News stories emerging from Belarus resemble a gruesome shopping list of human rights abuses. Authorities have systematically violated the right to freedom of expression, freedom from torture, freedom of assembly, and freedom from arbitrary arrest, among others. In recent weeks, an even more concerning trend has emerged. Lukashenko has refocused efforts on silencing opposition activists and human rights defenders and preventing the reporting that has informed the international community of the abuses taking place to date.
On September 17 authorities detained Marfa Rabkova, a coordinator of the Volunteer Service at Belarussian human rights organisation Viasna – one of the last standing bulwarks against the Lukashenko regime. Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders, FIDH, and local human rights organisations have joined together in calling for her immediate release. Sadly, her arrest is not an isolated incident.
Rabkova’s name is latest to be added to a growing list of detained opposition figures and human rights defenders. The first wave began months before the August election. Prominent blogger and Presidential hopeful Sergei Tikhanovsky was arrested on May 29 and remain in detention today. Over the course of the three months of his detention, new charges have been tacked on to his case, and dozens of his supporters have been arrested. His wife, Svetlana, now carries the torch for the opposition.
Recently, it is members of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya’s Coordination Council – created to engage in talks with Lukashenko’s government – that have been systematically targeted throughout the country. In the space of two weeks, all of the members of its governing body have faced arrest, detention, or harassment by law enforcement. Authorities abducted Maria Kolesnikova, a prominent activist and member of the Council, and drove her to the Ukrainian border, hoping to illegally expulse her from the country. In a courageous act of defiance, she tore her passport, refusing to leave Belarus. Now she faces criminal charges.
Authorities are relying heavily on several articles of the Criminal Code of Belarus that have been used against human rights defenders and activists in the past. Rabkova has been charged with the same offence as Tikhanovsky: “organising riots” under Article 293. This offence has been used for decades as a tool to detain and imprison activists. Its use against Tikhanovksy for organising a rally to collect signatures for Svetlana’s campaign and against Rabkova for her work at Viasna is a clear violation of their rights to expression and assembly. “No person should be criminally charged for their peaceful participation in a demonstration,” said a group of UN human rights experts in a meeting on September 1.
The charges hanging over members of the Coordination Council are even more concerning. On August 20 the Attorney General opened a criminal case against the Council. Amnesty’s director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia called the case a “shocking violation of the freedom of expression”. Following Kolesnikova’s refusal to leave Belarus, she is the first to be charged under Article 361 for “seizure of state power”. Charging political opponents with sedition and treason-type offences is a standard move in the authoritarian playbook and has a disastrous chilling effect on human rights.
Protecting the people at the front lines of the struggle for human rights in Belarus is more important than ever. As Amnesty reports, the Akrestina detention centre where Rabkova, Tikhanovsky, Kolesnikova and dozens of other activists are being held has become synonymous with “vicious beatings and allegations of sexual violence”. Amnesty insists that these activists are being targeted with trumped-up charges for their opposition to the regime.
The escalation of violence at the March for Freedom on September 20 shows that a new wave of brutality could erupt at any moment. Without activists and human rights defenders to shed light on the abuses, Lukashenko’s regime will continue its repression with impunity. The UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders highlights the importance of individuals working to document and stand up to human rights abuses. Without them, there is little hope for a free Belarus.
Facing long odds, the Belarussian human rights community has shown incredible resilience. Despite the repeated persecution of their staff, Viasna remains defiant. Reacting to Rabkova’s arrest in a press release, they issued a clear warning: “Hands off Marfa, Hands off Viasna!”