Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in Belarus in September 2010
The beginning of
autumn was rich in socio-political events, which was partially connected with
the approach of the presidential electoral campaign. September was marked with
forced dispersals of peaceful street actions, mass detentions, an ongoing
crackdown on freedom of expression, judicial persecution of social and
political activists, and linguistic discrimination. The untimely death of the
journalist of the web-site charter97.org Aleh Biabenin, throwing of
Molotov cocktails at the Russian Embassy and the delinquents' isolation center
in Minsk and the repeating arrests of a number of youth activists contributed
to creation of a tense atmosphere. The month ended with a human rights week in
Vilnius that included three important events – an annual meeting of the network
of Human Rights Houses, the international conference on human rights in Belarus
and the Baltic countries and the Belarusian Human Rights Forum II.
A new curriculum year started on 1 September and thousands of Belarusian children went to school, but very few of them have the possibility to learn in the Belarusian language. According to statistics, there are 1,900 secondary schools with the Belarusian language of instruction in Belarus. However, these are predominantly small rural schools, and just 18,6% school-children received education in Belarusian last year. Only Mikola Pushkin, son of a well-known artist Ales Pushkin, started learning in Belarusian in the town of Bobr in the Krupki district. Yalinka Salauyova became the only pupil of the Belarusian-language form in Mahiliou. A pupil of the fifth form Alesia Buka had to refuse from learning in a prestigious gymnasium in Hlybokaye and learn in the secondary school where there was a form with the Belarusian language of instruction.
On 10 September in Minsk representatives of the Belarusian civil society presented a monitoring of the situation in Belarus in November 2008 – September 2010. The document was worked out by experts of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the Human Rights Center Viasna, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Assembly of NGOs, the Committee to Protect the Repressed Solidarity, etc. Two days before it, on 8 September, the monitoring was presented to EU officials in Brussels. A peculiarity of this document is that its authors evaluated the progress according to a number of criteria: the situation of independent media, freedom of peaceful assemblies, freedom of association and the situation of the civil society in general. The main criterion was the consecutiveness of the changes that were introduced by the legislation. The authors of the monitoring expressed the opinion that the policy of the European Union towards Belarus needed to be effective and urged the European Union not to abolish the visa sanctions towards high-rank Belarusian officials, but just suspend them. They also recommended the European officials not provide financial support to such repressive institutions as the Belarusian KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
In September, the traditional Solidarity Day which is held on the 16th day of each month ended not only with detentions, but also with a real fight near the police station. This action is usually held in Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk. However, this September it was transferred to the ground near St. Joseph's Church in Svabody Square in connection with a campaign that was launched by the Belarusian Christian Democracy for returning the church to believers. 19 people were detained before the action. They were guarded to the Tsentralny District Police Department of Minsk and released in three hours without receiving any charges. The continuation of the action on 20 September was even more brutal. Police didn't let the defenders of the church come to the building. 12 people were detained preventively. Some of them were severely beaten on the way to the Tsentralny DPD. In particular, policemen smashed the face of the leader of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynets and kicked the leader of the Young Front Dzmitry Dashkevich in the chest. The detainees weren't presented any official charges again and were soon released.
On 14 September a special session of the Chamber of Representatives adopted a ruling about the appointment of the presidential election. As far as presidential elections are an important event in the political life of the country and the background situation was quite complicated, on 16 September representatives of the Human Rights Center Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee declared the beginning of the election observation campaign Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections. Long-term observation was conducted by 80 long-term observers, and the voting was observed by 600 short-term observers at 300 precincts in different regions, which let the human rights defenders make a conclusion about the scope of transparency and democracy of the election.
Participants of the annual meeting of the Human Rights House Network that took place on 22-23 September in Vilnius urged President Belarus Aliaksandr Lukashenka to take urgent measures to implement international standards in the sphere of human rights in Belarus. As it is stated in their address, Belarus didn't implement the EU conditions for acceding to the support program Eastern Partnership despite the ongoing dialogue between the Belarusian government and the European Union. In particular, Belarus ignored the demands to release political prisoners, ensure freedom of the media, continue the cooperation with the OSCE for reforming the electoral legislation, to improve the conditions for the activity of NGOs and guarantee the right to peaceful assemblies and political associations.
The 15th session of the UN Human Rights Council took place in Geneva at this very time. On 23 September its participants considered and adopted the concluding report of the Universal Periodical Review on human rights in Belarus. The Belarusian government ignored the recommendations to abolish Article 193.1 (which penalizes activities on behalf of unregistered public and political groups), the recommendations concerning the respect of freedom of peaceful assemblies, the electoral legislation and freedom of expression.
1. Persecution of public and political activists
On 2 September Professor Aliaksandr Astrouski, his wife Aksana, their children and human rights defender Uladzimir Khilmanovich came to Lenin Square in Hrodna and unfurled banners with slogans in front of the windows of the city executive committee to protest against violation of the right of Belarusian pupils to learn in the Belarusian language. A week later the police charged them with holding an unauthorized action. The trial was scheduled for 23 September, but wasn't conducted. Judge Natallia Kozel informed the activists that the trial wouldn't take place because of additional study of the case materials by the police.
In the beginning of September the police detained activists of the civil campaign Speak Truth! for coming to football and hockey matches in T-shirts with the inscription Truth will Win! The first incident happened on 7 September in the Dynama stadium, right before the football match Belarus-Romania. Police asked the people to unbutton their coats at the entrance of the stadium. About 50 people who were dressed in T-shirts of the Speak Truth! campaign were guarded to the police station.
On 9 September 12 activists of Speak Truth! were detained at the sportive complex Minsk-Arena before a hockey play between the Minsk Dynama and the Russian Torpedo (Nizhniy Novgorod). They were taken to the Tsentralny District Police Department of Minsk. Police not only videoed and fingerprinted the detainees, but also mocked at them – they tore away or cut T-shirts with the campaign logos and ordered the people to stand facing the wall and spread their legs far apart. The detained activists filed complaints with FIFA, UEFA and CHL against violation of their rights as fans by police. 7 persons applied to the Leninski Disrict Procuracy of Minsk and some more – to the Tsentralny District Procuracy.
About 50 people were detained in Minsk on 8 September for an attempt to hold a pillow fight that hadn't been permitted by the Minsk authorities. The action was dated to the 496th anniversary of the Battle of Orsha, which is celebrated as the Belarusian Military Glory Day by the opposition. Police started detaining potential participants of the action before its beginning. Nevertheless, youth activists managed to hold pillow fights in two places. Those who were detained were fingerprinted, mugged and videoed. Their passport data were put down as well. In some time all of them were released without getting any charges. Some minors were passed to their parents and some were released without this procedure, which is a formal law violation. Moreover, police had no right to take fingerprints and make photos and videos of under-age persons without permission of their parents. In addition, the actual time of detention was more than 3 hours as police counted it not from the moment of the detention, but from the moment when the detainees were taken to the DPD.
The attempt to mark the Day of Military Glory at the Krapiuna field (where the battle of Orsha had taken place) was accompanied with arrests as well. Concerts of folk singers have been conducted there since 1992. In 2010 festivities were to have taken place on Saturday, 11 September. However, on the eve of the action its organizer Yury Koptsik was taken to the Orsha District Police Department where he was informed that the festival was banned and was warned that he would be punished if he decided to conduct the event anyway. On Saturday morning the police blocked the roads to the Krapiuna field. Then they started detaining those who walked to an alternative place that was proposed for the action. Some people were detained even at railway stations. A total of 15 people were taken to the local police station where they were kept for four hours and released without receiving any charges.
On 3 September the police detained seven anarchists on suspicion in the arson of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Minsk. All detainees were put in the delinquents' isolation center in Akrestsin Street. On 8 September a member of the unregistered Belarusian Freedom Party Siarhei Papou, a member of the Right Alliance Ihar Chapiha and ecologist Uladzimir Valodzin were detained on suspicion in throwing Molotov cocktails at the delinquents' isolation center. According to the law, they could be detained without any charges for three days only. However, instead of being released they were detained again several times, allegedly on suspicion in relation to some other criminal cases, which contradicts to the criminal process legislation. As a result the activists spent several three-day detention terms behind bars, though almost no investigative measures were conducted.
On 13 September the ecological organizations of Belarus, Lithuania and Russia adopted a joint address to the Belarusian authorities demanding to immediately release U.Valodzin. However, Chapiha and Valodzin were released only on 17 September, and Papou was set free even later.
On 15 September the Vaukavysk District Court tried civil activist Mikalai Kavalchuk for unauthorized installation of a memorial board in honor of the 100th anniversary of poetess Larysa Heniyush on the wall of the house where she had been born. The court ruled that the activist should be fined 70,000 rubles (about $23), but the board should be returned to him.
On 20 September, Judge of the Tsentralny District Court of Homel Maryia Damnenka found an activist of the Young Belarus Ivan Zaitsau guilty of using obscene language and insubordination to the police and fined him 1,750,000 rubles (about $583). Zaitsau was seized by three people in mufti on 11 September for raising a white-red-white flag at the concert on the Day of Minsk. At the trial he explained that he had really resisted to these people as he hadn't known that they were police officers. Bear in mind that the activist was kept in custody till 13 September, when the first court sitting took place.
On 24 September, Judge of the Petrykau District Court Siarhei Brahinski found a Homel activist of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Kanstantsin Zhukouski guilty of using obscene language and insubordination to the police and sentenced him to 10 days of arrest. Testimonies against the defendant were given by policemen Auchynnikau and Hramkou who had beaten him at the festival Call of Palesse in the village of Liaskavichy in the Petrykau district on 17 September. As a result of the beating Zhukouski got to the district hospital, but was signed out in 2.5 days and continued receiving medical treatment in Homel. The judge ignored the medical diagnosis, but ‘trusted' the testimonies of the policemen. The defendant declared a hunger-strike of protest in jail.
2. Politically motivated criminal cases
On 7 September the secretariat of the Union of Belarusian Writers adopted a statement concerning the imprisonment of Mikhail Bashura.
According to the statement, Bashura was forcedly detained more than a month ago, on 6 August 2010. The investigation charged him with an ‘economical crime' – forgery of financial documents with the aim to facilitate the receipt of a bank loan by his wife. Ignoring the presumption of innocence and the possibility of a mistake, they charged Mikhail Bashura with forgery of a certificate from the place of his work.
Prior to his arrest, Mikhail Bashura took an active part in the civil campaign Speak Truth! and was repeatedly detained for it. During the last detention and search the police confiscated from him thousands of signatures for naming a Minsk street in honor of the Belarusian writer Vasil Bykau.
The secretariat of the Union of Belarusian Writers stated that the restraint chosen for Mikhail Bashura was extremely inadequate to the crime he was charged with, and demanded his immediate release from custody in conformity with the Belarusian legislation.
However, Bashura was still kept in the Zhodzina pre-trial prison and the petition of his lawyer for changing the restraint to his client was dismissed.
3. Freedom of speech and the right to impart information
On 14 September a democratic activist from Salihorsk Andrei Tychyna was fined 1,225,000 rubles for distribution of the independent press. He and a local entrepreneur Tatsiana Kuchynskaya were arrested by the police at the city market on 31 August for handing out the private socio-political newspaper My i Rynak and the unregistered Hazeta Niakliayeva. Kuchynskaya was tried on 23 September and fined 1,4 million rubles (about $467).
On 13 September the private newspaper Narodnaya Volia received the fourth warning, this time for an alleged violation of Article 4 of the Law On Mass Media that obliges newspapers to impart only information that corresponds to reality. Bear in mind that if a newspaper or its founder receive two warnings within a year, the issue of the newspaper can be suspended by court.
On 14 September the ministry also issued a warning to Brestskaya Gazeta, for publishing information that could also be found in Zarya (the printed organ of the Brest Region Executive Committee and the Brest Region Council). According to the Deputy Chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Bastunets, the Ministry of Information issued the warnings to Narodnaya Volia and Brestskaya Gazeta without trying to discriminate in the situation, although Articles 42-44 of the law On Mass Media present a detailed description of the order of correction of inaccurate information.
On 15 September, Judge of the Navahradak District Court Vasil Aliakhnovich fined activists of the Speak Truth! campaign Ivan Dziashuk and Natallia Katsmayer 700,000 rubles (about $233) for handing out the unregistered printed edition Prauda Niakliayeva.
On 15 September the Supreme Economic Court turned down an appeal of the private socio-political weekly Nasha Niva against the warnings that had been issued to it by the Information Ministry for articles concerning the Russian documentary Godfather that contains ‘undesirable' information about the life and activities of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and other high rank state officials.
On 16 September one of the oldest Belarusian NGOs, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, celebrated its 15th anniversary. In 1995 the organization was co-founded by 38 people, whereas nowadays it has more than a thousand members and five regional branches. In 1997 the Belarusian Association of Journalists became an associate member of the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ). On the day of the anniversary the Belarusian Association of Journalists stated that it will continue to defend the interests and rights of its members and other Belarusian citizens including the right to receive and impart information, and will try to protect freedom of expression as a fundamental democratic value.
4. Freedom of association
The third constituent assembly the Belarusian Christian Democracy took place on 12 September. On 17 September the package of the documents that are required for registration of the party was passed to the Ministry of Justice. According to co-Chairperson Pavel Seviarynets, the documents were filed at this very time on purpose, because in a month the EU would decide the question of extending the visa sanctions towards high-rank Belarusian authorities.
On 15 September the Assembly of NGOs adopted a statement to express its concern with the increased pressurization of NGOs with the approach of the presidential election. The statement stresses that the dissolution of the existing NGOs by court and the refusals of the Ministry of Justice to register the NGOs that still had no state registration let the authorities make use of unconstitutional Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which penalizes activities on behalf of unregistered organizations.
On 22 September, on the eve of the 15th session of the UN Human Rights Council, representatives of the Assembly of NGOs, the Human Rights Centre Viasna, the BPF Youth and other democratic NGOs held a performance in costumes of the popular cartoon characters Shrek near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus. This satirical action was a response to the hypocritical stance of the authorities who kept promising to abolish criminal punishment for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations. However, on 15 September the Belarusian Foreign Ministry sent UN a document titled The opinions and responses of the Republic of Belarus on the conclusions and/or recommendations made for further consideration by the competent authorities within the Universal Periodic Review on 14 May 2010. As it follows from the text of the document, the authorities evaded from solving fundamental issues and continued claiming there were no serious human rights problems in Belarus. For example, the opinion states that ‘Belarus does not accept the recommendation for the repeal of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code. This article is aimed at cessation of activities of extremist groups and organizations in Belarus...'.
On 29 September the Brest Region Court held a preliminary hearing on the lawsuit of public human rights association Brest Spring concerning the refusal of the main bureau of the Brest Region Executive Committee to register the organization. The official reason for the registration denial was allegedly inaccurate information in the documents submitted for registration, namely – the number of the house of one of the founders. In fact, the address was correct and the mistake was made by the regional department of internal affairs, which provided incorrect information about the place of residence of one of the founders: house 13 instead of 12. As the attempts to resolve the dispute over the registration gave no result, human rights defenders had to go to the law. The trial was scheduled for 12 October.
5. Death penalty
In early September, representatives of the international human rights organization Amnesty International Heather McGill and Aisha Jung visited Belarus within the guidelines of the campaign against the punishment of criminals with death. They met with parents of the death convicts, representatives of various NGOs, the Orthodox Church, Chairperson of the Working Group of the National Assembly on Death Penalty Mikalai Samaseika and representatives of various NGOs.
On 14 September the Mahiliou Region Court issued another death verdict. Aliaksandr Sychou and Ihar Mialik were convicted of a series of violent crimes committed by their gang in the Mahiliou region. The former was sentenced to life imprisonment and the latter – to death.
On 17 September the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus dismissed the appeals of Hrodna residents Andrei Burdyka and Aleh Hryshkautsou against the death verdicts that had been issued to them for a triple murder.
On 18 September the world-famous singer Sting supported the struggle of the Belarusian human rights defenders for the abolishment of the death penalty. He met with them before his concert in Minsk in order to sign the petition against the capital punishment within the guidelines of an appropriate campaign of the Human Rights Center Viasna, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Amnesty International. ‘It's time to change this,' said Sting in his video address.
On 23 September, the working group of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus on the death penalty took part in a round table held by the Council of Europe. ‘The abolition of the death penalty must be accompanied by introduction of an adequate prison system and acceptable alternative punishments,' stated representatives of the Council of Europe. ‘The abolition of the death penalty will bring Belarus closer to the European human rights standards'.
6. Freedom of conscience
On 16 September the Belarusian Christian Democracy launched an indefinite campaign to protect the Bernardine Monastery and the Church of St. Joseph in Minsk. Civil activists and believers gathered near the cult buildings at 7 p.m. every day. They have been trying to make the authorities return the building for five years already. A Catholic parish was registered at St. Joseph's Church on 7 August 2001. In early 2007 the military commandant's office vacated the monastery, but the funds of two state archives were still kept in the church. In 2007, Christian activists collected more than 30,000 signatures under an appeal to return the monastery, but the situation remained the same. In spring the authorities started the reconstruction of the monastery into a hotel complex.