UN rights boss condemns Belarus crackdown, ‘massive arrests’

Michelle Bachelet’s remarks come as hundreds of women in Minsk protest against post-election violent clampdown.

The United Nations human rights chief has condemned a violent crackdown by Belarusian authorities against peaceful protests after longtime President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in an election his opponents say was rigged.

Michelle Bachelet said on Wednesday police were reported to have used excessive force as they clashed with demonstrators for three consecutive nights, firing rubber bullets, using water cannon and throwing stun grenades while carrying out thousands of arrests.

“I remind the Belarusian authorities that the use of force during protests should always be exceptional and a measure of last resort, clearly differentiating between any violent individuals and peaceful protesters, against whom force should not be used,” Bachelet said in a statement.

Her comments came as hundreds of women marched in the capital, Minsk, to condemn the violence, holding flowers in the air and chanting slogans.

“They can come to your home, they can break the door in your apartment, they can catch you anywhere, when you go shopping, or go to the hospital, they can find you and detain and beat you,” a young woman on a bicycle told Al Jazeera.

‘They started beating me’

Another protester added: “I don’t want our husbands, brothers and sons to die. We are for a peaceful Belarus and for fair elections.”

Meanwhile, relatives and friends gathered outside a detention centre in Minsk where protesters were being kept. Worried about the fate of their loved ones, they shouted cries of support. Nearby, a recently released 17-year-old boy said he was severely beaten after being arrested while sitting on a bench in the city centre. 

“Riot police came to me with six men and started beating me,” Denis told Al Jazeera. “When I grabbed their stick they started to beat me even more and sprayed something in my face, it was burning. When I asked for medical aid they did not help me.”

Demonstrations erupted on Sunday evening after authorities said Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, won 80 percent of the vote held earlier in the day.

Lukashenko’s main challenger in the presidential race, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, said on Tuesday she had fled to Lithuania for the sake of her children. A 37-year-old former English teacher who took her husband’s place on the ballot after he was jailed, Tikhanovskaya urged her compatriots not to oppose the police and to avoid putting their lives in danger.

Lithuania, Poland and Latvia, meanwhile, jointly offered to mediate between Lukashenko and the protesters, and threatened sanctions at a European or national level if the offer was declined.

Mass detentions

Lukashenko has accused the demonstrators of being in cahoots with foreign backers from Russia and elsewhere to topple his government, and compared them to criminal gangs.

“The core of all these so-called protesters today comprises people with a criminal history and the unemployed,” he said at a government meeting on Wednesday.

But in her statement, Bachelet also said the authorities should “hear and respond” to people’s electoral grievances and lambasted what she described as the “trend of massive arrests in clear violation of international human rights standards”.

“Reports suggest that more [than] approximately 6,000 people have been detained in the last three days, including bystanders as well as minors,” the former Chilean president said.

“Even more disturbing are the reports of ill-treatment during and after detention,” she added, calling for the immediate release of those unlawfully detained and thorough and impartial investigations into alleged human rights violations.

Bachelet also voiced concern at the intermittent internet shutdowns since Sunday, as well as the blocking of many social media platforms, saying it amounted to a severe curtailment of the right to freedom of expression.

Riot police have also targeted press photographers, pulling out memory cards and breaking cameras.

“Free flow of information is crucial in any democratic society, and especially in a context of crisis and social unrest,” said Bachelet.

“But even more so, in the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic, and where people might feel compelled to express dissent online rather than on the streets. The right to peacefully protest online must be also protected.”