Belarusian authorities have sentenced more than 400 people so far for participating in opposition rallies, according to prosecutors. But if that number seems small to you, you are not alone.
Thousands of people have been arrested by security forces since the controversial August 2020 elections, which sparked a mass protest movement against President Alexander Lukashenko.
The president claimed to have won an overwhelming sixth term in office, but opposition leaders, sectors of the public, foreign governments and NGOs question the result.
Belarus’s General Prosecutor’s Office said on Wednesday that more than 600 people have been accused of participating in “mass riots.”
“To date, prosecutors have sent 468 criminal cases to court against 631 individuals who are associated with participation in illegal mass events and actions that seriously violate public order,” the office said in a statement.
“More than 400 people have already been convicted.”
However, that number represents only a small part of the total number of arrests that have been made since the elections.
“We have 290 political prisoners, and most of them have not yet been tried, they have simply been held hostage by the regime,” says Hanna Liubakova, a Belarusian journalist and non-resident member of the Atlantic Council think tank.
“Then we have more than 2,000 criminal cases initiated by the Ministry of the Interior. We also don’t know how many people are suspected in these criminal cases. “
Prosecutors say protesters have been arrested for threats of violence against authorities, desecration of state property and vandalism, as well as for violating public order.
While prosecutors warn that “not a single guilty person will escape responsibility,” Liubakova tells Euronews that those in prison apparently without trial are being mistreated “both physically and emotionally.”
“In the first place they are totally isolated from correspondence, letters, information, and that makes them feel abandoned and as if nobody cares.”
It highlights allegations that at least 1,000 people were tortured and ill-treated by police while in prison custody.
Both women and men have faced sexual abuse, kept in stressful positions for hours, in overcrowded cells and denied basic sanitary conditions, it adds.
According to human rights activists, the harshest sentence handed down so far has been 10 years in prison.
Liubakova says that “there is no way to seek justice”, and that the prisoners are currently at the mercy of the regime.
But while mass rallies in major city squares have calmed down for now, she insists the protests continue in a different format.
“There is definitely mobilization, there is understanding that people will not give up and most want a change.
“They are not on the streets in such massive numbers as before because they are scared by these repressions and they do not have the capacity to gather because they are immediately dispersed.
“So they changed the format and found a safer way to protest by gathering in their local neighborhoods because it is safer, they can disperse more easily and they can hide in their apartments.”
Faced with constant demonstrations by tens of thousands of people, the Belarusian government gradually muzzled the protest by jailing opponents or forcing them into exile.
Opposition figure Sviatlana Tikhanouskaya, who currently resides in Lithuania, has called for more demonstrations on March 25, the day Belarus celebrates its declaration of independence in 1918.
The crackdown in Belarus has been condemned by Western countries, and the EU and the United States have imposed sanctions on people close to President Lukashenko.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism