The lawyers of ex-banker and leading opposition candidate Viktor Babariko, who was arrested last week, were in court on June 24 to complain about the detention of their client, which they claim was unlawful.
Amongst their complaints was the claim that Babariko had been detained without the right to a lawyer, and they dispute the charges of embezzlement and fraud that have been brought against him. The court rejected the defence’s claims. Babariko is currently being held in a KGB detention centre in Minsk.
“I have already filed the third complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office this week about obstacles in providing legal assistance, now the defender has already noted a systematic violation in the complaint. The defence hopes that the prosecutor general’s office will take steps to remove obstacles. The reaction of the prosecutor’s office to the previous two complaints is still unknown,” Babariko’s lawyer, Dmitry Laevsky, said, as cited by tut.by.
Babariko’s lawyers have not been allowed to visit him in the KGB jail for four days. The last time defender Dmitry Laevsky met with Viktor Babariko in the KGB was June 20, when “procedural actions” took place in his presence. The authorities have cancelled visits and denied access to Babariko due to the epidemiological situation. Access to lawyers at any time is guaranteed by Article 62 of the Belarusian constitution.
The random arrests from any gathering of people on the streets are still happening. The local police and interior ministries have been flooded with calls from regular Belarusians, half in jest, asking how they can shop or get to work without being picked up by the police.
Between June 18 and 21 more than 360 people were arrested, 260 of them in Minsk alone. The detainees have been sentenced to a total of 105 days of detention (typically 15 days per person) and fined a total of BYN50,000 ($21,000) in 19 cities of Belarus for forming human chains of protest, according to the NGO Viasna, which campaigns for human rights.
Belarus has seen protests before, but what is unusual is these ones are nation-wide, whereas in the past protests were usually concentrated in the capital.
In addition to the capital, people were detained in Gomel (13), Bobruisk (12), Novopolotsk (10), Gantsevichi (10), Borisov (10), Novogrudok (9), Vitebsk (7), Mogilev (6 or more), Brest (6), Rechitsa (3), Volkovysk (3), Molodechno (3), Salihorsk (2), Grodno (2), Orsha (2), Svetlogorsk (1), Lida (1) and Slutsk (at least 1), reports TUT.by.
Since the beginning of the election campaign a total of 112 people have received a total of 1,583 days of administrative arrest, 205 people will be required to pay fines totalling more than BNY167,000, according to Viasna. Human rights defenders are also aware of at least 650 cases of arbitrary detention that occurred between May 6 and June 23.
The protests are the most significant challenge Lukashenko has faced in his 26 years in power. They are being driven by economic stagnation and catalysed by the government’s totally inadequate response to the coronacrisis. As of June 24, Belarus had 59,000 reported cases of coronavirus (COVID-19), nearly three times more than its neighbour Poland, which has a population four times larger.
Other countries around the world are watching the developments in Minsk with alarm. The US response to the crackdowns by police on peaceful protestors has been relatively muted so far, but on June 23 the US State Department issued a statement that explicitly linked Washington’s future relations with the government in Minsk to the prospect of free and open elections.
In its letter, the State Department calls on the Belarusian authorities to respect human rights and democratic norms and fulfil the obligations of the state as a member of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which includes a commitment to ensuring free and fair elections.
“Free and fair elections are more than events that take place on election day itself. We urge the Belarusian authorities to ensure equal conditions for all who wish to take part in the elections, including registration of candidates, access to the media and other aspects of the campaign. Respect for fundamental freedoms, including freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of speech and freedom of association, will be crucial to strengthen relations between the US and Belarus,” the State Department said in a statement.
US and Belarus relations have been improving of late and Washington only recently appointed a new ambassador to Minsk after almost a decade without one.
The West has been wooing Lukashenko as the latter’s ties to Moscow have cooled thanks to a major argument over energy. Russia has started to reduce the energy subsidies it has provided Minsk with for years and which subsidise Lukashenko’s neo-Soviet economic model. Likewise, the EU has lifted some of its sanctions on Minsk recently as relations with Brussels have also improved.
But that goodwill has evaporated on the back of the brutal use of police to quell the largely peaceful protests, as well as reports of intimidation and arrests of political opposition figures and journalists.
Russia has said little about the protests. Lukashenko spent the day in Moscow in attendance at Russia’s postponed Victory Day celebration parade. He flew straight back to Minsk as soon as the parade was over.