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Volume 819: debated on Thursday 10 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) the detention of political prisoners, (2) the attacks on journalists, and (3) the constitutional referendum, in Belarus; and what representations they have made to the government of that country on these issues.

My Lords, we have been clear in our condemnation of the repressive campaign by the Belarusian authorities against the human rights of the people of Belarus. We have repeatedly urged Belarus to release all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally. These reprehensible actions continue, of course, in the context of the Belarusian regime’s support for Russia’s illegal and unprovoked attack against Ukraine; this support must stop. The constitutional referendum fell well below international standards, and again denied genuine choice to the Belarusian people. The Minister for Europe and North America’s public statement on 28 February made it clear that we firmly support the Belarusian people’s right to determine their own future.

My Lords, I am really grateful to the Minister for a helpful reply. I have just come from a meeting of the all-party group, and I would like to welcome Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, the leader of free Belarus, who is sitting in our Gallery today—[Applause.] When I tabled this Question four weeks ago, it was to ask about political prisoners like the one I have adopted—Stepan Latypov. But the Minister has answered that, saying that the Government are putting pressure on for their release. What I now want to ask him, given the complicity of Belarus in the Russian attack on Ukraine, is: will he say unequivocally that the UK Government will impose the same sanctions it is imposing on Russia on the Lukashenko regime in Belarus?

My Lords, I join the noble Lord in welcoming the leader of Belarus’s opposition, Mrs Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya. The UK absolutely recognises that the current regime does not speak for the majority of its people, and supports the extraordinary bravery of the opposition and civil society. On the question of sanctions, I can confirm that what the noble Lord said is correct. This goes back some way: since August 2020, the UK has introduced more than 100 sanctions designations in response to the fraudulent elections and human rights violations in that country. This includes sanctions against senior ranking officials in the regime, including the President of Belarus and his son, and BNK Ltd, an exporter of Belarusian oil products. More recently—in fact, just a few days ago—the Foreign Secretary launched a package of sanctions on those individuals and organisations who have aided and abetted Russia’s reckless aggression against Ukraine, and we continue to develop that position.

My Lords, I am a fellow member of the Council of Europe, along with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, and I also had the privilege of monitoring the rather farcical parliamentary elections in Belarus in 2019. Having just been at the same meeting and having listened to the leader of the opposition, it is very clear that the Russians are already beginning to use some Belarusian enterprises, state enterprises and banks as a means of avoiding the sanctions stranglehold we are trying to impose on the Russians, so I can only re-emphasise how important it is that we try to block off any opportunity for Russia to use Belarus as a means to try to evade sanctions.

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. This view is shared by the UK Government, and it is reflected in the approach we are taking in relation to sanctions on individuals and organisations in Belarus.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the leader of free Belarus, and I hope we will not have to wait too long before she is in the position that she should be in. She told us how important those sanctions are and, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, just referred to, that the Russians are using loopholes. We need comprehensively and urgently to address this. We will put some people from her group in touch with the FCDO with further details. One of the other things that struck me from what she said is how vital it is for unbiased news to reach the citizens of Belarus, which we will come on to later. What action is being taken to support news organisations, particularly the BBC, in relation to Belarus?

I thank the noble Baroness for making the introduction. I can tell her that Foreign Office Minister James Cleverly met the leader of the opposition, Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, only yesterday, but we will certainly continue that dialogue, important as it is.

The noble Baroness is also absolutely right on the question of the media. We condemn the politically motivated crackdown on independent media in that country and remain deeply concerned about the safety of journalists there. Dozens of journalists, bloggers and media workers are under arrest or in jail. Websites of reputable media outlets have been declared extremist by the regime. One of the priorities of our programme funding in Belarus is supporting media freedom. We appeal to the Belarusian authorities to unconditionally and immediately release all political prisoners and to fully restore the free media space in Belarus, online and offline. Finally, we have increased our funding in this area, I believe threefold. If that is wrong, I will get back in touch with the noble Baroness.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his answers today. I think the whole House stands alongside the people of Belarus. As somebody who also sponsors a political prisoner, on behalf of our side of the House, I welcome the leader of the opposition. As a leader of the opposition myself, I think she has to face things that nobody in this country ever has to.

The Minister’s answers today have been welcome. On his response to the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, on the role of the BBC and getting information, it is so important for those who stand for freedom in Belarus to have accurate information to support civil society. It is very important that we have a strong civil society in Belarus that can speak out for the people who also support a free Belarus. Will the Minister report back to the House at some point to say what more the Government can do in all areas, not just the media, to support civil society and give strength to those people who are standing up for freedom and democracy?

The noble Baroness is absolutely right. Although she is asking a broader question, at the root of this, without a free press, freedom of speech and guarantors of that sort, it is very hard to imagine a flourishing and free civil society. To confirm what I hinted at earlier, we are, of course, supporting civil society and independent media in Belarus, and we have tripled our programme funding compared with pre-crisis levels, so it is now £4.5 million. We continue to look for opportunities to support civil society and, in particular, a free press in that country.

My Lords, do we not need to salute the courage of the leader of the opposition—the rightful democratic leader of Belarus—and all those thousands of people who, week after week, took to the streets last year? I am deeply disturbed about the BBC World Service, which is a wonderful example of soft power. Belarus needs to have free information, unfettered, yet the BBC World Service’s budget has not been guaranteed beyond April of this year.

My Lords, that is an important point, but I point out that in two Questions’ time, that will be the subject of a 10-minute question and answer session, where I hope to be able to provide some reassurance at least.

My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to criticise and condemn the reprehensible actions of the Lukashenko regime in Belarus for the way in which it uses refugees as cannon fodder—deliberately bringing in refugees from the Middle East, including Syria, and then using them to promote its own interests by pushing them against the Baltic states and Poland? Given the number of refugees now being displaced in Poland—maybe as many as 7 million, according to some estimates—does he not agree that the situation is going to go from bad to worse?

It absolutely will go from bad to worse if trends continue. The actions the noble Lord described are reprehensible. We have been clear in our condemnation of Lukashenko’s actions in engineering a migrant crisis to try to undermine our partners in the region. We have deployed a small team of UK Armed Forces to Lithuania and Poland to provide support to address the ongoing situation at the Belarusian border. We are also supporting our humanitarian partners to help alleviate the suffering of migrants at the border, including through our contributions to the Disaster Relief Emergency Fund.

My Lords, I, too, welcome the leader of free Belarus today. Is the Minister aware that last week I spoke to the mother of young Dzmitry Zherbutovich, who wanted me to raise his prison treatment in our Chamber this morning? He is serving a five-year prison sentence in Belarus for the crime of standing in front of a water cannon. For the first year, he was forced to be in a five square-metre cell with 14 other prisoners, all of whom except Dzmitry smoked, with no ventilation and where they all had to stand during the day. Will the Minister put even more pressure on the Belarusian regime about its inhumane treatment of political prisoners?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising the case of young Dzmitry. I am not familiar with his case, but I am familiar with many others which are no less appalling. We are deeply concerned about the conditions in which political detainees are held in that country. Many of them have limited or no access to anything like proper healthcare and are subject to relentless interrogation, intimidation and psychological pressure techniques, all of which amount to a form of torture. This is contrary to Belarus’ international obligations to which the authorities have committed themselves on numerous occasions but continuously fail to uphold. We make our solidarity with political prisoners clear frequently, attend trials and engage with the families of political prisoners at every opportunity.