Human Rights Situation in Belarus: June 2021
- in June, the authorities continued to actively prosecute individuals for political reasons. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” is ware of at least 125 people were convicted in politically motivated criminal trials during the month. The monitoring of the trials conducted by Viasna’s volunteers and lawyers revealed numerous violations of the principles of fair trial and procedural rights and guarantees of the accused;
- there are 526 political prisoners as of late June and their numbers continues to increase;
- detentions of peaceful protesters continue, as well as arbitrary detentions of citizens for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. In June, Viasna is aware of at least 25 fines totaling over 71,000 rubles and at least 94 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 1,477 days. A total of 246 people were detained during the month;
- on June 21, the European Union, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom announced new sanctions against Belarus. EU sanctions will affect key sectors of the Belarusian economy, including the export of potash fertilizers, oil and petrochemical products, as well as the tobacco industry and the financial sector. The EU Council of Ministers approved a decision to include 86 companies and individuals in the sanctions list. The US Treasury Department announced that it will add 16 more Belarusian officials and law enforcement officers to the sanctions list, as well as five institutions: the KGB, the detention center on Akrestsin Street, Internal Troops of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (GUBAZIK) and the Brest Regional Department of Internal Affairs;
- in response to the new sanctions, Belarus suspended its participation in the European Union's Eastern Partnership initiative, recalled its EU representative and offered Dirk Schuebel, Head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, to leave the country;
- the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Anaïs Marin, has been published and will be presented at the 47th session of the Human Rights Council. It describes the situation with civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights in Belarus that developed in 2020 and early 2021. The Special Rapporteur documents the continuation of the wave of repression aggravated by evidence of mass violations unprecedented in scale and severity;
- criminal prosecution of journalists and human rights activists continues;
- the many cases of ill-treatment of individuals detained and administratively imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies are a matter of concern. The inhumane conditions of detention for this category of detainees, deliberately created by the administrations of the detention centers are viewed by experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" as torture;
- the Civic Solidarity Platform’s Working Group on the Fight against Torture presented its second annual measurement of the Index on Torture in eight countries of the OSCE region: Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Poland, Russia and Ukraine; Belarus is the last in the ranking;
- during the month, the human rights situation in the country continued to deteriorate significantly.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
Political persecution remains the main and most severe form of repression, preserving its massive and pervasive character.
Viasna is aware of at least 125 individuals convicted in politically motivated criminal trials that were held during the month.
The number of political prisoners as of June 30 was 526 and continues to grow. Among the convicts are protesters, civil society activists, as well as dozens of ordinary citizens who expressed their views on the current events, the work of government officials and law enforcement.
June was marked by a number of criminal trials against protesters and members of the political opposition that drew particular media and public attention, including the trial of Viktar Babaryka, one of the presidential candidates in the 2020 elections.
The Prosecutor General's Office submitted to the Supreme Court the case of Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak. The Court will now chose the court in which the case will be heard. They are accused of committing crimes under Part 1 of Art. 357, Part 3 of Art. 361 and Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code.
The criminal case of the well-known politician Mikalai Statkevich, blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, members of his team Artsiom Sakau and Dzmitry Papou, and bloggers Ihar Losik and Uladzimir Tsyhanovich started in a closed session in Homieĺ. The scope of the charges includes organizing actions which gravely breached public order, organizing riots, inciting social hatred, and obstructing the work of the CEC.
Earlier, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna heard the criminal case of three other defendants in the Tsikhanouski case, who were detained at an election picket on May 29 last year in Hrodna. On June 2, political prisoners Dzmitry Furmanau, Yauhen Reznichenka and Uladzimir Kniha were convicted of active participation in actions that grossly violate public order under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code, and in addition, Reznichenka and Kniha were found guilty of violent actions against police officers (Article 364 of the Criminal Code). Judge Volha Bekushava sentenced Furmanau to two years, Reznichenka to three and a half years, and Kniha to four years in prison.
The investigation of criminal cases against human rights activists continues.
The term of house arrest of the head of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Siarhei Drazdouski was extended by two months until August 3.
Leanid Sudalenka, a human rights activist and a member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was formally charged under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and financing of actions that grossly violate public order).
The term of pre-trial detention of political prisoner Marfa Rabkova was extended by another three months until September 17. The coordinator of Viasma’s network of volunteers was detained by GUBAZIK officers on September 17. Her apartment was searched, IT equipment, personal money and belongings were confiscated.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly
Criminal and administrative prosecution of peaceful protesters continues.
On June 3, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest ruled in another criminal trial involving protesters detained on September 13. Judge Yauhen Brehan found thirteen local residents guilty and sentenced them to terms ranging between 1 ½ years of restricted freedom and 1 year in prison for participating in a dancing protest which was eventually dispersed by a water cannon. On June 8, the Brest District Court sentenced another group of defendants in the case. Judge Siarhei Maruchak sentenced twelve people to up to 2 years in prison. The number of defendants in the “dancing protest case” reached 70 people, making it one of the biggest “political cases” in today’s Belarus. Brest courts have already convicted 57 people in this case.
On June 10, the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk announced a verdict against volunteers of Babaryka's campaign, political prisoners Ihar Yarmolau, Dzmitry Kanapelka, Uladzislau Karetski and Mikalai Saseu, who were accused of preparing for riots (Part 1, Article 13 and Part 2, Article 293 of the Criminal Code) and other training of persons to participate in riots (Part 3 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code). Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka sentenced each of the defendants to 5 years in a medium-security prison.
Police continue to detain representatives of various professions and social groups in their homes and at work, searching the places and interrogating the detainees. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression on people for their active civil position and opposition to the government’s policies. The courts of Minsk and the regions continue to routinely hear administrative cases against individuals detained for displaying protest flags and stickers on their windows, as well as for other forms of protest or expression of opinion.
In the last week of June, several courts in Minsk started hearing civil lawsuits filed by the government-owned city transport operator Minsktrans against convicted political prisoners. The operator demands compensation for “blocking roads” during the protests. At least five political prisoners are involved in the hearings. The total amount of these lawsuits amounts to 74,021 rubles.
In June, according to Viasna, the courts imposed at least 25 fines totaling more than 71,000 rubles and at least 94 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 1,477 days. Judges preferred custodial sentences, with three judges (Dzmitry Karsiuk, Yulia Blizniuk and Maryia Yarokhina) using this type of punishment at least 24 times. There are reports of the detention of 246 people.
Suppression of freedom of expression
The project “Viasna Observing” told how many Belarusian students suffered from political persecution in administrative cases since the beginning of 2021, and why they are being persecuted by the authorities. Since the beginning of the protests in Belarus, students have become one of the most repressed communities. Many students were imprisoned, expelled from their universities, fled the country, some went to receive rehabilitation after being victims of torture, and many were involved in criminal cases.
Repressions against the authors and administrators of various Telegram channels continue. On June 4, the Zavodski District Court of Minsk announced its verdict in a criminal trial involving four administrators of the Telegram channel “Drivers 97”. Political prisoners Dzianis Hutsin, Viktoryia Kulsha and Hanna Vishniak have been in custody since last autumn. Tatsiana Shkrobat was on bail before the trial. They were accused of organizing group actions that allegedly grossly violated public order, and preparing or training for such activities. All of them, “acting in a criminal conspiracy, deliberately called for riots, roadblocks due to dissatisfaction with the authorities and election fraud.” As a result, Hutsin, Kulsha and Vishniak, who pleaded not guilty, were sentenced to two years and six months in a general-security penal colony, while Tatsiana Shkrobat was sentenced to three years of home confinement.
Political prisoner Maryia Nestserava was found guilty of active participation in group actions that grossly violated public order and related to obvious disobedience to the lawful demands of the authorities, which led to disruption of transport, enterprises and institutions (Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code). She was sentenced to three years in prison, as a result.
Sentences have been handed down in various cities of Belarus for posting negative comments on social media accounts targeting police officers in connection with their participation or alleged participation in the dispersal of peaceful protests. Most convicts in the trials were sentenced to restricted freedom. In addition, courts heard several cases under Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting hatred against law enforcement officers, government officials, etc.). The convicts were sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.
On June 28, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna considered the criminal case of Aliaksandr Babkin, who was accused of insulting the president under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code. According to the indictment, Babkin dialed 102 and “spoke contemptuously and negatively about the president, humiliating his honor and dignity, thereby inflicting public insult.” Judge Uladzimir Pazniak sentenced him to one year in a penal colony.
On June 28, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Minsk sentenced 26-year-old Hanna Vazhnik to one year of home confinement. Judge Alena Zhyvitsa found her guilty under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code for altering one verse of the state anthem and posting it in her Twitter account. The new version of the anthem started with the phrase “We are extremists, peaceful people...”. According to the accusation, by doing this, she mocked the national symbol.
These and other cases testify to the continuation of the practice of repression for various forms of expression posted on social media, and for other forms of expression.
Pressure on journalists and the media
As of the end of June, according to the BAJ, there were 25 media representatives in prisons.
Journalists are routinely arbitrarily detained. Their homes and offices searched, and they are often imprisoned for their professional duties.
On June 3, sports journalist Aliaksandr Ivulin and editor of his YouTube channel Yaraslau Pisarenka were detained by police officers in plainclothes.
On the same day, unknown individuals, apparently law enforcement officials, broke into the apartment of journalist Valiaryna Kustava. The journalist left Belarus to escape arrest.
Dzianis Ivashyn, an independent journalist and political prisoner who has been cooperating with the Novy Chas newspaper, has been in prison since March 12. In late June, it was reported that he had suffered a heart attack. Ivashyn was arbitrarily charged under Art. 365 of the Criminal Code, "interference in the activities of law enforcement officers."
On June 24, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk started a trial to blacklist all TUT.by content (website, social media accounts, etc.) as extremist. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, it monitored the portal in February 2021 and found “materials affecting the interests of the Republic of Belarus”. Their analysis revealed “signs of extremism”. On March 2, the Interior Ministry sent these materials to an expert commission. The case is being considered by Judge Tatsiana Skopets, who ordered to hold the trial behind closed doors. However, the hearings were suspended indefinitely, after TUT.by appealed against the expert commission. The complaint will be considered by the Economic Court on July 6.
On June 30, it was reported that political prisoner, journalist, and media manager Andrei Aliaksandrau, who has been detained since January 12 on charges of organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, faced new charges of treason, a particularly serious crime punishable by 7 to 15 years in prison.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
Stsiapan Latypau, a political prisoner, reported torture while standing trial at the Saviecki District Court of Minsk. After his father was questioned in court as a witness, the political prisoner stood on a bench in the defendant’s cage and pierced an object similar to a pen into his throat, attempting suicide.
There were also reports of torture against 20-year-old Russian national Yegor Dudnikov, accused of “organizing group actions that grossly violate public order.” It is known that the criminal case against him was opened after he voiced several videos posted on the protest Telegram channels.
These and other facts, detailed in the review of the criminal proceedings in the courts, were not investigated and the perpetrators of the acts of torture went unpunished.
The wife of Artsiom Anishchuk, who was sentenced to two years in prison for damaging the car of the wife of a police officer, said during a meeting with his lawyer that he had been subjected to physical and psychological violence by the prison administration. In this regard, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" made a statement. However, it was reported that torture and ill-treatment of the prisoner continued.
Political prisoners note the deliberate deterioration of conditions of detention for those arrested in politically motivated cases, which in turn border on torture, are cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment.
The death penalty
The death row prisoner Viktar Paulau was most likely executed, according to sister. The woman has not received any letters from the convict for six weeks. When his lawyer went to the pre-trial detention center at her request, she was told that Viktar Paulau was not there.
Paulau’s sister believes that all these facts indicate that her brother was secretly executed. Viktar Paulau’s family has not yet received any official confirmation of the execution.
Guarantees of a fair trial
The authorities continue to persecute lawyers defending individuals in politically motivated criminal cases. In June, the lawyer’s license of Iryna Bertsuk was revoked.
On June 18, during the criminal trial of Volha Sinelava, who was charged with “violating the equality of citizens” after she offered assistant prosecutor Alina Kasiyanchyk, known for her participation in politically motivated trials, to terminate the apartment lease agreement, the defendant’s lawyer Andrei Machalau learned that on May 31 he was expelled from the Minsk City Bar Association. The reason was his interview, in which he reported facts of torture by GUBAZIK officers, which he learned from his other client Volha Zalatar. Lawyer Machalau is known for his involvement in several politically motivated criminal cases opened after the 2020 presidential election.
Disbarment and revocation of licenses of the most active, conscientious and principled lawyers gives a clear signal to others about the possible consequences of the free practice of the legal profession.