UN independent human rights experts have called for the immediate release of a jailed social media activist in Belarus amid what they described as a “black hole” for media freedoms in the country, according to a statement issued on Monday.
The five Special Rapporteurs expressed outrage at the arrest, alleged torture and forced confession of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich (Raman Pratasevich), who was arbitrarily detained on 23 May in a case that sparked international condemnation.
🇧🇾 #Belarus: UN experts express outrage at the arrest, alleged torture and forced confession of social media activist and human rights defender #RomanProtasevich, and the continued crackdown on independent media.— UN Special Procedures (@UN_SPExperts) June 7, 2021
Read more: https://t.co/qeihx4R1et#PressFreedom pic.twitter.com/RWjCnX5M5h
Mr Protasevich, 26, was on a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania that was forcibly diverted to the Belarusian capital, Minsk, due to a supposed bomb threat.
‘Reckless’ arrest, reported torture
He was arrested when the passengers disembarked and reportedly charged with inciting public disorder and social hatred, in the wake of the disputed August 2020 presidential election, which saw longtime leader Alexander Lukashenko returned to power, sparking months of mass protests.
“The reckless manner in which Roman Protasevich was arrested, reports that he may have been tortured in order to extract a false confession, was denied access to his lawyer, and fears that he could face a harsh sentence show an utter disregard for international human rights norms by the authorities in Belarus,” the UN experts said.
The independent experts expressed deep concern for Mr Protasevich’s life and called for his immediate release, and that of other journalists, human rights defenders and activists detained in Belarus.
‘Severe and relentless crackdown’
“The outrageous manner in which Mr. Protasevich was intercepted and arrested shows that there is no limit to what this government will do to silence critics. It is an egregious example of a severe and relentless crackdown on all independent voices since the contested election results of August 2020,” they added.
They recalled that last month the authorities raided the offices of Tut.by, the country’s largest independent online news site, which had covered protests following the election results. Searches were also carried out at the homes of several staff members, and documents were confiscated.
At least 13 staff were reportedly detained, some of whom did not have access to a lawyer, allegedly in connection with a criminal investigation into tax evasion. Last December, the site was stripped of its media license, supposedly for spreading “false information”.
“Recent events indicate that media freedom in Belarus has entered a black hole with no end in sight”, the experts said.
“In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election and in its aftermath, the authorities have arbitrarily detained and beaten journalists, opposition members, human rights defenders and citizens participating in peaceful protests, prosecuted them on politically motivated charges, revoked media workers’ accreditation, raided their homes and offices, and blocked their websites.”
Step up pressure
The experts have also expressed serious concern over recent amendments to the laws on mass media and on mass gatherings, which allow the authorities to block the work of any media outlet that publishes content which “threatens national security”.
Similarly, the authorities can also block access to websites that disseminate information that is “aimed at promoting extremist activity” or which is “capable of harming the national interest”.
They urged countries “to ramp up pressure on the Belarusian authorities to stop attacks on media freedom, release journalists, human rights defenders and others who are arbitrarily detained; and ensure independent, transparent and impartial investigations into all reported human rights violations committed in the context of the election, including allegations of torture and arbitrary detention.”
Role of Special Rapporteurs
The five Special Rapporteurs who issued the statement monitor issues such as the situation of human rights in Belarus, as well as the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association worldwide.
They were appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, which is based in Geneva, and are not UN staff nor are they paid by the Organization.