a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
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).
Authorities monitored internet communications without appropriate legal authority, and the regime’s total control of the country’s legislature, law enforcement, and judicial systems allowed authorities to monitor internet traffic without accountability or independent review. According to Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom on the Net Report, all telecommunications operators are required to install surveillance equipment, making it possible for the government to monitor traffic in real time and obtain related metadata and data, such as users’ browsing histories, including domain names and internet protocol addresses visited, without independent judicial oversight. All internet service providers are required to retain information about their customers’ browsing histories for one year. Companies are also required to preserve identifying data regarding their customers’ devices and internet activities for at least five years and to turn over this information at the government’s request.
The government monitored email and social media. While individuals, groups, and publications were generally able to engage in the expression of views via the internet, including by email, all who did so risked possible legal and personal repercussions and often were believed to practice self-censorship. Opposition activists claimed their emails and other web-based communications were likely monitored.
Registered news websites and any internet information sources were subject to the same regulations as print media. Websites may apply to register as news outlets, but registration requires the site to have an office located in nonresidential premises and a chief editor who is a citizen with at least five years of experience in managerial media positions. Websites that choose not to apply for registration may continue to operate but without the status of a media outlet. Their correspondents may not receive accreditation from state agencies, and they may not cover mass events or have the journalistic right to protect sources of information.
Authorities filtered and blocked internet traffic. Telecommunications companies reported that authorities ordered them to restrict mobile internet data severely on the days when large-scale demonstrations were expected or occurred.
Authorities restricted content online. Online news providers must remove content and publish corrections if ordered to do so by authorities and must adhere to a range of government prohibitions on free speech (see also section 2.a., Freedom of Expression). Authorities may block access to sites that fail to obey government orders, including because of a single violation of distributing prohibited information, without a prosecutor or court’s mandate. If blocked, a network publication loses its media registration. Owners of a website or a network publication have one month to appeal government decisions to limit access to their sites or to deny restoring access to them in court. As of year’s end the Ministry of Information had blocked access to more than 100 websites and their mirror pages.
There were also efforts to restrict or block social media outlets online (see section 2.a., Censorship or Content Restrictions). Authorities punished individuals for expressing their political views online (see section 1.d., Arbitrary Arrest or Detention). For example, authorities targeted Telegram users and group chat administrators throughout the year, prosecuting them for allegedly organizing and coordinating protest activity. On June 4, a Minsk district court convicted Dzianis Hutsin, Viktorya Kulsha, Hanna Vishnyak, and Tatsiana Shkrobat for purportedly administering the Telegram channel “Drivers 97” and sentenced them to two and one-half years in prison. All were charged with conspiring to organize mass riots, blocking roads, and violating public order.
Owners of internet sites may also be held liable for user comments that carry any prohibited information, and these sites may be blocked. The law also mandates the creation of a database of news websites and identification of all commentators by personal data and cell phone numbers. If a news website receives two or more formal warnings from authorities, it may be removed from the database and lose its right to distribute information. There were reports that media outlets removed comment sections from their websites to avoid the risk of reprisals.
By law the telecommunications monopoly Beltelecom and other organizations authorized by the government have the exclusive right to maintain internet domains.
Authorities attempted to restrict online anonymity. A presidential edict required registration of service providers and internet websites and required the collection of information on those who used public internet. It required service providers to store data on individuals’ internet use for a year and provide data to law enforcement agencies upon request. Conviction for violation of the edict was punishable by a prison sentence, although no such violations were prosecuted. These potential government prosecution efforts, however, spurred the use of encrypted messenger programs, such as Telegram, that circumvented restrictions.
There were reports of politically motivated cyberattacks. Government webpages and databases were reportedly hacked.
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
The government restricted academic freedom and cultural events.
Educational institutions were required to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and of the country under the leadership of Lukashenka. Government-mandated textbooks contained a heavily propagandized version of history and other subjects. Authorities obligated all schools, including private institutions, to follow state directives to inculcate the official ideology and prohibited schools from employing opposition members as principals.
The minister of education has the right to appoint and dismiss the heads of private educational institutions.
During the year the government restricted artistic presentations or other cultural activities. For example on February 13, riot police dispersed a rock concert in a village in the vicinity of Minsk. At least 68 persons were detained, the majority of whom were later arrested or fined. On February 14, the Ministry of Internal Affairs claimed the participants had held an unauthorized mass event and alleged “activists of destructive Telegram channels” gathered under the guise of a rock concert.
On April 1, fire and sanitary inspection officers arrived at a photograph exhibit organized by an independent NGO and ordered it to close. The exhibit had opened the day before and featured photographs of doctors performing operations during the COVID-19 pandemic. The officers alleged the premises did not comply with fire safety regulations. The organizers asserted authorities were closing the exhibit on politically motivated pretenses to bar further public criticism of the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
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.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups.
The law penalizes organizing and participating in unauthorized gatherings, the announcement of an intention to hold a mass event before securing official authorization, training protesters, financing public demonstrations, or soliciting foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Convictions for some violations are punishable by sentences of up to three years’ imprisonment.
As of May 24, authorities had eliminated the possibility for event organizers to obtain permission to hold a mass event at an officially designated location simply by notifying authorities 10 days prior to the event. Organizers of mass events at any location were required to apply at least 15 days in advance for permission, and authorities were compelled to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. This practice was not in line with international standards according to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Moscow Mechanism Report. The report noted that authorities had not demonstrated the need for administrative arrests or fines in connection with spontaneous demonstrations.
On May 26, authorities amended the law to expand the list of violations punishable with prison terms to include repeat mass events violations within one year of the first violation. An additional amendment adopted on May 26 criminalizes public calls to organize or hold unauthorized gatherings, street marches, and other types of demonstrations; causing death or large-scale damage of property; encouraging others to participate in mass events; or paying for participation in mass events. The new amendment introduced penalties of up to five years in prison. Persons with criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, public morals, and crimes against the state are barred from organizing mass events. Individuals who were fined or arrested for participating in unauthorized mass events also may not organize mass events for a period of one year from the imposition of the sentence.
The May 26 amendment to the mass events law prohibits collection and use of funds and other property to reimburse fines imposed on violators by authorities. The amendment also bans individuals, including journalists, from streaming or providing live coverage of mass events held in violation of the law “for the purpose of their promotion or propaganda.” The law includes a system of reimbursements for police, medical, and cleaning services that organizers of mass events must pay to hold an event. Authorities continued to cover costs associated with events that were officially sponsored at the local and national level. A July 28 amendment, meanwhile, mandates that organizers sign contracts for services before applying for a permit to hold a mass event and reimburse all costs within 10 days. Organizers complained about the high costs of such contracts. For example, police services for an event with more than 1,000 participants at a specially designated venue cost approximately 7,250 rubles ($3,000); at a nondesignated venue, the price was 50 percent higher.
Authorities continued to deny permits for public demonstrations. For example on April 20, Minsk city authorities denied a permit to hold an April 26 demonstration marking the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, claiming the proposed route for the demonstration did not meet the authorities’ mass event requirements, the rally could interfere with transport and pedestrian traffic, and the proposed route and timing had been announced before the regime’s formal approval. Authorities also cited COVID-19 and police refusal to sign a contract with the organizers as additional reasons for denying the event’s approval. On April 27, authorities detained traditional opposition Green Party leader Dzmitry Kuchuk for 15 days, which he later claimed was tied to the fact that his party was one of the applicants seeking to hold the Chernobyl commemoration.
Police detained and jailed opposition members who attempted to organize political events or rallies. According to human rights defenders, authorities delayed their official rejection of event permits until the eve of the event as a tactic to derail organizers’ plans. Such delayed denials violated the authorities’ regulations, which require officials to notify organizers five days in advance so they have time to announce the cancellation. Despite the delayed denials, authorities detained individuals who were unaware of the cancelation and arrived for the event or were nonparticipants but suspected by police to have been in the area for the canceled event.
In one example on March 25, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that police arrested more than 200 individuals for attempting to gather to celebrate the 103rd anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian National Republic because the event was not officially registered. The ministry further asserted that police arrests had prevented “large-scale protests announced by destructive Telegram channels” around the country. Authorities had prohibited organizers from holding the rally at the last minute on March 23. At least a dozen independent journalists were briefly detained and released, but the majority of the 200 peaceful demonstrators were either fined or sentenced to 15 days in jail.
Although police rapidly detained anyone they perceived to be gathering in an unauthorized demonstration, authorities also used other tactics to discourage persons from participating in unauthorized demonstrations or potentially preparing to demonstrate. Authorities videotaped political demonstrations, used bullhorns and speakers to threaten participants with arrest, and conducted identity checks as a form of intimidation, raising the threat that participants could be punished later. For example on February 14, police detained 19 skiers in the village of Leshna in the Minsk region. Officers claimed the group of skiers had held an unauthorized mass event and used unsanctioned symbols such as white-red-white flags. The skiers were subsequently fined or detained for up to 15 days.
Between January and September, police detained more than 6,500 persons for participating in unsanctioned demonstrations or other protest-related activity. Police filed civil charges for participating in unauthorized mass events against the vast majority of individuals. Such charges typically resulted in fines, short-term jail sentences up to 30 days, or both. Police also opened at least 3,300 criminal cases against peaceful protesters and journalists between January and September.
On May 26, an amendment to the criminal code was signed into law that imposes criminal penalties on those who demonstrate publicly, repeatedly promote demonstrations, or produce and distribute Nazi symbols or paraphernalia (with penalties up to four years in jail). A separate amendment was also signed into law on May 26 that increases penalties for crimes related to the rehabilitation of Nazism to up to 12 years in prison (see section 2.a., Freedom of Expression).
Security forces physically and psychologically abused individuals while breaking up events, while individuals were in detention vehicles, and once protesters were in detention facilities (see section 1.c.). Authorities used water cannons, stun grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons to break up demonstrations. No investigations were conducted into complaints of human rights abuses by police or extreme use of force.
In some cases courts sentenced participants in peaceful protests to long prison terms on criminal charges, in particular when authorities claimed demonstrators had engaged in violence. Authorities claimed protesters had been violent and state-controlled courts issued criminal sentences for alleged violence, but no investigations were conducted into human rights abuses and violent conduct by security forces (see sections 1.c., 1.d., and 1.e.).
As of December 17, at least 114 individuals who were detained for peacefully protesting by singing songs and circle dancing for allegedly “endangering road traffic safety” and participating in an unauthorized mass event in September 2020 were convicted and given sentences of up to five and one-half years in prison.
Participants in demonstrations faced retaliation at state-run places of education or employment. According to a Ministry of Education directive, educational institutions may expel students who engage in antigovernment or unsanctioned political activity and must ensure the proper ideological education of students. School officials, however, often cited poor academic performance or absence from classes as the official reason for expulsions. According to human rights organizations, at least 50 students were reportedly expelled throughout the year due to their political views.
On August 25, Andrei Pyatrouski, a social studies teacher from Smarhon with 20 years’ experience, was sentenced to one and one-half years in a penal colony for defamation and slander because he showed his class a video critical of Lukashenka from a Telegram channel that the state labelled extremist. Pyatrouski told independent media that he showed his class the video in response to questions he received on the constitution and the white-red-white flag during a discussion on Constitution Day in early March. According to independent media, a local official’s son in the class filmed Pyatrouski and showed his parents, who alerted local authorities.
Freedom of Association
Following threats made by Lukashenka in July, the government closed several hundred independent civil society organizations that existed in the country through legal deregistration mechanisms, such as court proceedings. Throughout the year, but increasingly from July onwards, authorities deregistered approximately 300 independent civil society organizations – in particular, closing those with a nationwide reach. Following directives from Lukashenka, all types of independent civil society organizations were targeted for deregistration, including human rights organizations, sports associations, media outlets, environmental organizations, groups working to support persons with disabilities, and organizations working to counter trafficking in persons. Organizations with long track records of positive engagement with authorities were not spared.
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to be registered. A government commission reviews all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official government views and practices.
Actual registration procedures require applicants to provide the names of founders along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office, which observers considered a difficult burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs as well as individual property owners’ concerns that renting space to NGOs would invite government harassment. Individuals listed as members were more likely to face government pressure if the NGO fell afoul of authorities. Unregistered organizations that were unable to rent or afford office space reportedly attempted to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or claim the organizations were operating illegally. Activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups were punishable with administrative fines.
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. An August 2020 presidential decree provides that only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Interdepartmental Commission on Foreign Grant Aid before they may accept funds or register grants that fall outside a list of approved aid categories. Authorities further divided the aid usage into tax-exempt and taxable categories, the latter of which required a registration fee equal to 0.5 percent of the taxable aid. The decree also introduces penalties for the usage of unauthorized or undeclared aid by primary or secondary aid beneficiaries and allows authorities to terminate aid funding.
Authorities may close an NGO after issuing only one warning that it violated the law. The most common pretexts prompting a warning or closure were failure to obtain a legal address and technical discrepancies in application documents. The law allows authorities to close an NGO for accepting what it considered illegal forms of foreign assistance and permits the Ministry of Justice to monitor any NGO activity and to review all NGO documents. NGOs also must submit detailed reports annually to the ministry regarding their activities, office locations, officers, and total number of members (see also section 5).
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and obstructed independent civil society organizations. During the year authorities frequently confiscated computers and other equipment and damaged private property while breaking into the offices and homes of civil society organizations, activists, human rights defenders, and individuals associated with political cases. For example, during police raids against numerous civil society organizations, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, and Gender Perspectives, security officials damaged entrances, barred re-entry, did not conduct the seizures in the presence of a representative from the organization, and did not take inventory of the documents and items they seized.
Authorities harassed, intimidated, and imprisoned members of the Coordination Council formed by opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya to work toward a peaceful resolution of the political crisis. As of November those presidium members located in the country remained under house arrest and faced charges related to their exercise of freedoms of expression, assembly, and association. After its formation in August 2020, the core group had approximately 70 members, seven of whom were elected to form a presidium, and later grew to thousands of members. Within a month all but one of the members of the council’s presidium had been forced to flee the country or were imprisoned (see section 1.e.). Authorities continued to harass the independent and unregistered Union of Poles of Belarus and its members, while supporting a progovernment organization of a similar name.
f. Protection of Refugees
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.