U.N. experts alarmed over reports of torture, mistreatment of detainees in Belarus

GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had received reports of hundreds of cases of torture, beatings and mistreatment of anti-government protesters by police in Belarus and urged the authorities to stop any such abuse.

Students scuffle with law enforcement officers during a protest against presidential election results in Minsk, Belarus September 1, 2020. BelaPAN via REUTERS

The investigators said that 6,700 people had been detained in recent weeks in protests, including journalists and passers-by who were arbitrarily arrested and hastily sentenced.

“We are extremely alarmed at the hundreds of allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in police custody,” more than a dozen U.N. experts said in a joint statement.

The Belarusian government has denied abusing detainees. The interior ministry declined to comment on the U.N. statement and referred questions to the state’s Investigative Committee.

Sergei Kabakovich, a representative of the state Investigative Committee, said he was not aware of any confirmed cases of torture or mistreatment.

“We continue to work to establish all objective circumstances. Verification activities are being carried out,” he said by phone.

The U.N. experts included the world body’s global torture investigator Nils Melzer and the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Belarus, Anais Marin. The statement did not specify the sources of the reports.

The experts said they had received reports of 450 documented cases of torture and ill-treatment of people in custody since a disputed presidential election last month which led to mass protests against President Alexander Lukashenko.

Violence against women and children, including sexual abuse and rape with rubber batons, had also been reported, they said.

“Any violation of the non-derogable prohibition of torture and ill-treatment must be prosecuted and punished,” they said.

The investigators urged Belarusian authorities to uphold fundamental legal safeguards including the immediate registration of detainees, judicial oversight of their cases and notification of their families. This was to prevent “enforced disappearances”, when authorities deny people are detained.

Lukashenko faces the biggest challenge of his 26-year rule since claiming victory in an election last month that opponents say was rigged. He denies electoral fraud and shows no sign of backing down despite the threat of Western sanctions.

Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Tattersall