Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2021
- in July, the authorities continued to prosecute individuals for political reasons. Viasna is aware of at least 107 people 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 were 604 political prisoners as of July 31; their number continues to increase;
- on July 14, three more members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” were detained on criminal charges: Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the organization, Valiantsin Stefanovich, member of Viasna’s Board and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Uladzimir Labkovich, lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”. Earlier, the authorities imprisoned coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, a member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk. All of them are still held in pre-trial detention facilities. Several other members of the organization were briefly detained in July. Numerous politicians, human rights activists and international human rights organizations sharply criticized the new attack on civil society organizations and in particular on the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and its activists;
- at least 26 journalists and media workers continue to be held in detention;
- more than 50 non-profit organizations were administratively liquidated by the authorities in July, with several more NGOs expected to be liquidated in the near future;
- the authorities continue to detain peaceful protesters and other individuals over display of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. In July, Viasna documented at least 27 fines totaling 52,500 rubles and at least 58 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 932 days. There are reports of at least 327 people detained during the month;
- criminal prosecution of journalists continues;
- human rights defenders and journalists continue to record numerous cases of ill-treatment of individuals detained or administratively imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies. The inhumane conditions of detention deliberately created for this category of detainees are viewed by Viasna experts as torture;
- the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called on individuals, groups and organizations to provide information and documentation concerning all alleged human rights violations committed in Belarus since May 1, 2020, including possible gender aspects of such violations;
- during the month, the human rights situation in the country continued to deteriorate significantly.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
Political persecution continues to be the most severe form of repression, preserving its routine and pervasive nature.
The Prosecutor General reported that more than 4,200 criminal cases related to extremism and terrorism have been opened in Belarus since last summer. According to him, 803 criminal cases have already been filed against 1,116 people; 704 criminal cases against 955 persons were considered by courts.
At the same time, the Investigative Committee reported the initiation of 4,691 criminal cases since August 2020, related to “illegal mass events, riots, protests, encroachment on state sovereignty and public safety, deliberate destruction and damage to property, violence and death threats against officials and members of their families.” The largest group are the crimes under Art. 341 (vandalizing buildings and damage to property) and Art. 369 (insult of a government official). The investigation of 857 criminal cases has been completed; of them, the prosecutors submitted to the courts 825 criminal cases related to 1,184 crimes.
Viasna is aware of at least 107 convicts in politically motivated criminal trials that took place during the month.
The number of political prisoners as of August 1 was 604. This figure continues to grow.
In July, opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich, blogger and head of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s nomination group Siarhei Tsikhanouski, members of his team Artsiom Sakau and Dzmitry Papou, bloggers Ihar Losik and Uladzimir Tsyhanovich continued to stand trial in a closed session in a pre-trial detention facility in Homieĺ. The scope of the charges they are facing ranges from “organizing actions that grossly violate public order” and “preparing riots” to “incitement to social hatred” and “obstruction of the work of the CEC.”
On July 6, the Supreme Court sentenced Viktar Babaryka, an alternative candidate for the presidency in the 2020 election, to 14 years in prison for allegedly receiving a bribe in a particularly large amount (Part 3 of Article 430 of the Criminal Code) and legalization of funds obtained by criminal means (Part 2 of Article 235). Along with him, the court sentenced former employees of Belgazprombank Siarhei Shaban, Dzmitry Kuzmich, Kiryl Badzei, Aliaksandr Iliyasiuk and Siarhei Dabraliot to five and a half years in a penal colony each. Viktar Kabiak, the founder of the Activeleasing company, was sentenced to three years in prison. The verdict is final and cannot be reviewed on appeal. Babaryka has already been sent to penitentiary No. 1 in Navapolack and started serving his sentence.
On July 12, the Lieninski District Court of Brest passed a verdict in a criminal case under Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (participation in riots) against twelve people. This is the fourth group of Brest residents convicted of “mass riots” that allegedly took place on August 9 and 10 last year. The sentences range from three years in a juvenile penitentiary (for two minors) to four and a half years in prison.
A court in Minsk convicted eleven defendants in a political trial dubbed as the “students’ case”, sentencing them to up to two and a half years in a penal colony. Students of Minsk universities Kseniya Syramalot, Yahor Kanetski, Illia Trakhtenberg, Tatsiana Yakelchyk, Kasia Budzko, Yana Arabeika, Viktoryia Hrankouskaya, Anastasiya Bulybenka, Maryia Kalenik and Hleb Fitsner, Medical University graduate Alana Gebremariam and university professor Volha Filatchankava were charged under Part 2 of Art. 17 (crime committed by a group of persons by prior conspiracy) and Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order). The defense maintained the innocence of the defendants.
On July 14, after a police raid on offices and homes, three more members of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" were detained on criminal charges: the chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, a member of Viasna’s Board and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and Uladzimir Labkovich, lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, together with his partner, Nina Labkovich, managing director at the Belarus Business Angels Network (released 10 days later). Several other members of the organization - Alena Laptsionak, Siarhei Sys, Aleh Matskevich, Andrei Paluda, Viktar Sazonau, Aliaksandr Kaputski and Yauheniya Babayeva - were briefly detained but eventually released. The human rights defenders are targeted in a criminal investigation under Part 2 of Art. 243 and Parts 1 and 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code.
On the same day, security forces also searched the offices of the Movement “For Freedom”, the Imena charity NGO, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Batskaushchyna NGO, the Legal Transformation Center “Lawtrend”, the BPF Party, the Lev Sapieha Foundation and a number of other organizations. The leaders of some of these NGOs were detained and taken for questioning. Siarhei Matskevich, the head of the Supolnasts Center, was detained for three days.
The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Joseph Borrel made a statement on Belarus in connection with the new large-scale attack on independent voices in the country. In his opinion, the new wave of repression is “yet another proof that the Lukashenko regime is waging a systematic and well-orchestrated campaign with the ultimate aim to silence all remaining dissident voices and suppress civic space in Belarus.” The EU called on the Belarusian authorities to adhere to the country's international obligations to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.
Several major international non-governmental organizations and political structures supported human rights activists and other NGOs. 161 human rights organizations from around the world demanded an end to repression against the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and other human rights activists in Belarus.
Human rights activists continue to be under criminal investigations.
Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers, Leanid Sudalenka, a member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and head of the Strategic Litigation Center, and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk are still held in pre-trial detention facilities.
There are reports that Marfa Rabkova’s health deteriorated significantly. In particular, she has lost consciousness twice over the past few weeks. However, she continues to remain in detention since September 17 facing arbitrary charges.
On July 31, head of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Siarhei Drazdouski and the organization’s legal advisor Aleh Hrableuski were released to await trial under travel restrictions.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly
Criminal and administrative prosecution of peaceful protesters continues.
Police officers continue to break into houses and apartments in search of protest symbols, conduct searches, detaining individuals and taking them for interrogations. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and dissatisfaction with government’s policies. The courts routinely hear administrative charges against individuals detained for displaying or flags and stickers on windows and storing them in their apartments, hanging out national flags and other symbols, as well as for other forms of protest or expression.
Viasna is aware of at least 27 fines totaling about 52.5 thousand and at least 58 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 932 days imposed in July. There are reports of the detention of at least 327 people.
Suppression of freedom of expression
According to human rights activists, the most common criminal instrument of repression today is persecution for defamation: insulting the president, government officials, judges and police (Articles 368, 369, and 391 of the Criminal Code). Trials for these offenses are held throughout Belarus on a daily basis.
On June 29, Katsiaryna Vinnikava, a graduate of the Law Faculty at the Belarusian State University, said in her speech at a graduation meeting that other graduates should “love, protect and defend law with the honor and dignity of a true lawyer, regardless of the difficulties.” She also thanked her former teachers who “showed by their example what law is and what it takes to be a lawyer,” including former professors Alena Basalai and Alena Layeuskaya, who were fired for their views, and arrested lawyer Maksim Znak. The next day, on June 30, she was summoned to the Leninski district police department of Minsk, interrogated for seven hours and detained until the next morning. Vinnikava was not allowed to see her lawyer. On July 2, Vinnikava was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention for “holding an unauthorized rally” (Article 24.23 of the Administrative Code).
On July 6, the Minsk District Court convicted Natallia Krasko in a criminal case. She was accused of slandering the Prosecutor General of Belarus Andrei Shved (Article 188 of the Criminal Code). In a public chat under the post on increasing responsibility for extremism on February 1, the woman wrote that the Prosecutor General was a criminal. The alleged victim estimated the moral damage at 10,000 rubles. The prosecutor asked to imprison the defendant for 2.5 years in an open correctional facility. As a result, the court sided with the prosecution and sentenced Krasko to 2 years of restricted freedom and a fine of 9,000 rubles.
These and other cases indicate the continuation of the practice of repression for freedom of expression, including on social media, and other forms of expression.
Pressure on journalists and the media
As of late July, according to the BAJ, there were 26 media representatives in prisons.
Journalists are regularly arbitrarily detained, searched and imprisoned for their work.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a statement urging the Belarusian authorities to stop the destruction of independent media and freedom of speech in Belarus.
On July 8, security forces searched the offices of several independent media outlets, detained journalists, blocked Nasha Niva's and Euroradio's websites.
FIDH and Viasna condemned the new attacks that threaten to destroy the last free media in Belarus and what is left of freedom of speech and association.
On July 16, the homes of journalists of Belsat, RFE/RL’s Belarus service and other media and NGOs were searched as part of criminal investigations. Several people were detained.
Representatives of the online newspaper Nasha Niva, editor-in-chief Yahor Martsinovich and head of the marketing department Andrei Skurko, have been detained since July 8. Nasha Niva’s Andrei Dynko and Volha Rakovich, RFE/RL’s Aleh Hruzdzilovich, Inesa Stuzhynskaya and Ales Dashchynski, as well as Ihar Iliyash and Hanna Haliota of Belsat TV were detained for several days.
Violations of freedom of association
Since the beginning of the year, the offices of dozens of NGOs and in the apartments of activists have been searched across Belarus. In July, the authorities took steps to eliminate civil society organizations. In particular, it is known that the oldest Belarusian organizations, PEN Belarus and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, are in the process of liquidation. Dozens of other non-profit organizations have already been liquidated. The vast majority of organizations are wound up without any claims from the supervisory authorities, without prior notice and in the absence of any opportunities to challenge the decision. The country’s leading human rights organizations reacted to the repressions by issuing a statement demanding an end to the demolition of civil society organizations, intimidation and persecution of activists, and suppression of freedom of expression. They called on international organizations to publicly react to the authorities' policies and to use all possible means to change them and to continue to support civil society organizations or Belarus.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment
On July 1, at a court hearing in the trial of anarchist Mikalai Dziadok in the Minsk City Court, documents proving the use of torture against him were announced, including an expert opinion and a decision to refuse to initiate a criminal case regarding Dziadok's testimony on being tortured. The court did not respond to this information properly.
Torture, psychological pressure and threats were also reported by the defendants in a criminal trial involving Pavel Niadbaila, Rastsislau Stefanovich, Artsiom Kasakouski and others. In particular, Dzmitry Lastouski reported death threats, Yauhen Prapolski – torture by electric shocks. Rastislau Stefanovich, Pavel Niadbaila and Aliaksandr Reznik said that they were beaten during arrest. The court rejected the request of the defense attorneys of the last three defendants to attach torture report the case file. Human rights activists issued a statement demanding an investigation into the torture allegations.
These and other facts, listed in detail in a review of the criminal proceedings in the courts, were not investigated and the perpetrators of torture went unpunished.
After their release, several political prisoners continue to note the deliberate deterioration of detention conditions for those arrested on politically motivated charges, which in turn border on torture, cruel, degrading and inhumane treatment. Likewise, prisoners arrested in criminal cases are held in harsh conditions.
The detained chairman of the BPF party Ryhor Kastusiou was transferred from the KGB jail to a prison hospital after he complained of a heart problem and swelling. Kastusiou was detained on April 12 in a criminal case of “conspiracy to seize power in an unconstitutional manner.”
Guarantees of a fair trial
Criminal lawyers defending persons in politically motivated cases continue to be severely persecuted. In July, the authorities revoked the licenses of lawyers Anton Hashynski, former counsel for Andrei Aliaksandrau and Yegor Dudnikov, and Dzmitry Layeuski, who represented Viktar Babaryka and Maksim Znak, as well as lawyer Katsiaryna Zhaltanoha. The deprivation of the licenses of these and other lawyers are examples of inadmissible arbitrary interference in the activities of the bar, which became possible due to the broadest powers of the Ministry of Justice under the legislation governing the activities of lawyers and bar associations.
The deprivation of licenses and the disbarment of the most active, conscientious and principled lawyers gives another unequivocal signal to those who remain in the profession about the possible consequences of the free practice of the legal profession.
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Committee ruled in the case of lawyer Aleh Aheyeu, who was deprived of his license in 2011. The Committee concluded that the “revocation of the author’s lawyer’s licence and the manner it was done reveal a grave and unjustifiable interference by the State party’s authorities with the fundamental principle of the independence of the legal profession.”