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 subsequent to 1994, including the August 9 presidential election, have fallen well short of international standards. The 2019 National Assembly elections also failed to meet international standards.
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. Members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.
The country experienced massive civil unrest following the August 9 presidential election as demonstrators protested widespread vote rigging by Lukashenka as well as the government’s widespread use of brute force against and detentions of peaceful protesters. Weekly protests drawing at their peak up to hundreds of thousands of protesters began election night and continued through the end of the year.
Significant human rights issues included: 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; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, censorship, site blocking, internet blockages, and the existence of laws regarding criminal libel, slander, and defamation of government officials; overly restrictive nongovernmental organization laws; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including the imposition of criminal penalties for calling for a peaceful demonstration and laws penalizing the activities and funding of groups not approved by authorities; restrictions on freedom of movement; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation, including persistent failure to conduct elections according to international standards; serious acts of corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or intersex persons; and restrictions on independent trade unions; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association.
Authorities at all levels generally operated with impunity and always failed to take steps to prosecute or punish officials in the government or security forces who committed human rights abuses.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men and women 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, the government generally prosecuted cases against nonspouses committing rape. For example, on March 3, the Vileika District Court convicted a 26-year-old man of raping a 15-year-old girl and sentenced him to seven years’ imprisonment. 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. According to NGOs, authorities often did not consider spousal rape and did not prosecute such cases unless they involved severe aggravating factors and direct threats to victims’ lives.
Domestic violence was a significant problem and the government did not take effective measures to prevent it during the year. The government continued to issue protective orders mandating the separation of victims and abusers and provided temporary accommodations for the duration of the orders. It also operated crisis rooms that provided limited shelter and psychological and medical assistance to survivors.
The law on crime prevention 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 victims and abusers with temporary accommodation until the protective orders expire. In addition the code on administrative offenses 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 a number of women’s rights NGOs, protective orders and crisis rooms remained ineffective and provided limited protection of victims’ rights. 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 that work with victims, children, and aggressors.
According to the Internal Affairs Ministry, from January-March officers registered 655 offenses related to household and domestic violence crimes, which was reportedly down by 18 percent compared with the same period in 2019. Of those, 58 cases included causing severe bodily harm, 27 deaths caused by family members, and 225 cases of death threats and causing severe bodily harm. Police reported they prosecuted 186 individuals on charges of abusing family members. Police issued 1,903 protective orders from January-March.
According to press reports, on May 14, a 38-year-old man in the town of Cherikau severely beat his 39-year-old wife. The woman did not make a police report or seek medical attention until two days later, when she was hospitalized and died of her injuries the same day. The man was detained and charged with battery.
A Ministry of Internal Affairs representative was reachable once a month through July on a NGO-run nationwide hotline for victims of domestic violence. In August the NGO running the hotline stopped working with the Ministry of Internal Affairs representative following the government’s crackdown on demonstrators. As of June the shelter and hotline providers had not seen an increase in requests for help in the country during the COVID-19 pandemic, although this may have been associated with the lack of a government-imposed countrywide lockdown or self-isolation requirements. The Ministries of Internal Affairs, Labor and Social Protection, and Healthcare and NGOs continued a campaign, “Home without Violence.” The campaign was shifted online during the pandemic but was covered by government media.
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: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of children. All individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and to have access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence. Access to information on contraception was widely available. Government policy does not bar access to contraception, but some religious groups may oppose it on religious grounds. Although there were no 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. The government provided access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence.
Coercion in Population Control: In prior years, 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. While there are no indications that the practice has changed, no specific cases were highlighted during the year by press or NGOs.
Discrimination: The law provides for equal treatment of women with regard to property ownership and inheritance, family law, equal pay for equal work (although women were often paid less), and in the judicial system, and the law was generally respected. Although women have the same legal status as men, they experienced discrimination in employment as well as discrimination in the workplace (see section 7.d.).
During the year Lukashenka made multiple disparaging comments regarding female political opposition leaders that reflected a discriminatory attitude against women participating in the political arena (see section 3).
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: Conviction of rape or sexual assault of a person known to be a minor is punishable by up to 15 years’ imprisonment. The penalty for conviction of a person older than 18 engaging in sexual acts with a person known to be younger than 16 carry is a sentence of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
According to local human rights groups, domestic violence and abuse against children was common, and anecdotal evidence suggested that many parents admitted to beating their children. In a number of resonant cases of child abuse and assault, at least one parent, who committed a crime against the child, suffered from alcohol addiction, and the other was reluctant to report the crime. For example, a court in the town of Zelva convicted and sentenced a male resident to 25 years in prison for continuously abusing his minor daughters, one of whom suffered severe injuries and died. Authorities generally intervened to prevent child abuse stemming from domestic violence and identified families in vulnerable conditions and provided 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, lacking 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 childcare 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.
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 child-abuse 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 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 marriage 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. Prostitution of children was a problem, and the government took some steps to address it. From January through September, the government identified 354 minors as victims of child sexual abuse and 24 minors exploited for pornography. The law provides penalties of up to 13 years in prison for conviction of production or distribution of pornographic materials depicting a minor. The government generally enforced the law. The government claimed that the law did not require a demonstration of force, fraud, or coercion to constitute a child sex-trafficking offense and claimed to have identified 27 minor trafficking and trafficking-related victims. Authorities considered child pornography and cyber-related methods like sexting, grooming, and sextortion to be serious problems and in January 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.
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 have been 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: 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.
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 reports of isolated anti-Semitic incidents after the August 9 election, including cases of anti-Semitic violence by state actors during detentions. For example, according to press reports, police in Minsk detained Aleksandr Fruman while detaining protesters. Fruman reported that, upon learning that he was an Israeli citizen, police beat him while shouting anti-Semitic insults, and told him that “it was time to get another circumcision.” Jewish community leaders did not express concerns that their community members who participated in protests had been targeted for their ethnicity or religious group when detained by police.
Many memorials to victims of the Holocaust, built in Soviet times as well as more recently, do 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.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The law does not specifically prohibit discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, or mental disabilities, and discrimination was common.
On September 14, a regional court in Smarhon dismissed a case filed by a local children’s music school teacher with physical disabilities, who was seeking to restore a number of his rights, which he argued were abused based on his disability and discriminatory attitudes toward him. For example, although he had worked at the school since 1996, the building was not fully accessible and the administration held teachers’ conferences on a floor the teacher could not reach, limiting his ability to share information related to his work. The teacher also cited discriminatory and derogatory language used by the school’s principals and fellow teachers as well as the principal’s refusal to provide extra days off for the teacher, who was in a risk group for COVID-19. The school reportedly addressed the teacher’s working schedule and improved accessibility to the building prior to the court ruling, which allowed the court to dismiss the case.
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.
The country’s lack of independent living opportunities left many persons with disabilities no choice but to live in state-run institutions. According to the Ministry of Labor, approximately 89 such institutions across the country housed approximately 21,500 persons. Disability rights organizations reported that the quality of care in these facilities was low. Instances of harassment and mistreatment were reported, such as cases of physical and psychological abuse, lack of medical care for other non-disability-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 15,000 persons with disabilities who lived in “psychoneurological” institutions were deprived of legal rights, and courts designated directors of these institutions as their legal guardians.
Public transportation was free to persons with disabilities, but the majority of subway stations in Minsk as well as the bus system were not wheelchair accessible. 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 across the country 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, claims 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 face accessibility barriers at maternity clinics and hospitals.
Governmental and societal discrimination against Roma persisted. According to leaders of the Romani communities, security and law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrarily 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) Roma. 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.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
There were reports that authorities threatened and condoned violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons. For example, according to the LGBTI rights group Makeout, on September 26, police detained a transgender man, Yauheni Velko, at a protest. While in transport, police insulted him on the basis of his gender identity. At the police station, security officials conducted a strip search and targeted him with gender-focused harassment and threats, including rape and death threats. Officials at the detention facility told relatives who knew he was at the facility that there were no men detained at the location, and therefore he was not present. Velko spent two days in detention and was tried and fined on September 28. Officers also confiscated his rainbow flag.
Consensual same-sexual conduct between adults is not illegal, but LGBTI discrimination was widespread, and harassment occurred. The law does not provide antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.
Societal discrimination against LGBTI 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. For example, in December 2019 a Minsk district court sentenced a local resident on charges of grave hooliganism to 18 months in jail and ordered him to pay 5,400 rubles ($2,210) in compensation to his victim Mikalai Kuprych. The perpetrator assaulted Kuprych, who suffered multiple facial injuries and bone fractures, after he reportedly saw Kuprych hugging friends. Although the perpetrator stated during the investigation that this was the prime motive for his attack, the court refused to recognize anti-LGBTI sentiments as a motive.
The government allows transgender persons to update their name and gender marker on national identification documents, but these documents retain 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 identification number and gender marker. 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.”
Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, and the illness carried a heavy social stigma. According to local NGOs working with HIV and AIDS positive individuals 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. For example, in May 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/AIDS and calling for greater tolerance toward persons infected with the virus.