Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2021
- in January, the authorities continued to widely apply criminal prosecution for political reasons. There are currently 220 political prisoners in Belarus, as their number is expected to increase manifold. The total number of persons targeted in criminal cases during the election campaign and in the post-election period has exceeded 1,000, while the Human Rights Center "Viasna" known the names of more than 770 people involved;
- the authorities continued to detain peaceful protesters and to use violence against them;
- the total number of people detained for attending protests during the month was at least 873. It is known that 489 people were brought to administrative responsibility for participating in the gatherings, of which 304 people were sentenced to short terms of detention, and 137 were fined;
- of particular concern is the persecution of human rights defenders and other activists engaged in human rights activities. For example, during the month, Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsiana Lasitsa, the head and volunteer of the Homieĺ regional branch of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, as well as journalists Andrei Aliaksandrau and Iryna Zlobina were detained and taken into custody. The Office for the Rights of Persons of Disabilities was raided as part of an inspection ordered by the Department for Financial Investigations;
- On January 15, the Minsk Regional Court re-sentenced Viktar Skrundzik to death. The death sentence was handed down against the background of statements by some officials about the possible abolition of the death penalty by amending criminal legislation. At the same time, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and other high-ranking leaders of the country did not comment on these plans, which makes it difficult to assess the seriousness of intentions by the Belarusian authorities;
- in general, experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" note the continuing intensification of repressions and further deterioration of the human rights crisis in the country. During the month, there appeared new tendencies of an even more profound crisis after the authorities promised to amend the Criminal Code, including by blacklisting the symbol of protest, the historically significant white-red-white flag, as extremist.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
In 2020, according to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", at least 103 sentences were handed down in criminal cases related to the events before and after the presidential election.
According to Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich, in the post-election period since August 9, more than 1,750 crimes related to riots, threats, violence and resistance to law enforcement have been opened. Of these, 667 were committed against law enforcement officers. Earlier, the Prosecutor General's Office reported more than 900 criminal cases initiated during this period.
At the moment, the names of more than 770 people involved in these criminal cases are known to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. Most of them are charged under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or participation in group actions that grossly violate public order), as well as under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting). A large group includes criminal cases under Art. 363 and 364 of the Criminal Code (violence or resistance to police officers), as well as criminal cases related to insulting officials and the president.
During January, at least 46 people were convicted in politically motivated criminal cases. The number of political prisoners continues to grow and currently stands at 220 people. In the near future, this figure will increase significantly, after dozens of convicts will be sent to serve their sentences of restricted freedom in open correctional facilities.
The number of criminal cases in the period before and after the 2020 presidential election indicates an unprecedented wave of repression against Belarusian society. In January, there was a continuation of the trend towards intensified repression and, as a result, a further deterioration of the general human rights situation.
During the month, Aliaksandr Lukashenka and other high-ranking officials repeatedly promised harscher punishments and stepping up the fight against extremism in the country. These statements were made in the context of the proposed amendments to the Criminal Code.
In a recent move, the Prosecutor General's Office suggested criminalizing the white-red-white flag as a symbol of extremism. The symbol was twice the national flag of Belarus — in 1918 and in 1991-1995, and during the mass demonstrations of 2020, it became a symbol of protest.
Thus, in the near future we can expect stricter penalties to be introduced in criminal law and the novelties to be applied in order to step up politically motivated repression, which could lead to an even greater increase in the number of political prisoners.
In January, particular media attention was triggered by the criminal cases and arrests of human rights activists, as well as the first trials in the so-called “Tsikhanouski case”.
On January 12, law enforcement arrested media manager Andrei Aliaksandrau and his partner Iryna Zlobina.
On January 15, Deputy Interior Minister Kazakevich said in an official statement that Aliaksandrau and Zlobina were detained “on suspicion of financing protests.” According to him, the two activists were financing people who took part in the protests in Minsk since August 2020, including by paying fines and reimbursing the costs of their detention.
According to the Interior Ministry, Aliaksandrau helped pay 250 fines from August 22 to November 9. The lists of beneficiaries and the funds were handed over to Aliaksandrau by the BY_help foundation.
At the moment, it is known that Aliaksandrau and Zlobina are charged under Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (training or other preparation of persons to participate in group activities that grossly violate public order, as well as funding and other support for such activities) and are remanded in pre-trial detention. Both activists were called political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights community.
January saw the first trials against defendants in the so-called “Tsikhanouski case”. On January 12, the Lahojsk District Court opened the trial of blogger Uladzimir Niaronski, who is charged under Part 1 of Art. 342 and Art. 369 of the Criminal Code. According to the investigation, Niaronski, by conspiracy with Siarhei Tsikhanouski, organized group actions that grossly violated public order in Homieĺ, Mazyr, Brest, Minsk, Sluck, Hrodna, and Mahilioŭ.
On January 18, the court of Kastryčnicki district of Hrodna opened the trial of Dzmitry Furmanau, Yauhen Raznichenka and Uladzimir Kniha, all detained at an election picket on May 29. It was at this picket that the well-known blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, who led the presidential campaign of his wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, was detained as a result of a provocation by security forces.
Despite the fact that the charge mentions actions allegedly committed by prior conspiracy with Tsikhanouski or with his direct involvement, Tsikhanouski himself has not been interrogated at these trials, which will inevitably result in the conclusions reached by the courts in Lahojsk and Hrodna being ineligible for re-examination in the future trial of Tsikhanouski himself and will thus be considered as evidence in the case. However, the court must establish all the circumstances relating to the substance of the accusation, and failure to take measures for a comprehensive and objective consideration of the case will be regarded as a violation of the principles of a fair trial.
The criminal case against Viktar Babaryka and other participants of the Belgazprombank case has been forwarded by the Prosecutor General's Office to the Supreme Court, which will consider the case as a court of first instance. Given the fact that sentences handed down by the Supreme Court are final, this will deprive the convicts of the opportunity to appeal their sentences. The impossibility of appealing the verdict before it enters into force certainly violates the rights to a fair trial of Viktar Babaryka and other defendants in the forthcoming trial. Babaryka’s lawyers have written to the Supreme Court demanding that the case be referred to a lower court.
It should also be noted that many trials in politically motivated criminal cases have been held behind closed doors, as representatives of the media, human rights activists and members of the public are not allowed to attend some of them.
Persecution of human rights activists
On January 18, Leanid Sudalenka, head of the Homieĺ branch of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, and Maria Tarasenko, a volunteer with Viasna, were detained in Homieĺ. The latter was released three days later. Sudalenka faced criminal charges under Part 1 and Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order and their funding). On January 28, he was officially charged and remanded in custody in the Homieĺ pre-trial detention center.
On January 21, Tatsiana Lasitsa, a volunteer at the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was detained at Minsk airport. She faced charges under Part 1 and Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. The activist was transferred to the pre-trial detention center in Homieĺ.
On January 28, it became known that Andrei Chapiuk, a volunteer of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” currently in pre-trial detention on criminal charges, faced an additional charge under Part 2 of Art. 285 of the Criminal Code (participation in the activities of a criminal organization). The criminal case was said to involve several other political prisoners, including Aliaksandr Frantskevich and Akikhiro Hayeuski-Hanada. This circumstance and the official statements on the criminal case indicate that the authorities are preparing a new propaganda criminal case of alleged conspiracy to overthrow the government, where the role of dangerous criminals has been assigned to anarchists, while human rights activists will be accused of funding their activities.
On January 21, the Department of Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee opened an investigation into the activities of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
The agency said that the probe was related to “possible misappropriation of funds received by the institution through donations and international aid for the purpose of providing assistance to Belarusian citizens with disabilities.”
According to Belsat TV, the apartment of Tatsiana Kryshtal, an accountant at the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was searched. Her computer and phone were confiscated.
The organization’s premises were also searched: documents and equipment were confiscated. The head of the office Siarhei Drazdouski and lawyer Aleh Hrableuski were taken for questioning by the Department of Financial Investigations. A few hours later, they were released, while their computers and phones were confiscated.
Detentions and persecution of Belarusian human rights activists caused a significant international response.
Violation of the right to life. The death penalty
On January 15, Judge Siarhei Yepikhau of the Minsk Regional Court announced a verdict against Viktar Skrundzik and three other residents of the Sluck district accused of killing two retired men and attempting to murder an elderly woman. Skrundzik was sentenced to death. The initial death sentence against Viktar Skrundzik was overturned by the Supreme Court. In a new trial, he was acquitted of one of the episodes, attempted murder of an 85-year-old woman. However, despite the partial acquittal and the announced abolition of the death penalty, he was once again sentenced to be executed.
Vladimir Vardanyan, General Rapporteur of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) on the abolition of the death penalty, condemned the new death sentence pronounced in Belarus.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly
Administrative prosecution of participants in peaceful assemblies and punishment for national or protest symbols continues to be routinely applied to violate the rights of protesters.
According to the Volunteer Service of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", in January, at least 873 people were detained for political reasons, most of them in Minsk and the Minsk region (709 people). Six of them are minors, 391 are women, 475 are men. 489 court rulings were issued against the protesters, 304 people were sentenced to short terms of detention, 137 were fined, and two were sentenced to both imprisonment and a fine.
Persecution of participants in peaceful assemblies has gone beyond administrative charges. On January 15, the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk passed the first verdict in a criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for the March against Terror, a procession held on Dzyady, the day of remembrance of the ancestors, November 1, when the Investigative Committee said it identified 231 as suspects in the case. Mikhail Hlukhouski, 47, was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom on charges of obstructing traffic and causing more than 10,000 rubles in damage to the government-owned Minsktrans public transport operator.
On January 29, the Zavodski District Court of Minsk convicted 19-year-old political prisoner Renata Smirnova. She was found guilty under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to two years of restricted freedom. The case was considered by Judge Katsiaryna Murashka. Renata Smirnova was detained together with her boyfriend on November 1 at the March against Terror in Minsk. Prior to the trial, she was detained in a detention center. The girl was accused of joining a group of people who grossly breached public order, namely linking arms and blocking the road. The damage to Minsktrans was estimated at 10,689.76 rubles, exactly the same amount claimed in the trial of Hlukhouski.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) wrote to several Special Rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Committee, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Special Rapporteur on Belarus Anais Marin to complain about a leaked audio recording, in which the current deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Mikalai Karpiankou, who previously held the position of head of GUBAZIK (the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption), informs his subordinates about plans to toughen actions against peaceful protesters.
According to the human rights activists, the audio shows the authorities’ intentions to take even more radical actions against the protesters, making the exercise of human rights absolutely impossible.
Violation of the right to freedom of expression
In January, criminal prosecution of dissent continued in Belarus.
Authors of political slogans and graffiti were subject to punishment. The authorities separately persecuted people who disregarded the national flag, which after the events of the second half of 2020 became the embodiment of usurped power, impunity for repression and violence. Meanwhile, The Johannesburg Principles on National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information stipulate that the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression shall not be considered a threat to national security or subjected to any restrictions or penalties. No one may be punished for criticizing or insulting the nation, the state or its symbols, the government, its agencies, or public officials, or a foreign nation, state or its symbols, government, agency or public official unless the criticism or insult was intended and likely to incite imminent violence.
In particular, on January 6, the Lieninski District Court of Brest sentenced a 17-year-old resident of Kobryn Artsiom Zeliankou to 6 months of restricted freedom under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code. Judge Dzmitry Shuryn sentenced the teenager to a criminal penalty for attempting to burn the national flag in central Brest on September 27.
On January 12, 16-year-old Aliaksandr Nestsiaruk was convicted in Drahičyn. According to the indictment, he broke the flagpole and left the national flag on the ground. The prosecutor viewed this as an insult to state symbols and offered to punish the minor with 6 months of restricted freedom. The court, presided by Judge Liavontsi Stankevich, passed a guilty verdict.
46-year-old Aliaksei Palishchuk was convicted for removing a flag in Homieĺ. He was charged under Article 370 of the Criminal Code for insulting state symbols. Judge Siarhei Salouski of the Centraĺny District Court of Homieĺ sentenced him to 1 year of restricted freedom.
In the post-election period, the authorities resumed to practice prosecuting for insulting or slandering the president.
On January 6, a 19-year-old local resident, Illia Vaitkevich, was convicted by the Smarhoń District Court. He was accused of publicly insulting the President of Belarus under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to 2 years of restricted freedom. The case was considered by Judge Siarhei Balondz.
In the absence of a favorable environment for expressing opinions on the basis of equality, the expression of opinions sometimes becomes illegal. However, the law protects government officials and ordinary citizens differently. Slander and insult against the former are inevitably prosecuted, while the nature of provided penalties (criminal punishment) clearly does not meet the objectives of the permissible restriction on freedom of expression.
On January 6, Judge Yauhen Brehan sentenced Maksim Smirnou, a 28-year-old resident of Brest, to two years of restricted freedom under Article 188 of the Criminal Code (slander) for reposting a post about a riot police commander Maksim Mikhovich. The officer is on the European Union’s sanctions list for the “repression and intimidation campaign led by OMON forces in Brest in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, in particular with arbitrary arrests and ill-treatment of peaceful demonstrators.”
On January 20, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest convicted Aliaksandr Hlazyryn, who was accused of committing a crime under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a government official). He was found guilty of insulting Pavel Tasoyeu, an officer of the Brest police department, and sentenced him to two years of restricted freedom. The case was considered by Judge Vera Filonik.
On January 22, the Slonim District Court convicted Katsiaryna Salevich, who was accused of insulting an official. Salevich was accused of reposting a photo and personal info of senior police sergeant Siarhei Askolkau in a Telegram channel “Slonim For Living”. The repost was accompanied by a message of “insulting content, which degraded the honor and dignity of Askolkau.” Judge Aliaksandr Yarmolik sentenced the defendant to one year of restricted freedom. Salevich is also obliged to pay the alleged victim 1,000 rubles in moral damages.
On January 26, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk sentenced 43-year-old Dzmitry Ushatski to two years of restricted freedom under Article 369 of the Criminal Code for insulting the Interior Ministry spokeswoman Volha Chamadanava in a Telegram chat. The court ordered to collect 5,000 rubles in favor of the Interior Ministry official. The case was considered by Judge Tatsiana Akavitaya.
Violation of the right not to be subjected to torture and other prohibited treatment
According to volunteers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", during the month, 14 people detained for participating in peaceful protests reported that they were subjected to torture and other prohibited treatment.
In addition, people serving terms of administrative detention are subjected to ill-treatment in detention centers: they are deprived of the right to receive parcels from their families, and have to live for many days without essential items, in particular, hygienic products; they are kept in unsanitary conditions in over-crowded cells and are not provided with adequate outdoor time and showers.
On January 26, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" presented a report “Administrative Imprisonment in Belarus in 2020 as a Tool for Human Rights Violations.”
Based on a survey of 550 people held in 41 detention centers in 36 cities, as well as in other places used to hold administrative detainees, information was collected on various circumstances related to administrative detention and administrative imprisonment. First of all, all these cases were considered in the context of violations of the right to life, the right not to be subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, the right to personal integrity, including the right to a lawful detention, and the right to a fair trial.