© 2023 International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations & Physicians for Human Rights

Case Study

Belarus

Expanding bullet among the many weapons that injure hundreds of peaceful protesters in 2020 Minsk demonstrations

A woman on her knees stands in front of the riot police in a public unrest started in the streets of Minsk, Belarus, on August 9, 2020 at the end of the voting day with people claiming for a government change and protesting because fraud elections for the presidency of Belarus. Celestino Arce NurPhoto via Getty Images
A woman on her knees stands in front of the riot police in a public unrest started in the streets of Minsk, Belarus, on August 9, 2020 at the end of the voting day with people claiming for a government change and protesting because fraud elections for the presidency of Belarus. Celestino Arce NurPhoto via Getty Images

On 9 August 2020, after the results of Belarus’s presidential election were announced, mass protests broke out to denounce what many Belarusians – and international observers – saw as an unfair, rigged election. Aliaksandr, a 37-year-old driver, joined other protesters seeking to gather in the centre of Minsk. He was among approximately 20 people who, trying to make their way to the main protest site, approached a police van and a group of policemen. When Aliaksandr’s group was approximately 15 metres from the police van, at least three rounds of ammunition were fired, and Aliaksandr was struck in the abdomen. He tried to run away but managed to stumble only 150 metres before being picked up by strangers and taken to a hospital by car.

Aliaksandr was operated on, and the surgeon later told him that a rubber bullet had been extracted from his body. According to the surgeon, the bullet was made of plastic, but its core was made of small metal balls, which expanded on impact and were easily visible in an X-ray image. Aliaksandr was in severe pain for many days. He spent 15 days in intensive care and had to undergo further operations abroad, as the treatment available in Belarus was limited and expensive. It took him five months to recover. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians protested over several weeks after the elections, and these demonstrations were regularly dispersed violently, using CCWs such as rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades. It is estimated that hundreds of protesters were severely injured, and at least 15 protesters died during the 2020 protests. Mediazona, an independent media outlet, reported the number of arrests at over 33,000 and Viasna, a major human rights group, counts over 1,300 of those as political prisoners. Hundreds have been reportedly beaten and tortured in custody.

A report by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), published on 5 March 2022, detailed excessive and inappropriate uses by Belarusian security forces of batons, water cannons, tear gas, and kinetic impact projectiles, including rubber-coated steel bullets. The UN report stated, “On the basis of an analysis of 26 first-hand witness accounts, their medical records and photographic material, in conjunction with a review of the injuries of more than 1,000 individuals treated by the Minsk medical emergency services during the protests, along with open source material, OHCHR found that injuries resulting from the use of force in several cities across Belarus between 9-12 August included tramline bruises and hematomas on the torso, buttocks, and back of the legs, head injuries (such as brain contusion), concussion, traumatic wounds, fractures and burns, ear drum perforations as a result of acoustic trauma, and eye injuries. More severe injuries included multiple organ injuries sustained from rubber-coated steel bullets and internal organ damage caused by shrapnel from stun grenade fragments and burns caused by explosions.”

Not only has Belarus failed to investigate these actions of security forces, but some of the civilians who complained were themselves prosecuted. According to authorities, a complaint about police brutality was an admission of “participation in mass disorder.”

A report from the human rights group FIDH84 highlighted the issue of the unregulated transfer of CCWs from the European Union (EU) to Belarus. After the crackdown on the protests in Minsk and other cities, journalists found KIP ammunition produced in Turkey (STERLING 12-gauge less lethal cartridge with rubber bullet), Latvia (D Dupleks 12/70 cartridge with rubber bullet), and Poland (Fam-Pionki 12/70 light and sound cartridge ONS 2000). Multiple testimonies were collected by human rights activists and journalists about police use of CCWs. It is a striking commonality in many of these testimonies that the police used CCWs not when the protests were at their largest, but at times when the demonstrators barely started gathering or were dispersing. It may reasonably be inferred that CCWs were used not in self-defence, but to frighten and punish the protesters.