UN human rights experts Monday expressed outrage at the arrest, alleged torture, and forced confession of a Belarus journalist and human rights defender and the continued crackdown on independent media in Belarus.
A group of United Nations Special Rapporteurs appointed by the Human Rights Council in a statement described the incident as a "reckless manner in which Roman Protasevich was arrested."*
On May 23, a Belarusian MIG-29 fighter jet scrambled to escort a Ryanair Boeing 737-8AS passing through Belarus' airspace while heading from Athens, Greece to Vilnius, Lithuania, forcing it to land in Minsk over a bomb threat.
Authorities then detained Protasevich, a social media activist, wanted in Belarus for what they claimed was his involvement in "terrorist incidents."
"Reports that he may have been tortured 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 experts said.
Concern for Protasevich's life
They expressed deep concern for Protasevich's life and called for his immediate release – and that of journalists, human rights defenders, and activists detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression or peaceful assembly.
"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," they said.
"It is an egregious example of a severe and relentless crackdown on all independent voices since the contested election results of August 2020," the experts explained.
The experts include Irene Khan, the special rapporteur on protecting the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mary Lawlor, the special rapporteur on human rights defenders; Nils Melzer, the special rapporteur on torture and other inhuman punishment, and Anais Marin, the special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus.
The experts recalled that on May 18, the authorities searched the editorial offices of the largest Belarusian independent online news site Tut.by, which had covered the protests that followed the election results.
At least 13 Tut.by staff were reportedly detained, some of them without access to a lawyer, ostensibly concerning a criminal investigation into tax evasion.
In December 2020, Tut.by was stripped of its media license for supposedly 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 its aftermath, the authorities have arbitrarily detained and beaten journalists, opposition members, human rights defenders, and citizens participating in peaceful protests," they said.
They "prosecuted them on politically motivated charges, revoked media workers' accreditation, raided their homes and offices, and blocked their websites."