The U.N. human rights chief called on Belarus Friday to end its “systematic repression” of critics and immediately release people held on political grounds, saying some violations may amount to crimes against humanity.
The comments from Volker Türk came as his office released a new report that documents violations of international law like unlawful killings, torture, sexual violence and deprivation of the right to freedom of expression and association. The report is based on interviews with more than 200 victims and witnesses and other sources.
“Our report paints an unacceptable picture of impunity and the near-total destruction of civic space and fundamental freedoms in Belarus,” Türk said in a statement, calling on the Minsk government to end “this mass repression” and to carry out impartial investigations to ensure accountability.
Critics say the repression is continuing, and rights advocates in Belarus sounded the alarm on Tuesday about a new heavy crackdown on dissent by the authoritarian government that saw over 100 people detained in a week.
Authorities targeted opposition activists, journalists, medical workers, members of shooting sports clubs and people working with drones, according to Viasna, Belarus’ oldest and most prominent rights group.
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The U.N. report pointed to the beatings of thousands of peaceful protesters in August 2020 — the largest demonstrations ever in the country — following widely contested elections that gave authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko another term.
It lamented more than a dozen legislative amendments adopted over the last two years that target political activists and opponents, and said that nearly 1,500 people are currently in detention on “politically motivated charges.” Nearly 800 nongovernmental groups had been shut down as of last month, the report said.
A Belarusian court on Friday sentenced the chief editor and the chief director of Tut.By – the country’s leading independent news website until authorities shut it down last year – to 12 years in prison on charges of damaging national security and inciting hatred. Another court sentenced two independent political analysts to 10 years after they were found guilty of similar charges.
The conviction of the two Tut.By journalists “is the latest attempt by the regime to kill honest journalism in Belarus,” said exiled opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
Lukashenko, a longtime ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin who backed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has ruled the ex-Soviet country since 1994.