun and fatally shot Shutau in the head as he and Kardziukou attempted to depart the area. At trial, Kardziukou asserted that he did not know the individuals were law enforcement officers, since they were not wearing uniforms and did not show identification. The court nonetheless sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
In November 2020 a representative of the Investigative Committee told the UN Human Rights Council that the committee was not investigating any allegations of police abuse and declared “currently there have been no identified cases of unlawful acts by the police.” Authorities did not announce any charges against government officials responsible for human rights abuses during the year or in 2020.
On September 17, authorities announced they had suspended the investigation into the death of Raman Bandarenka without charges because “a suspect had yet to be identified in the case.” In November 2020 Bandarenka died from head injuries and a collapsed lung after being severely beaten and detained by masked plainclothes security officers in Minsk.
During the year there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.
In January 2020 the Investigative Committee announced it reopened suspended investigations into the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. In 2019 the committee also reopened the investigation into the disappearance of former minister of internal affairs Yury Zakharanka after Yury Harauski, who claimed to be a former special rapid response unit officer, stated he participated in the forced disappearances and killings of Hanchar, Krasouski, and Zakharanka. In March 2020 the committee again suspended investigations due to a “failure to identify any suspects.” There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them. In 2019 Lukashenka stated that politically motivated killings would be impossible without his orders, which he “[had] never and would never issue.”
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.
The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities, including plainclothes security officers, arrested or detained thousands of individuals during peaceful protests since August 2020 and used administrative measures to detain political and civil society activists, as well as bystanders and journalists not involved in the protests, before, during, and after protests and other major public events.
Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities consistently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law courts or prosecutors have 24 hours to issue a ruling on a detention and 72 hours on an arrest. Courts hold closed hearings in these cases, which the suspect, a defense lawyer, and other legal representatives may attend. Appeals to challenge detentions were generally denied.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Observers believed corruption, inefficiency, and political interference with judicial decisions were widespread. Courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors, and observers believed that senior government leaders and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials.
As in previous years, according to human rights groups, prosecutors wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court. Lawyers found it difficult to challenge some evidence because the Prosecutor’s Office controlled all technical expertise. According to many defense attorneys, this power imbalance persisted, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. All communications between defense lawyers and their clients were monitored in pretrial detention. For example on April 28, state television channels showed footage of Syarhey Tsikhanouski talking to his defense lawyer. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances. In 2019, the most recent year for which data were available, of approximately 39,000 criminal cases prosecuted, 114 resulted in acquittal.
On November 30, amendments to the Law on the Bar and Legal Profession came into effect that prohibit defense lawyers from working individually or for law firms and require them instead to work in Ministry of Justice-approved “legal bureaus.” The state-controlled National Bar Association oversaw the operations of legal bureaus in the country. The law bars defense lawyers from owning or sharing ownership in a legal or consultative firm or a real estate agency, and from representing the interests of any other commercial entity in which they have an ownership stake in courts or with other state agencies.
According to a July report by Lawyers for Lawyers, the International Bar Association Human Rights Institute, and the American Bar Association, authorities engaged in tactics that interfered with the independence of lawyers. The report noted “decisions about the continued practice of lawyers within the legal profession are not made by an independent entity,” but rather by the Ministry of Justice. The amendments also increased the Ministry of Justice’s power over the legal profession and bar associations. There were reports of retaliatory prosecution and disbarment of defense lawyers representing political campaigns, opposition leaders, and the opposition’s Coordination Council. For example on February 20, defense lawyers Maksim Konan, Kanstantsin Mikhel, and Lyudmila Kazak were disbarred and fined for allegedly participating in unauthorized protests. On February 24, another prominent defense lawyer, Uladzimir Sazanchuk, was disbarred for refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement.
On July 8, the Minsk City Bar Association disbarred independent defense lawyer Dzmitry Laeuski after a single day of deliberation by the association’s disciplinary commission. The disbarment occurred two days after the verdict was announced in the trial against 2020 presidential hopeful and former Belgazprombank chairman Viktar Babaryka, whom Laeuski had represented. The Minsk City Bar Association cited as the basis for its decision a Facebook post in which Laeuski commented on the recent amendments to the Law on the Bar and Legal Profession and a statement during Babaryka’s hearing in which Laeuski suggested Babaryka’s codefendants had been innocent, despite their decisions to plead guilty during the trial.
The law prohibits such actions, but the government did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities used wiretapping, video surveillance, and a network of informers that deprived persons of privacy.
The law requires a warrant before or immediately after conducting a search. The KGB has authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry. The regime’s full control over the judiciary, however, made the warrant process a formality.
There were reports authorities entered properties without judicial or other appropriate authorization. After August 2020 and through 2021, multiple instances were reported of plainclothes officers forcing entry into private homes or businesses. These officers often refused to show identification or a warrant, or claimed it was sufficient for them to state their affiliation with a government agency and proceed with the entry. As of year’s end there was no indication that authorities had investigated or taken action against Mikalay Karpiankou, head of the Internal Affairs Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combatting Organized Crime and Corruption, who in September 2020 repeatedly struck and broke the locked glass door of a cafe to allow security officials in civilian clothing to apprehend individuals who had supposedly participated in protests. Instead, the regime promoted Karpiankou in November 2020 to deputy minister of internal affairs.
There were reports that authorities accessed, collected, or used private communications or personal data arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority. For example, after the 2020 presidential election and during the year, security officials occasionally threatened detained individuals with violence or arrest if they did not unlock their cell phones for review. Officials also threatened individuals at detention facilities with harsher sentences if they did not unlock their cell phones or laptops that had been confiscated. Increasingly during the year, security officials reportedly treated more harshly individuals with photographs or social media accounts that officials regarded as pro-opposition or that showed security forces committing abuses.
While the law prohibits authorities from intercepting telephone and other communications without a prosecutor’s order, authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Nearly all opposition political figures and many prominent members of civil society groups claimed that authorities monitored their conversations and activities. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.
The law allows the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, special security services, financial intelligence personnel, and certain border guard detachments to use wiretaps. Wiretaps require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless.
The Ministry of Communications has authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate telephone contracts, which prohibit the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order.
According to the 2021 Freedom on the Net Report published by Freedom House, internet freedom declined dramatically following the 2020 presidential election with repression against online journalists, activists, and internet users. The government employed systematic, sophisticated surveillance techniques to monitor its citizens and control online communications at its discretion and without independent authorization or oversight. After the 2020 election, security officials increased efforts to monitor and infiltrate encrypted messenger chat groups. In May a Ministry of Internal Affairs employee testified he had received screen shots of posts from an undisclosed member of a chat group on the online messaging platform Telegram that reportedly implicated cultural manager and art director Mia Mitkevich. Based on that she was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison.
Since 2010 the government utilized the Russian-developed System of Operative Investigative Measures, which provides authorities with direct, automated access to communications data from landline telephone networks, mobile service providers, and internet service providers. The government also blocked and filtered websites and social media platforms (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom). The country employed a centralized system of video monitoring cameras. Authorities sought surveillance and hacking tools from several countries and developed domestic capacity, including the company Synesis, that links closed-circuit television cameras in Belarus and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries. In December 2020 the EU sanctioned Synesis for providing “Belarusian authorities with a surveillance platform…making the company responsible for the repression of civil society and democratic opposition by the state apparatus.”
State television reportedly obtained state surveillance footage and wiretap transcripts from state security services that it used to produce progovernment documentaries and coverage.
On August 13, police raided Uber and Yandex offices in Minsk, leading to concerns the regime sought location data to identify individuals who had taken part in demonstrations. According to independent media outlets, authorities also utilized a Chinese facial recognition system to identify individuals. According to activists, authorities maintained informant networks at state enterprises after the 2020 presidential election to identify which workers intended to strike or were agitating for political change. “Ideology” officers were reportedly in charge of maintaining informant networks at state enterprises.
Family members were reportedly punished for offenses allegedly committed by their relatives (see section 1.e.).
Authorities temporarily removed or threatened to remove children from the custody of their parents to punish the parents for protesting or political activism.
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
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.
Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued arbitrarily to detain, investigate, profile, and harass Roma, including by forcing fingerprinting, mistreating them in detention, and subjecting them to ethnic insults.
Official and societal discrimination continued against the country’s 6,848 (according to the 2019 census) to 60,000 (according to Romani community estimates) Romani population. The Romani community continued to experience marginalization, various forms of discrimination, high unemployment, low levels of education, and lack of access to social services. Roma generally held citizenship, but many lacked official identity documents and refused to obtain them.
Authorities harassed and jailed members of the independent and unregistered Union of Poles of Belarus and some of its members (see section 2.b., Freedom of Association).
Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived either by birth within the country or from one’s parents. A child of a citizen is a citizen regardless of place of birth, even if one parent is not a citizen. Births were generally registered immediately.
Child Abuse: The law stipulates minors’ rights to education, health care, personal integrity, and protection from exploitation and violence, among others. The law provides for the inviolability of the child’s person and protects the child from all types of exploitation, including sexual, physical, and psychological abuse; cruel or abusive treatment, humiliation, and sexual harassment (including by parents, guardians, caregivers, and relatives); involvement in criminal activities; use of alcoholic beverages; use of drugs, toxic or other intoxicating substances, and tobacco products; and coercion into prostitution, begging, vagrancy, participation in gambling, actions related to child pornography, and work that may harm physical, mental, or moral development.
Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. Conviction of a person older than 18 for engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 is punishable by up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children were common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted beating their children. Authorities identified families in vulnerable conditions and generally intervened to prevent child abuse linked to domestic violence, providing foster care to children who could not remain with their immediate families while preventive work was underway. Although the government continued to prosecute child abusers, its efforts to address the causes of child abuse were inadequate, and it lacked effective capabilities to detect violence and refer victims for proper assistance in a timely manner.
The government instituted a comprehensive national plan for 2017-21 to improve child care and the protection of children’s rights, including for victims of child abuse, domestic violence, and commercial sexual exploitation, but it acknowledged its inefficiency in executing certain protective measures absent assistance from international organizations and NGOs. For example, in one case authorities in the Hrodna region charged both foster parents with beating, abusing, torturing, and depriving their foster children of freedoms from 2016 through 2021. Authorities recognized eight children as victims in the case, including a minor who was 10 months old at the time and was physically abused. Local prosecutors claimed that authorities took disciplinary action against seven local officials in charge of monitoring foster families and living conditions.
With assistance from NGOs that promote children’s rights, authorities employed procedures for on-the-record, one-time interviewing of child-abuse victims in the framework of investigations or criminal cases at specialized facilities under the direct supervision of psychologists. Courts often used recorded testimony to avoid repeatedly summoning child-abuse victims for hearings, but experts continued to raise concerns that in some cases, judges summoned victims to testify at hearings. More-experienced judges with expertise in developmental psychology, psychiatry, and education generally heard cases that affected the rights and interests of minors.
As of January 2020 the Ministry of Education ran 138 social-educational centers nationwide for minor victims of any type of violence or minors in vulnerable and dangerous conditions, but independent observers questioned the quality of services. General health-care institutions provided a wide range of medical aid to child abuse victims free of charge.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age of marriage for both boys and girls is 18, although girls as young as 14 may marry with parental consent. There were reports of early marriages in which girls as young as 14 and boys as young as 16 married with parental consent.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 16. Sex trafficking of children was a problem, and authorities took some steps to address it. From January through September, authorities identified 540 minors as victims of child sexual abuse, up from 354 in the same period in 2020. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for producing or distributing pornographic materials depicting a minor. Authorities generally enforced the law. Authorities claimed the law does not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 91 minors who were trafficking or trafficking-related victims used for commercial sexual exploitation. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods such as sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January 2020 adopted a separate 2020-22 plan of action to protect minors from sexual abuse and exploitation. There were no reports on the implementation of the plan as of December 2020.
In April the Internal Affairs Ministry reported that on February 16, it identified and arrested a 37-year-old foreigner who had legally resided in the country since 2017 and had engaged girls between ages five and 13 in producing pornographic materials. Four mothers of the children were arrested for providing their children for filming and commercial sexual exploitation. Police also stated one of the victims was removed from the family and taken into the government custody, while the others remained in the custody of their fathers.
Institutionalized Children: There was no system for monitoring child abuse in orphanages or other specialized institutions. Authorities did not report any child-abuse incidents in institutions. There were allegations of abuse in foster families; the government opened or continued investigations into some of these cases.
According to a 2018 UNICEF study, more than two in five children at residential care institutions were exposed to either physical or psychological violence. Approximately one in four children participating in the survey reported exposure to physical violence at institutions. The children living in institutions appeared significantly more vulnerable compared with children living in families, and they had two to three times more exposure to violence than children from secondary schools. Children from special closed-type educational institutions and penitentiary institutions reported greater exposure to violence both at home and in the institutions.
As of January 1, there were nine institutions for children with disabilities that held at least 1,300 minors. Institutions provided basic medical and social care to their clients. Although experts assessed the services as being of better quality than at adult institutions, these institutions had problems with proper diagnostics, education, and social reintegration as well as public accountability and transparency.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish community estimated that between 30,000 and 40,000 Jews lived in the country.
There were isolated reports of vandalism against the Jewish community. On March 4, unknown persons vandalized the synagogue and Jewish community center in Homyel by spray painting a swastika and other Nazi symbols on the exterior walls. Police launched an investigation into the vandalism, but no perpetrators were identified.
On July 6, Lukashenka stated in public remarks that, regarding the need to investigate and raise awareness of Nazi war crimes against the Belarusian people, the country should follow the example of “the Jews,” who got “the whole world to bow before them” and “be afraid to point a finger at them.”
Many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, built in Soviet times as well as more recently, did not distinguish Jewish victims from other victims of Nazi atrocities. The Jewish community continued to work with foreign donors and local authorities to erect monuments to commemorate Jewish victims specifically.
Holocaust distortion occurred. For example, members of both the regime and opposition sought to draw parallels to the Holocaust by suggesting or asserting the political situation was in some way comparable.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
Persons with disabilities could generally access social services, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. The government, however, did not enforce such access effectively and failed to provide information and communication effectively and in accessible formats.
The law discriminates against children and persons with disabilities, limiting their ability to access primary, secondary, and higher education depending on their degree of disability. A person’s degree of disability was determined by a commission of experts whose assessments were nonbinding but in practice were arbitrary applied. For example, advocates cited cases of children with Down syndrome who were required to submit to reassessments of their “mental abilities” at predetermined ages and, following such assessments, were in some cases not allowed to continue their education in “integrated” classes. Children with disabilities attended school but completed secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children and generally attended specialized schools meant only for children with disabilities.
Women’s shelters reported violence, harassment, intimidation, and abuses against women with disabilities, often by family members.
Opportunities for employment and occupational development remained limited for persons with disabilities. While authorities operated some enterprises that accommodated persons with certain disabilities, such as those with hearing or vision disabilities, many persons with disabilities opted to maintain their welfare benefits, since salaries in jobs available to them were low or they had to undergo additional examinations to be approved for employment.
The law mandates that transport, residences, and businesses be accessible to persons with disabilities, but few public areas were wheelchair accessible or accessible for persons with hearing and vision disabilities. The National Association of Disabled Wheelchair Users estimated that more than 90 percent of persons with physical disabilities were unable to leave their places of residence without assistance and stated their residences were not suitable to accommodate persons with physical disabilities. While authorities claimed that 30 percent of the country’s total infrastructure was accessible, disability rights organizations considered this figure inflated, although the situation continued to improve during the year. NGOs reported that the government was growing increasingly aware of these problems, but progress was slow.
Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk as well as the bus system were not accessible to wheelchair users. In 2017, the most recent year for which information was available, experts of the NGO ACT released a monitoring report indicating that 3.3 percent of all educational institutions countrywide were accessible to persons with disabilities, including with vision and hearing disabilities, and most of these facilities were recently constructed.
Persons with disabilities, especially those with vision and hearing disabilities, often encountered problems with access to courts and obtaining court interpreters.
Women with disabilities often faced discrimination, including employment discrimination, and claimed they were unable to care for their children and received worse medical services and care compared to the general population, especially in provincial medical institutions. Women with disabilities, as well as pregnant women whose children were diagnosed with potential disabilities in utero, reported that some doctors insisted they terminate their pregnancies. Pregnant women with disabilities faced accessibility barriers at maternity clinics and hospitals.
The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and discrimination was common.
The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low and that since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, access to these institutions by families and volunteers remained limited. Instances of harassment and mistreatment were reported, such as cases of physical and psychological abuse, lack of medical care for other nondisability-related conditions, and underfunded facilities and infrastructure. Authorities continued the practice of placing persons with physical and mental disabilities in the same facilities and did not provide either group with specialized care. Approximately 14,000 persons with disabilities who lived in “psychoneurological” institutions were deprived of legal rights, and courts designated directors of these institutions as their legal guardians.
On August 3, authorities forced the closure of the NGO Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and previously arrested two of the organization’s leaders, Siarhei Drazdouski and lawyer Aleh Hrableuski, limiting civil society efforts to engage the government on improving the rights of persons with disabilities (see sections 2.b. and 5). Authorities did not make unilateral efforts to improve the rights of persons with disabilities during the year. On September 1, a district court in Homyel held a closed trial in which it sentenced hard-of-hearing Dzmitry Zalomski to two years in prison for allegedly insulting an official and threatening a judge in online commentary and messenger chats. According to human rights defenders, police did not detain Zalomski until after his court hearing, but they confiscated his hearing aid upon arrest.
Societal discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. According to local NGOs working with HIV-positive and AIDS patients and other groups at risk, HIV-infected individuals, especially drug users undergoing or having completed treatment, continued to face discrimination, especially at workplaces and during job interviews. For example, based on doctors’ clinical reports, schools reportedly refused to employ HIV-positive individuals, even when they were applying for jobs that did not involve contact with children. On July 22, the NGO BelNetwork Anti-AIDS was shut down by the Minsk City Executive Committee, despite authorities having worked alongside the NGO in the past to implement anti-AIDS discrimination programs. In one May 2020 case, an individual was barred from a building maintenance job under Ministry of Health instructions that restricted HIV-positive individuals from working with children.
The government continued to broadcast and post public-service advertisements raising awareness concerning HIV and AIDS and calling for greater tolerance toward persons infected with the virus.
LGBTQI+ persons experienced harassment, threats, and violence at the hands of authorities, according to numerous reports from human rights defenders.
In some instances, when police identified detained individuals as LGBTQI+ persons, they forced these individuals to confess to committing crimes and to state their sexual orientation on camera, later posting the recording online. Independent observers questioned the legality of these videos and noted that authorities may have abused the persons to force them into making the statements. There were no reports authorities took action to investigate those complicit in violence and abuses against LGBTQI+ persons.
The government allowed transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retained old identification numbers that include a digit indicating the individual’s sex assigned at birth. Transgender persons reportedly were refused jobs when potential employers noted the “discrepancy” between an applicant’s appearance and the gender marker in the identification number. Banks also refused to open accounts for transgender persons on the same grounds. Transgender men were issued military identification that indicated they had “a severe mental illness.” There are no laws prohibiting discrimination by state and nonstate actors against LGBTQI+ persons, including with respect to providing essential goods and services such as housing, employment, and access to government services.
LGBTQI+ discrimination was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Societal discrimination against LGBTQI+ activists persisted with the tacit support of the government, which either failed to investigate crimes or did so without recognizing it as a hate crime. LGBTQI+ activists were among those who went into exile after facing harassment and risk of arrest from the regime.