Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in February 2014
In February, the Belarusian authorities articulated their interest in human rights issues. However, they expressed their concern about the problems in this area not in Belarus, but in some foreign countries. On February 10, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry published its second report entitled "The Most Resonant Human Rights Violations in Certain Countries in 2013" (the first report was prepared to sum up the results of 2012). Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei in his introductory article noted that “in the recent years, the international community has elevated human rights to the level of importance at the United Nations that only the issues of peace, security and development had enjoyed”. Guided by this approach, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry chose offensive tactics, arguing that the countries that accuse Belarus violate human rights themselves. The preamble to the report says that it concerns those countries that imposed sanctions against Belarus – EU countries, USA and Canada. At the same time, the Belarusian authorities deliberately avoid criticism of the countries that have traditionally supported Belarus at the international level. The report is purely propagandistic in nature. Its positive aspect is that the Belarusian authorities admit that human rights are not only internal problems and are subject to the attention and concern of the international community.
The EU and the U.S. were very quick to respond to the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s report. The European Union’s delegation to Minsk said that it "took note of the report", adding that the EU publishes an annual report that focuses on the work of the EU to promote human rights in the world. "Using this opportunity, the EU reiterates to Belarusian authorities about the importance of complying with the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 23/15, including the implementation of all recommendations contained in the reports of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus," said a spokesperson for the European Union's delegation.
“The United States is always open to a human rights dialogue with Belarus,” the spokesperson for the US embassy in Minsk said. “We’re ready to discuss the human rights situation in our country as well as Washington’s conclusions about the situation in Belarus detailed in US State Department’s report.”
The existence of political prisoners remained the most acute problem. However, in February there were some statements, as a result of which it became clear that the positions of some foreign countries on the number and names of political prisoners diverged. In particular, Belarusian human rights defenders insisted on the unconditional release and rehabilitation of nine political prisoners (Ales Bialiatski, Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalai Autukhovich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Andrei Haidukou, Uladzimir Yaromenak and Vasil Parfiankou), and demanded a fair retrial and release of political prisoners Yauhen Vaskovich and Artsiom Prakapenka, noting the unjust treatment of their offences and the disproportionate nature of the penalty, and stressing that they had already served sufficient imprisonment for the acts they had committed.
That only six Belarusians were viewed as political prisoners by the EU was voiced on February 17 at an informal meeting of human rights defenders with the ambassador of a European country. After the meeting, Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Valiantsin Stefanovich commented on the information at the request of a Euroradio journalist: “No specific figures were voiced – we participated in various meetings, when we were asked to present our views on certain things, we voiced them and we always said: "We consider eleven people to be political prisoners". And now we learn about that just six persons are considered as such.” Meanwhile, the names of the people viewed as political prisoners by the EU were not reported. There is no information as to which EU body decided on this number of political prisoners, either.
On February 18, a BelaPAN correspondent was told by the EU delegation to Belarus that the lists of political prisoners might vary for various reasons. “The lists of political prisoners may differ, for different reasons,” the Delegation’s spokesperson said. “First, the lists may differ between human rights organizations, based abroad or established in Belarus. Second, the number may differ from one period to another. The main point for the EU is anyway that all the political prisoners are released, that no new political prisoners are taken, and that the human rights situation improves. The EU takes into account different points of view, listens to experts, monitors trials, and makes its own assessment of the situation and takes its decision autonomously.” While failing to give the names, the EU delegation spokesperson said that the European Union continued to urge the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and improve the situation of democracy, rule of law and human rights, including the right of citizens to a fair trial and the lack of politically motivated prosecutions.
The fact that Brussels’ political dialogue with the official Minsk is impossible without solving the problem of political prisoners was stressed on February 19, during a meeting of representatives of the Belarusian opposition with Dirk Schuebel, head of the European External Action Service’s division responsible for the European Union’s relations with the Eastern Partnership countries, who was in Belarus on a working visit. Following the meeting, one of its participants, Anatol Liabedzka, said that the official was offered to comment on media reports alleging six political prisoners on the EU list, while eleven persons were considered political prisoners inside Belarus. According to the politician, Dirk Schuebel said that no one made any exclusions from the general list at the EU level, that they were demanding the release of all political prisoners, without exception, and the statements that had been made could be a private opinion of some members of the European Union.
There is no denying the fact that the release of political prisoners is the EU’s main demand to the Belarusian authorities, and the failure to meet it minimizes the chances for improving relations, but in February there appeared fears that after the liberation of six rather than eleven prisoners the European Union might consider the requirement met. Such a development would be very dangerous, given the fact that the foreign factor is by far the most influential one as far as the situation of political prisoners is concerned, as well as the general situation of human rights in the country.
One of the mechanisms that could be used in the EU pressure on official Minsk with regard to political prisoners was proposed by Sweden in a document entitled “20 Points on the Eastern Partnership post-Vilnius” presented on February 10 at a meeting of the EU Council of Ministers of Foreign Affairs. The paper recommended to persuade the Belarusian authorities to “take positive steps on political prisoners” “through informal contacts” with Minsk and by “using” the upcoming IIHF World Championship in Minsk (9-25 May 2014).
Strong repercussions were caused by a statement of the Israeli ambassador to Belarus Yosef Shagal in an interview with the Israeli Channel RTVI on February 6, alleging that from the standpoint of Israel Belarusian political prisoners were criminals. “Those who are considered political prisoners, they are officially four people today. Four people remain in jail. Lukashenka invites them to write a plea for clemency, as in the case of Khodorkovsky: write a request and they’ll let you go. They do not want to, they prefer to remain heroes in prison,” said Yosef Shagal. Speaking about the position of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East in relation to the problem of political prisoners in Belarus, Shagal said: “How do we will treat a Palestinian who throws a stone at the Knesset? Who is he – a political prisoner or a criminal? They all are in prison on criminal charges, not political. Everyone. For the attack on the Parliament, for throwing stones.” “I'm not saying that they are not political prisoners – it depends on the light we view it in. From the perspective of the Criminal Code of the country where they are imprisoned, they are criminals. From the perspective of Poland or the European Union, they are political prisoners,” added the Israeli diplomat. When asked by a journalist, “And from the standpoint of Israel?” Shagal said: “From our point of view, they are criminals because they have an article – for disorderly conduct, for throwing stones, for insulting the authorities and so on.” However, Israel's Foreign Ministry did not support the statements of its ambassador to Belarus. On February 14, the website of the Israeli Embassy to Warsaw released an official communication of the press secretary of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which dissociated itself from the statements of Ambassador Yosef Shagal. “In connection with the contents of the interview given on February 6 to the Channel RTVi by the Israeli Ambassador to Belarus, a spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry and the Israeli Embassy in Warsaw want to explain: the words of the ambassador in Minsk in no way reflect the position of the State of Israel. His words caused a misunderstanding among our friends. We express our regret over this. An explanation has already been sent through diplomatic channels,” Yigal Palmor, the spokesperson of Israel’s Foreign Ministry said.
In turn, a number of former Belarusian political prisoners and their families, as well as relatives of those who are now in Belarusian prisons for political reasons, appealed to President Shimon Peres, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Knesset Chairman Yuli-Yoel Edelstein, demanding to withdraw Ambassador Yosef Shagal from Belarus. “We do not intend to interfere in the personnel policy of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs but believe that it is obvious that democratic community of Belarus find Mr. Shagal’s statements deeply offensive, and are unlikely to be conducive to maintaining a positive image of the State of Israel in Belarusian society,” reads the appeal.
Despite heated debates around the issue of political prisoners, their fate in February remained unchanged. There were no positive dynamics in other sensitive areas of human rights in Belarus. The situation remained stably frozen and poor.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On February 1, Maryna Adamovich, wife of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, said, citing a reliable source, that prison censors stopped Statkevich’s letter with a reply to Lukashenka’s statement made on January 21 during a meeting with editors the largest Belarusian media. The Head of State noted that in order to be releases Mikalai Statkevich should write a petition for clemency. In his earlier letters, Mikalai Statkevich wrote that he flatly refused to petition Lukashenka for pardon. Maryna Adamovich says that nothing has changed since. On February 6, Mikalai Statkevich’s wife said that the political prisoner did not ruled out that after the recent proposals to write a petition there was a likelihood that the desired application could be written for him. “I remember when in the fall of 2011 the brigade commander asked me to write to the head of the penal colony with the requirement (!) to release me, preferably in Belarusian. I wrote the application, repeating part of my last word in court and calling the name of the offender. Then, thinking again, I wrote [...] the falsification of a "petition" on my behalf was possible. (Then I read about this possibility in the newspaper, for which I am grateful.) Later, in January 2012, when I was in the “special cell” of the cell-type facility awaiting a trial, an employee of the operations division told me that they indeed had such a plan. He even boasted that they could have “made” such a “request” that “no expertise would find this”. The political prisoner explained that he was writing about it, “so that no one had such temptation now”.
On February 7, Maryna Lobava, mother of political prisoner Eduard Lobau, who was serving a sentence in Ivatsevichy colony, said that her son had phoned home for the first time during a month. Eduard Lobau said that he lived through severe frosts and did not get sick. On February 25, Maryna Lobava had a short meeting with her son. They spoke for two hours through a glass wall. Ms. Lobava said that Eduard felt fine. In June, he would probably finish his studies and receive a welder’s degree, having plans for his release (he was to be released on December 18, 2014).
On February 6, a Polish MEP Filip Kaczmarek sent a letter of support to political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich and an appeal to the Belarusian Red Cross to investigate the prisoner’s condition. Of the 15 months Yauhen Vaskovich had been behind bars, he spent eight months in solitary confinement. “As you know, staying in solitary confinement for just several days is very dangerous to human life and can lead to tragic consequences. I suspect that the many months of Yauhen’s solitary confinement is torture used in order to force him to sign a petition for clemency,” said Mr. Kaczmarek. On February 17, the Belarusian Red Cross said: “The Belarusian Red Cross Society received your message about Yauhen Vaskovich of 10 February 2014, and on behalf of the chairman of the Belarusian Red Cross Society V. Malashkz we inform you that we have sent a request to the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the condition of detention and the possibility of visiting of Yauhen Vaskovich.” On February 26, Yauhen Vaskovich marked his 24th birthday. This is the fourth birthday the political prisoner marked in prison.
On February 8, Natallia Pinchuk, wife of political prisoner, human rights defender Ales Bialiatski said that she had received a letter from her husband, in which he wrote that during all his spare time he was working on an essay about the writer Barys Mikulich. This double-repressed writer, who died after the war, not living to learn about his rehabilitation, published his works in the magazine “Maladniak”, which was printed in Babruisk, where Ales Bialiatski was serving his sentence. On February 25, Ales Bialiatski was awarded the “Golden Apostrophe” Prize by the magazine “Dzeyaslou” in the nomination “non-fiction” for his article “Dziady were with us”, written on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the first mass rally in Belarus, Dziady.
On February 8, a civil society activist and film director Volha Nikalaichyk said that she had received a letter from political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich, in which he wrote that he had not received postcards and telegrams sent by Belarusian and Ukrainian activists from the Kyiv Maidan on his birthday. On February 26, human rights activist Aleh Volchak said that Hrodna prison administration did not allow to examine and diagnose Mikalai Autukhovich. The political prisoner had serious dental problems, needing implants, and he still had not received a mixer to grind his food.
On February 8, Valeriya Khotsina, wife of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, said that the administration of Mahiliou prison refused to take a food parcel for him. According to Ms. Khotsina, he was expected to receive a parcel: a pair of chocolate bars, the cigarettes he wanted, some tea, because he said that it was possible, but soon it was reported that the parcel was returned. The relatives were not informed of the reason why the foodstuffs were not allowed. Earlier, the prison administration accepted a parcel with books. According to the political prisoner, he has read all the books from the prison library that interested him. Valeriya Khotsina said that in his recent letters Mikalai did not complain of poor health.
On February 11, political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou was sent to penal colony No. 9 in Horki, after being held in detention centre No. 7 in Zhodzina. On 5 December 2013, Vasil Parfiankou was sentenced to one year of penal colony for violation of preventive supervision. He was taken into custody in the courtroom and sent to the detention center.
On February 20, the Charter-97 website presented in Warsaw the National Award in the field of human rights protection named after Viktar Ivashkevich. Viktar Ivashkevich is a prominent figure of the Belarusian democratic movement, who died in 2013. One of the winners of the award was political prisoner Uladzimir Yaromenak.
On February 24, the family of political prisoner Andrei Haidukou, who was serving a sentence in Mahiliou colony No. 19, completed their long visit, which lasted three days. The political prisoner’s mother Volha Haidukova said that the meeting was good, Andrei felt fine, his mood was good, the prisoner was looking forward to his release (on 8 May 2014).
In February, the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus” marked five years of its activities. The campaign includes several directions. One of them is legal assistance to people sentenced to death in order to ensure a fair trial. During this time, several complaints were submitted to the UN Human Rights Committee. Two of them had been considered (the cases of Uladzislau Kavaliou and Andrei Zhuk), and the other ones were being considered. One of the areas of the campaign’s activities is work with the families of convicts who seek to change the rules of executions and to receive the right to regain bodies for burying. Another important area is awareness-raising. The authorities are trying to preserve a veil of secrecy around the issue of the death penalty. Not all sentences are reported in the media. The impossibility of peaceful assemblies against the death penalty is still an obstacle.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On February 8, Viktar Sharshun was in his apartment in Shevchenko Boulevard in Minsk, when unknown persons rang the doorbell and said that they were from public utilities. As it turned out, they were policemen. Without giving their names, they ordered Viktar Sharshun to remove the white-red-white flag that he had hung on his balcony, as it was allegedly unregistered with the state. Viktar Sharshun refused to do so and tried to close the door. Then the police pulled him out to the landing and began beating him. The handcuffed Viktar Sharshun was taken to Tsentralny district police department, where he remained until late in the evening, but no one explained the reason for his detention, and no charges were brought against him. At about 9 p.m., the detainee was taken to medical facility to undergo an examination for alcohol. He was then brought back to the police department. Viktar Sharshun felt unwell, an ambulance was called, which took him it to hospital. Before leaving the hospital, the man received an administrative offence report under Art. 23.4 (disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official in the exercise of official authority) and 23.5 (insulting an official in the exercise of official authority) of the Administrative Code of the Republic of Belarus. At the hospital, the patient was X-rayed, and then released. Viktar Sharshun filed a complaint with the Prosecutor's Office of the Tsentralny district of Minsk asking to investigate the police misconduct and bring the perpetrators to justice. “The policemen’s reference that I supposedly violated the law by displaying on my balcony the symbols that were not registered in accordance with the law is absurd and illegal, because the use of unregistered symbols is prohibited by law only to the participants of mass events,” said Viktar Sharshun in his complaint. On February 13, Viktar Sharshun received a certificate from the city ambulance station. A copy of the medical records, among other things, said that during an external examination on February 8 there were documented numerous abrasions and outer skin lesions. As a possible diagnosis, it mentions a closed fracture of the 8th and 9th left ribs. On February 25, a response of the Deputy Prosecutor of the Tsentralny district M. Khortau said that Viktar Sharshun’s complaint had been to the Tsentralny District Court. Thus, instead of investigating the case and prosecute the police officers, the prosecutor forwarded the case to the court, changing the subject of the complaint to the citizen’s disagreement with the conduct of administrative proceedings against him.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On February 10, the District Court of Ashmiany considered a civil case of human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka against the Ashmiany customs officials, who ordered a re-export to the Republic of Lithuania of 40 copies of the book “Asvechanyia Belarushchynai” (“Enlightened by Belarusian Issue”) by the imprisoned human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, which were seized from her when crossing the border. This requirement was justified by the conclusions of two examinations and by Section 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 customs authority was represented by Tamara Hlinkevich and Alena Zhdanovich. An employee of the Ashmiany customs N. Kananovich was also questioned as an expert. The applicant’s interests were represented by lawyer Pavel Sapelka. During the session, Judge Tatsiana Yemelianovich heard both sides’ arguments and examined the written materials of the case. The parties debated and witnesses for the human rights defenders – Siarhei Sys and Andrei Paluda – spoke to testify that Tatsiana Reviaka was not transporting the book for sale, but for distribution among the friends and acquaintances of Ales Bialiatski. On February 11, Judge Tatsiana Yemelianovich dismissed Tatsiana Reviaka’s complaint recognizing the ban on the import of the publication in Belarus legal. Meanwhile, the judge said the examinations of the book were unacceptable, taking them into account, however, as an expert’s opinion, and the decision to dismiss the claim, she said, was made based on internal beliefs. The Court said that the content of Ales Bialiatski’s book “Asvechanyia Belarushchynai” could harm the political interests of Belarus, its national security and morality of citizens. The Court, however, failed to quote a single sentence from the book, which, in its opinion, could damage the specified values. On February 12, the Secretariat of the NGO “Union of Belarusian Writers” said that the court's decision was politically motivated and caused only by the fact that the author was serving a prison term.
On February 13, the Belarusian border officials detained for inspection the head of the private cultural and educational institution “Platform Innovation” Andrei Bandarenka. The customs officers found several copies of the annual report on the activities of the organization. After several hours of negotiations, the customs officials searched the car and detained for examination all the copies of the report. Andrei Bandarenka stressed that the annual report was a public document, available on the organizations’ official website. Previously, none of the state bodies had had any claims to these reports.
On February 18, Judge Alena Siamak of the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk considered a complaint filed by Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Valiantsin Stefanovich to challenge a decision of the Prosecutor General's Office to blacklist the spring96.org website as a resource with restricted access. The defendant's representative was Deputy Head of Department for Supervision of Civil Rights and Liberties of the General Prosecutor’s Office Pavel Yeliseyeu. At the beginning of the trial, Valiantsin Stefanovich requested to allow chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Aleh Hulak contribute to proceedings. He also asked to announce the decision of the Prosecutor General, on the basis of which the spring96.org website was blacklisted. Stefanovich also asked the Judge to conduct proceedings in the Belarusian language. The Judge and the prosecutor supported the petitions, except the last one. Thus, the proceedings were conducted in Russian, after the judge argued that the computer in the courtroom was not adapted to the Belarusian language. At the request of the prosecutor, screenshots of the website of the HRC “Viasna” were attached to the case materials. The General Prosecutor’s Office argued that one of the reasons for blacklisting the website spring96.org were publications of unauthorized nature. A resolution to this effect was made in August 2011, but the case materials mainly featured links to articles published after August 2011. Mr. Stefanovich contested violation of his rights as one of the authors of Viasna’s website, namely, illegal restriction on the dissemination of information. According to him, the Prosecutor’s Office had no reason to blacklist the website, as materials posted on it in no way violated the law, but on the contrary contributed to improving the legal culture. The Prosecutor General's position was based on the fact that the website contained information about the organization, which had not passed state registration in accordance with the law and, therefore, publication of such information was a violation of law. Pavel Yeliseyeu said that no complaints from citizens against information posted on spring96.org were received, and the decision was the Prosecutor’s Office own initiative, launched under the President’s Decree No. 60 dealing with internet media. The representative of the Prosecutor General's Office said that information on the website of the HRC "Viasna" promoted illegal activities, undermining the foundations of statehood, and therefore the ban for public sector organizations to have free access to the resource was reasonable. Pavel Eliseyeu also said that if the Prosecutor's Office had the ability to impose general restrictions on access to the website of the HRC "Viasna", the law enforcement agency would have implemented it. During debates, Stefanovich said that the representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office failed to explain what rights of citizens were violated through information that the applicant disseminated on spring96.org. "Our activity is based on the principles of human rights. We support public policies to combat extremism, violence, ethnic, racial and other discrimination. I insist that the information that we disseminate in no way breaks the law. And the prosecutors did not provide any counterarguments,” said Viasna deputy chairman. The representative of the Prosecutor General’s Office insisted that Stefanovich was an improper applicant in the case, and also urged the court to stop the civil case, as Stefanovich’s personal rights were not violated. As a result, the court ruled to find Valiantsin Stefanovich an improper plaintiff, as he wasn't the owner of the website spring96.org, and blacklisting the website did not violate his personal rights. In addition, the judge ruled to discontinue proceedings in the civil case. On February 21, Valiantsin Stefanovich sent a private complaint to the Board of Civil Cases of the Minsk City Court to appeal against the decision of the Tsentralny District Court to dismiss the case of blacklisting the website spring96.org. The human rights defenders disagreed with the court ruling, as he believed that it was not based on the law and violated his legitimate right to appeal in court the actions of a public authority, which infringed his rights, which was within the jurisdiction of the courts under the provisions of the Civil Procedure Code of the Republic of Belarus (cases that arise from administrative relations).
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On February 1, a man was detained at the set of a movie called “Abel”. He was detained for chanting the slogan “Long Live Belarus”. This evening, the filmmakers shot a mass scene, when 4,000 demonstrators marched from Kastrychnitskaya to Independence Square. Near the supermarket “Tsentralny”, the young man several times shouted the slogan “Long Live Belarus”. He was taken aside and told that he was under detention. Soon the young man was released.
On February 2, a plaza outside Kamarouski market in Minsk hosted a campaign picket for a Belarusian Christian Democracy candidate in the local council elections, Maryna Khomich. According to a co-chair of the BCD’s organizing committee Vital Rymasheuski, “people in civilian clothes insulted the picketers in different ways, filmed them on video, used psychological pressure”. In response to these actions, Vital Rymasheuski called the police. On February 7, he was invited to the police department of Savetski district and told that he was fined 16 basic units “for a false call to the police”. Vital Rymasheuski said that the police hadn't arrived, although an administrative offence reports said that a police patrol had been sent to Kamarouski market.
On February 10, former political prisoner, co-chair of the organizing committee of the party Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynets was summoned to the criminal-executive inspection of the Frunzenski district police department of Minsk, where he was issued with a written “official warning prohibiting unlawful conduct”. When the politician asked about the reason for such a warning, he was told that he was “on the register”. Pavel Seviarynets stated that this was linked to the upcoming World Hockey Championship, as well as to his meetings in the regions during the local elections campaign. Pavel Seviarynets had served three years of imprisonment for participating in protests against the rigged elections in 2010. He was released on 19 October 2013 and will have a standing conviction for two years after the release.
On February 12, a number of administrative trials were held in Hrodna to hear the charges brought against members of the United Civil Party who participated in an election rally on February 7. As a result, three people, Aliaksandra Vasilevich, Yezhy Hryhencha and Ruslan Kulevich, were fined 15 basic units each; Iryna Davidovich, a UCP member of the town of Iuye, was fined 10 basic units, after the court took into account that she was unemployed and was raising two children. The UCP members were summoned to the police department of Leninski district of Hrodna in the morning and were held in police custody for the whole day. At 2.30 p.m., Judge Alena Piatrova came to the police department to bring a decision on punishment. The participants in the electoral picket, all of whom were going to stand as candidates, were testified against by several policemen and a representative of the city election commission Iryna Vishneuskaya. The latter was sent to observe the picket. The trials ended at about six o'clock in the evening. The Judge said that the UCP activists were not only engaged in collecting signatures for their nomination as candidates, but also violated the law by simultaneously campaigning against the introduction of a new tax on cars.
On February 22, during a rally of solidarity with Ukraine, Homel police detained members of the Young Front opposition movement Andrei Tsianiuta, Natallia Kryvashei and Stanislau Bula. The activists staged a protest in central Homel to display the list of those killed in the Maidan protests and light candles in memory of the heroes. The activists were detained by police immediately after the start of the action. After being taken to the Tsentralny district police department, Andrei Tsianiuta, Natallia Kryvashei and Stanislau Bula were charged with illegal picketing under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code. The fourth detainee, Kanstantsin Zhukouski, who photographed the activists and was also taken to the police department, was charged under Article 364 of the Criminal Code for alleged threats of violence towards a police officer. Kanstantsin Zhukouski said that this could be caused by his words about the possibility of travel sanctions against the policemen for creating obstacles in honoring the memory of the victims of Ukraine’s pro-EU protests.
On February 22, activists of the Young Front Mikalai Dzemidzenka and Dzmitry Kremianetski were detained at the Ukrainian border. Their passports were stamped to prohibit entry into the territory of Ukraine for 5 years and the activists were taken to the Belarusian side. Thereafter, there appeared police officers who detained the activists for what allegedly using foul language. Before the trial, which took place on February 24, the activists were held in the Yelsk police department. They were charged with an administrative offence under 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct), backed up by reports of five police officers and the protocols of interrogation of two other detainees in the police department. Judge Ivan Tsalkou of the Yelsk District Court ruled to punish Mikalai Dzemidzenka and Dzmitry Kremianetski with an administrative arrest of 10 days each.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On February 4, Aleh Zhalnou, a well-known blogger in Babruisk, was detained over an “attempt to remotely detonate” the building of the police department. The suspicion was caused by a key fob that beeped in his pocket. The blogger had to visit the police department after a criminal case had been opened against his son Aliaksei: on this day he was expected to be questioned and Aleh Zhalnou was going to shoot it on video. The criminal case was a continuation of a conflict outside the traffic police department building, which resulted in several court hearings in 2013. The equipment, confiscated at the Zhalnous’ apartment was confiscated, which still has not been returned. The blogger was fined for disobedience to police. His son, Aliaksei Zhalnou, was charged under Article 364 of the Criminal Code, “violence or the threat of violence against employees of the Interior”. It is alleged that during the September conflict in front of the traffic police building Aliaksei Zhalnou hit a traffic policeman Aliaksandr Butouski on the head. Aleh Zhalnou insists that his son did not use physical force against Butouski, saying that the charges are a revenge for all his videos and trials. On February 7, Babruisk City Prosecutor’s Office opened a criminal case against Aleh Zhalnou for “publicly insulting a representative of authority in connection with the performance of his duties” under Article 369 of the Criminal Code. The grounds were a number of posts on Aleh Zhalnou’s personal blog. According to the press service of the department of internal affairs of the Babruisk city executive committee, the blog “featured a number of offensive materials against a police officer”. On February 20, Aleh Zhalnou said that he faced charges under article 340, “wilfully false report about the danger”, and an investigation was underway. The charges came after his visit to the police department, when one of the policemen said his personal belongings were a security threat and reported on the preparation of an explosion.
On February 5, journalists Siarhei Kruchkou, Nasta Reznikava and cameraman Aliaksandr Patseyeu arrived in Vitsebsk region to shoot a story about life in Miyory district, but were soon stopped by policemen. The police officers told the journalists that they were not residents of the district, and therefore they had no right to be there, and ordered them to go to the police station. At the police station, they were told that they were allegedly going to shoot a strategic military facility, barracks for military drills participants. The journalists said that they were going to shoot the church, while the barracks were at least 250 meters away. After providing explanations, the detainees were released and a police car escorted them outside the district centre. The journalists did not know about the military exercise in Miyory. In fact, the town was declared a place under the martial law with a curfew and other constraints. The drills began in late January. The town hosted the territorial defence headquarters, a separate rifle company was formed here and several hundred reservists were mobilized for temporary service.
On February 8, five years had passed since the entry into force of the new Law “On Mass Media”. The day was marked with the presentation of an analytical report entitled “Belarus: Time for Media Reform”, a collaboration of the international organization “Index on Censorship” and the Belarusian Association of Journalists. “The media law in Belarus fails to foster the development of pluralistic and independent news media through a complicated procedure of compulsory registration of new media outlets and possibilities for the state to close down existing media even for minor infringements. The authorities clearly look into expanding the restrictive regulation to online news media,” said one of the authors of the report, Deputy Chairman of the NGO Belarusian Association of Journalists Andrei Bastunets. Belarus is a country with one of the most repressive media fields in Europe, the report said.
On February 12, the international organization “Reporters without Borders” published the 2014 World Press Freedom Index. The Press Freedom Index is published annually and measures the level of freedom of information in 180 countries. It reflects the degree of freedom enjoyed by journalists, media and Internet activists, freedom of expression, as well as efforts undertaken by the authorities to ensure the exercise of the principles of freedom of speech. The first three places were occupied by Finland, the Netherlands and Norway respectively, the worst rating was that of Turkmenistan (178), North Korea (179) and Eritrea (180). Former Soviet countries: Armenia (78th), Georgia (84th), Tajikistan (115th), Russia (148th). Belarus’ ranking is 157th. It is followed by Pakistan (158th), Azerbaijan (160th), Kazakhstan (161st), Uzbekistan (166th), Iran (173rd) and Turkmenistan (178th).
On February 12, the government-run newspaper “Respublika” published the official list of “extremist materials”. The first item on the list were the CDs seized in 2008 from a journalist Ales Burakou. These included a film by Polish director Miroslav Dembinsi about the fate of the Belarusian Humanities Lyceum, closed by the authorities in 2003. Another disc was a record of the concert “Solidarity with Belarus”, held in the centre of Warsaw. These products were recognized extremist by the Court of Kastrychnitski district of Hrodna. The list also included the album “Belarus Press Photo 2011”. It was added to the extremism list by the Ashmiany District Court. The decision was widely criticized both in Belarus and abroad. The album contained the best works by Belarusian press photographers. Other positions in the list were occupied by publications about the history of Russia and some Orthodox sects, including books called “Reading the Gospel. Reflections on the Gospel Reading. Who are we: Christians or Jews?” (published by the Orthodox Initiative publishing house), “Word and Work of Ivan the Terrible”, “Russia, Awake. In Defense of the Fatherland”, “Secret World Government”, “Yoke of Judaism”, “Veles. God of the Russes”.
On February 18, Viktar Andreyeu, the founder of the website orshatut.by, said that one of his advertisers was advised to refuse to cooperate with the online resource. Viktar Andreyeu said that the businessman was warned by the KGB, who told him that the website “was not quite the right one”, and in order to avoid trouble, he should remove his advertising. The website has been active for more than three years, covering local news and events in the region. It also posts private ads and advertising of goods and services.
On February 19, it was announced that the Chairman of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee Piotr Rudnik ordered the chief of the regional department of internal affairs Fiodar Baleika to “grind to the dust” a local independent small-circulation newspaper called “Nash Mahiliou” (“Our Mahiliou”). Piotr Rudnik was angered by a material about the First Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee Aliaksei Kisialiou, which was posted on the newspaper’s website and was entitled “Mahiliou official refuses to receive mother and child”. The article was about a woman named Iryna Ilyinskaya, who told about a situation that she encountered at the office of the First Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee Kisialou. He refused to receive her with a baby asleep in her arms. He offered to leave the child in the lobby. The official received the woman only after people in the lobby tried to protect her. Meanwhile, it was reported that local police inquired for a freelance journalist Aliaksandr Burakou. A policeman phoned his neighbor and asked her about what Burakou was doing as a journalist.
On February 19, Yury Dziashuk was summoned to the Prosecutor's Office of Lida district, where the journalist received an official warning, referring to a ban on working for foreign media without accreditation, as well as the inadmissibility of publication of unverified information. The journalist, however, could not obtain a written copy of the warning. During his previous visit, on February 10, the Prosecutor’s Office of Lida district interviewed the journalist about his work. Taking advantage of his legitimate right, the journalist refused to answer some questions, but explained that he had been working with the media as a freelancer, and his materials could be found on many Belarusian websites, as well as in newspapers and magazines. Yury Dziashuk has been working with local and national editions, such as “Lidskaya Hazeta”, “Pryniomanskiya Vestki”, "Lidski Letapisets”, and the website lida.by.
On February 24, a Salihorsk activist of the United Civil Party, Aliaksandr Malochka, received a communication from the chief of Ashmiany customs Ivan Niviarkevich, which said that customs had forwarded Valery Karbalevich’s book “Aliaksandr Lukashenka. A Political Portrait.” seized from him on 14 September 2013 to the KGB’s Hrodna regional department to add the edition to the list of goods prohibited to import or export from the territory of the Customs Union. The letter suggests that the preliminary examination, carried out by the General Department of Ideology, Culture and Youth Affairs of the Hrodna Regional Executive Committee, was not recognized sufficient. The customs official said the previous letter from the Ashmiany customs of 23 January should be considered invalid. It said that no extremism was found in Karbalevich’s book, and that the owner could pick it up. “All the questions asked by the Ashmiany custom to the customs expert failed to receive answers,” writes the customs official. “A different expert organization is currently being selected in order to obtain answers to these questions of the Ashmiany customs.”
On February 27, the Belarusian border troops detained a journalist, member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Anatol Hatouchyts, as he was crossing the Ukrainian border at the border crossing Novaya Huta. The journalist was detained on suspicion that he had violated rules of stay in the border zone. The journalist had come to the border crossing with the aim of preparing a story on how things had changed at the border in response to recent events in Ukraine. As the journalist failed to show his ID, he was detained for clarifying the circumstances. About an hour after the detention, Anatol Hatouchyts was released without charges. The journalist was warned that working in the border area required an advance authorization from the border group.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On February 4, the District Court of Salihorsk considered a complaint by a civil society activist Uladzimir Shyla against the ban the District Executive Committee imposed on a picket, which was expected to be held on Human Rights Day, 10 December 2013. The case was heard by Judge Ala Trafimchuk involving Assistant Prosecutor of Salihorsk district Yuliya Harshkova. The Executive Committee was represented by lawyer Aliaksei Strapko. During the hearing, the representative of the Executive Committee said the complaint should be dismissed and finally voiced the reasons for the ban of the picket, which was not done in the formal refusal. It turned out that the reason was the applicant's request to charge local authorities with the duties to ensure public order, health care and a clean-up of the territory. Having heard the applicant, the representative of the Salihorsk Executive Committee and the Prosecutor, the Court found the complaint groundless.
On February 12, Judge Alesia Kotava of the Orsha District and City Court dismissed a complaint by Yury Nahornau and Yauhen Anishchanka. The activists tried to force the police, the clinic and the municipal enterprise “Spetsautabaza” to sign a service agreement for a picket. The Judge supported the representatives of the responsible services in their unwillingness to cooperate with the opposition. According to the court decision, the doctors, the police officers and employees of “Spetsautabaza” could not be compelled to sign contracts, being non-profit organizations. Meanwhile, there is ruling No. 74 by the Executive Committee entitled “On some issues of the organization of mass events in Orsha”, which explicitly states that the applicants for an event must attach service contracts to their application. It also lists the bodies in charge of signing these agreements: the police department, clinic No. 1 and the utility enterprise “Spetsautabaza”. The activists went to court after receiving denials, which became the reason for the ban on the picket expected to protest against the poor condition of a bridge across the Dnieper on 30 October 2013. During the trial, the applicants asked the court to order these bodies to sign contracts with them for a new date, March 29. However, these organizations unanimously declared in court that they would not negotiate with the activists in any case. A representative of “Spetsautabaza” failed to appear in court. Instead, the enterprise sent an official letter asking the court to consider the case without their participation. The representative of the police was silent throughout the court session, saying only that he did not recognize the claims of the applicant. Neither the representative of the clinic nor that of the Executive Committee wished to speak. The Judge voiced their position from the documents of the case. The police representatives claimed they did not enter into contracts, as the applicants did not have permission for the rally from the District Executive Committee. The Executive Committee, in its turn, did not grant permission without the agreements. The police said that they could not negotiate with the organizers for a specific date, because they supposedly did not know whether they would have to employees on the day. Representatives of the clinic said that the list of types of their business activities had no such point as the service of mass actions. Therefore, they could not sign contracts, either. According to a letter from the public utilities service, they could not do what they were asked: the enterprise “Spetsautabaza” mentioned in the Executive Committee’s ruling is not engaged in the cleaning of urban areas, but only disposes of the waste. Besides, all of the government bodies said that they had never entered into contracts with individuals, and did not know how to do it. The trial against the picket ban lasted for almost two months.
On February 17, the executive authorities of the town of Hlybokaye, Vitsebsk region, issued a ban on holding a picket to mark Constitution Day, March 15, referring to lack of service contracts from local medical, public utilities and police departments. Meanwhile, neither the doctors nor the utility service responded to the proposal to sign a contract sent by local activists Yaraslau Bernikovich and Dzmitry Lupach. Their application was sent to the Executive Committee on the same day as the letters to the competent services. The Committee responded 10 days later. The Hlybokaye Executive Committee referred to the lack of contracts with local departments of health care, police and public utilities, which should be provided in accordance with the Executive Committee’s ruling No. 167 “On the determination of locations for holding rallies and picketing”. The letter that banned the event was followed by a reply from the police department. This suggests that the police chiefs had been waiting for the ban. The general message of the letter was as follows: the activists were not allowed to stage a rally, therefore the police viewed a contract inappropriate.
On February 26, Hlybokaye activists Yaraslau Bernikovich and Dzmitry Lupach were not allowed to hold a picket on Freedom Day, March 25. The reason for the ban was traditional: lack of service contracts with the medics, public utilities and the police. Moreover, the district police directly said they refused to enter into preliminary agreements. The chief of the police department Vasiukovich wrote that the law on mass events had a fixed order of their organization. And that in the law there was no requirement that contracts with the law enforcement should be signed before the local authorities decided to allow an event. This makes sense, because why sign agreements when it is not clear whether the picket will take place or not. However, local authorities were guided by the Hlybokaye Executive Committee’s ruling No. 167, which states that, together with the application for the event, the organizers have to file signed contracts with the doctors, public utilities and the police. Thus, the Executive Committee created its own rules for organizing mass events, virtually eliminating the possibility of their conduct.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On February 8, a crane operator Aliaksandr Sakharuk, who works in the Office of mechanization No. 127 of Building Trust No. 8 in Brest, said that he continued to sue his employer demanding accession to the collective agreement. The matter is that the collective agreement applied only to members of the official trade union. Mr. Sakharuk was a member of the Trade Union of Radio Electronic Industry, that’s why, according to Art. 41 of the Labor Code, he had to write an application to the employer for accession to the agreement. Mr. Sakharuk did it, after which he was advised to write another statement to the trade union organization, which he also did. However, he received refusals from both the employer and the trade union. Only two points were specified for him in the agreement: as a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, he had the right to a paid day off on February 15, the day of withdrawal from Afghanistan, and a monetary reward. The worker was officially deprived of all other bonuses and additional payments. Though he did not violate the labor discipline, he always had to apply to various state bodies in order to receive the bonuses. Eventually, he decided to go to court. The Maskouski District Court of Brest considered this situation as a collective conflict which could be resolved without instigation of civil proceedings. Aliaksandr Sakharuk’s appeal to a higher court yielded no results. The labor contract of Aliaksandr Sakharuk expired on March 31. He was hinted that the contract would not be extended. According to Aliaksandr, this situation is discrimination based on trade union affiliation.
On February 18, the Assembly of Democratic NGOs and the Legal Transformation Center published an annual report entitled “Freedom of Association and the Legal Status of Non-Profit Organizations in Belarus in 2013”. According to the Ministry of Justice, in 2013, 70 new associations were registered (2 international, 11 national and 57 local ones), one association of NGOs, 11 foundations (1 international and 10 local). Activities the registered NGOs were involved in included: physical culture and sports – 649; charity – 396; youth – 256, including children – 29; educational, cultural, entertainment – 223; minorities – 112; war invalids and labour veterans – 86; scientific and technical – 84; ecology, preservation of monuments of history and culture – 71; creative – 49, women – 30; other – 565 associations. According to experts of the NGO’s Assembly and the Legal Transformation Centre, the number of new NGOs in 2013 was significantly lower than in 2011 and 2012, when during the year the registration was obtained by over a hundred associations and more than 20 foundations. However, the year of 2013 saw the same trend of registering sports associations – they constituted more than half of new NGOs. As of 1 January 2014, Belarus had 15 registered political parties with 1,057 party branches, 37 trade unions (33 national unions, one regional union and three trade unions in organizations) and 23,193 local offices, 2,521 public associations, including 231 international, 694 national and 1,596 local. 38,915 organizational structures of public associations were registered. There are 31 registered unions (associations) of NGOs, 145 foundations (14 international, 5 national and 126 local), 7 national state and public associations.
On February 20, amendments to some laws on political parties and public associations took legal effect. In particular, the legislation preserved a provision demanding that a public association should be founded by not less than 50 people, but now the figure is not associated with the regions and Minsk. The changes simplified procedures for registration of amendments to the statutes of political parties and associations, which have taken the form of appendices to the statutes. Previously, any, even minor, change required the adoption of the new charter. The amendments also provide for the opportunity to transform a public organization into a political party. The decision must be taken by the highest governing body of the association. After issuing the decision, the body of a public association acquires the status of the supreme body of a political party. Meanwhile, requirements for the establishment of political parties remained the same – the presence of at least 1,000 members from the majority of regions of the country, including Minsk, is required. During the conversion of a public association into a party, the association has no right within six months before making such a decision to directly or indirectly receive funds and other property from the state and local budgets, state bodies and organizations, international organizations and foreign nationals. In addition, unlike associations, parties cannot engage in business activities.
On February 24, Aliaksandr Mikitka, a member of the Free Trade Union’s office at the Babruisk-based Plant of Tractor Parts and Assemblies, was notified that his labor contract had expired and the management no longer wished to see him in the enterprise. Earlier that month, the activist won a lawsuit against his employer over a failure to pay bonuses. Mikhail Kavalkou, the chairman of the trade union’s office, said that the main reason for the termination of the contract was Aliaksandr Mikitka’s membership in the FTU. He stated that on 11 February he sent a petition to the director of the plant to stress that last year the FTU members had been warned that their contracts would not be extended. Aliaksandr Mikitka had worked at the plant for more than 23 years, including 11 years in shop No. 2.