Belarus is an authoritarian state. The constitution provides for a directly elected president who is head of state and a bicameral parliament, the National Assembly. A prime minister appointed by the president is the nominal head of government, but power is concentrated in the presidency, both in fact and in law. Citizens were unable to choose their government through free and fair elections. Since 1994 Alyaksandr Lukashenka has consolidated his rule over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, including manipulated elections and arbitrary decrees. All elections after 1994, including the August 2020 presidential election and 2019 National Assembly elections, were not considered free and fair.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the Committee for State Security, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services, also exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to the president’s personal command. Lukashenka maintained effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces aggressively, intentionally, and routinely perpetuated abuses to stifle political dissent and repress human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, and others.
Starting in late May, credible media outlets and nongovernmental organizations reported that Belarusian authorities purposefully orchestrated and profited from the entry into the country of thousands of irregular migrants mostly from Iraq, but also from Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Syria, and Afghanistan. These migrants often traveled through state-owned or state-affiliated travel agencies in partnership with travel agencies in the origin countries, with the aim of facilitating these individuals’ travel overland to enter the European Union. Once the migrants and asylum seekers reached Belarus, authorities facilitated their travel to the borders of the neighboring countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and encouraged and, in some instances, forced the migrants to attempt irregular border crossings. When migrants and asylum seekers failed to enter the European Union, there were credible reports that Belarusian security services beat the migrants and asylum seekers and forced them to remain at the border to attempt additional border crossings, sometimes under dangerous circumstances. When the migrants sought asylum in Belarus, authorities generally refused these requests.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by security forces; torture in detention facilities and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel laws; serious restrictions on internet freedom, including site blocking and internet blockages; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of NGOs and civil society organizations; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers seeking to irregularly cross the border into the European Union; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious government corruption; serious government restrictions on or harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and outlawing of independent trade unions and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity as directed by Lukashenka and routinely failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media. The government did not respect these rights and selectively enforced numerous laws to control and censor the public and media. Authorities forced the closure of virtually all independent media outlets and labelled journalist and opposition voices “extremist,” giving authorities a legal pretext to detain and prosecute individuals for expressing opposition to the regime. The government passed laws to make it illegal to report or stream video from unauthorized mass events and eased authorities’ ability to close media outlets. The state press propagated views supportive of the president and official policies without giving room for critical voices and actively disparaged the regime’s opponents.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals could not criticize government officials or the government publicly or discuss matters of general public interest without fear of reprisal, including prosecution or forced exile. Authorities also prohibited displaying certain historical flags and symbols, including the historic white-red-white-striped flag adopted by the opposition, and displaying placards bearing messages deemed threatening to the government or public order.
Since May 2020 authorities undertook significant steps to suppress freedom of expression, regularly harassing opposition bloggers and social media users and detaining some of them on short-term jail sentences. Others received longer sentences or remained in pretrial detention through December. For example on April 14, a Brest court sentenced Syarhey Pyatrukhin and Alyaksandr Kabanau, two popular video bloggers on YouTube, to three years in prison on charges of “participating in activities in clear disobedience to the legitimate requirements of the authorities.” Both men were known for their political commentary critical of authorities and had been in detention since June 2020.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty consultant Ihar Losik spent exactly one year in pretrial detention between his arrest in June 2020 and the start of his trial on June 24. He was arrested for publicly supporting the opposition and criticizing the government. As of the end of November, his trial had continued for six months and was closed to the public. Family members and independent media representatives were denied access, but state-affiliated media outlets were allowed into the trial room and publicly broadcast images and content from the trial on television and social media afterwards. On December 14, Losik was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Authorities dismissed hundreds of state employees who expressed political dissent or participated in protests after the presidential election, including those employed as television hosts, radio and other media personnel, teachers, civil servants, law enforcement officers, athletes, university administrators, hospital administrators, and diplomats. On May 4, Lukashenka signed a decree depriving 87 former military and law enforcement officers of their ranks and compensation due to their actions in support of the political opposition. Among those targeted by the decree were the founders of BYPOL, an organization created by former members of the security services who quit their service in protest of the regime’s postelection violence in 2020, had fled the country, and were documenting abuses committed by their former colleagues. Diplomats and law enforcement officers who resigned in protest of the government’s crackdown or spoke out and were fired, were stripped of their ranks, regalia, and pensions. For example on August 20, police in Iuye detained a pro-opposition former lieutenant colonel who served in the police force for 20 years, apparently for expressing his antiregime political opinions and exercising his freedom of expression. In May authorities stripped him and more than 80 former officers of their ranks for expressing political dissent. Another of these officers, former investigator Yauhen Yushkevich, was detained on April 19 on charges of terrorism and participating in mass riots, reportedly in retaliation for his support of the political opposition. As of November 18, he remained in pretrial detention.
Authorities fired athletes from national teams for expressing political dissent or apolitical criticism against government officials, as in the case of Olympic athlete Krystina Tsimanouskaya (see section 1.e.).
The law also limits free speech by criminalizing actions such as giving information that authorities deem false or derogatory to a foreigner concerning the political, economic, social, military, or international situation of the country. No individuals were identified as having been charged under this law, however.
The government prohibits calls to participate in “unsanctioned demonstrations” (see section 2.b., Freedom of Peaceful Assembly). On December 14, video blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich was convicted on charges of inciting social hatred and organizing mass riots and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Authorities also prohibited “extremist” information, which they defined as “information materials including printed, audio, visual, videos, placards, posters, banners and other visuals intended for public usage or distribution that seek the violent change of the constitutional order or the territorial integrity of the country; unconstitutional takeover of state powers; establishment of an illegal armed force; terrorist activities; inciting racial, ethnic, religious or other societal hatred; organizing mass riots; hooliganism and vandalism based on racial, ethnic, religious, or other societal hatred or discord; political and ideological hatred; promotion of supremacy of a group of residents based on their language, social, racial, ethnic, or religious background; and justification of Nazism, including the promotion, production, distribution, and displays of Nazi symbols.”
During the year the regime amended the law on “countering extremism,” which entered into force on June 14 and broadens the definition of “extremist activity” to include the distribution of information that authorities deemed “false,” organizing and holding events (i.e., assembling freely), and perceived insolence or attempts to discredit state institutions or officials. Among the activities authorities deemed “extremist” were regular independent journalism as well as efforts by the opposition, activists, and protesters to express their opinions or assemble peacefully. Authorities introduced individual liability for “extremist activities” and expanded the list of potential “extremist” organizations to include trade unions, NGOs, and media organizations. Law enforcement officials were also granted permission to use firearms at their discretion when “countering extremism” – viewed by independent observers as an open threat against journalists, protesters, activists, and the regime’s political opponents.
As of September the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared that more than 200 Telegram channels and online chat groups had been recognized as “extremist organizations” by the courts and warned that subscribing, storing materials, and reposting information from these channels would be punishable under the law.
On October 29, the Ministry of Internal Affairs declared the Telegram internet messenger channel NEXTA-Live, a platform used by opposition supporters to organize protests, to be an “extremist organization.” According to observers, as a result, under the amended extremism law, all of NEXTA’s nearly one million subscribers could be charged with “extremism,” which carries a sentence of up to seven years in prison. This “extremist” designation followed an October 2020 court decision declaring that the NEXTA logo was an “extremist” symbol and that the channel distributed “extremist materials.” On May 23, former NEXTA editor Raman Pratasevich was forcibly returned after the regime diverted his flight and forced it to land in the country (see section 1.e.).
On September 6, a Minsk court sentenced Maria Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak on charges of creating an “extremist organization,” causing harm to national security, and conspiring to unconstitutionally seize power. Kalesnikava and Znak were both detained in 2020 (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees). The law does not provide penalties for displaying or keeping unregistered symbols, including opposition red and white flags, but it allows only registered symbols at authorized mass events. Although the “Pahonia” emblem is on a registry of the government’s historic and cultural symbols, the government expressed hostility toward protesters who carried red and white flags or the Pahonia symbol, and security forces detained demonstrators for doing so, as these symbols were generally identified with the opposition.
The regime introduced a new law on “preventing the rehabilitation of Nazism,” which entered into force on June 14 and expands the list of prohibited “Nazi symbols and attributes” to include symbols used to denote support for the opposition.
On March 10, prosecutors opened a criminal case against representatives of a Brest-based group of local Polish initiatives and Polish schools on charges of inciting social and ethnic hatred for allegedly “glorifying Nazism and justifying the genocide of the Belarusian nation.” The charges were in relation to an annual historical commemoration event for Polish soldiers who had fought against both Nazi and Soviet forces. After the event, police searched the premises of Polish organizations in Hrodna, Brest, Vaukavysk, and Lida and detained Hanna Panishava in Brest on March 12, Andzelika Borys in Hrodna on March 23, Andrzej Poczobut in Hrodna on March 25, Irena Biarnatskaya in Lida on March 25, and Maria Tsishkouskaya in Vaukavysk on March 29. On May 25, Biarnatskaya, Tsishkouskaya, and Panishava were released on their own recognizance and moved to Poland, while at year’s end Borys and Poczobut remained in pretrial detention. The annual event has been commemorated in Poland since 2011, and authorities had not previously opposed the event in the country.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Authorities limited access to information. State-controlled media did not provide balanced coverage and overwhelmingly presented the authorities’ version of events, including falsehoods and disinformation released by the Lukashenka regime. Appearances by opposition politicians on state media in 2020 were limited to those required by law during the 2020 presidential election campaign period, and state media minimized this coverage and maximized coverage of Lukashenka and his regime. During the year state media actively and routinely propagated the Lukashenka regime’s efforts to portray opposition politicians as enemies of the state or criminals. Authorities warned, fined, detained, interrogated, and stripped accreditation from members of the independent domestic media. Some state media journalists who quit were later detained, such as journalist Ksenia Lutskina, who remained in pretrial detention as of November after criticizing authorities in December 2020 (see section 1.e.).
State-owned media dominated the information field and maintained the highest circulation through generous subsidies and preferences. There was no countrywide private television, and broadcast media space was dominated by state-owned and Russian stations. Since August 2020 Russian state-media organizations largely controlled and managed Belarusian state-run channels, ensuring pro-Lukashenka and pro-Russian viewpoints continued to dominate the press.
Since October 2020 authorities allowed only nationals of the country where a media outlet is based to be accredited as correspondents. All Belarusian stringers for major Western outlets were stripped of accreditation in 2020 and were not reaccredited when they applied during the year. Some subsequently left the country.
The law prohibits media from disseminating information on behalf of unregistered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs. By August authorities had eliminated independent media outlets in the country through several rounds of targeted reprisals, closures, website blockages, or other efforts to incapacitate the organizations. On May 18, authorities raided the offices of Tut.by (the largest independent media outlet in the country), blocked its website, and arrested its journalists. Tut.by was originally stripped of its media license in December 2020. Other independent media outlets were subsequently closed in May and August, including reform.by, Nasha Niva, and Belapan. Authorities also closed regional and local media outlets, such as the September 16 decision to block Hrodna Life, which authorities claimed distributed “extremist” materials. Some media operations that were closed or blocked re-established and continued their operations from outside the country.
Violence and Harassment: Authorities continued to harass and detain local and foreign journalists routinely, particularly those operating as freelancers or working for foreign outlets without accreditation. Security forces continually hampered efforts of independent domestic and foreign journalists to cover demonstrations and protests in Minsk and across the country, used violence against journalists, brought false allegations against them, and sentenced them to jail terms for doing their jobs. As of November the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported it had recorded at least 220 cases of violence and harassment against local and foreign journalists since the start of the year, which included detentions, beatings, attacks, fines, and jail sentences.
On July 8, security officers detained and beat the chief editor of the independent newspaper Nasha Niva, Yahor Martsinovich. According to his spouse, Martsinovich suffered a head injury during detention, which was confirmed when doctors examined him in the investigators’ office. As of November Martsinovich remained in pretrial detention. During the year authorities targeted independent media outlets, individual editors and journalists, and NGOs that provided media development and training for harassment, intimidation, and arrest. The regime harassed members of the analytical community that regularly contributed articles or commentary to independent media on political and economic issues. As of November an estimated 29 media representatives remained in jail under various politically motivated charges, varying from calls to violate public order to tax evasion to coordinating protest activities.
On February 18, a Minsk court sentenced journalists from Poland-based independent media outlet Belsat to two years in prison. Darya Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva were charged with “organizing actions that grossly violated public order” for livestreaming a violent police crackdown on a peaceful protest in Minsk in November 2020.
On May 18, security officers raided the central and regional offices of Tut.by, the country’s most popular independent online resource, and detained several staff and management personnel, including Yuliya Charnyauskaya, the widow of Tut.by’s deceased founder. Authorities stated the raid was connected to alleged large-scale tax fraud by the outlet’s management, although harassment of the outlet and its journalists had been persistent since before the 2020 presidential election. As of December approximately 14 Tut.by employees or employees of affiliates, including chief editor Maryna Zolatava, remained in detention or under house arrest.
On July 16, law enforcement officers raided the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty office in Minsk, smashing the doors and searching the apartments of several staff. On the same day police raided the Minsk and regional offices of Belsat and confiscated all storage media and other property.
On August 19, authorities released the head of the professional journalist development and media literacy group Press Club Belarus, Yuliya Slutskaya, who was detained in December 2020 with three other colleagues on charges of tax evasion. Slutskaya and three colleagues sought a pardon in which they were required to admit their guilt and pay damages. In an interview Slutskaya said she had needed to pay twice the amount of the alleged “damages” in order to secure her release, which required her to sell a property she owned in Minsk.
On August 27, the regime deregistered the Belarusian Association of Journalists based on a ruling by the Supreme Court after continued harassment of the organization that included raids of its office by security officials in February and July, seizure of documents without inventory or attendance by a representative from the NGO, and the forced closure of its office. Since authorities decided to hold the trial at the Supreme Court, the NGO was left without the ability to appeal the deregistration. The NGO continued its work from exile.
In the wake of the crackdown against the organizations, some outlets decided to withdraw their operations from the country due to concern about harassment and intimidation and continued working from abroad.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: By year’s end the government had succeeded in shutting down all major independent media in the country. By law the government may close a publication – printed or online – after two warnings in one year for violating a range of restrictions on the press. Regulations also give authorities arbitrary power to prohibit or censor reporting. The Ministry of Information may suspend periodicals or newspapers for three months without a court ruling.
The threat of government retaliation led independent media outlets still operating within the country to exercise self-censorship and avoid reporting on certain topics or criticizing the government. The government tightly and directly controlled the content of state-owned broadcast and print media. Television channels are required to broadcast at least 30 percent local content. Local independent television stations operated in some areas and were under government pressure to forgo reporting on national and sensitive topics or risk censorship. Authorities extensively censored the internet (see section 2.a., Internet Freedom).
The government penalized those who published items counter to government guidelines. Some private retail chains also refused to continue selling copies of independent newspapers due to government pressure, and state-run and private printing houses refused to print them, forcing editors to procure printing services abroad. This opportunity was also closed, however, after printers in Russia began refusing to print Belarusian independent newspapers during the year.
The independent Baranavichy-based Intex Press newspaper was inspected and fined three consecutive times by different authorities for having published an interview with Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya in April, including a fine of approximately 4,000 rubles ($1,560) on May 5. The outlet’s chief editor was questioned for nearly five hours by police and given two administrative charges for allegedly violating the law on distributing “banned” information via media and the internet. He was also threatened with criminal charges for allegedly violating national security. In April, after the article was published, the Ministry of Information included the interview in its list of “extremist materials.” In May the government-controlled Belarusian Printing House unilaterally canceled its printing contract with the newspaper, ending its ability to publish and sell paper copies of its newspaper for the first time in 26 years. The outlet announced it would move its operation online.
Independent media outlets, including newspapers and internet news websites, faced discriminatory publishing and distribution policies, including limited access to government officials and press briefings and bans on printing paper copies, forcing some newspapers, such as the independent Narodnaya Volya, to switch to portable document format versions with paid subscriptions.
Authorities warned businesses not to advertise in newspapers that criticized the government. Private vendors, such as retail stores, conscious of tax inspections and other forms of economic pressure refused to sell independent newspapers. Advertisers continued to be pressured not to give their advertising dollars to out-of-favor, nonstate newspapers.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel and slander are criminal offenses. The law provides large fines and prison sentences of up to four years for defaming or insulting the president. Penalties for defamation of character make no distinction between private and public persons. A public figure who is criticized for poor performance while in office may sue both the journalist and the media outlet that disseminated the critical report for defamation. Following a September 29 incident in which a KGB officer and an information technology worker were shot during a KGB raid, the KGB detained 200 persons for making comments critical of the KGB’s actions in the raid, and criminal cases were opened under the legal provision that prohibits insulting an official. After the Russian branch of Komsomolskaya Pravda released an article that included a comment from a friend of the technology worker offering a positive description of his character, Belarusian authorities blocked online access to its website and arrested Hienadz Mazheyka, the Belarusian author of the article. The Russian government criticized the action as a violation of media freedom, and the outlet decided to close its Belarus office and relocate staff to Russia.
National Security: Authorities frequently cited national security to arrest or punish critics of the government or deter criticism of government policies or officials. National security charges were used to punish political prisoners, including in court sentences against Kalesnikava and Znak in September (see section 1.e., Political Prisoners and Detainees).
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right and employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
c. Freedom of Religion
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government at times restricted the right of citizens, particularly former political prisoners, to foreign travel. Following the 2020 presidential election, the government increased restrictions on the ability of citizens to return home from abroad.
In-country Movement: Passports serve as a form of identity, and authorities required them for permanent housing, work, and hotel registration. Police continued to selectively harass individuals who lived at a location other than their legal place of residence as indicated by mandatory stamps in their passports.
The law also requires persons who travel to areas within 15 miles of the border (aside from authorized crossing points) to obtain an entrance pass.
Foreign Travel: The government’s database of persons banned from traveling abroad contained the names of individuals who possessed state secrets, faced criminal prosecution or civil suits, or had outstanding financial obligations. Authorities informed some persons by letter that their names were in the database, while others learned only at border crossings. The Ministry of Internal Affairs and security agencies, border and customs services, and financial investigation departments have a right to place persons on “preventive” surveillance lists.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs is also required to track citizens working abroad, and employment agencies must report individuals who do not return from abroad as scheduled.
In December 2020 the government imposed exit restrictions on citizens seeking to leave the country by land, reportedly to limit the spread of COVID-19; NGOs and activists claimed the closures reduced options for those seeking to leave the country. The measures restricted the frequency of departures and the categories of persons who could depart. Authorities kept airports open to international travel during this period, although limited flight availability and high prices restricted options for those seeking to leave the country. Authorities permitted cross-border travel for most individuals once every six months. In September authorities modified these restrictions and allowed citizens who had foreign residency permits to cross the land border once every three months.
Exile: The law does not allow forced exile, but there were reports that security forces continued to threaten some opposition members with bodily harm or prosecution if they did not leave the country, particularly after the August 2020 election. Others were driven to the border by authorities and forced to cross.
The vast majority of individuals who were forced to leave the country in 2020 remained in forced exile during the year, including presidential hopeful Valery Tsapkala and opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya. In August 2020 opposition activists Volha Kavalkova, Ivan Krautsou, and Anton Radnyankou were forced into exile.
Citizenship: On August 5, Lukashenka signed a decree expanding an amendment to the citizenship law that came into force on June 18. The decree allows naturalized citizens who are 18 and older to be stripped of their citizenship for participating in extremist activities or inflicting serious damage to the interests of the country, charges often used by authorities in politically motivated cases. The provision does not apply to citizens by birth.
The government provided limited cooperation with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. Authorities either did not approve or delayed approval of requests made by UNHCR to provide assistance to irregular migrants in the country, including those located near the country’s borders with the EU.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for granting asylum or refugee status and complementary and temporary protection to foreign citizens and stateless persons, with some exceptions. The government has established a process for determining refugee status and a system for providing protection to refugees. The law provides for protection against refoulement granted to foreigners who are denied refugee status or temporary protection but are unable to return to their countries of origin.
All foreigners except Russians have the right to apply for asylum. According to the terms of the Union Treaty with Russia, Russian citizens may settle and obtain residence permits in the country. As of November 1, the government made an exception for a family of four Russian citizens who sought asylum for religious reasons.
Refoulement: There were reports that the government expelled or returned asylum seekers or refugees to countries where they were likely to face abuse.
According to credible press reports and a report published by Amnesty International on December 20, in November and December, in some cases authorities forced migrants to choose between deportation or additional attempts (often in dangerous conditions) to cross irregularly into the EU. Migrants and asylum seekers interviewed by media reported only some migrants left the country voluntarily, and many were detained in rented apartments or on the street, taken to the Minsk Airport, and deported against their will without due process to countries where they faced significant risk of abuse, such as Syria. In November Iraqi journalist Reben Sirwan told independent press that he had flown to the country to attempt to enter the EU and applied for asylum in the country after he failed. According to Sirwan, he feared for his life if he returned to Iraq and contacted UNHCR representatives in the country, who directed him to the Ministry of Internal Affairs Department of Citizenship and Migration in accordance with established procedure in asylum cases. When Sirwan requested asylum, he was told that he would be deported, and he claimed officials ignored his statements that he was a journalist and could be killed if returned to Iraq. After requesting asylum, Sirwan claimed security forces attacked him with a stun gun, beat him, and eventually forced him to board the first plane to Damascus, Syria, without being allowed to pack his belongings. Sirwan told press he was held for four days in Syria before being sent to Erbil, Iraq. He immediately fled again.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Starting in late May, media reports indicated that authorities purposefully orchestrated irregular migration to the country from countries such as Iraq, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Syria, and Afghanistan, often through state-owned or state-affiliated travel agencies in partnership with travel agencies in the region, with the aim of facilitating these individuals’ onward travel overland to cross irregularly into the EU. Once the migrants and asylum seekers reached the country, authorities often organized their travel to the borders of neighboring countries of Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland and encouraged, and in many instances forced, the migrants to attempt irregular border crossing. When the migrants failed to enter the EU, security services reportedly beat them and forced them to remain at the border to attempt additional border crossings.
On May 26, Lukashenka threatened in a speech to the National Assembly to send irregular migrants to the EU in retaliation for sanctions against Belarus. Authorities eased the visa processes for migrants from third countries, assisted or organized migrants’ travel to the border, and assisted migrants with climbing over border fences or in identifying unguarded sections of the border. On October 4, the National Assembly voted to suspend an agreement with the EU on the readmission of persons not admitted into the EU following Lukashenka’s repeated statements that he intended to suspend the agreement.
When irregular migrants were unsuccessful in entering or refused entry into neighboring countries, there were credible reports that Belarusian security services beat them and coerced them into attempting again to enter the EU. For example, a November 24 report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) contained the account of a 21-year-old Syrian Kurd who border guards forced to attempt to cross the border into Poland four times. On his final attempt, border guards forced him and his friends to use an inflatable raft to cross a turbulent part of the Bug River into Poland, which capsized, resulting in the drowning of one of his friends. According to multiple press interviews with irregular migrants and asylum seekers in November, authorities physically abused migrants at the border in efforts to encourage them to attempt border crossings and forcefully prevented them from departing the area farther into Belarus when they were unsuccessful. For example on November 10, Syrian migrant Youssef Zatanna told Polish press that Belarusian officers broke his nose and cheek bone. Other migrants and asylum seekers shared similar stories of violence at the hands of Belarusian security forces. In a December 20 Amnesty International report, migrants and asylum seekers claimed authorities drove them to the border, beat them with batons, and then chased then with dogs, forcing them to cross.
Freedom of Movement: According to the November 24 HRW report, authorities in some cases confined migrants and asylum seekers who entered the country through state-affiliated travel agencies as part of the state-orchestrated migrant smuggling operation to “collection sites” – open-air locations without tents, shelters, or sanitation – near the border with Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. Migrants and asylum seekers reported to HRW that authorities beat them if they attempted to leave the sites, where they were denied food and water and the ability to make fires. A Kurdish Syrian family interviewed in a December 20 Amnesty International report said they were forced to stay in the collection site for 20 days and received food at most once per day. Other individuals told Amnesty International they were allowed to leave the site only after bribing authorities.
Outside the context of the state-sponsored migrant smuggling that began in late May, asylum seekers have freedom of movement within the country but must reside in the region where they filed their applications for refugee status and in a place known to authorities while their applications are being considered, including during appeals. Authorities reportedly often encouraged asylum seekers to settle in rural areas; however, the majority settled in cities and towns. Change of residence was possible with a notification to authorities. Authorities issue registered asylum seekers certificates that serve as documents to confirm their status as asylum seekers and identity and protect them from expulsion. By law they also must register with local authorities at their place of residence.
Access to Basic Services: Adults who are seeking asylum must pay for higher education as well as for nonemergency medical services, while minors receive education and medical services free of charge. Free legal assistance, housing, and language training are not available to either asylum seekers or refugees. Once asylum seekers obtain asylum, they are treated as residents.
Durable Solutions: Naturalization of refugees was possible after seven years of permanent residence, as in the case of other categories of foreign residents.
Temporary Protection: Although the government may provide temporary protection (for up to one year) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees, it did not do so during the year.
As of June 30, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and UNHCR listed 5,985 stateless persons in the country. According to UNHCR, all had either temporary or permanent residence permits.
Permanent-resident stateless persons were treated comparably to citizens in terms of access to employment, except for a limited number of positions in the public sector and law enforcement bodies that were available only to citizens. There were reports that stateless persons occasionally faced discrimination in employment, since authorities often encouraged them to settle in rural areas where the range of employment opportunities was limited. According to UNHCR, stateless persons could freely change their region of residence.
There is a path to citizenship for the stateless population. The main requirement is at least seven years’ permanent residence. Authorities have a procedure for expedited naturalization but mostly for individuals born or permanently residing in the country prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, ethnic Belarusians, their spouses, and descendants. If a child is born into a family of stateless persons permanently residing in the country, the child is entitled to citizenship.
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 .
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.
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.