Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in Belarus in March 2008
The 90th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic and the traditional Freedom Day rally dedicated to it were the main events in March. Preparation for Freedom Day started long before the holiday. As early as on 6 February the opposition addressed Minsk city executive committee requiring the official permission for the rally. The address was filed on behalf of the chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, Liavon Barshcheuski, the chairman of the United Civil Party, Anatol Liabedzka, the head of the For Freedom movement, Alexander Milinkevich, and the chairman of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party Narodnaya Hramada, Mikalai Statkevich. The action participants intended to gather in Yakub Kolas Square near the Belarusian State Philharmonics and march along the Nezalezhnastsi Avenue to Valadarski Street and then continue the procession along Haradzki Val, Maxim Bahdanovich, and Yanka Kupala Streets up to Yanka Kupala Square. The authorities kept their usual position and proposed their own route – from the Academy of Sciences to Banhalor Square. The action organizers did not obey to this requirement of the authorities. On 25 March the Minister of Interior Uladzimir Navumau stated that in the case the rally did not follow the officially proposed route, the police would interrupt the action with the use of physical force and riot gear.
There was another form of public mobilization besides the street procession in honor of the 90th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic – writing of a nationwide dictation with the aim to increase the status of the Belarusian language in the society. Politicians, artists, heads and activists of NGOs, ambassadors of different countries and common citizens took part in this action.
On 25-30 March there worked the public internet forum For Independence. Such topics as ‘State and political aspects of the Belarusian independence’, ‘Cultural and linguistic guarantees of the Belarusian national identity’ and ‘Economic fundamentals and perspectives of the independent Belarusian state’ were discussed there by well-known experts in political science, philosophy, law, art and economy and ordinary people.
The 90th anniversary of the BPR was also celebrated by the international community. In particular, on 10-13 March a complex of events within the frames of Belarusian Week was held at the European Parliament’s session in Strasburg. This project was initiated by the Polish deputy, Jacek Protasevicz, the head of the delegation on relations with Belarus. Belarusian Week included meetings with prominent civil and political activists of Belarus, their press conference and discussion on the topic ‘Belarus – an inalienable part of Europe’. Belarusian Week was organized by the largest fraction of the European Parliament – European People’s Party European Democrats.
As it was promised by the Minister of Interior, on 25 March participants of the festive action in Minsk were attacked by riot police squads who used violence and riot gear against unarmed people. The police made no difference between the old and the young, men and women. Dozens of marchers were beaten. About 100 of them were detained, including minors, journalists of Belarusian and foreign media and foreign citizens. On the eve of the 25 March action in Minsk and other parts of Belarus some civil and political activists were blocked and detained so that they could not participate in the rally. On 26 March the detainees were tried for ‘violating the rules of organizing and holding mass actions’. 26 persons were imprisoned, about 50 were fined.
Following the arrests the authorities started a total offense on independent mass media. On 27 March searches were conducted in the offices of many non-state media and in the private apartments of journalists all over Belarus. The official reason for the searches was a criminal case that had been brought three years ago on the fact of distribution of anti-presidential cartoons on the internet. Among the victims of the searches there are Radio Racyja, the European Radio for Belarus, BelSat TV channel, etc. Computers and all information carriers were confiscated from the journalists. The investigators stated they would examine the confiscated items with the aim to find whether they had any relation to production of the abovementioned political cartoons.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists asked the international Human Rights and journalist organizations and the heads of the European institutions to demand that the Belarusian authorities stopped this unprecedented persecution of independent journalists. According to the BAJ chair, Zhana Litvina, this action was first of all aimed at intimidation of journalists and putting barriers to information spread.
1. Politically motivated criminal cases
On 4 March the leader of Vitsebsk entrepreneurs, Siarhei Parsiukevich, was arrested in Minsk and placed to the pre-trial prison in Valadarski Street. On 13 March he was given charges under Article 364 of the Criminal Code – ‘violence or threat of violence against a policeman’. Bear in mind that on 21 January Parsiukevich had been sentenced to 15 days of arrest for participation in a peaceful protest action, held by entrepreneurs in Minsk. While serving the arrest term he was beaten by a prison guard. In order to escape responsibility for excess of his duty powers, the policeman, Alexander Dulub, accused the entrepreneur of provoking a fight and declared himself the victim in this case. On 31 January the prosecutor’s office brought the criminal case against the entrepreneur. At the end of March the case was passed to court.
On 4 March the criminal case against Andrei Kim was passed to Tsentralny district court of Minsk. The trial was appointed on 1 April. Bear in mind that Kim, an activist of the underground organization Initiative, was detained 21 January in Minsk, during the disbandment of the peaceful protest action of entrepreneurs. At first he was sentenced to 10 days of arrest. Having served the arrest term, he was not released. Instead, he was given charges under Article 364 – ‘violence or threat of violence against policeman’. The maximum penalty on this article is six years of jail. Andrei was placed to the pre-trial prison in Valadarski Street. For participation in the protest action on 10 January he also received charges under Article 342, part 1 of the Criminal Code – ‘organizing and preparing the actions grossly violating the public order, or active participation in such actions’.
On 13 March, Yuliya Kazulina, Alexander Kazulin’s daughter, filed a petition for mitigation of punishment to her father. The petition was turned down with reference to violations of the prison regime made by Alexander Kazulin. In March the German office of the international Human Rights organization Amnesty International held an action of solidarity with Kazulin. The organization called all people concerned with the fate of Alexander Kazulin to transfer to the account of the Belarusian Embassy in Berlin or Bonn 1 cent with the note ‘Freedom to Kazulin’ on 25-28 March. Amnesty International also picketed the Belarusian Embassy in Berlin on 25 March.
On 26 March the judge of Leninski district court of Hrodna, Dzmitry Kobrynets, found 23-year-old Aliaksei Sarnou guilty under Article 341 of the Criminal Code – ‘anientisement’, and fined him 1 225 000 rubles (about $575). The criminal case against Sarnou was brought 17 December 2007, after he wrote ‘Return the social guarantees’ on the walls of several buildings and was detained by the policemen who found a can with paint in his bag.
On 27 March Tsentralny district court of Minsk received the criminal ‘process of 14’. This case was brought by the prosecutor’s office against 14 participants of the peaceful action of entrepreneurs that was held on 10 January. Alexander Baradzenka, Aliaksei Bondar, Ales Charnyshou, Maxim Dashuk, Andrei Kim, Anton Koipish, Mikhail Kryvau, Mikhail Pashkevich, Uladzimir Siarheyeu, Ales Straltsou, Mikhail Subach, Tatsiana Tsishkevich, Pavel Vinahradau and the minor Artsion Dubski were charged under Article 342, part 1 – ‘organizing and preparing the actions grossly violating the public order, or active participation in such actions’. The article envisages a wide range of penalties – from a fine to three years of imprisonment.
On 27 March Polatsk city court was to have started the legal proceedings in the case of the youth activist, Katsiaryna Salauyova, who in January 2008 had been expelled from the historical-philological faculty of Polatsk State University. At the end of February she was given official charges under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code – ‘activities on behalf of unregistered organization’. The penalties on this article include a fine, up to six months of arrest and up to two years of imprisonment. The trial was postponed to 8 April, as on 25 March Katsiaryna was detained for participation in the Freedom Day act and sentenced to five days of arrest.
2. Torture and other kinds of cruel and inhuman treatment
As a result of forced disbandment of the peaceful rally on Freedom Day more than 20 persons received different traumas. Two of them, Yaraslau Hryshchenia and Yury Karetnikau, were taken to hospital. Andrei Liankevich, photographer for the non-state newspaper Nasha Niva was beaten while implementing his professional duties at the rally. Two Lithuanian journalists were detained at the action, too.
3. Fines and arrests
On 23 March about 50 persons gathered in the town park of Zhodzina near the monument Heroes Live Forever. They laid down flowers to the monument and fled white and red air balloons. The following day Zhodzina town court considered the administrative cases against the organizers of the action – Alexander Kamarouski, Pavel Krasouski, Yury Silkin and Yury Zhylka. All of them were found guilty of organizing an unauthorized action and sentenced to seven days of arrest.
On 24 March in the evening the police illegally searched the art studio of the head of Pahonia artistic society, Aliaksei Marachkin, and confiscated posters, flags and banners that were prepared from him for the 25 March action. Marachkin and the youth activist Aliaksei Kashkarou, who was also present in the art studio during the search, were guarded to Tsentralny district police department of Minsk. Violation reports under Article 17.1 (‘disorderly conduct’) were drawn up against them. Then the detainees were guarded to the remand prison in Akrestsin Street. The following day Kashkarou and Marachkin were sentenced to five days of arrest, ostensibly for ‘dirty swearing at Tsentralny district police department of Minsk’.
On 26 March Maskouski, Partyzanski, Savetski and Zavadski district courts of Minsk tried the people who were detained at the rally. All in all, 75 administrative cases were considered. In 26 cases the defendants were imprisoned for 5-15 days. The cases against minors were sent to the administrative commissions of district executive committees.
On 25 March in Vitsebsk the police detained Barys Khamaida, Antanina Pivanos and Alena Zaleskaya and the activists of the Conservative-Christian Party Belarusian People’s Front Ales Pazniak and Yan Taupyha. Pazniak and Taupyha were sentenced to 8 days of arrest, Zaleskaya was fined 700 000 rubles (about $390), Antanina Pivanos was fined 70 000 rubles (about $39) and the trial of Khamaida was postponed to 1 April.
On 25 March 14 persons were detained in Baranavichy while laying down flowers to the Cross of Sorrow. Two of them were minors and were soon released. Ales Shcharbakou, invalid since childhood, felt very bad at the police station and an ambulance had to be called for him. It arrived only an hour later. Shcharbakou was hospitalized. On 26 March the detainees were fined sums varying from 175 000 to 525 000 rubles ($82 – 246) under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code – ‘violation of the rules of organizing and holding mass actions’.
4. Freedom of expression and the right to disseminate information
On 24 March Leninski district court of Minsk found the democratic activists, Maryna Aliyeva and Alena Naporka, guilty under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the rules of organizing and holding mass actions) and fined them 350 000 rubles (about $164) each. The women were detained on 22 March for distributing the Volnaya Serabranka newspaper featuring information about the upcoming Freedom Day rally. Till trial they were kept in the remand prison in Akrestsin Street.
On 27 March the Belarusian Association of Journalists addressed the prosecutor general Ryhor Vasilevich with the requirement to ‘take all lawful measures’ for stopping the mass searches in the offices of non-state mass media and private apartments of journalists. The text of the address mentions the searches that were conducted on 27 March all over Belarus. The BAJ especially emphasized the fact that computer supplies, audio and video equipment and printed materials were confiscated from the journalists’ apartments and some persons even received writs to the KGB.
5. Freedom of conscience
On 6 March the court of Zhodzina tried the administrative case against Valiantsin Luhouski, pastor of the Church of Evangelical Christians St. Trinity Church. The pastor was fined 175 000 rules ($82) for ‘serving unauthorized mass’.
The Constitutional Court of Belarus refused to consider the proposals for amendment of the religious legislation of the country, though more than 50 000 citizens of Belarus signed under the petition for it. In the court answer it was stated that citizens had no right to introduce proposals to the Constitutional court, as it was the competence of the state organs, the parliament and the president. Siarhei Lukanin, coordinator of the campaign for protection of the freedom of conscience, said that the believers asked the Constitutional court to address the Chamber of Representatives of the parliament for amending the religious legislation, as the law allows the Constitutional court to consider each law on its own initiative. ‘Pitifully enough, we received a refusal. Moreover, I think that our appeal was ignored, as the answer was signed not even by a judge, but by a vice-secretary of the court,’ commented Lukanin.
On 24 March the prosecutor’s office of Minsk drew a violation report on the pastor of the New Life church, Viachaslau Hancharenka, for organizing collection of signatures for amendment of the religious legislation. The case was passed to court.
6. The right to peaceful assemblies
On 11-12 March Savetski district court of Minsk considered the lawsuit of the Horremautador state enterprise to the organizers of the European March rally 14 October last year. Representatives of Horremautador accused the action organizers Yauhen Afnahel, Viktar Ivashkevich, Zmitser Khvedaruk, Anatol Liabedzka, Alexander Milinkevich and Vintsuk Viachorka that as a result of deviation from the action proposed by the authorities route the action participants covered the streets of Minsk with litter. At first Horremautador stated that it had to spend 2 135 974 (about $1,000) on cleaning the streets. However, at the trial it was found that several other state enterprises of Minsk also filed financial claims against the action organizers. For instance, the housing economy of Tsentralny district of Minsk demanded 673 870 rubles for damage to dwelling houses and yards, the housing economy of Savetski district – 951 088 rubles for damage to dwelling houses, facades and ad boards, the housing economy of Leninski district – 239 697 rubles for a damaged rain pipe on house #22 in Nezalezhnastsi Avenue (though no one knows when it was damaged), Minskzelianbud enterprise – 1 433 798 rubles for material damages manifesting in a trampled lawn, a broken tree near the river of Svislach, broken bushes, etc. Thus, the total sum of financial claims became about 10 million rubles (almost $5,000). ‘These lawsuits again demonstrate the scornful attitude of the Belarusian authorities to the rights of the citizens and violate the international standards of Human Rights’, commented the Human Rights defender Valiantsin Stefanovich.
7. Activities of security services
On 19 March a KGB officer paid a visit to the work of the mother of Ihar Mikhaileuski, chairman of Rechytsa branch of the BPF Youth. He threatened that Ihar would be fined or arrested unless he stopped his activities at the BPF Youth. The KGB officer also informed the woman that her son had organized a public meeting with the former candidate for President Alexander Milinkevich. In his speech the visitor paid a special attention to the upcoming 25 March rally and warned that it would be better for Ihar not to go to Minsk that day.
8. Politically motivated dismissals from work
The actresses Hanna Salamianskaya and Maryia Yurevich were dismissed from the Russian theater and from the theater of the Belarusian army respectively. Both dismissals took place after the Free Theater’s London tour with participation of the actresses. Besides, Maryia Yurevich worked on assignment after graduation from a high school. So, according to the Belarusian laws, now she was to ‘return’ to the state the cost of education, as she failed to work on assignment for two years. The head of the Free Theater has already applied to the British actors, many of whom agreed to help in ‘buying out’ the actress.