Belarus: Misogyny and discrimination fuels vicious campaign against activists ahead of election

The Belarusian authorities must halt their crackdown on all dissent ahead of the presidential election on 9 August, and immediately end their vicious campaign of targeting women activists and family members of political opposition representatives using tactics fueled by misogyny, Amnesty International said today.

In Crackdown from the Top: Gender-based Reprisals against Women in Belarus, the organization exposes the authorities’ playbook of targeting women with gender-specific reprisals, which include threats to take their children into state custody and threats of sexual violence.

“Insatiable in their intention to silence their political opponents and any form of dissent, the Belarusian authorities are wheeling out practices that smack of misogyny. They are deliberately targeting women involved in politics or female family members of political activists, including with open discrimination and threats of sexual violence,” said Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director.

“With the election just a month away, women activists not only pose a formidable challenge to the incumbent but also face President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s openly misogynistic remarks broadcast on prime-time national television. Women also face disproportionate and politically motivated persecution, intimidation, harassment and reprisals in Belarus today.”

With the election just a month away, women activists not only pose a formidable challenge to the incumbent but also face President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s openly misogynistic remarks broadcast on prime-time national television
Marie Struthers, Amnesty International’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Director

Threats to seize children

Using the presidential decree which outlines “measures to protect children in disadvantaged families”, the authorities threaten to take children away from women political activists and from families of jailed opposition members.

When Vitalia Navumik’s husband – political activist Uladzimir Navumik – was arrested for purported “hooliganism” on 29 May, her flat in Hrodna was searched by police who then filed an unfounded report with the local educational services about “poor living conditions of the child”.

Vitalia told Amnesty International:

“According to the police, our apartment was messy, with cigarette butts and empty alcohol bottles lying around. Except it wasn’t true and a video made [by police] during the search can prove it. But it was never provided as evidence.

“When during the inspection they told me that my daughter could be taken away, I was so horrified that I didn’t even know what to say or how to react. I just stood there in front of them, too shocked to talk.”

When during the inspection they told me that my daughter could be taken away, I was so horrified that I didn’t even know what to say or how to react. I just stood there in front of them, too shocked to talk
Vitalia Navumik, wife of arrested political activist Uladzimir Navumik

Threats of sexual violence

On at least one occasion, the female partner of a political activist targeted by the authorities was reportedly threatened with gang rape by the police while she was in the police station. Violetta, the partner of Dmitry Lukomsky, was filming the policemen who came to their house looking for him and who then took her to the police station for questioning. She told Amnesty International:

“They asked me why I had tried to film their visits to my home and their spying on me and I replied that I had wanted to protect myself. So, one of them said: ‘Well, right now you are not videotaping us and we can all rape you and you won’t be able to prove it’.”

Other forms of gender-based discrimination by the authorities against women activists in Belarus include disproportionately heavy fines, and not allowing basic items of personal hygiene such as sanitary towels, for women detained for participation in peaceful rallies.

These deeply disturbing patterns are no doubt fueled by the state-sponsored misogyny so apparent in Belarus ahead of the August election. Political reprisals which seek to spread fear and despair, and those that specifically target women, must end immediately,” said Marie Struthers.

Background

The presidential election is scheduled to take place on 9 August. Incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka is seeking re-election for a sixth consecutive term.

His political rivals are facing severe reprisals, and two aspiring presidential candidates, Viktar Babaryka and Syarhei Tsikhanouski, were arbitrarily arrested and are currently remanded as criminal suspects on unfounded charges. The wife of the latter, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, entered the presidential race instead. She, along with other women political activists, has faced harassment and intimidation. Hundreds of her supporters and supporters of other opposition candidates, as well as other activists, have been arrested and subjected to ill-treatment. Many have been issued with fines or so-called “administrative detention” lasting for days and sometime weeks at a time.