A group of UN independent human rights experts have called on Belarus to release prominent opposition leader Maria Kalesnikava, voicing serious concern over targeting and persecution of opposition politicians by the State.
In a news release, on Friday, the experts also called on the authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the enforced disappearance of Ms. Kalesnikava, who, they said was “snatched off the streets” of the capital, Minsk, threatened with death or deportation, and then secretly imprisoned.
It is particularly troubling that the authorities have resorted to enforced disappearances in an effort to quash protests, stifle dissent and sow fear – Independent experts
“It is particularly troubling that the authorities have resorted to enforced disappearances in an effort to quash protests, stifle dissent and sow fear,” said the rights experts.
“We urge the authorities not to use national security concerns to deny individuals their fundamental rights, among others the rights to opinion, expression, of peaceful assembly and association.”
Ms. Kalesnikava, a musician and political activist. campaigned for an opposition candidate, later forced to leave the country, ahead of the 9 August presidential election which is widely considered to have been rigged.
As protests swept the country, she was elected to the seven-person leadership of the self-styled Coordination Council, a body established to overcome the ongoing political crisis through negotiations. Most of its leaders have been arrested, deported or fled the country, according to the news release.
Ms. Kalesnikava was abducted on 7 September by a group of masked men presumed to be security agents. She was driven to the border the next day, where she was told she would be deported “alive or in bits”. However, she reportedly managed to thwart deportation by ripping up her passport.
She then disappeared for three days with no information on her whereabouts or state of health. On 10 September, authorities said she was held in pre-trial detention in Minsk, and on 16 September, she was officially charged with undermining national security, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Demand for prompt investigations
The experts also called on Belarus to conduct prompt and effective investigations into what happened to Ms. Kalesnikava, uphold her right to an effective remedy, and identify and hold perpetrators accountable.
“It is unacceptable that her relatives and associates were denied information on her whereabouts for three days in clear violation of fundamental safeguards enshrined in national legislation and international law,” they said.
Several opposition politicians have reportedly been forcibly taken to borders with Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine and expelled from Belarus. Those who refused to leave, such as Ms. Kalesnikava, have faced reprisals.
‘Absolutely no justification’ for disappearances
The human rights experts strongly reminded Belarus that there are “absolutely no circumstances” that can justify enforced disappearances – not political instability or any other public emergency.
“Belarus must strictly comply with fundamental legal safeguards to prevent enforced disappearances,” they underlined.
“These include immediate registration, judicial oversight of the detention, notification of family members as soon as an individual is deprived of liberty, and the right to hire a defence lawyer of one’s choice.”
Culture of impunity
In the news release, the experts also raised alarm over a culture of impunity in the country, stretching back decades.
“Regrettably, no progress has been made in the investigation and the search for several individuals who disappeared in the early 2000s,” they said, recalling a communication sent to the Belarusian government, earlier this year.
The experts reminded Belarus that it is “obliged to protect the relatives’ rights to truth, justice and reparations regarding past cases of enforced disappearance”.
The experts calling on the Government of Belarus include the special rapporteurs on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions; on the situation of human rights in the country; on the right to freedom of expression; on the rights of peaceful assembly and association; and on violence against women; as well as members of the working groups on enforced or involuntary disappearances; and on arbitrary detention.
The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. The experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.