Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in January 2014
In January, human rights situation remained consistently bad with a tendency toward conservation of negative practices that evolved over the previous years. There were no positive changes, either in law or in law enforcement. Opportunities of exercising citizens’ rights were severely limited, especially in the sphere of freedom of expression on various issues, including through public gatherings. None of the peaceful assemblies planned across the country were allowed by local authorities, while unauthorized events were stopped with violent methods followed by bringing administrative charges against their participants. The practice of preventive and repressive suppression of any dissent, citizens’ initiatives not controlled by the authorities, manifestations of solidarity, and a wide coverage of problematic issues contributed to the decline of public activity of citizens. The authorities continued using such an instrument of pressure as the imposition of prosecutorial warnings for activity on behalf of unregistered organizations, while the option of legalizing public initiatives through obtaining registration from institutions of justice remained impossible for various formal or frivolous reasons.
The most pressing problem, the existence of political prisoners, still remained unsolved. The Belarusian authorities continued to demonstrate the lack of political will to address the issue, while eleven political prisoners were still held in places of detention: Ales Bialiatski, Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalai Autukhovich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich, Andrei Haidukou, Uladzimir Yaromenak and Vasil Parfiankou. The head of state in January made some speculative public statements concerning the fate and possible mechanisms for the release of two prisoners of conscience, Ales Bialiatski and Mikalai Statkevich.
In particular, on January 21, at a meeting with representatives of the leading media of Belarus held in the Independence Palace, Aliaksandr Lukashenka claimed he did not know that members of the public had a long time ago reimbursed for the damage allegedly caused to the state by Ales Bialiatski. Lukashenka ordered his first deputy head of his Administration, Aliaksandr Radzkou, to verify this information. “This is a serious argument. This is not about politics or the position of Bialiatski himself. I swear I did not and do not know him,” said Lukashenka, noting that “paying taxes is a sacred thing”. According to the President, if the information on compensation is confirmed, application of amnesty to Bialiatski should be considered. No information about the results of the “check” was reported by the end of the month, and this statement in no way affected the fate of the imprisoned human rights defender. Besides, the use of the amnesty law in respect of Ales Bialiatski was unlikely, as he had a number of penalties and the status of a “violator of the prison rules”, in connection with which he was not covered by the amnesty law in 2012.
In addition, director of the BelaPAN news agency, Ales Lipai, mentioned the possibility of granting amnesty to Statkevich, “As far as I understand, no clemency petitions from them are required for this. In particular, Statkevich was a presidential candidate in the 2010 election. He received the most severe sentence among those convicted of organizing mass riots, six years, and has already served more than half of the term. But even the people who stormed the government house and broke the glass have already been released, and Statkevich neither participated in such activities nor called for riots. He is apparently one of those people who will not ask for clemency even under pressure. It would be in the best traditions of Christianity and the Belarusian people to forgive him for flaying the government and helping organize a peaceful protest which, beyond his will, turned into a smashing of windows and beating people. If they are pardoned, it will help establish a dialogue with the European Union, a dialogue that is certainly in the interests of the Belarusian people, and therefore must be in the interests of the head of the state.” In response, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said he had repeatedly mentioned the country's practice of pardon: the convicted person should write a petition for clemency to be considered. “You needn’t write that you are guilty,” said the head of state. When asked by Ales Lipai whether that meant that if Statkevich wrote a plea for clemency, but there were no confession of his guilt, then he would be released, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said, “Maybe we will do it, but the procedure must be observed. Politically, Statkevich is not a rival for me,” said Lukashenka. “Statkevich is a political corpse for Belarusians. In the last election, he pursued this policy for the benefit of the President. He has not been my rival or a politician, and he never will. Statkevich is not worth to be a stumbling block in our relations with the EU.” Thus, Aliaksandr Lukashenka gave an unequivocal message that writing a clemency petition was the only way for Statkevich to be released early, which the prisoner, in his turn, clearly denied.
At the same meeting, Aliaksandr Lukashenka announced the resumption of a dialogue with the West, “For some time recently we have not been criticizing or pressurizing each other. We have started to talk.” According to the President, “We conducted a number of events, though these events were not public. Many Europeans who come here often ask us to keep things private. I speak with them frankly if they want to meet with me. I never refuse to receive them; I speak with everyone – from US congressmen to ordinary politicians and even former politicians from Europe. Of course, they have influence in their countries. We have held many meetings like that; we have established a kind of dialogue,” said Lukashenka. “Although we do not sit at the common table and discuss problems (we will do it eventually, though), there is some dialogue and it is good.”
The positive dynamics in relations between the European Union, individual countries and the official Minsk were stressed at a round table on the Belarusian-European relations after the Eastern Partnership’s Vilnius summit held on 29 January in Minsk. Meanwhile, Rodolphe Richard, head of Political, Press and Information Section at the EU Delegation to Belarus, said that the European Union was not ready to compromise with the authorities on the issue of political prisoners in Belarus. “For the full-fledged resumption of relationships, there are some conditions that have not yet been resolved. I do not see any possibility to compromise here on our part. If concrete decisions are not taken, it will be difficult to do something on our part,” said Mr. Richard. Aleh Shloma, head of the EU Desk of the European Cooperation Department at the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, commenting on the issue of political prisoners, in turn, said, “The issue is familiar to us. But this does not mean that it is the only obstacle, and if it is removed, there will come a happy future in our relations with the EU. Let’s be realistic, when we wake up tomorrow, even if these people are released from prison, we will not see that we have become a good friend of the European Union showered with its money, and we will become the European Union’s favorites. Too much negativity has been accumulated and it will take time and joint efforts to overcome it. We do not close our eyes to it. But this is one of the issues,” said the representative of the Foreign Ministry.
These statements of both the Belarusian leadership and representatives of the EU clearly witnessed the ongoing dialogue on the issue of political prisoners and the preservation of the European Union’s position on restoration of full cooperation only after the release of political prisoners. Despite the fact that the foreign policy factor continued to be one of the most powerful levers of influence on the Belarusian leadership’s stance on this issue, no positive changes occurred in practice by the end of the month.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On January 3, political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich was visited in Hrodna prison by his wife Alena Autukhovich. The meeting lasted for two hours, they talked through thick glass using telephones. Speaking about the health of her husband, she said that Mikalai “goes strong, three months remain, and he will be able to live it through with dignity, even though they use all sorts of provocations against him”. Alena Autukhovich noted that at the time of the visit Autukhovich had not yet received the medical parcel the prisoner’s mother sent him back in mid-December. On January 7, Mikalai Autukhovich turned 51. Over the last five years, the political prisoner has celebrated his birthdays in prison after being sentenced to a five year prison term. It was not until January 25 that reports said Autukhovich had received the parcel with essential medicines.
On January 4, Maryna Adamovich, wife of the political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, said that the prisoner’s letter sent to his brother, who lived in Ukraine, telling of pro-EU protests and Ukraine’s relations with Russia had not passed the prison censorship. An empty envelope was returned to Statkevich instead. According to Maryna Adamovich, Statkevich noted in his last letter that he had already served three years, or exactly half of his sentence. “He writes time is flying very fast for him,” explains Maryna Adamovich. On January 22, Ms. Adamovich received a letter from her husband, in which he actually answered the question of whether he could agree to write a petition for clemency to be released from prison, “Our colleagues from the Social Democratic Party of Germany are now in the government, and they are using quiet diplomacy now to seek my release, just like Khodorkovsky. But I am opposed to secret diplomacy where different tools are needed. And I am not Khodorkovsky, I am a presidential candidate, and he is a businessman. Therefore, I will write no petitions. For I called people to come to the Square, tens of thousands came in spite of fear. And I cannot betray so many people.” On January 23, a rally of solidarity with Mikalai Statkevich was held in the center of the Polish city of Katowice to mark 1,000 days of his detention. Next to a tent with the image of the political prisoner, employees of MEP Marek Migalski’s office offered passers-by to sign cards calling for the release of Statkevich, which were later sent to Lukashenka.
On January 4, Maryna Lobava, mother of the political prisoner Eduard Lobau, reported that after a long silence her son managed to call home on Christmas. Maryna Lobava noted that his voice was very joyful and cheerful. Eduard Lobau continued to study to be an electrician and was already performing certain work assignments. The political prisoner also managed to phone home on 6 and 14 January. Ms. Lobava said she had been twice called by Father Dzmitry, who usually visited the political prisoner, and said that he was again going to her son in the colony as soon as he found time for it.
On January 4, in a letter to a civil society activist Volha Mikalaichyk, political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou wrote that he was not allowed to sit or lie on the bunk in the daytime in the transit point of the Zhodzina colony where he was awaiting a transfer to the colony in Horki: as a result, he was forced to be on his feet all day long. The political prisoner said he was hungry for information: there was no TV and he did not receive any newspapers, and he had no money on his account, as the Svetlahorsk activity therapy center had not yet returned him half a million roubles, Vasil could not buy postcards or envelopes to correspond. On January 12, Vasil Parfiankou’s parents sent him some money so that he could buy envelopes and paper, as well as foodstuffs. On January 28, the Minsk City Court considered an appeal in the case of political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou. The verdict of the Pershamaiski District Court, one year of imprisonment, remained unchanged and the appeal was dismissed.
On January 15, Executive Secretary of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Dzianis Sadouski said that political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich celebrated New Year’s Day in solitary confinement of prison No. 4 in Mahiliou, having received a penalty of 10 days on December 27, 2013. In total, since October 2011, Yauhen Vaskovich has spent 247 days in a punishment cell. Most punishments were handed down on the same ground, “for failure to comply with the legitimate demands of the prison staff”. Being 186 centimeters tall, the political prisoner weighed only 65 kilograms. On January 30, Yauhen Vaskovich’s mother and grandmother received a right to a short meeting with the political prisoner – two hours of telephone conversation through glass. According to the prisoner’s mother, Rushaniya Vaskovich, her son has lost weight, saying that this is due to a lack of sun and vitamins. It is still a pressing problem for Yauhen Vaskovich to receive newspapers.
On January 25, Valiantsina Alinevich, mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said after a brief meeting with her son that he was delighted to receive the news about the Frantsishak Aliakhnovich award his book, “Going to Magadan”, received, but didn't consider himself a writer. He noted that it was most important for him that his work helped a lot of people learn what was going on in the “Amerykanka”, the KGB prison in Minsk. Speaking of his future literary plans, Ihar Alinevich said it is virtually impossible to implement them, since as soon as he sat down to write something, including letters, three people immediately appeared behind him to keep track of what he had written. His latest meeting was videotaped by the administration of the Navapolatsk colony. The political prisoner was forced to sign a notification of video and audio recording. Valiantsina Alinevich said that her son had been lacking information lately, after he started receiving much fewer newspapers. In addition, Ihar Alinevich was not allowed to make telephone calls. He last managed to call home in October 2013.
On January 28, Anatol Prakapenka, father of Artsiom Prakapenka, said that he had not received any letters or phone calls from his son for more than two weeks. Anatol Prakapenka said that Artsiom’s position on refusal to write a petition for clemency remained unchanged. The political prisoner’s father added that no new sanctions had been imposed on him, saying that he looked forward to receiving a right to visit him in the next two months.
On January 30, it became known that the application for registration of Ales Bialiatski’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize had been forwarded to the Nobel Committee. His nomination was initiated by the Polish Sejm members representing the Civic Platform and the Prawo i Sprawiedliwość party.
On January 17, a resident of Homel, Aliaksandr Hrunou, who was repeatedly sentenced to death by the Homel Regional Court for the murder of student Natallia Emialyanchykava, appealed the verdict at the Supreme Court. In his appeal, Aliaksandr Hrunou and his counsel mention that the board of criminal cases of the Homel Regional Court had assessed the defendant’s full confession, but failed to take this fact into account when pronouncing the verdict. Aliaksandr Hrunou was held in the Homel pre-trial prison. After the verdict, his mother Volha Hrunova twice met with her son in prison. She wrote complaints to the Prosecutor General and Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The woman believes that the President’s statements on her son’s case influenced the eventual sentence.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On January 14, a resident of Minsk, Liudmila Kuchura, appealed to the court after the Investigative Committee refused to examine her complaint against the torture facts reported by her husband Piotr Kuchura, who was then held in colony No. 15 in Mahiliou. In November 2013, Liudmila Kuchura petitioned the Investigative Committee’s Office in the Mahiliou region over allegations of torture against her husband. Instead of investigating the complaint in order to determine whether cruel and inhuman treatment had been used against the prisoner and evaluating the actions of heads and staff of the colony, the chief of the Committee’s Mahiliou Regional Department forwarded the complaint challenging the actions of the police officers to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Department of Corrections. Pointing out that the examination of the petition by the Department could not be considered impartial, the prisoner’s wife appealed the decision to the Investigation Committee’s main office. In turn, the Committee found no violations in the actions of the police officers and dismissed the complaint. Thereby, Ms. Kuchura and her husband were deprived of the right to judicial protection, as in case a probe was carried out by an investigative authority and no criminal case was opened as a result, they would have the right to appeal the decision in court. This made the woman go to court. But in December 2013, the Leninski District Court of Mahiliou refused to institute civil proceedings on an appeal against a decision of the head of the Investigative Committee’s Mahiliou Department. Despite the fact that on December 30, 2013 Piotr Kuchura was transferred to maximum security prison No. 4 in Mahiliou, the prisoner's wife appealed to the Mahiliou Regional Court. In her complaint, she asked the higher court to reverse the ruling of the Court of Mahiliou’s Leninski district of December 19, 2013 and send the case file to the court of the first instance. The case concerns the events of September 19, 2013, when disabled Piotr Kuchura was placed in a punishment cell, where the toilet was dusted with lots of bleach. As a result of the contact with water, the bleach entered into a reaction, which caused the poisoning with chlorine vapor. The prisoner was taken to another cell only after a significant deterioration of his health, while no medical care was provided during the time. An investigation launched by the Mahiliou Regional Prosecutor’s Office found that, according to the medical staff, sodium chloride had not for a long time been used for disinfection in penal colony No. 15 for a long time. This means that bleach could have been used in this case as a means of torture.
Persecution of human rights defenders and organizations
On January 14, Vitsebsk human rights activist Piotr Ivanou was warned of possible deportation. Piotr Ivanou was born in Belarus, but worked in the Russian Federation, where he received citizenship. The Department of Citizenship and Migration of Vitsebsk’s Kastrychnitski Department of Internal Affairs requested that by January 20 Piotr Ivanou provided a report on his means of subsistence, otherwise they threatened to deport him from Belarus. A former professional soldier, Piotr Ivanou had a regular income – pension. All this was confirmed by documents. The period of the human rights defender’s residence permit was to expire in October 2014, and police were trying to find a reason not to extend it, or even deport him ahead of the deadline. Piotr Ivanou’s family lives in Vitsebsk. He also owns an apartment in the city.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On January 3, the Tsentralny District Court of Homel started hearing the case of the leader of the campaign “Stop Drinking, Start Living!” Dzmitry Karashkou. The police accused him of organizing an unsanctioned event. According to an administrative offense report, in the morning of November 11, 2013, Dzmitry arrived at a plaza outside the Executive Committee holding a banner “Stop Selling Alcohol near Schools”, for which he was detained. The report drawn up by police Major Uladzimir Nedaboi says that Karashkou “publicly expressed his personal interests with a banner”. Judge Alena Tsalkova asked whether he had applied to the City Executive Committee for permission to stage the picket. The activist said that he did not apply because he had previously written a statement, but the City Executive Committee did not allow a different anti-alcoholism picket. Karashkou challenged the ban at the Tsentralny District Court. However, the Court, as well as the higher courts, dismissed his complaint. Later he submitted a complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee. He also stressed that not a single mass event had been allowed in Homel over the last seven years. On January 9, Judge Alena Tsalkova ruled to fine Dzmitry Karashkou 10 basic units.
On January 9, Leanid Autukhou, an activist of the BPF’s Haradok branch, was detained based on a denunciation by an anonymous informant. After being brought to Haradok police station, he was shown an unsigned letter, saying that he was preparing a protest in the district center. Leanid Autukhou was released three hours later, after the regional authorities, who had come to meet with local entrepreneurs, left the town. Leanid Autukhou said his detention was directly linked to the visit of representatives of the Visebsk Regional Executive Committee. The activist said he didn't know who had written the letter. But he didn't rule out that this could have something to do with the police, as on January 9 Haradok officials were receiving representatives of the Regional Executive Committee, and the police department did not want additional problems. The nervous situation in Haradok was connected to the Dazhynki agricultural festival to be held in the town in fall.
On January 14, the Savetski District Court of Minsk heard the charges brought against the leader of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka for violating Article 23.34, Part 3 of the Administrative Code (organization of or participation in an unauthorized mass event). Anatol Liabedzka was detained near his garage in the morning of January 12. He was first taken to the police department of Savetski district and then to the nearby police station, where he was charged over a rally held on January 5, when the politician, together with the co-chair of the campaign "For Fair Elections" Viktar Karniayenka, campaigned in the centre of Minsk for the abolition of car duties. After Anatol Liabedzka faced charges, he was taken first to the Kurapaty memorial site, where a vast number of people had been executed during the Great Purge, and then to the city’s crematorium. He was eventually released not far from his apartment in the Vesninka district of Minsk. Judge Kiryl Palulekh found Anatol Liabedzka guilty and ordered to punish him with a fine of 45 basic units.
On January 23, a few dozen people, mostly young people from the opposition groups "Alternative" and "Solidarity Movement Together”, demonstrated outside the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk with portraits of a Belarusian national, Mikhail Zhyzneuski, who was killed during protests in Kyiv. They lit candles and sang the hymn “God Almighty”. When the people were leaving the place riot police appeared and detained twelve participants of the memorial picket, including Illia Dabratvor, Mikhail Mikulich, Dzmitry Silchanka, Iryna Viatkina, Aleh Kirol and others. All of them were taken to the police department of the Tsentralny district and were eventually released without charges after 10 p.m.
On January 25, police officers in plainclothes detained two activists of the initiative "Food Not Bombs" and five homeless people in Minsk’s Simon Bolivar Park. They were taken to the Partyzanski District Police Department, where they were fingerprinted and their passport information was copied. On January 26, riot police and plainclothes police officers arrived at the initiative’s event held near the Uskhod metro station. On February 1, police visited the distribution of food in Simon Bolivar Park to prevent the activists from coming to the place and discontinue the initiative "Food Not Bombs". On February 2, four police officers were waiting for the activists to arrive at the place of another event near the Uskhod metro station. The police officers initially tried to disrupt the distribution of food, but it was held anyway. One of the activists was detained and taken to the Pershamaiski District Police Department, but was soon released. The remaining protesters said that after they had left the place, a police bus appeared to detain the activists. "Food Not Bombs" is an international movement, consisting of separate groups of activists protesting against militarism and poverty through free distribution of food (usually vegetarian) to those in need. In Minsk, their first event took place in the summer of 2005. The activists continue distributing food every weekend in three places, Mikhailausky Park, Simon Bolivar Park and near the shopping centre “Shchastse” (next to the Uskhod metro station).
On January 27, activist Illia Dabratvor received a reply from the Prosecutor’s Office of Minsk’s Frunzenski district, following his complained about the illegal actions of the police who detained him on October 29, 2013 together with his eight-year-old son Yausei during the Dziady memorial event. According to Illia Dabratvor, employees of the Frunzenski District Police Department failed to name the reasons for the detention. He was then forced to provide explanations. In his complaint, the activist stated it was even more absurd to detain a child. The Prosecutor of the Frunzenski district A.A. Biaspaly noted that there were no grounds for launching a probe, “As suggested by your complaint, an administrative offence report against you was not submitted by the police officers the Frunzenski District Police Department and, accordingly, no administrative procedures were initiated." Meanwhile, in accordance with Art. 9.5 of the Procedural-Executive Code of Administrative Offences, administrative procedures are initiated from the moment of administrative detention of an individual. Illia Dabratvor stressed the fact in his letter of complaint to the Prosecutor of Minsk. Similarly, the activist was appealing another arbitrary detention of 23 January, when he had been detained in the same way by the police of Minsk’s Tsentralny District Police Department.
On January 30, The Pershamaiski District Court of Minsk considered the administrative case of the former political prisoner Dzmitry Dashkevich on charges of violating the restrictions of preventive supervision (Art. 24-12, Part 1 of the Administrative Code). The defendant did not appear in court, saying that he was busy at work. In addition, according to Dzmitry Dashkevich, the courts were staffed with people "who have repeatedly fabricated cases" and he did not consider it necessary to prove his innocence. Dzmitry Dashkevich received a warning for violating the rules of preventive supervision after on December 19, 2013 he failed to appear at the criminal supervisory inspection of the Pershamaiski District Police Department, where he was supposed to check in on the first, third and fourth Thursdays of each month. As explained by Dzmitry Dashkevich, he forgot that the third Thursday of the month was December 19. The following morning, he was phoned by an inspector, who offered him to come to the police department. When Dzmitry Dashkevich appeared there he faced charges of violation of the preventive supervision rules. As noted by Dzmitry Dashkevich, in such cases (if the person forgets to come to the police, but he does it the next day) no charges are usually brought. However, the inspector said that he was ordered to submit a violation report. The Court’s decision was a fine of 10 basic units.
On January 31, it was reported that at least two fans of FC BATE Barysau were arrested by the court for five days for a rally in support of the Ukrainian Maidan protest. The first of them was summoned to the local police station on 29 January. However, he was not released, and the next day a closed trial arrested the BATE fan for "violation of the established procedure for meetings, rallies, marches, demonstrations, and pickets". On January 31, another fan was invited for a “conversation”. After he asked to send him a summons, the police arrived and took him away. Three hours later his father and a lawyer came to the police department. The police officers said that the detained football fan had been taken to court. For the next two hours, they refused to disclose his whereabouts. His lawyer was not allowed to see the detainee and, just like in the previous case, he was brought to court and convicted. On 27 January, 23 BATE fans staged a rally of solidarity with Ukraine and were photographed with white-red-white flags and banners “Hold on, Ukraine, we are with you” and "Glory to the Heroes”. The photos were posted online. As a result, the fans were targeted by police officers and identified through the "VKontakte" social network. A message at a football fan forum said that law enforcement officers also came to the fans of FC Dinamo Minsk, who supported the Maidan protests, too.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On January 2, human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka was notified by deputy chief of the Ashmiany customs, A.V. Datchuk, that the customs had received from the General Directorate of Ideological Work, Culture and Youth Affairs of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee conclusions of an expert committee’s review of the publication “Asvechanyia Belarushchynai” (“Enlightened by the Belarusian Issue", written by the human rights defender, political prisoner Ales Bialiatski. However, the text of the examination was not sent. It was the second examination, as the first one did not meet legal requirements. According to the findings of the first examination, the literary book by Ales Bialiatski "can damage the image of the Republic of Belarus”. The recent letter did not say what conclusions could be found in the second analysis. Yet, it says that "as a result of two customs examinations and on the basis of Chapter 1.3 of the Common List of Goods subject to bans or restrictions on the import or export by the Member States of the Customs Union within the Eurasian Economic Community", the Ashmiany customs department should within 10 working days enforce the procedure of "re-export of the publication to the territory of the Republic of Lithuania". On January 14, the Ashmiany District Court received a complaint against the actions of Ashmiany customs. On January 29, the Court held a preliminary hearing in the civil case. The lawsuit was considered by Judge Tatsiana Yemelianovich, the customs authorities were represented by Tamara Hlinkevich and Alena Zhdanovich. Lawyer Pavel Sapelka was admitted as a representative of the interests of the applicant, Tatsiana Reviaka. As a result of the meeting, the human rights defenders managed to see the results of the second examination, on the basis of which it was decided to re-export the book. It turned out that it was carried out by the same employees of the Hrodna State University, Uladzimir Yahorychau and Vadzim Khiliuta, who made the initial conclusions, and the legitimacy of their appointment as experts was appealed by the human rights defenders. The customs authority requested to investigate the presence in the book of calls for or propaganda of extremism and terrorism, as well as information that might cause political or economic harm to Belarus, its public safety, health and morals of the citizens. Neither extremism nor terrorism was found in the book, while the experts actually evaded answering the second question, citing the results of the first examination, which, in turn, failed to give a clear answer.
On January 8, the publisher of an independent news bulletins “Klimavitskaya Infa-Panarama”, Siarhei Arzhantsau, was denied the right to attend a meeting of the administrative commission of the Klimavichy District Executive Committee. On this day, the commission was expected to consider several cases on administrative offenses that interested the publisher. The presence of the journalist for some reason was opposed by the chairperson of the administrative commission, Natallia Asmalouskaya. Ms. Asmalouskaya, who in addition to the presidency of the administrative commission also headed the administrative department of the Klimavichy District Executive Committee, told Siarhei Arzhantsau that she was against his attending the meeting. It is unknown what caused such a negative reaction from the official, since according to Article 2.14 of the Procedural-Executive Code of Administrative Offenses, “cases on administrative violations shall be discussed openly." Siarhei Arzhantsau left a complaint of the violation in the book of comments and suggestions of the Klimavichy District Executive Committee.
On January 17, it was reported that the department of ideology of the Vitsebsk Regional Executive Committee informed local newspapers on the membership of journalists in the Belarusian Association of Journalists, as well as on who was going to join the "undesirable" organization. A number of journalists were summoned to the Executive Committee demanding explanations on their membership in the organization. The ideology officials primarily targeted participants of a friendly meeting of Vitsebsk journalists held in late 2013. It was attended by both BAJ members and ordinary journalists. The journalists had to explain that their meeting was not an assembly, since Belarusian Association of Journalists has no office in Vitsebsk and that it was a usual holiday tea party, where people shared their plans and talked about some professional problems, and then listened to Heorhi Stankevich, a singer from Beshankovichy. Previously, such meetings were not spotted by the ideology department of the Executive Committee.
At about noon, January 20, Vitsebsk police detained the editor of the Vitsebski Kurier independent weekly Aleh Barshcheuski and took him to the police department of Kastrychnitski district. The editor was detained for allegedly using a false driver’s license. His car was stopped by police officer Ihar Artamonau. A few hours later, Aleh Barshcheuski was released from the police station. Before the release, there appeared an employee of the tax inspectorate of Vitsebsk’s Pershamaiski district, who urged Aleh Barshcheuski to submit an income declaration.
On January 27, the Supreme Court dismissed the claim of the owner of the company "BELSATplus" Andrei Beliakou, who sought a ban on the use of the trademark "Belsat TV” by the Poland-based Belarusian independent TV channel. The official representative of Belsat in Belarus Mikhail Yanchuk said that the decision could be appealed under supervisory procedures during three years. Meanwhile, it is essential that, according to the Belarusian legislation, the same lawsuit with these same parties can no longer be considered in a Belarusian court, which means that Mr. Beliakou will not be able to file a claim against the channel for the second time. Andrei Beliakou firm called "BELSATplus" sells equipment for receiving satellite and cable television and radio equipment. Mr. Beliakou’s initial demand was to suspend the broadcast of BelSat by Astra satellite operators. However, after the meeting of January 21, the plaintiff changed his claim and only called for a suspension of the use of the trademark “BelSat TV”. Under the law, you cannot block a trademark, if it is used in another area (broadcast and production of television programs). BELSATplus is not involved in television broadcasting. The channel is registered in Poland, just like the domain of its website. The domain name is not registered or administered in Belarus, and the TV channel is not broadcast from the territory of Belarus. Accordingly, the trademark does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Belarusian law.
On January 28, unknown persons hacked a Homel independent website “A Sober Look” (spasemstranu.com), working within the framework of the campaign “Stop Drinking – Start Living”. It happened during the funeral of a Homel resident Mikhail Zhyzneuski, who had been killed during clashes at the Kyiv Maidan protest, as at the time the website administrators were busy at the funeral. The hackers embedded a special code that helped download and erase all the content on the website. Instead, the attackers posted their own content advertising non-traditional sexual relations.
On January 29, a Salihorsk activist, Aliaksandr Malochka received an answer from the Ashmiany customs department concerning the book “Aliaksandr Lukashenka. A Political Portrait” by Valery Karbalevich that was seized from him on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. An examination ordered to return the book to its owner, says a letter of 23 January signed by head of the Ashmiany customs department, I. Zmitrovich. Four months had passed since the book was sent for examination, and all this time Aliaksandr Malochka knew nothing about the results of the examination. On January 18, he wrote a letter requesting customs officials to finally report on the experts’ conclusions, and if the book did not contain “extremist material”, to explain the procedure of its return, as the officials said nothing about the results of the examination in their letter. Aliaksandr Malochka was offered to apply to the head of the customs department with a written statement and within 10 days after that to recover the book at the “place of storage”. Valery Karbalevich’s book was seized from Aliaksandr Malochka in September 14 as he was returning from Lithuania to Belarus. In early October, the activist was notified by the chief of Ashmiany customs that the customs examination of the book was appointed on September 30, and that its conduct was delegated to an "expert of the number of authorized officials of the Main Directorate of Ideological Work, Culture and Youth Affairs of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee.”
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On January 4, an individual entrepreneur and civil society activist Mikalai Charnavus, who works at the Central Co-operative Market of Baranavichy, was visited by a policeman. The police officer interviewed him over an unauthorized picket against corruption, held in the city park on December 26, 2013. During the picket, its organizer was dressed as Santa Claus holding a poster “Chairmen Dzichkouski, Yazubets are Unsinkable. Chairman of the Executive Committee Sumar deceived President. Corrupt MP in Parliament. Disgrace!" Mikalai Charnavus denied his involvement in the rally, saying that the case would not reach court, because local officials weren't interested in fomenting a corruption scandal, which involved high-ranking officials of the city and the district.
On January 9, the Board on Civil Case of the Brest Regional Court upheld the decision of the Court of Biaroza district to ban a picket scheduled for October 10, World Day Against the Death Penalty. The rally was banned because its organizers failed to submit to the Executive Committee agreements with the municipal services (public utilities, police and hospital) for servicing the picket. Both the Biaroza District Court and the Civil Board of the Regional Court referred to the legislation under which contracts with the police, doctors and municipal services were required for the sake of safety of citizens during mass events. However, it was impossible to implement the conditions in practice. A complaint by human rights defenders Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina, as well as a civil society activist Tatsiana Tarasevich, was dismissed. According to Siarhei Rusetski, it is remarkable that the judges finally paid attention to the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees freedom of assembly, although predictably concluded that the ban did not contradict international standards.
On January 12, a rally against police violence was expected to be held in Vitsebsk by Ihar Pastnou, a doctor famous for his criticism of local authorities, but his request was dismissed by the administration of the Kastrychnitski district. The officials said the doctor failed to provide contracts with medical, police and utilities departments. These agreements are required for the organizers of mass actions when they are initiated by citizens. This requirement is regulated by Ruling No. 881 of the Vitsebsk City Executive Committee. Meanwhile, it is virtually impossible to follow it, as the authorities in charge of the services refuse to enter into contracts, unless there is permission from the authorities. Ihar Pastnou, who was going to hold a silent action in an officially authorized place, said the ban was unfair. Being a doctor, he considered it inappropriate to sign additional agreements with the health care authorities. He was not going to litter the area during the rally in memory of the victims of police violence. And the presence of the police at the event, according to him, was unnecessary. Firstly, he was going to hold the picket on January 12, a day off, in a place of mass recreation of citizens that should be patrolled by the police in any case. Secondly, the purpose of the picket, protesting against police violence, should be relevant for the police chiefs, and for ordinary policemen, too, who ought to support the proposal of "cleansing" the police staff of persons prone to sadism and violence.
On January 13, the Astravets District Court started hearing a complaint by a civil society activist Mikalai Ulasevich filed to challenge the actions of the Astravets District Executive Committee officials, who banned a picket scheduled for December 7, 2013 to demand “justice for corrupt officials”. The hearing began at 10.30 and ended two hours later after studying the case file at the stage of pleadings. Judge Aliaksandr Ratkevich adjourned the trial until 4 p.m. Before that, Mikalai Ulasevich challenged the composition of the court, who disallowed his question to a representative of the defendant as to which normative act governed the need to sign contracts with the police and health care services to maintain public order and health care during the mass event. At 4 p.m., the trial was not resumed. 20 minutes before the expected start of the hearing, Mikalai Ulasevich received a phone call from a court clerk and was told that the trial was adjourned. According to the official, the date was to be reported to Mr. Ulasevich later. On January 16, the court dismissed the activist’s complaint.
On January 15, Chairperson of the Brest Regional Court Tamara Suchok dismissed a complaint of Biaroza human rights defenders against a ban on a picket of August 4, 2013 aimed at supporting political prisoners. As a result, the decisions of the Biaroza District Court and the judicial board of the Regional Court were upheld. The Biaroza District Court, the Judicial Board, and the Chairperson of the Brest Regional Court concluded that the requirement of the Executive Committee to sign agreements with the police, public utilities and health care department during the organization of a mass event was not contrary to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, without elaborating on the arguments, which indicated its falling short of international standards of freedom of peaceful assembly.
On January 15, the Pershamaiski District Court of Vitsebsk considered a complaint by the coordinator of the Movement "For Freedom" in the Vitsebsk region Khrystafor Zhaliapau and an activist of the organizing committee of the Social Democratic Party "Narodnaya Hramada", Aliaksei Haurutsikau, demanding to cancel the ban on a picket of solidarity with political prisoners scheduled for December 10, 2013. The reason for the ban picket on the Human Rights Day was traditional: lack of service contracts. At the same time, the organizers submitted their application together with copies of the letters asking for permission to enter into a contract addressed to the police, the city clinic and public utilities. The latter authority normally agreed to sign a contract. The police department responded after the district authorities had issued their ban, saying it was no use negotiating when the event had been already prohibited. The city’s central polyclinic also sent a refusal: no service contract are possible, because in winter all medical services are usually busy due to mass illnesses. The Pershamaiski District Court saw nothing unusual in this situation, and the complaint was dismissed. The decision of the district administration to ban the event was regarded as correct, as the organizers’ claim as groundless.
On January 16, Aliaksei Haurutsikau, an activist of the organizing committee of the Social Democratic Party "Narodnaya Hramada", told about the new strategy of protecting the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. “The strategy is as follows: we file applications and copies of letters with requests to sign contracts for maintenance of events addressed to public utilities, the Regional Department of the Interior Ministry and the city’s central clinic two months before the planned event. These authorities are referred to in the Executive Committee’s ruling No. 881 on the organization of mass events. The ruling says that we must enter into a contract immediately, before filing. But there has never been a single instance when these services agreed to sign an agreement – except for public utilities. The doctors usually send us runaround replies, even without giving reasons. And the police have their reasons: they ignore the ruling of the Executive Committee and act according to the Law on Mass Events, and write that they will sign an agreement only after there is permission of the district administration. If this situation persists, then after 15 days we will get another rejection of the regional authorities". Then, according to Aliaksei Haurutsikau, the activists need to submit an application to the court to force the Interior Ministry’s department and the central clinic to sign the agreements. This procedure takes approximately 30 days. And if the court decides in their favour, the activists may still have time to reapply, having signed agreements ready. Vitsebsk activists did not see any other way to obtain permission. They needed a way to ensure that the responsible agencies do not create obstacles to the implementation of the ruling of the city executive authorities. Although they considered this ruling to be imperfect: over the past four years, not a single event of the Vitsebsk opposition forces has been conducted, precisely because the terms of this ruling cannot be implemented. Subsequent complaints against the bans were dismissed by the courts. In particular, in 2013, Aliaksei Haurutsikau and Khrystafor Zhaliapau tried to urge the health care and police authorities to sign the agreements through court. However, the Kastrychnitski District Court said that it was impossible to force the organizations to sign contracts, because they are not engaged exclusively in selling their services to the public. Then the activists decided to go the other way: to prosecute heads of agencies who refused to cooperate with them. And then the Kastrychnitski District Court took a radically different position: Judge Alena Papkova rejected the complaint and advised the plaintiffs to apply to the court to compel the conclusion of contracts. The activists had to appeal to the Regional Court to receive a clear answer on which complaints could be granted by judges. The Vitsebsk activists have been looking for a way to solve the problem – the possibility to exercise their right to organize mass actions – since 2009, when ruling No. 881 came into force. The city authorities have refused to change it to make it feasible in practice: their replies say that the ruling had passed a legal examination, was approved and recognized valid. Over the past two days, Vitsebsk activists have applied for several events. Chairman of the BPF’s city branch was planning a picket on Constitution Day, March 15, and a rally on Freedom Day, March 25. The events were expected to be held in Mazuryn Park, located in the Kastrychnitski district. Similar events were going to be staged in the Komsomol 30th Anniversary Park by the coordinator of the Movement "For Freedom" in the Vitsebsk region Khrystafor Zhaliapau and an activist of the organizing committee of the Social Democratic Party "Narodnaya Hramada" Aliaksei Haurutsikau. They also wanted to hold pickets on Constitution Day and on Freedom Day. Their applications were filed in Pershamaiski district administration, which, in case of a ban, was to be sued, said Aliaksei Haurutsikau. On January 29, the Constitution Day rally was banned: the district department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the health care authorities once again sent refusals. The doctors said that there was still plenty of time until March 15, and they could not promise that on that day there would be an ambulance on duty. The police sent a standard runaround reply, saying that they would consider the proposal only after the authorities allowed the event.
On January 17, a civil society activist of Vaukavysk, Vital Huliak, was not allowed to stage a picket in solidarity with the Ukrainian Maidan protests, which was expected to be held in the city park (an officially authorized place for public events) on January 25. A response signed by the deputy chairman of the Executive Committee Uladzimir Zakharchuk said that “in accordance with Article 2 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus of December 30, 1997 "On Mass Events” (...) a street march is organized mass movement of a group of citizens along the sidewalk or roadway (road), boulevard, avenue, square. Thus, the mass event, for permission to conduct which you have applied, is impossible in the city park.” The activist said it was simply impossible to understand anything specifically from this answer.
On January 20, the Hrodna Regional Court considered an appeal of local human rights defenders Viktar Sazonau, Uladzimir Khilmanovich and Raman Yurhel against the Leninski District Court’s decision, which had upheld the ban imposed by the Executive Committee on a picket scheduled for October 10, 2013 to disseminate information about the situation with the death penalty in Belarus. The City Executive Committee had banned the picket, saying that the applicants could not afford the costs associated with its implementation. The first trial revealed that a picket in Hrodna cost 23,324,000 roubles. The officials also said that the applicants had not indicated if they were going to use pyrotechnics or open flame, considering it a violation of law. In addition, the Hrodna City Executive Committee violated the Law "On Languages in the Republic of Belarus", giving their answer in Russian, instead of Belarusian. The Board of the Regional Court of three judges sided with the Executive Committee and the court of first instance.
On January 21, the Mahiliou City Executive Committee decided to ban a rally against the imposition of new taxes, which was organized by the chairman of the Mahiliou regional organization of the Belarusian Popular Front "Adradzhenne" Dzmitry Salauyou, the chairman of the Mahiliou regional office of the United Civil Party Uladzimir Shantsau and deputy chairman of the Free Trade Union of Belarus Yury Novikau. They planned to hold the event on January 25 at a plaza outside the stadium "Khimik”, the only authorized location in town. An official response received by Uladzimir Shantsau from a local road maintenance company said that the company lacked cleaners and the date of the planned event was a day off. The public utility department initially signed a contract with the organizers to clean up the area, but then terminated the agreement unilaterally.
On January 23, the former chairperson of the Homel City Executive Committee Sviatlana Haldade received a letter from the UN Human Rights Committee, saying that the Committee had registered her complaint, which she, together with Homel human rights defenders Anatol Paplauny and Leanid Sudalenka, had filed in connection with a ban on a picket in support of political prisoner, human rights defender Ales Bialiatski expected to be held on August 4, 2012. Sviatlana Haldade asked the Committee to establish a violation by the state of her and the human rights defenders’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression and to recommend to the Belarusian government to bring the Law "On Mass Events" and the rulings of local authorities on mass events in line with the country’s international obligations.
On January 26, a trade union activist of Baranavichy, Ryhor Hryk, was expected to hold a picket under the slogan "Let's Put Actions of the Authorities and the Laws of the Republic of Belarus – Under Civil Control". However, the picket was banned by the City Executive Committee banned, despite the fact that the applicant had entered into agreements with the clinic, public utilities and police and complied with all requirements of the law on public events. Moreover, the activist was not notified of the ban by the Executive Committee, as he had not received an official reply by January 26, but after a conversation with deputy chief of the law enforcement and prevention department Major Pavel Kulhavik.
On January 30, human rights defenders and civil society activists Siarhei Housha, Viktar Syrytsa, Viachaslau Bolbat, Viktar Meziak, Mikalai Charnavus, Ryhor Hryk and Anzhalika Kambalava
sent a petition to the newly appointed Chairman of the city executive committee Yury Hramakouski to propose certain steps aimed at the democratization of the local restrictions on holding mass events. The statement says that for various reasons for more than 6 years the Baranavichy City Executive Committee has not allowed a single member of the public to hold mass events in violation of Art. 2 and 35 of the Constitution of Belarus. In confirmation of this statement, the applicants attached copies of their applications for rallies and refusals from the city executive committee and the police department.
The applicants pointed out that according to the ruling of the city executive authorities No. 1497 of 16 June, 2009 "On the order of holding mass events in the city of Baranavichy", the organizers were required to enter into service contracts for a clean-up, health and public order maintenance. However, it was virtually impossible to implement the ruling by signing an agreement with the police department of Baranavichy. The department for protection of public order stated it would sign the contract only when the City Executive Committee gave permission to hold the event, whereas the latter refuses to authorize the event in question referring to the absence of the service contract with the police.
The petitioners demanded introducing the following changes to the executive committee’s decision:
Expand the number of permanent locations for events up to 3-4;
In its decisions prohibiting pickets, meetings or rallies, etc. indicate what provision of the law (or decision of the administration) on mass events, part of a paragraph and paragraph, was violated by the applicants to avoid all contentious issues;
Invite the applicants themselves to the executive committee’s meetings to consider their applications for mass events in order to clarify controversial issues.
Allow staging single-person pickets by the notification principle, with no permit required from the Baranavichy City Executive Committee if the applicant assumes responsibility for the clean-up, maintenance of public order and health care.
Delete a subparagraph which requires organizers of public events to sign a service contract with the police for maintaining public order.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On January 8, the Main Department of Justice of the Brest Regional Executive Committee denied registration to the educational public association "Brest Christian Democrats". According to the reply received by the chairman of the NGO’s organizing committee, Dzmitry Shurkhai, the name of the organization, in the opinion of the Executive Committee’s lawyers, did not meet the definition of a public association. The response stated that the word "Christian" could be a part of the name of a religious organization seeking to implement educational activities in the field of Christian faith and the word "Democrats" could denote a political party. The Department of Justice also said that, in accordance with the law, a public association "is a voluntary association of citizens for joint realization of civil, social, cultural and other rights, but not for the exercise of freedom of conscience or political programs". The previous attempt to register the Brest Christian Democrats was also unsuccessful, including due to the fact that its founders failed to agree the name with the "registration authority". The main claims of the Justice Department allegedly dealt with the mismatch of the organization’s name in Russian and Belarusian languages ("Brestskiye Khristianskiye Demokraty" and "Berastseiskiya Khrystsiyanskiya Demakraty", respectively).
On January 13, the Pinsk coordinator of the organizing committee of the party "Belarusian Christian Democracy" Siarhei Sukhaverkhau received a Prosecutor’s warning for activities on behalf of an unregistered organization. The warning was signed by Pinsk Inter-district Deputy Prosecutor, Liudmila Suprun.
On January 15, it was reported that of the 451 organizations which had, until recently, significant benefits for the rental of premises (a 90 % discount), only 195 NGO remained on the list. The list of associations that have been given the privilege, includes almost all sports federations, including the Federation of Golf. Of the 195 organizations that are still on the list of beneficiaries, 52 are that sports federations and associations. Meanwhile, sport-related youth associations are entitled to benefits, whereas youth organizations off intellectual and entertaining orientation ("Homel Club of Cheerful and Resourceful", "Belarusian CCR") are not. Benefits were also given to associations of disabled persons, charity, Chernobyl organizations, the associations providing assistance to children, and associations of parents with many children. The list of beneficiaries no longer includes the Frantsysk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, the World Association of Belarusians "Batskaushchyna", the Belarusian Foundation “SOS – Children’s Village", the Central Service of Alcoholics Anonymous, "Republic without Drugs", the Belarusian Association of UNESCO Clubs, the League of Youth Voluntary Work. The State Property Committee refused to comment on the reasons for such decision, citing "inability to provide information". Unions of entrepreneurs, environmental associations and associations of national minorities were kicked off the beneficiaries list, too. At the same time, Jewish charitable associations and communities, as well as the Communist Party of Belarus have been left in the list. There are about three thousand non-governmental organizations in Belarus. The list of beneficiaries is compiled in consultation with the President.
On January 23, Mikhail Kavalkou, leader of the Free Trade Union’s branch at the Babruisk Plant of Tractor Parts and Assemblies, said that the plant’s managers continued discriminating the trade union members. To address the situation, he sent a statement to the Director of the enterprise Aliaksandr Ahranovich. Copies of the petition were sent to the Minister of Industry, Minister of Labor and Social Protection, Chairman of the Babruisk City Executive Committee, Director General of MTZ and Prosecutor of the Pershamaiski district. In his letter, the activist mentioned a number of demands to the factory administration. If the requirements weren't be taken into account, Mikhail Kavalkou intended to start a hunger strike from January 27 to draw attention to discrimination on the grounds of trade union membership. The activist demanded to suspend harassment of the Free Trade Union members, enter into negotiations with the FTU activists to develop and sign a collective agreement, eliminate discriminatory points of the current collective agreement and extend its action to all employees of the plant, provide the chairman of the FTU branch with free access to the factory’s territory, provide the FTU branch with premises for statutory activities and ensure equal conditions with the official trade union. The statement also enumerated violations committed by the plant management against the members of the independent trade union, starting from 2005: a ban on visiting a recreation complex by FTU activists, blocking Mikhail Kavalkou’s pass, dismissal of FTU members, deprivation of financial bonuses and much more. On January 27, it was reported that the hunger strike was delayed, after the factory administration promised to hold constructive talks with the local leader of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, which would address all the issues that affected FTU members. A statement titled "In the Mode of a Dialogue" appeared on the official website of the company. It stated about the importance of finding a compromise for both sides.