The wave of new criminal cases against CSOs in Belarus is growing
Criminal charges and related investigations, searches and arrests have become the most serious problem for CSOs in Belarus now.
More 900 criminal cases launched after elections against protesters, human rights defenders, election observers, journalists and media, CSO leaders and activists. A range of them are related to citizens’ participation in associations and CSOs activities, which are examples of extremely negative practice of gravest restriction on freedom of association.
Currently, a number of CSOs across the country have been forced to suspend or reduce operations due to criminal charges brought against their leaders. Among them Charitable Institution “Paleskaja Dabrynja” (Pinsk), Cultural and educational institution “Gruntounja” (Brest), Public charitable organization “Grodno Children’s Hospice” (Grodno) – this happened after the CSOs leaders had been detained on the peaceful protest actions.
Maria Rabkova, volunteer of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was arrested and charged within a criminal case under Article 293 of the Criminal Code (“training or other preparation of persons for participation in mass riots, or financing of such activities”). Andrei Chapiuk, another volunteer of this organization, was charged under Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code – “participation in mass riots”.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” collects information about people whose criminal prosecution is related to events of the election campaign and after it. As of December 22, they have collected more than 610 names of such people from different Belarusian cities and towns. 157 people out of this list are now recognized as political prisoners and this number is growing.
In particular, political leadership of the country a priori declared unlawfulness of the Coordination Council, initiated by former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. All members of the Coordination Council Presidium were either imprisoned on criminal charges or forced to leave the country under the threat of criminal prosecution under Article 361 “Calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”, dozens of its members were interrogated as witnesses. December 21st the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s Office said it had launched new criminal cases against members of the Coordination Council of the opposition on the creation of an extremist group and financing its activities in order to seize state power in an unconstitutional way. Prosecutor General’s Office mentioned Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, Maksim Znak, Pavel Latushko, Olga Kovalkova, Sergei Dylevsky and other persons among the suspects. Criminal cases on charges of “financing extremism” were filed against those who provided targeted financial support to Belarusians who suffered from police brutality, beatings and torture.
Broadened and vague definitions of “extremism” and “extremist activities” are especially dangerous, as they allow to apply them in accordance with both criminal and administrative procedures for broad circle of peoples. Belarusian laws on combating extremism contain vague wordings, allowing too broad interpretations, which creates possibilities for misuse of charges with extremism (especially when it comes to charges with imparting of extremist through publications in internet).
Crowdfunding platforms MolaMola and Ulej were one of first victims of politically motivated criminal prosecution during election campaign. Founders of these services were charged with tax evasion within the criminal case against members of Viktar Babaryka’s team, who was the former head of Belgazprombank, launched shortly after start of his presidential campaign. Websites of crowdfunding platforms, which had played the key role in mobilization of financial resources for combating COVID-19, were blocked under the law “On measures to prevent legalization of criminally obtained income, financing of terrorist activity and financing of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”, as well as their bank accounts frozen.
Criminal case of the Belarusian Students’ Association, one of the oldest youth associations in the country and European Students’ Union member organisation, deprived of registration in the early 2000s, also has signs of prosecution due to affiliation with a public association. Since November 12th Alana Gabrimariam from BSA leadership, who was a representative of former presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, along with a dozen other BSA activists held in prison and special KGB pre-trial detention center. Many BSA activists had to leave the country. After searches and arrests of the BSA governing board members, with such a threat, dozens of BSA activists fled the country.
On December 22nd law enforcers searched the employees of Press Club Belarus. The founder of the organization was detained at the airport. The office and apartments of several members of the organization were searched. It’s still unknown what charges were brought against them. The Department of Financial Investigations is investigating violations of the tax legislation of the Republic of Belarus in relation to officials of the “Press Club” and other business entities, connected among other things with the receipt of large sums of money from abroad.
Representatives of the human rights movement in Belarus and of coalitions and umbrella associations of the Belarusian civil society warn the authorities against further repression and violence against civil society, which is contrary to national law, the constitution and the country’s international human rights obligations. They strongly protest against criminal prosecution and other forms of repression against leaders, activists and supporters of the BSA and all other CSOs subjected to political persecution; emphasize that the activities of the BSA, the Coordinating Council and other CSOs are a form of freedom of association and as such are protected by Article 36 of the Constitution of Belarus and Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
For overcoming of these negative impacts and restoration of basic conditions under which CSO activity is possible Belarusian government should release of all individuals recognized as political prisoners, review all imposed on them sentences and decisions on their liability; cessation of all forms of repressions and discrimination against protesters, representatives of opposition and CSOs, including cessation of mass administrative and criminal prosecution, searches, seizures of data storage and communication devices, fines, arrests, practice when bank accounts are impounded and ban on use of funds is imposed; cessation of threats to withdraw children from families; cessation of practice of unlawful intrusion into private houses.