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Belarus abuses require 'strongest' response: opposition leader to UN

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Geneva (AFP)

Belarus opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya urged the international community to react to abuses in her country "in the strongest terms", during an address to the UN Human Rights Council on Friday.

Tikhanovskaya, who has taken shelter in neighbouring Lithuania after coming under official pressure, spoke via video message during a rare urgent debate before the council.

"The situation in Belarus demands immediate international attention," she said, adding that the country's violation of its international obligations to respect "human dignity and basic human rights... means the international community has a right to react in strongest terms."

The full-day debate, requested by the European Union, is focusing on violations in Belarus, and in particular the crackdown on protests over the disputed re-election of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Unprecedented demonstrations broke out in the country after Lukashenko, who has ruled the ex-Soviet state for 26 years, claimed to have defeated Tikhanovskaya with 80 percent of the vote on August 9.

Lukashenko, who on Thursday warned of a possible "war" with some neighbouring countries, has refused to step down and has turned to Russia for support.

His security forces have detained thousands of protesters, many of whom have accused police of beatings and torture. Several people have died in the crackdown.

- 'Brutality' -

"The scope and the brutality of the extensive force used by the regime is in clear violation of all international norms," Tikhanovskaya said.

Her message was repeatedly interrupted by objections from Belarus Ambassador Yuri Ambrazevich, who told the council it had "no relevance on the substance... on the events that are taking place today."

Ambrazevich and his counterparts from Russia, Venezuela and China also voiced multiple objections to a statement by UN deputy rights chief Nada Al-Nashif and Anais Marin, the UN special rapporteur on the rights situation in Belarus, saying they had no place in the debate.

Marin told the council that more than 10,000 people had been "abusively arrested for taking part in peaceful protests", and lamented that "over 500 cases of torture, committed by state agents, have been reported to us."

"I have been informed of allegations of rape, electrocution, and other forms of physical and psychological torture," she told the council via video link, adding that the perpetrators appeared to be acting with "impunity".

Ambrazevich meanwhile slammed the "lopsided picture of reality presented by the losers in the election," in his country, rejecting allegations of abuse by authorities and insisting that protesters had been violent, and had injured numerous police.

Friday's debate is expected to end with a vote on a draft resolution tabled by the EU decrying numerous allegations of "torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment by law enforcement and prison officers, including in prisons and detention centres, which urgently require an independent investigation."

It also expresses concern over widespread attacks, harassment and intimidation targeting the political opposition, rights defenders and journalists, and attacks on the media through the revocation of foreign media accreditations and internet shutdowns.

- 'Independent investigation' -

The draft text calls on Belarusian authorities to "enable independent, transparent and impartial investigations into all allegations of human rights violations in the context of the election," and "to guarantee access to justice and redress for victims as well as full accountability of the perpetrators."

And it calls on the office of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to closely monitor the situation in the country and to present her conclusions in a report during the next council session in March 2021.

Bachelet has condemned the alleged torture or ill-treatment, including of children, by the authorities in their response to the demonstrations in Belarus, and has also called for an independent investigation.

Discussions on Friday will mark only the sixth time in the council's 14-year history that it has agreed to hold an "urgent debate", which is a special debate agreed upon within a regular session of the council.

During its last session in June, the council held an urgent debate over racism and police brutality following unrest in the United States and beyond over George Floyd's death.

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