Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2021
- during the month, the authorities continued to actively apply criminal prosecution for political reasons. Viasna knows the names of at least 103 people convicted in politically motivated criminal trials held in September;
- there were 715 political prisoners, as of late September, and the number continues to increase;
- Viasna members and volunteers continue to be held in pre-trial detention on arbitrary charges: chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, member of the Viasna’s Council, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich; lawyer, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich; coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova; Viasna member in Homieĺ, head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk;
- at least 24 journalists and media workers continue to be held in detention;
- the authorities filed lawsuits with the Supreme Court to seek the liquidation of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Legal Initiative, two leading human rights organizations (at the time of publication, the BHC was liquidated);
- detentions of participants in peaceful protests continue, as well as arbitrary arrests of citizens for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in their homes and private territories. In September, judges imposed at least 17 fines totaling 33,350 rubles and at least 64 terms of administrative imprisonment with a total duration of 924 days for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Of these, there were 6 fines and 19 prison terms under Art. 24.23 of the Administrative Code (violation of the rules for organizing and holding mass events);
- human rights defenders and journalists continue to document numerous facts of cruel treatment against people imprisoned for political reasons, protesters detained and sentenced to short terms of imprisonment for participating in peaceful assemblies. The inhuman conditions of detention deliberately created for this category of arrested persons by the authorities of detention centers and other penitentiary facilities are regarded by Viasna experts as torture;
- on 24 September, an interactive dialogue on the interim oral update of OHCHR on the situation of human rights in Belarus was held as part of the 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
Criminal prosecution for political reasons in Belarus continues to be the most severe form of repression, affecting new social groups, while maintaining a massive and widespread character.
Viasna is aware of at least 103 persons sentenced in September for political reasons to various types of punishment, including those related to imprisonment.
The number of political prisoners as of October 1 was 715 and it continues to grow steadily.
Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski, a member of the Council and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich, coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service Maryia (Marfa) Rabkova, Viasna member in Homieĺ and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk continue to be held in pre-trial detention.
On September 3, the Centraĺny District Court of Homieĺ started hearing the criminal charges against a human rights activist of Viasna Leanid Sudalenka and the organization’s volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Maryia Tarasenka. The three are accused of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and “training and preparing persons to participate in such actions, as well as financing or other material support” (Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The judge ordered the trial to be held behind closed doors throughout the proceedings.
On September 6-7, Vilnius hosted a coordination meeting to announce the launch of #FreeViasna, a campaign of solidarity with the imprisoned human rights defenders of Viasna. The campaign was launched on September 17, one year after the arrest of Marfa Rabkova, which marked the beginning of the attack on Viasna. Over 20 Belarusian and international organizations joined the campaign demanding the release of the seven detained members of Viasna and drawing attention to the plight of hundreds of other prisoners who were prosecuted and imprisoned solely for exercising their right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
On the same day, the authorities extended by another 3 months the pre-trial detention of Viasna’s youth coordinator Marfa Rabkova.
On September 6, after a month of closed sessions, the Minsk Regional Court passed a verdict in the trial of political prisoners Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak. Judge Siarhei Yepikhau found them guilty under Part 3 of Art. 361 (calls for actions against national security), Part 1 of Art. 357 (conspiracy to seize state power by unconstitutional means) and Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation and leadership of an extremist group) and sentenced them, respectively, to 11 and 10 years in prison. Numerous violations of the principle of publicity and other procedural guarantees of the accused ruled out the possibility of passing a sentence that would meet the principles of a fair trial.
First Deputy Chairman of the Investigative Committee Aleh Shandarovich said that more than 5,000 “protest-related crimes” have been registered since August 9, 2020. Of these, about 3,300 were reportedly committed in the nine months of 2021. Cases related to “extremist and protest activity” make up only 5.5% of the total array of criminal cases in the country. The authorities exposed almost 2,000 cases of libel and insults, which, as a rule, were made online. According to the Investigative Committee, about 80% of these “crimes” were committed by foreign citizens. About a quarter of the registered facts are cases of “vandalizing buildings” and “damage to property”. Shandarovich noted that less than 3% of the crimes of this category were committed with the actual use of violence.
To date, the authorities have completed the investigations of 2,000 protest-related criminal cases involving almost 1,500 people. For example, in the Brest “dancing protest case”, criminal prosecution affected 129 people. 104 of them have already stood trials or will do so in the near future. The Investigative Committee is currently working on about 1,100 criminal cases involving more than 1,200 defendants.
The official also revealed certain geographical peculiarities: the protest activity is less typical for the eastern regions of Belarus. In Viciebsk, Mahilioŭ and Homieĺ regions, there are much fewer criminal cases as compared to Minsk, Hrodna and Brest.
According Viasna’s database, since late September 2020, Belarusian courts have convicted at least 958 people charged with political criminal charges. Of these, 158 are women and 800 are men. Over the past year, 17 minors were convicted for participating in the protests, of which 11 were sentenced to imprisonment in juvenile colonies, the rest to restricted freedom and short terms in prison. Most convicts were sentenced to imprisonment in penal colonies – 444 people. 239 people were sentenced to restricted freedom and sent to open correctional institutions. 232 persons were sentenced to home confinement. 12 people were fined, and 23 were sentenced to criminal detention. Four of them were sentenced to suspended imprisonment, and only one person was punished with a compulsory educational measure.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Criminal and administrative prosecution of participants in peaceful protests and dissidents continues.
On September 13, the Minsk City Court in a closed session considered an appeal filed to challenge the extension of the pre-trial detention of political prisoner Volha Zalatar. The hearing revealed that, in addition to Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation of an extremist group), she is also charged under Parts 1 and 2 of Art. 342 (organization of actions that grossly violate public order, and training persons to participate in them) and Part 6 of Art. 16, Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (complicity in organizing actions that grossly violate public order). The charges stem from the authorities’ interpretation of the fully legitimate public activity during and after the August 2020 elections. Zalatar is a mother of five.
Police officers continue to organize special operations, mostly in Minsk, breaking into houses and apartments in search of protest symbols and detaining people at work; they conduct daily searches and interrogations.
In Minsk, one of these operations ended tragically, after Andrei Zeltser mortally wounded a KGB officer and was killed by return fire in a raid on his apartment carried out by security forces in civilian clothes. Zeltser’s wife, Maryia Uspenskaya, was arbitrarily detained on suspicion of complicity in the murder.
The KGB immediately called the deceased Zeltser a “particularly dangerous criminal”, and as early as the following morning the Prosecutor General’s Office said that it had investigated the incident and found no abuse of power on the part of the KGB officers. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case into the murder of a KGB officer.
In justifying their special operations on “addresses where persons involved in terrorism could be located,” the country’s security forces are increasingly referring to an alleged legitimate aim, i.e. conducting a search authorized by the prosecutor, which allows breaking into private apartments.
The authorities are intensifying various forms of pressure and repression for expressing an active civil position and dissatisfaction with the actions of the authorities. The courts continue to hear administrative cases involving people detained for allegedly displaying flags and stickers on the windows of their apartments, storing protest insignia in their homes, hanging national flags and other symbols in public places and other forms of protest or expression.
In September, judges imposed at least 17 fines totaling 33,350 rubles and at least 64 terms of administrative imprisonment with a total duration of 924 days for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Of these, 6 fines and 19 short terms of detention were imposed under Art. 24.23 of the Administrative Code (violation of the rules for organizing and holding mass events).
Over the last month, judges imposed at least 7 administrative fines and 12 terms of administrative imprisonment for distributing, manufacturing, storing and transporting information products “containing calls for extremist activities or promoting such activities” under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code; this norm is often used by the Belarusian authorities for repressions against dissidents.
Judge Inesa Kurko of the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk completed hearing the civil suit of Minsktrans, a government-owned public transport operator, against political prisoner Dzmitry Kubarau, who was earlier convicted of “organizing mass riots.” The court ordered to recover from him more than 45 thousand rubles in damages allegedly caused by the disruptions of transport on August 11-12, 2020, and a court fee, which totaled about 16 thousand euros. This is the first court decision to recover compensation for “blocking roads” during the protests of 2020.
A widespread instrument of repression is persecution on defamation charges, including slander against the president, insulting government officials, judges, police officers or the president (Articles 367, 368, 369, 391 of the Criminal Code). People arrested on these charges stand daily trials across Belarus.
In particular, Alesia Bokhun was sentenced to two years of restricted freedom (“khimiya”) for commenting on a story about Komar, a violent police officer in Babrujsk. The woman posted a comment under his photo reading “What a mug!”
On April 20, Alena Hnauk reportedly insulted Lukashenka during her examination as a defendant in a criminal case. The pensioner said: “On August 9 last year, the power was seized by a not quite mentally healthy person”, for which she was found guilty and her term of restricted freedom was increased by one year.
On September 7, in the Zavodski District Court passed a verdict in another criminal trial against political prisoner Aliaksei Lipen for “insulting an official” (Article 369 of the Criminal Code). Prior to that, he was tried for insulting police officers on social media three times: April 13, May 31 and July 15. In total, Lipen was sentenced to 5 years of restricted freedom in an open penitentiary. The verdict, however, did not affect his term of imprisonment, 5 years.
During the arbitrary arrest of Dzmitry Liaukovich, two police officers pinned him to the ground and one of the officers kicked him in the head. During the beating, he shouted "Let go, fa****s!”. The two officers were eventually called victims in a criminal case of “insulting representatives of the authorities” and Liaukovich was sentenced to two years of restricted freedom (home confinement).
These and other cases indicate the continuing practice of reprisals for public statements, including on social media, and for other acceptable forms of expression.
Pressure on journalists and the media
As of late September, there were at least 24 media representatives held in detention or in prisons.
Journalists continue to be arbitrarily detained on a regular basis. Media workers are searched and their homes are raided. Journalists are imprisoned for performing their professional duties.
On September 1, the police searched the apartment of Maksim Biarezinski, chief editor of the sports portal by.tribuna.com. The officers broke his front door, confiscating a hard drive, several external memory drives, white-and-red bracelets, a magnet with the Pahonia emblem and a baseball bat with Tribuna’s logo. It is also known that the apartment of another employee of the portal was searched a few days earlier.
The Investigative Committee refused to release political prisoner, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva Yahor Martsinovich. His meetings with family members were also not allowed. Martsinovich requested a release pending trial under personal guarantee from two well-known Belarusian scientists.
The Prosecutor’s Office of the Brest region ordered to restrict access to the news website media-polesye.by. The Ministry of Information blocked the websites belaruspartisan.by, freesmi.by and 6tv.by. On September 29, the Security Council and the Ministry of Information ruled to restrict access to kp.by, the website of the Russian-owned daily Komsomol'skaya Pravda V Belarusi. In September, more than 40 socio-political Telegram channels and groups in social media were labelled as “extremist”. This means a ban on citing any materials from these sources under the threat of a fine and administrative imprisonment.
The above restrictions on freedom of speech cannot be substantiated by considerations and arguments admissible from the point of view of Belarus’s international obligations in the field of human rights.
Violations of freedom of association
The Belarusian authorities continue the practice of total restriction of the right to freedom of association. In September, Ecohome, one of the oldest NGOs dealing with environmental issues, was liquidated. Founded in 1996, Ecohouse promoted green energy, an eco-friendly lifestyle, and the idea of sustainable development. Lawsuits were filed for the liquidation of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (liquidated on October 1) and Legal Initiative, leading human rights organizations of Belarus.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
The International Accountability Platform for Belarus issued a statement in response to the decision by the Investigative Committee of Belarus to not to investigate reports of torture and other crimes, including ill-treatment and sexual violence. The Investigative Committee’s statement of August 26 demonstrates the “unwillingness of Belarus to conduct a prompt, effective and impartial investigation into charges of the involvement of state bodies in crimes under international law.” “The blanket refusal of the Investigative Committee of Belarus to initiate criminal investigations […] violates Belarus’ obligations under international law,” the appeal reads.
In early February 2021, five men were convicted of damaging the car of the wife of a top official of the Interior Ministry’s Department of Corrections, deputy head of the department for the organization of operational-regime work, Aliaksandr Heits. In late April, they were sent to serve their sentences in different colonies, where some of them faced pressure. Pavel Sakharchuk was penalized with confinement to a punishment cell on trumped-up reasons, deprived of food parcels and family visits, and his mail was blocked. An inmate of the Navapolack-based colony No. 1, Yahor Yaustratau was placed in a cell-type room (PKT) for six months and is facing tougher imprisonment conditions. After four months of pressure and torture in colony No. 15 in Mahilioŭ, Artsiom Anishchuk was transferred to a pre-trial prison in Homieĺ. The relatives of these prisoners say the pressure is linked to the high position of the alleged victim in their trial.
During the consideration of the criminal case of Pavel Yaitski at the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk, the defendant told about the torture he underwent after arrest. Two men in civilian clothes came for Pavel, handcuffed him behind his back, and took him to the car. They beat him in the stomach and twisted his arms behind his back, although he did not resist detention. After Yaitski was brought to the GUBOPiK building, he was beaten on the buttocks with truncheons and forced to sign confession papers. In the pre-trial detention center, Pavel had bruises on his body. The court made no effort to organize an investigation into the torture report and issued a guilty verdict.
The persons involved in other politically motivated criminal cases also report torture.
These and other facts were not investigated, and the perpetrators of torture went unpunished.
Released political prisoners continue to complain about the deliberate deterioration of detention conditions for those arrested on politically motivated charges, which, as a result, border on torture and constitute cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment. The human rights activists of Viasna continue to receive information about the inhuman conditions in the detention facilities of Minsk. Those detained and imprisoned for political reasons are held in overcrowded cells, receive neither medical assistance, nor walks, or parcels. Prison staff do not respond to complaints about cockroaches in cells, and COVID-19 patients are often not treated or isolated from healthy people.
Prisoners held in criminal cases are also kept in cruel conditions. Prisoners in colonies are subjected to pressure and torture.
Fair trial guarantees
In early September, human rights defenders learned that back on August 11 lawyer Dzmitry Lazavik was expected to undergo certification by a qualification commission at the Ministry of Justice, but did not appear at the meeting. It was later revealed that the lawyer left the country. On August 13, a search was carried out at the place of the lawyer’s registration as part of a criminal case in which Lazavik was a defender (of political prisoner, philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich).
On September 21, the Ministry of Justice annulled the special permits (licenses) for the right to practice law earlier issued to lawyers Volha Karpushonak, Yuliya Knyaz and Yauhen Maslau.
The death penalty
On September 5, STV, a government-controlled TV channel, aired a story about the investigation of a series of murders of pensioners near Sluck in 2019, for which Viktar Skrundzik was eventually sentenced to death. The narrator hinted that the convict could have been executed. “Today he is 30. He could be. The first death sentence of 2021,” said the journalist. However, Skrundzik’s sister, Nadzeya, has not yet receives any official confirmation of the execution. According to her, she received the last letter from her brother on August 19.
As Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus” notes, there is still no official confirmation of the execution of Viktar Paulau. The likely execution was revealed by his sister back on June 10.
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Committee published on September 7 its decision on the case of Aliaksei Mikhalenia, who was executed in May 2018. The Committee concluded that Mikhalenia’s right to life and a number of other rights had been violated under article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as he was sentenced to death as a result of an unfair trial.