Activists describe events in Belarus as a 'cleanup operation' against civil society

By Olga Zakharova

Eurasia Idea Network Correspondent

Members of civil society exchanged horror stories and advice at a press conference held by The Committee for International Control of the Human Rights Situation in Belarus on 5 January at the Moscow Helsinki Group office. Activists presented recommendations and discussed their experience of the mass arrests which took place directly after the 19 December elections in Minsk.

During the press briefing, Andrew Yurov, president of the Committee, received information about a search of the Belarus Helsinki Group offices and the home of the head of the Belarus Helsinki Group, Aleh Hulak. During the searches, authorities seized computers and documents.

"They are looking for evidence of our involvement in organising riots, while trying to tailor each case, using even leaflets from 2006," said Andrew Kim, a civic activist from Belarus who spent 10 days in jail following the Minsk protests. "I had a feeling that the general task was less to detain people and more to find ways to beat them. Many were injured; we waited all night for a doctor. One of the detainees was beaten up so bad, both of his hands were so swollen it was impossible to remove his jacket. This man just spent the night waiting for the doctor," Kim said of his experience in detention.

According to Belarus activist and member of the Russian Presidential Council on Human Rights, Sergei Krivenko, international support is needed to combat a deliberate and systematic campaign to 'clean up' civil society and to ramp up pressure on activists. "First and foremost, those who are now in Belarus need international support - an action of solidarity, information dissemination and systematic pressure on Belarusian authorities to ensure that they stop this repression and stop violations of human rights," Krivenko said.

Valentin Geftner, member of the Russian Presidential Council for Human Rights, cites clandestine Russian involvement and fears mass migration from Belarus eastward. "People are leaving for Russia. They cannot feel completely safe here. In the past there were precedents when the Belarusian secret services, with the explicit support of the Russian special services, picked up people from the territory of Russia," Geftner, said. "I fear that if the repressions continue, soon we may face an exodus of people from Belarus. In this regard, as a member of the Presidential Council for Human Rights, I think it necessary to inform the president of Russia on the situation, as well as on the general alarming increase in cases of violent suppression of civil society in Belarus and Russia. It's all in the same berry patch," Geftner said, referring to issues affecting civil society, both in Russia and Belarus.

Many OSCE member states have already expressed their concern over the situation in Belarus and for the need for sanctions, including a travel ban on Belarus officials. Yuri Dzhibladze, head of the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights in Moscow, said that the Moscow Mechanism, an OSCE human rights monitoring instrument allowing for the investigation of humanitarian crises without the consent of member states, should come into effect.

"Actually, this is a very good opportunity for all, including the authorities of the country where the problem occurred. In case of refusal, more serious consequences in the form of sanctions can occur," said Dzhibladze.

Victoria Gromova, member of the coordination council of the Youth Human Rights Movement, also said that the humanitarian crisis is an occasion for international treaties to flex their muscles.

"We are preparing an appeal to OSCE participating states for the initiation of this procedure, the Moscow Mechanism, and we hope that, along with wide coverage of the situation in Belarus and the maintenance of international attention, it will change the situation for the better," Gromova said.

The Committee for International Control of the Human Rights Situation in Belarus was established in response to the repetitive beatings, detentions and arrests of citizens and other activists in Minsk following the 19 December elections. The committee established a permanent observer group in Minsk assisting local human rights defenders and publicising information. International NGO coalitions, including Youth Human Rights Movement and the Moscow Helsinki Group, joined the Centre for Democracy and Human Rights and The Human Rights Institute to establish the committee. All are participating members of the Eurasia Idea Network.


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