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Belarus Weekly: US designates Belarus as State Sponsor of Human Trafficking

by Maria Yeryoma June 28, 2024 2:45 PM 10 min read
Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko speaks during an exclusive interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) at his residence, the Independence Palace, in the capital Minsk on July 21, 2022. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images)
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Belarus signals willingness for border security talks as Poland mulls full border closure and turns to China for solutions amid intensified migration crisis.

The U.S. designates Belarus as State Sponsor of Human Trafficking in a 2024 report, highlighting forced labor, complicity in abduction of Ukrainian children, and worsening migration crisis at the EU border.

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Belarus Weekly

Advisor to opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Franak Viachorka, sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for conspiracy and extremism, as number of in absentia sentences against exiled opposition grows.

Belarusian propagandists granted accreditation to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The 14th EU sanctions package targets the Belarusian Youth Union for the abduction of Ukrainian children.

Belarus declares readiness for border security talks as Poland consults China on migration crisis, considers full border shutdown

Belarus is ready to discuss “border security” with Poland, Belarusian Foreign Minister Siarhei Aleinik said on June 24, as Warsaw considered a full shutdown of its migrant-pressured eastern border and engaged China to try to resolve the artificial migration crisis created by Minsk.

Following the death of Polish soldier Mateusz Sitek on June 6 after an illegal migrant stabbed him with a makeshift spear while attempting to cross into the EU from Belarus, Poland’s authorities reinstated a 200-meter buffer zone along the 60 kilometers of its border with Belarus on June 13.

With the migration crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border worsening, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Poland was considering a full shutdown of its border with Belarus. He pointed to Finland’s success at warding off illegal migration threats from Russia in November 2023 by shutting down its border crossing points.

China's President Xi Jinping (R) and Poland's President Andrzej Duda shake hands following a signing ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on June 24, 2024. (Pedro Pardo/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’re currently studying the matter of whether this is affecting the economy,” Sikorski said in an interview with Polish television’s TVN on June 22. “The Finns closed their border crossings with Russia, and the (matter was resolved).”

SPolish President Andrzej Duda, meanwhile, raised the migration crisis issue and the corresponding cross-border traffic problems with Chinese leader Xi Jinping during his visit to Beijing on June 24. Following the visit, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning expressed China’s hopes that “the sides will solve the problem on a consultative basis.”

As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative, Belarus was once described as the overland corridor between Asia and Europe. According to Belsat, in 2021, around 600,000 containers worth about $40 billion were shipped between China and Europe by rail via Belarus.

But due to the current crisis, the Polish-Belarusian border now has only one border crossing for passenger transport (Brest – Terespol), one for trucks (Kukuryki – Kozlovichi), and a freight railroad crossing. Belarusian analysts believe the shutdown of Poland’s border might provoke a cascade of border closures in neighboring Lithuania and Latvia, sealing off passenger and freight transit.

Poland’s relations with Russian ally Belarus started to deteriorate sharply in 2020. Warsaw has long accused Belarus of deliberately pushing migrants across the border into Poland in order to pressure the EU over sanctions – a charge Belarus has denied. Poland also says it has thwarted 17,000 illegal border crossing attempts from Belarus since the beginning of 2024.

Poland, Baltic states call on EU to build defense line along border with Russia, Belarus
Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania called on the European Union to build a line of defense along the bloc’s border with Russia and Belarus to protect the EU from military threats and other harmful actions from Moscow.

US designates Belarus as state sponsor of human trafficking

The U.S. Department of State has named Belarus as being one of 13 states sponsoring human trafficking, reads the 2024 Trafficking in Persons Report, which was released on June 25.

Along with China, North Korea, Russia, and Iran, Belarus demonstrates a documented “policy or pattern” of human trafficking, which generally involves forced labor in government-affiliated or national work projects, military operations, economically important sectors, as part of government-funded projects or missions abroad, or in sexual slavery on government compounds, reads the report.

According to the report, the Belarusian authorities have subjected thousands of detainees, including political prisoners and individuals with drug or alcohol addictions, to a wide range of forced labor at “labor therapy centers,” and plan to boost the centers’ total capacity to 10,000 individuals in 2024.

The report also notes Belarus’ complicity in the forcible transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus, which it said put them at risk of trafficking. The Minsk regime’s bolstering of the artificial migration crisis on its border with the EU, initiated in 2021, facilitated the entry and transit of thousands of third-country migrants and asylum-seekers, with dozens of them dying at the state border, the report said.

Previously, Belarus showed indications of following “policies and patterns” of human trafficking, but was not listed as a state-sponsor. Following fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, which the incumbent long-term leader Alexander Lukashenko claimed to have won by a landslide, the authorities have cracked down on its civil society, arresting thousands and holding over 1,300 political prisoners.

The regime of Lukashenko also enabled Russian aggression against Ukraine in 2022, and aided Russia in its policy of abducting Ukrainian children from occupied parts of Ukraine.

EU states agree on new sanctions package against Belarus to ‘strengthen measures’ in response to Russia’s war
“Belarus must no longer serve as a route to circumvent our sanctions against Russia,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.

Tsikhanouskaya advisor sentenced to 20 years in prison after in absentia trial

Minsk City Court has sentenced Franak Viachorka, chief advisor to the leader of the Belarusian opposition, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, to 20 years of imprisonment in absentia, the Belarusian General Prosecutor’s Office reported on June 20.

The court convicted Viachorka of conspiring to seize power, organizing mass disturbances, creating an extremist group, and defaming Lukashenko. In addition to the sentence, the court ordered Viachorka to pay 60,000 roubles (over $18,000) in fines.

The activist claims he was denied the opportunity to study case materials and attend the trial via video conference, and he will appeal the decision.

“It just shows the absurdity of Lukashenko’s system,” Viachorka told the Kyiv Independent. “He (Lukashenko) is angry and is in the mood to take revenge against all the people who rose up against him in 2020. He launched this mechanism of repression against all the people, and it’s hard to believe that this repression will stop.”

Viachorka says that while such sentences might create more hurdles for exiles if they are added to the Interpol wanted list, those remaining in the country face greater risks. “I’m lucky because I’m in exile,” Viachorka said. “The real pain concerns sentences given to people inside the country, because those who are in prison right now, sentenced to 12, 15, or 20 years, might not survive these terms. I think (we should be more concerned) about them; we must now think about those inside the country.”

Viachorka, long-time politician and activist, was the leader of the youth branch of the opposition party the Belarusian People’s Front. The exiled thirty-six-year-old joined Tsikhanouskaya’s staff in 2020 following the fraudulent presidential elections in Belarus, which sparked a political crisis that continues to this day.

Belarusian authorities introduced in absentia proceedings in July 2022, targeting opposition activists in exile. Currently, 108 individuals are being prosecuted in absentia, with 26 cases still under investigation, and 82 having reached the courts. On June 21, the head of the Belarusian Investigative Committee announced that the number of in absentia cases is set to increase in 2024.

Tsikhanouskaya and Leanid Sudalenka, an attorney for the Viasna Human Rights Organization, are among those that have been convicted in absentia. The trials occur without the participation of the defendant and result in prison sentences and hefty fines paid for by the seizure of the defendants’ property.

Belarusian propagandists obtain accreditation for Paris Olympics

Several representatives of state-owned Belarusian media that spread propaganda have obtained press accreditation to cover the 2024 Paris Olympics, the independent Belarusian Association of Journalists reported on June 19.

As confirmed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) accreditation service, the National Olympic Committee of Belarus, headed by Lukashenko’s oldest son Viktar Lukashenko, has given accreditations to the BelTA state news agency, Sportivnaya Panorama newspaper, Pressball newspaper, the official website of the national sports company SPORT5 BY, the press service of the Belarusian Gymnastics Association, and the “SB. Belarus Today” newspaper.

The Belarusian NOC hasn’t been suspended, although its funding was severed and the leadership was banned from the Olympic events due to the repressions against athletes opposing the regime in the aftermath of the fraudulent 2020 elections. But unlike Russia’s National Olympic Committee, the Belarusian NOC remained in charge of clearing neutral athletes for the 2024 Olympics and accrediting the country’s media representatives to the event.

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News agency BelTA and “SB. Belarus Today” are notorious state-run propaganda publications. Some of their employees are sanctioned by the EU, and others are known to have documented and published interrogations of arbitrarily detained persons. National sports company SPORT5 BY is affiliated with Belteleradiocompany, the state-owned broadcaster that lost its European Broadcasters Union (EBU) license after airing the propaganda videos of political prisoners being forced to “confess and repent” on camera.

Belarus scores 167th out of 180 in the Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom Index. Dubbed Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Belarus has jailed 44 journalists and media professionals on politically motivated grounds. Nearly 400 media professionals have been forced into exile, and independent media have been branded as “extremist” organizations and banned within the country.

EU sanctions Belarusian Youth Union for aiding abduction of Ukrainian children

The Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) and Union State Secretary Dmitry Mezentsev have been sanctioned as part of the 14th European sanctions package, published on June 24, for aiding the abduction of Ukrainian children.

The BelOMO military optics manufacturer was also among the organizations sanctioned in the latest EU package – for contributing to Russia’s war efforts.

A state-owned enterprise, BelOMO Holding Company produces and sells optical sights for the Russian army. Along with its CEO Aliaksandr Moroz, the company was sanctioned for supporting actions that undermine or threaten Ukraine's territorial integrity, sovereignty, and independence.

According to the decision, Mezentsev, the Belarusian Republican Youth Union (BRSM) have been sanctioned for their involvement in the illegal deportation and “re-education” of Ukrainian children.

Mezentsev is a senior leader deemed to have been personally involved in the forcible deportation and abduction of Ukrainian children, as a resolution of the Union State's Council of Ministers provides a legal basis for the removal of Ukrainian children to Belarus using funds from the Union State – a political union between Russia and Belarus.

In an interview with a Belarusian radio station, Youth Union Head Aliaksandr Lukianau claimed that the pro-government Youth Union, under his leadership, had coordinated the transfer of at least 350 Ukrainian children to Belarus.

According to official estimates, Russia has abducted over 20,000 children from the Russian-occupied parts of Ukraine. In 2023, the exiled Belarusian opposition reported that over 2,000 Ukrainian children, including orphans between the ages of six and 15, had been forcibly relocated to Belarus, where they were subjected to pro-Russian propaganda.

Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has also personally admitted to bringing Ukrainian children to Belarus – allegedly for recreational trips.

The previous EU sanctions package imposed restrictions on Belarusian Paralympian Alexei Talai and his charity, which the EU said were directly involved in organizing the forced transfer of Ukrainian children to Belarus.

The 14th European sanctions package is described as a hard-hitting set of restrictions which, among others things, seeks to deprive the Kremlin of hundreds of millions of dollars of revenues from liquefied natural gas. The new measures include a ban on the transshipment of Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) and a plan to hold EU operators liable for violations of EU sanctions by their subsidiaries and partners in third countries.

Wagner rebellion and Lukashenko. A year later

Members of the Wagner Group prepare to depart from the Southern Military District's headquarters and return to their base following a failed coup in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023. (Arkady Budnitsky/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

A year ago, on June 23, soldiers from Russia’s Wagner mercenary company marched on Moscow in an attempted armed mutiny. Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko claimed that he helped to end the mutiny by brokering a deal between Wagner Group Chief Yevgeny Prigozhin and Russian President Vladimir Putin, which resulted in his troops relocating to Belarus.

Following the Wagner Group’s announced move of 10,000 of its troops to Belarus, the construction of the camp capable of hosting up to 8,000 mercenaries was launched near Asipovichy, in the northeast of the country.

Citing security concerns because of the relocation of the Wagner mercenaries, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia threatened to close their borders with Belarus.

The situation was further heated by Lukashenko’s claims that the Wagner mercenaries were eager to visit the Polish city of Rzeszów – a hub for transferring Western supplies to Ukraine. The Polish authorities claimed that 100 of the mercenaries moved towards the Suwalki corridor, the thin strip of land dividing Belarus from Russia’s exclave Kaliningrad.

However, the threat from the Wagner Group did not last long: On August 23, Prigozhin and his right-hand man, Dmitry Utkin, were killed in a private jet crash, marking the end of Wagner.

In September 2023, Wagner mercenaries were given the option of signing contracts with Russia’s defense ministry, returning to the battlefield in Ukraine or to African outposts of the organization, or retiring.

By late September, 65% of the Asipovichy camp had been dismantled, according to the Belarusian Hajun monitoring group. The presence of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus was reduced to groups involved in training Lukashenko’s military and special forces. In October 2023, Belarusian Hajun reported that only around 500-1,000 mercenaries remained in the country.

In February 2024, Lukashenko said that the Wagner fighters had completed their job of transferring their combat experience to Belarusian forces.

“Our officers know the rest just as well; they graduated from the same academies,” Lukashenko said.

The mercenaries were barely given any mention again in official reports or propaganda messages following Lukashenko’s speech. Belarusian Hajun believes that no more than 100 mercenaries remained in the country as of June 2024. under the guise of “experienced instructors,” the mercenaries continue to train Belarusian special forces.

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