Europe's eye on torture in its backyard

A world leader in setting norms against torture, the continent is finally awakening to the torture of pro-democracy protesters in Belarus.

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya talks with German Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble in Berlin, Dec. 14.

For decades, Europe has led the world in establishing a norm against the use of torture by governments. Since August, however, its leaders have faltered in responding to the well-documented torture of hundreds of pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, a former Soviet state in eastern Europe. Now Europe may finally be bringing its moral bearings to one of its own, all too aware that a continent known for atrocities in the last century must set a standard against crimes of humanity.

On Dec. 12, Switzerland froze the financial assets of the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, and 14 others for the use of violence against protesters. A few days earlier, the International Olympic Committee put sanctions on the country’s National Olympic Committee and banned Mr. Lukashenko from the next Games. In neighboring Lithuania, law enforcement officials are gathering testimony from exiled Belarusians to prepare for trials of security officers accused of torture. And the Council of Europe, which consists of 47 member states, plans to discuss a legislative measure aimed at investigating the mistreatment of Belarusian citizens by police.

All this comes as Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who by most accounts won the Aug. 9 presidential election against Mr. Lukashenko, has been touring Europe asking for action against the use of torture in her country.

“Every time I meet with heads of state, I try to convey this pain. We try to tell them about the innocent people who have been locked up and about the humiliation they are being subjected to. We try to appeal to their conscience, saying, ‘You proclaim the primacy of human rights, and look what’s happening in the country next door, while all you do is express concern. How is that possible?’” she told The New Yorker.

Her pleas along with those of others are working on one key player in Belarus. In mid-November, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov condemned the Belarusian police for their brutality. The Kremlin’s support of Mr. Lukashenko may be wavering as polls show a shift among Belarusians away from the country’s traditional alliance with Russia and toward Europe.

Every weekend since the rigged election four months ago, protests have continued in Belarus. By mid-September, the United Nations had received 450 reports of torture and other abuse of detainees. Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch, Nash Dom, Amnesty International have taken the testimony of hundreds of victims who describe beatings, prolonged stress positions, and electric shocks.

The increase in foreign pressure, along with the protests, could be creating dissent within the regime’s security forces. “This system will devour itself,” Ms. Tsikhanouskaya told an independent Belarusian news site. “We need to take to the streets consistently every week, speak about a new election, about principles, about a future Belarus, make friendship with other countries.”

In late January, Ms. Tsikhanouskaya is expected to meet with Joe Biden in Washington after he becomes president. For now, her focus is on the European Union, a friend of Belarus and the world’s standard-bearer against torture. It is finally awakening to torture in its own backyard and the response it demands.

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