The Belarus government unleashed a harsh crackdown against dissent and protests that erupted after President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a sixth term in office in a disputed presidential election last August.
The United Nations rights chief has decried the systematic repression of demonstrations in Belarus, voicing alarm at recent legislative moves enabling harsher penalties for peaceful protesters and the media.
Speaking to the UN Human Rights Council via video-link, Michelle Bachelet presented a damning report on the crisis-wracked country, warning that its "unprecedented" human rights crisis was deteriorating.
"The government's systematic crackdown against protesters continues," she said.
"I am worried by increased targeting of journalists and human rights defenders both institutionally and individually," she said.
Last week, two journalists were sentenced to two years in prison for filming a protest last year, while a journalist and a doctor were put on trial accused of disclosing the medical records of a protester who died in detention.
Bachelet also said that "large-scale searches of human rights defenders, journalists, and organisations ... were conducted, reportedly in connection with criminal investigations for 'mass disorder'."
As of February 9, she said, 246 people had been sentenced to prison terms on allegedly politically motivated charges.
'Atmosphere of fear'
Belarus was gripped by months of unprecedented anti-government demonstrations that erupted after a disputed presidential election last August which saw Alexander Lukashenko claim a sixth term in office.
His opponents say the polls were rigged and that political novice Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who ran in place of her jailed husband, was the true winner.
Belarusian security forces unleashed a harsh crackdown against the protests, detaining demonstrators and pushing opposition leaders into exile.
Bachelet said her report, which covered the period from last May to December 20, confirmed "numerous and widespread violations."
She pointed to "mass arbitrary arrests and detentions," as well as hundreds of allegations of torture, and intimidation and harassment of journalists, activists and opposition members.
"All these violations, committed with impunity, created an atmosphere of fear," Bachelet said.
She said the Belarus government had responded to the report, acknowledging that preliminary investigation bodies had received 4,644 complaints about the use of physical force.
But, she said, the government had also said that over 1,050 of those complaints were rejected, and had offered no information regarding whether any security personnel had been investigated over allegations of excessive force.
"We understand that not one of the hundreds of complaints for acts of torture and ill-treatment ... had led to the opening of a criminal case, prior to our cut-off date of December 20," Bachelet said.
And since then, the situation in the country had worsened further.
Bachelet voiced particular concern that "legislative amendments currently in preparation reportedly enable harsher punishments for participation in peaceful demonstrations."
"It is essential for the future of the country that respect for human rights, and the broadest possible civic space, be established," Bachelet insisted.
"All those who have been detained for peacefully exercising their rights should be released," she said, also demanding "an immediate end to the policy of harassment and intimidation of civil society and media workers."
Bachelet also called for "thorough, effective, credible and transparent investigations" into all alleged violations.
Her report urges Belarus to undertake significant legal reform to ensure fair trials, due process and the independence of the judiciary.
Possible EU sanctions
France has condemned the jailing of two Belarus journalists and police searches of the homes and offices of staff at an NGO and the Belarus journalists' association, the Foreign Ministry said in a statement on Wednesday.
"These developments illustrate the increasing harassment of civil society and independent journalists in Belarus," the ministry said.
The European Union may impose further sanctions on Belarus after Minsk jailed two journalists, Poland's state news agency PAP quoted Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau as saying on Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, the situation in Belarus is constantly deteriorating, so more sanctions are likely to be imposed.
"The list of political prisoners becomes longer. Also two Belsat journalists were added to the list," PAP quoted Rau as saying.
Katsiaryna Andreyeva, 27, and Darya Chultsova, 23, were detained in November in an apartment they had been using as a vantage point to film demonstrations over the death of a protester killed several days earlier.
The EU imposed a third round of Belarus sanctions in December, taking its list of those under travel bans and asset freezes to 88 people and seven entities.