Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in March 2014
The human rights situation in Belarus was strongly influenced by the events that shaped the social and political agenda of the month, including the election of deputies of local councils (March 23), reactions of citizens to the situation in the neighbouring Ukraine, and celebrations marking the 96th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic, Freedom Day (March 25). Opportunities to enjoy civil and political rights, especially freedom of expression, were excessively limited. In particular, detentions, arrests and fines targeted participants in election campaigning events (including candidates), when in their public statements they mentioned issues of concern, including the existence of political prisoners and the investigation into the case of missing politicians, expressed their attitude to the events in Ukraine, called to boycott the elections, etc. Thirty persons were detained for expressing solidarity with the Ukrainian people and supporting their fight against the Russian aggression, eight of them were convicted in administrative trials. Despite having received permission from Minsk authorities to hold a march and a rally on Freedom Day, eight participants were eventually detained, two of them were subsequently sentenced to arrests. There were cases of arbitrary detention and preventive long-term isolation of activists ahead of Freedom Day and the main voting day. In many cases, along with participants in events, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, journalists were detained while performing their professional duties.
The existence of political prisoners remained an issue of extreme concern. In March, an activist of the Young Front opposition movement Uladzimir Yaromenak was released after spending three months in jail for violating the rules of preventive supervision, but it did not change the overall picture, as ten political prisoners continued to be held behind bars: Ales Bialiatski, Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalai Autukhovich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Andrei Haidukou, Vasil Parfiankou, Yauhen Vaskovich and Artsiom Prakapenka. Representatives of the European Union continued their, although not very active, attempts to voice demands for the release of political prisoners as a prerequisite for effective cooperation with the official Minsk. The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania Linas Linkevičius noted during Belarus Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makei’s working visit to the country from February 28 to March 1 that “the existence of political prisoners remains a significant problem in the relations between the EU and Belarus”. On March 1, Uladzimir Makei gave an interview to the news agency BNS (Baltic News Service), in which he expressed his disagreement with Linas Linkevičius: “Your minister stressed that we had so-called political prisoners, with which we naturally disagree. These persons were punished for specific criminal offences, I will not deepen into details. On our part, we emphasized that we also wanted the European Union to withdraw sanctions against 243 individuals and 32 companies from Belarus, which, in our view, were introduced without any reasons after the presidential elections in December 2010 (...) In this regard, we realize that we need to solve the existing problems in the relations between the European Union and Belarus. On our part, we demand the lift of the sanctions, the EU demands that we release some persons, so-called political prisoners. We think that everything must be solved not in the political, but in purely juridical sphere. Everything must be solved according to the law. If the court or the appropriate law-enforcement agencies decide that a person shall be released, or if this person writes an appropriate petition for clemency, the relevant competent authorities or commissions will consider this request and submit it to the head of state.” Mr. Makei made a separate comment on Ales Bialiatski: “As far as I know, the circumstances of this case are being studied. I cannot give any guarantees and give answers on behalf of the Office of Prosecutor General and the corresponding bodies, but the circumstances of this case are being studied.”
However, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said the only way political prisoners could be released is by writing petitions in his name. On March 23, when answering a question about the release of political prisoners, asked at a polling station after voting in the local elections, he said: “I do not want to repeat, but if there is a petition (for pardon – Ed.), there will be my signature. If there isn’t, neither the World Championship (2014 Ice Hockey World Championship – Ed.) nor the 70th anniversary of the victory (Great Patriotic War Victory marked on May 9) – Ed., nothing will help. This is my principled approach to this, and not only mine. We are a state, we are a country. And we do not need to be bent. And shall not be treated according to double, triple standards either. It’s not my signature that something depends on here.” When answering a BelaPAN question about precedents when President pardoned prisoners without any petitions, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said: “Right, I take a lot of those decisions without petitions, too. I just do not know why you’re stuck on a few names. President has the right to pardon any person under a specific procedure. Yes, there have been cases, but crimes differ, first of all. Secondly, I have often told you and your defendants there: do not strain the situation. If you’re guilty, let us quietly, without noise, without violence, address the issue inside the country. You have raised these issues at the international level. Here’s an appropriate, an adequate, a balanced response. But, if you want, my statement and my offers remain in force.”
There still were discrepancies between the positions of the EU and Belarusian human rights defenders on the number of political prisoners, as well as uncertainty about the names on the list, which the EU had negotiated with Belarus, demanding their release. On March 10, the BelaPAN news agency received an answer to its request for comment from the office of the head of the European Parliament’s delegation for relations with Belarus Filip Kaczmarek, who said that “the official number of political prisoners is eleven”. He also emphasized that without the release of political prisoners “the relationships between the EU and Belarus will not improve”. However, on March 12, Mr. Kaczmarek’s assistant Sylwia Fodor said that this was not the official position of the European Parliament: “I would like to make a correction to the statement with regards to the political prisoners in Belarus. The figure (11) which was mentioned in the previous email is commonly used by several NGOs, and does not represent an official position of the European Parliament.”
Despite multi-level discussions on the issue of political prisoners, their fate in February remained unchanged, while the situation with a wide range of rights was further conserved in the most negative manifestations.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On March 3, it was reported that political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich was forced to write an application for safe confinement conditions in connection with frequent provocations against him. In his opinion, this is due to the authorities’ desire to force him to write a petition for clemency. As a result, Statkevich was transferred to solitary confinement in prison No. 4 in Mahiliou. In a letter to his wife Maryna Adamovich of March 8, the political prisoner said that his life was in danger. According to him, the caution was due to the fact that he shared a cell with another prisoner and could receive charges from the prison administration as a result of a provocation on his part.
At 8 a.m. on March 11, Uladzimir Yaromenak, an activist of the Young Front opposition movement, was released from a detention house in Baranavichy, after serving a three-month arrest for violation of preventive supervision restrictions. Uladzimir Yaromenak said that the administration treated him well; there were two violations on his part, but the activist was not put in solitary confinement. The former political prisoner did not answer the question whether he was going to continue his civil activity, noting that he would solve the issue together with his family, but would not change his political beliefs. Uladzimir Yaromenak thanked all those who had been writing to him, as he had received hundreds of letters, as well as the editorial offices of the independent newspapers Novy Chas and Svobodnye Novosti, who subscribed him to their periodicals.
On March 24, civil society activist and film director Volha Mikalaichyk said that she had received a letter from political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou. The letter said that of the 37 days he had spent in the colony in Horki for 23 days he had been held in solitary confinement. The prisoner reported heavy pressure on him by the administration of the colony: he had ten penalties over discipline violations, for which he was deprived of visits and transfers. V. Parfiankou commented on his future in the colony: “I’ve still got eight months of hunger ahead of me.” According to Vasil Parfiankou, he never received the Orthodox cross and the maps of the world and Belarus his friends had sent him. The political prisoner does not know why he was not allowed to receive these things.
On March 18, a court session was held in Hrodna prison to address the possibility of subjecting political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich to preventive police supervision after his release on April 8. The prisoner’s lawyer was not able to attend the trial, having received the notice only half an hour ahead of it. Mikalai Autukhovich petitioned to adjourn the trial, but his request was rejected. The case was considered by Judge Yury Kazakevich. As a result, the court ordered to impose on the political prisoner preventive supervision restrictions for a period of 16 months. After the trial, Autukhovich met with his lawyer. The political prisoner complained of pain in his hand and high humidity in the cell.
On March 26, the Nasha Niva independent weekly received from the Presidential Administration an answer to its inquiry regarding Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s statement of January 21 during a meeting with the editors of the key Belarusian media. The head of state argued that he was not aware that the alleged damages caused by human rights defender and political prisoner Ales Bialiatski had been compensated. A. Lukashenka further instructed the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Aliaksandr Radzkou to address the issue: “This has nothing to do with politics or Bialiatski’s views. I swear I have never known him personally.” Then he said that if Ales Bialiatski’s debt had really been paid, he might be considered for eligibility for amnesty. The letter was signed by the head of the Administration’s General Department for Work with Citizens and Legal Entities Stanislau Buko. He assured that “A.V. Bialiatski compensated for the damage to the state in the amount established by the court” and that “the President of the Republic of Belarus was notified of the issue”. However, the report said that “in accordance with the current legislation, the fact of compensation for the damage is considered together with other relative circumstances in what concerns pardons or early releases.” Meanwhile, the letter failed to mention the third way A. Bialiatski could be released, namely under an amnesty.
On March 31, the Hrodna Regional Court upheld the decision to ban Ales Bialiatski’s book “Asvechanyia Belarushchynai” (“Enlightened by Belarusian Issue”), having considered a cassation appeal by human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka. According to Tatsiana Reviaka, who appealed against the verdict of the Ashmiany District Court, it took just three minutes for a panel of judges for civil cases to make its decision, which indicates that it was made in advance. Moreover, the judge behaved aggressively and savagely. He did not allow the applicants to speak in full and convey their views to the court. The reasons for which the appeal was not granted were not announced, it was just stated that they would be set forth in the court’s ruling, which would be available within five days from the Court of Ashmiany district.
On March 28, Judge Zhanna Krauchanka of Hrodna’s Leninski District Court dismissed a complaint by political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich. During the previous two days, Hrodna prison No. 1 hosted a circuit session to hear the prisoner’s complaint against the penalties imposed on him by the prison administration. He was reprimanded twice and was placed in solitary confinement once. Autukhovich hoped that if the complaint was met, it could affect the conditions of his life after release.
On March 31, political prisoner Eduard Lobau said in a letter to his mother Maryna Lobava that he refused to meet with his lawyer because they were not provided with opportunities to have a private conversation. Ms. Lobava said that even when the prisoner was visited by a priest, they could not be left alone for confession.
On March 31, Anatol Prakapenka, the father of political prisoner Artsiom Prakapenka, said that in a telephone conversation with his son he learned that they were allowed to have a long family visit in June. The prisoner’s father added that his son had had a cold, but his health was improving. Earlier, A. Prapkapenka was busy working, but there was not much work at the moment and he was doing sports and reading books.
On March 31, editor-in-chief of the Bobruiskiy Kurier independent weekly Anatol Sanatsenka received a reply to his appeal to the Regional Public Monitoring Commission of the Directorate-General for Justice of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee. The appeal concerned the conditions of political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich’s detention in prison. The letter suggests that on March 21 the chairman of the Public Monitoring Commission Viktar Sidarenka and one of its representatives visited Mahiliou prison No. 4. They met and talked with the warden, chief of the correction department and his deputy, the prison doctor and an employee of the local library, as well as the political prisoner himself. The Commission carefully examined the conditions of Vaskovich’s detention and conditions of detention in a penal cell (solitary confinement). It turned out that the political prisoner was held in a cell together with nine more inmates. The room’s total area was 33.89 square meters. He was provided with three meals a day, weekly sanitization and change of bed linen. During his three years in prison, the prisoner only once asked for medical aid, in December 2013. In January- March 2014, he read 18 books borrowed from the prison library. In the last three months, he had not been placed in solitary confinement. Meanwhile, the check of conditions in the punishment cell revealed a violation of the Standard Minimum Rules adopted at the First United Nations Congress in 1955. The cell was located in the basement, it was not equipped with daylight windows. Noteworthy is the following fact from Vaskovich’s discipline report provided by the prison administration: between October 2011 and December 2013 Vaskovich received 43 penalties, including 27 times being placed in a punishment cell during 27 months in prison. The Chairman of the Public Commission also highlighted the following mismatch: no complaints of Vaskovich’s behaviour were voiced during conversations with the prison staff, while the report described his discipline as very poor. The penal colony administration characterized him negatively; on July 11, 2012 he was placed on the register as a person prone to manifestations of vandalism, hostage taking and assault against the administration.
On March 12, Liubou Kavaliova, the mother of Uladzislau Kavaliou, one of the two persons executed on charges of committing a terrorist act in the Minsk metro in 2011, and his sister Tatsiana Kaziar sent a petition to the Prosecutor General of Belarus Aliaksandr Kaniuk demanding to resume investigation into the case, saying that new circumstances could allow Uladzislau Kavaliou’s rehabilitation. They argued that the new circumstances included the decision by the UN Human Rights Committee, according to which the state had violated the convict’s right to life, as well as a number of other rights guaranteed by national laws and international standards: prohibition of the use of physical force, presumption of innocence and fair trial standards. The applicants noted that the violations could only be corrected by reviewing the criminal case.
On March 21, mother and sister of Uladzislau Kavaliou, who was executed on charges of organizing a terrorist attack in the Minsk metro in 2011, sent a supervisory appeal to the Chairman of the Supreme Court. They ask to cancel the decision of the Court of Minsk’s Kastrychnitski district and the Board of Civil Affairs of the City Court. Both courts refused to institute civil proceedings against the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the Department of Corrections over their refusal to provide information about the burial place of their son. Their complaint to the Chairman of the Supreme Court, prepared by lawyer Siarhei Halubok, mentions at least two points that speak in favor of their right to have their complaint considered. Firstly, both the District and City Courts did not take into account the opinion of the UN Human Rights Committee that there was a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Belarus ratified this treaty and, respectively, it must adhere to its provisions. A ban on consideration of the case in court means that Belarus keeps ignoring the demands of a document it ratified. Secondly, Kavaliou’s relatives were denied the realization of their constitutional right to an independent trial and legal defense. Even if the court considers that the question of the place of burial is not within the jurisdiction of general courts in Belarus, relatives have the right to know where they can apply to receive this kind of information. The fact that the death penalty is governed by the Criminal Procedural Code does not mean that the court cannot be urged to inform families about the place of burial. In their supervisory appeal, Liubou Kavaliova and Tatsiana Kaziar ask the Praesidium of the Supreme Court to quash the decisions of the lower courts. They also ask to forward their claim against the law enforcement agencies to the District Court for consideration on the merits.
On March 31, six Brest human rights defenders sent to the Council of Ministers a proposal to amend the Criminal Code in order to allow a five-year reprieve of executions.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On March 5, Liudmila Kuchura, the wife of Piotr Kuchura, tortured with chlorine while serving his prison term in penal colony No. 15 in Mahiliou, sent an appeal to Head of Department for Supervision of the Rights and Freedoms of Citizens of the Prosecutor General’s Office Pavel Yeliseyeu, as well as to the Commission on Legislation of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus and the Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus. In her earlier complaints sent to the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor’s Office, Liudmila Kuchura asked to recognize the fact of the use of cruel and inhuman treatment and give a proper assessment to it. Meanwhile, consideration of Ms. Kuchura’s complaints by the MIA’s Corrections Department, to which the appeal was forwarded by the investigative authorities, could not be considered impartial. In her appeals to the Office of Prosecutor General and the Parliament, Liudmila Kuchura stressed that Belarusian legislation did not contain provisions on the liability of officials for torture, cruel and inhuman treatment, but their actions could be qualified under the Criminal Code, which provided for liability for crimes against human rights and against the interests of the service. Also, on the basis of her personal experience, she argued that Belarusian law did not provide an effective mechanism for investigating into allegations of torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. She reminded that Belarus had ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, adopted by the UN General Assembly resolution 39/46 on December 10, 1984. Therefore, Liudmila Kuchura asked the Office of Prosecutor General and the Commissions of the House of Representatives to hold an inspection on her appeal in terms of implementation by the Republic of Belarus of the obligations assumed by it under the international treaties it entered and ratified. She also asked lawmakers to report on the measures taken by the National Assembly of Belarus to introduce the standards in the criminal law, which would criminalize torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Late in the evening of March4 , the Day of Belarusian Police, activist of the National-Bolshevik movement Dzmitry Paliyenka, who had been repeatedly arrested on trumped-up charges, was detained by a police patrol near a fresh graffiti “Down with Police State!” He was taken to the Kastrychnitski District Police Department of Minsk. There, the police started torturing him by twisting his arms in handcuffs (so-called “lastochka” (“swallow”)). They beat and insulted him with four-letter words, paying no attention to his requests to call an ambulance. The activist had to tear his veins with his teeth to stop the battery. Seeing this, the police went mad and hit his head against the floor so hard that he lost his senses. The head of the police station, who came to see what was going on, called an ambulance. The medics were shocked at seeing the detainee, his clothes and the floor being covered with blood. Mr. Paliyenka was taken to hospital No. 4. The medics put the stitches and diagnosed him with a cranial trauma and numerous bruises.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On March 2, the Leninski District Court of Brest refused to consider the administrative case opened against local leader of the United Civil Party Uladzimir Vuyek. The administrative charges were initiated by representatives of the ideology department of the Brest City Executive Committee and stemmed from a picket for nomination UCP member Dziyana Kastsiukovich as a candidate for the City Council held on January 30 in Brest. Initially, the police tried to blame the party members that the rally was staged in a prohibited area in the city centre, but the participants managed to convince them otherwise. In the days following the rally, some of its participants received phone calls from the police department, others were visited by law enforcement officers at their work. During these meetings, quite different claims were voiced, namely the activists did not only collect signatures for the candidate’s nomination, but also for the abolition of a new vehicle tax. In addition, they reportedly handed out the party’s newsletter Holas Rozumu (“Voice of Reason”). However, the police officers failed to answer what provision of the law was violated the party activists. As a result, the administrative offence report was not written by the police, but by ideology officials. The officials of the Executive Committee argued that the picketers had violated the law, because they failed to agree on the format of the event in accordance with the new regulation of the Central Election Commission. The judge, however, having examined the report, said that the paper was inappropriate in form and returned it for revision.
On March 2, activists of various civil society movements tried to hold a protest action near the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Minsk. They were met by police buses and policemen, most of whom were in plain clothes. The “men in civvies” acted violently: they didn’t even let the protesters unfurl any posters or banners. 23 people were detained at once, including several passers-by. Among the detainees there were a Nasha Niva correspondent Iryna Arekhouskaya, journalists Siarhei Hapon, Uladzimir Hrydzin, Artsiom Liava, Vital Siamashka, Ina Studzinskaya and Yauhen Yerchak, as well as civil society and political activists Auhinnia Bahinskaya, Dzmitry Dashkevich, Viktar Dudko, Liudmila Karavianskaya, Yana Kazakova, Henadz Lutsenka, Stanislau Pachnel, Raman Pratasevich, Zmitser Predka, Natallia Rak, Ihar Serhiyevich, Maryia Trafimava, Maryiana Tsitova, several passers-by and even an unidentified press-attaché of a European country (reports say it was the Russian embassy’s attaché Pchelintsev). All of them were taken to the Tsentralny District Police Department. An hour later, the journalists were released, including Viktar Siamashka (whom Chairman of the Main Police Department of the Minsk City Executive Committee Aliaksandr Barsukou threatened to imprison for chanting “Glory to Heroes!”). Barsukou called them corrupt. Within three hours, most of the detainees were released. Dzmitry Dashkevich, Siarhei Finkevich, Yauhen Tsikhanau and Auhinnia Bahinskaya were charged with administrative offenses. Ms. Bahinskaya was released, and the rest were brought to the detention centre. On March 3, the Tsentralny District Court heard the administrative cases of Young Front activists Dzmitry Dashkevich, Siarhei Finkevich and Yauhen Tsikhanau. Judge Aliaksandr Yakunchykhin sentenced Siarhei Finkevich to 10 days of administrative arrest. The activist was charged under the Administrative Code’s Art. 23.4, disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official in the exercise of official authority. Yauhen Tsikhanau’s case was considered by Judge Viktoryia Shabunia. He was charged under Articles 23.4 (disobedience to a lawful order or request of an official in the exercise of official authority) and 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct). The court’s verdict was 12 days of arrest. Viktoryia Shabunia ruled to sentence Dzmitry Dashkevich to 12 days in jail on charges of disobeying police officers (Art. 23.4 of the Administrative Code).
On March 2, a 28-year-old Ukrainian writer Anton Chernychka was detained during the Maslenitsa festivities in Niamiha Street in central Minsk after coming up to a policeman and asking when the Lukashenka regime was going to collapse.
On March 5, Maksim Viniarski, a coordinator of the European Belarus opposition movement, staged a picket outside the Embassy of Russia in Minsk. At about 4 p.m., he came to the entrance of the embassy with a poster “Occupants, Get Out of Ukraine!”. A police officer, who guarded the embassy, came up to Mr. Viniarski and tried to seize the poster. He also ordered the activist to show his documents. After this, he called the police. The activist was detained at 4.40 p.m. and taken to the Tsentralny District Police Department of Minsk. He was charged with violating Article 23.24 of the Code of Administrative Offences (organizing or participating in unsanctioned mass events). The following day, Viktoryia Shabunia, a judge of the Tsentralny District Court, sentenced the activist to 15 days in custody.
On March 6, the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk held another hearing on the case of Minsker Viktar Sharshun, who was beaten by the police for hanging a white-red-white flag on his balcony. Viktar Sharshun was accused of disobeying police officers and insulting the Interior Ministry employees. The case was considered by Judge Valery Yesman. During the hearing, the judge questioned the police witnesses: junior sergeant Karalkou (who detained Mr. Sharshun) and police inspector Illia Buhor. As far as the copy of the report under Article 23.5 of the Code of Administrative Offences (insult of an official) differed from its original, the judge sent the case back to the police for revising.
On March 6, the organizer of the spring action of motorists Illia Palonnikau faced administrative charges; the police took away two laptops during the examination of his apartment. Mr. Palonnikau organized the event called “For Decent Roads” through a community in the Russian social network VKontakte. He intended to hold the action in April 2014. He, along with other motorists, distributed stickers “Mahiliou is a City Without Roads”. Everyone could come and receive such stickers. The police also came there. They copied Illia's passport data, and offered him to go to the District Police Department. There he was charged with holding an unauthorized mass event. Then they took him home, examined his apartment and took away two laptops for examination.
On March 7, activists of the Movement “For Freedom” Artsiom Liava and Ales Marchanka were sentenced to arrest of 5 days each for an action of solidarity with Ukraine, which was held outside the Russian embassy on March 6.
On March 9, Siarhei Palcheuski, a trustee of candidate Anton Zhylko, was detained at an election picket near Kamarouski market in Minsk. He was holding a poster against the tax on vehicles with the inscription “Car Tax? Up your A…” Siarhei Palcheuski was taken to the police department of Savetski district. On March 10, the Savetski District Court ruled the arrest the activist for 10 days.
On March 10, Homel police detained an activist of the public initiative “Our Alternative” Andrei Papou, who distributed informational booklets “Don't Let Them Cheat You” with information about the laws related to the dismantlement of private houses ordered by the authorities. The activist was taken to the Savetski District Police Department and questioned. He was later released without charges.
On March 11, activists of the Young Front movement from Homel Zmitser Karashkou and Stanislau Bula were detained near the embassy of Russia in Minsk while displaying posters “Putin is Enemy of Ukraine and Russia” and “Putin, Hands off Ukraine. No to War”. They were charged with disobeying a lawful order or requirement of a public official in the exercise of official authority (Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code). On the same day, the Tsentralny District Court eventually sentenced them to 15 and 11 days in custody respectively.
On March 11, a BPF candidate for the Minsk City Council Yauhen Rybakou was detained at the plaza near Minsk Philharmonic Society building while holding an election picket under a white-red-white flag. The activist was taken to a police station located in the nearby metro station “Ploshcha Yakuba Kolasa”, where his documents were checked and the activist was released.
On March 12, Minsk’s Savetski District Court found Anatol Liabedzka, the leader of the United Civil Party, guilty of holding an unsanctioned picket. Judge Yakubouski sentenced the politician to a fine of 30 basic units. The charges stemmed from a picket “For Fair Elections”, held outside Kamarouski Market in Minsk on March 2 by activists of the UCP and Young Belarus movement to show their solidarity with Ukraine. The activists had previously notified the authorities about the event.
On March 12, leader of the UCP’s Brest regional branch Uladzimir Vuyek was fined 25 basic units, and activists of the party Dyiana Kastsiukovich and Yury Zhydovich – 10 basic units each. They were punished for a picket, which was initiated by the United Civil Party and was held in Savetskaya Street in Brest on February 24. Though the police argued that the event was held in a place which couldn’t be used for pickets, according to the decision of the city authorities, nobody was detained. However, the police officers put down the passport data of the picket participants and soon charged them with holding an unauthorized picket. The court supported their position and fined the picketers.
On March 14, Judge Tatsiana Motyl of the Maskouski District Court sentenced Pavel Vinahradau, activist of the Zmena opposition movement, to 25 days of arrest under Articles 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and 23.4 (resistance to the police) of the Code of Administrative Offences. Another Zmena activist, Aliaksandr Artsybashau was charged only under Article 23.4 and was sentenced to 15 days of arrest. The activists were detained on March 13. Artsybashau came to the office of the police inspection, where ex-political prisoner Vinahradau had to appear for regular check-in. Pavel Vinahradau was detained when leaving the building, and Aliaksandr Artsybashau was detained by road police officers a little later. The police officers hinted that the arrest was connected with the upcoming local elections. The detainees were brought to the detention centre in Akrestsin Street.
On March 14, Minsk police detained a candidate of the Belarusian Popular Front, Illia Dabratvor, and a candidate of the United Civil Party, Anatol Zhylko, near the detention center in Akrestsin Street, where they were meeting ex-political prisoner Zmitser Dashkevich and Yauhen Tsikhanau, who were released after serving 12-day arrest terms. The candidates were detained after police officers saw in Dabratvor’s car informational leaflets for voters, whose production is provided for by the electoral legislation. Both candidates were taken to the Maskouski District Police Department, but were soon released. However, the seized leaflets weren’t returned.
On March 14, participants of the project “Election Observation: Theory and Practice” Hanna Azemsha and Palina Brodzik were detained in Minsk. They were going to conduct training for observers in the local elections and were driving to the place, carrying the necessary stationery and brochures for observers with them. Their car was stopped by road police, who said that the car was suspected of causing an accident and asked the women to follow them for an examination of their car. The observers were forced to go to the Frunzenski District Police Department, where printed materials were confiscated from them. As it was stated in the confiscation report, they didn’t have the official documents concerning the printing of the brochures. At about 9 p.m. the detainees were released.
On March 14, Brest human rights defender Raman Kisliak and activist Dzmitry Rabtsevich handed out near the Regional Court building brochures with the UN Human Rights Committee’s decision in the case of Uladzislau Kavaliou, executed on charges of committing a terrorist act in the Minsk metro. A police officer who was on duty near the court building approached the activists to check what materials were being distributed, and asked to move away from the building. On March 18, Raman Kisliak was questioned by the police over the dissemination of materials. On March 31, the Leninski District Police Department of Brest sent an official letter, saying that a probe found no violations in the actions of Kisliak and Rabtsevich provided for in Part 2 of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, and, considering this, it ordered to close the administrative case.
On March 15, activists of the United Civil Party held an anti-war picket near the large department store “Rechytski”. Its participants held posters with the slogans “We Demand Honest Elections!”, “We Want Elections Back!”, “23 March – Another Non-Election”. The picket, attended by the UCP leaders Anatol Liabedzka and Vasil Paliakou, lasted for an hour. It was watched by police officers in uniform and unidentified persons in plain clothes who were shooting the event with a video camera. After the end of the picket, the police detained one of its participants, UCP Homel member Uladzimir Shytsikau, who was holding posters with the inscriptions “Putinist Russia, you are Crazy!” and “Splendour of Mansions Saves no Dictators!”. The police asked him to hide the posters, as they had nothing to do with the elections. However, the activist said he didn’t violate anything, and continued holding the posters. The police detained him and brought to the Savetski District Police Department of Homel. On March 16, Judge Siarhei Sheustruk of Homel’s Savetski District Court found UCP member Uladzimir Shytsikau guilty of violating procedures for organizing a mass event and punished him with 10 days of arrest.
On March 17, Vital Huliak, an opposition activist of the town of Vaukavysk, Hrodna region, was sentenced to a fine of 1.3 mln roubles by the Vaukavysk District Court. He was detained by police on March 13 for staging a picket in support of Ukraine. Vital Huliak came out with a Ukrainian flag and the banner "No to War! Putin Out!". Judge Mikalai Talashka of the Vaukavysk District Court ruled to fine the activist and ordered to destroy the materials used in the picket, the national Ukrainian yellow-blue flag and a poster.
On March 17, the Savetski District Court of Minsk heard the charges brought against the seven United Civil Party picketers detained on March 16 near the Kamarouski market. They were charged under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event). The participants of the picket, which was agreed with the authorities as a pre-election event, were holding portraits of political prisoners, as well as the missing politicians Viktar Hanchar and Yury Zakharanka, businessman Anatol Krasouski and journalist Dzmitry Zavadski. About ten people were detained, including cameramen Ales Silich and Henadz Veratsinski, journalist Natallia Valakida, UCP leader Anatol Liabedzka, Uladzimir Ramanouski, head of the Belarusian branch of the international organization “Memorial”, and Aliaksandr Arastovich, first deputy chairman of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaya Hramada). They were taken to the police department of Savetski district. Some of the detainees, including Volha Mayorava and Hanna Kanapatskaya, were released three hours later, having faced administrative charges under Article 23.34, “participation in an unsanctioned event”. Journalists Ales Silich and Natallia Valakida were also released from the police department. Judge Yakubouski sentenced Uladzimir Ramanouski, Ales Arastovich, Yauhen Hrapau and Mikhail Babila to 10 days of arrest each. Hanna Kanapatskaya and Volha Mayorava were fined 4 mln. roubles each. UCP leader Anatol Liabedzka was jailed for 15 days, having been found guilty of committing two offenses: petty hooliganism and illegal picketing.
On March 21, the Baranavichy District and City Court considered the administrative case of Uladzimir Hundar, who organized a picket on March 4 in the center of Baranavichy to protest against the war between Russia and Ukraine. The case was heard by Judge Stanislau Pivavar. Uladzimir Hundar pleaded not guilty of violating Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code, “organization and carrying out an unauthorized mass event”. He noted that Article 33 of the Constitution guarantees freedom of opinion and expression. The Judge, however, found Uladzimir Hundar guilty of an administrative offence and sentenced him to a fine of 1,950,000 roubles.
On March 21, a United Civil Party candidate, Anton Zhylko, was detained at the entrance to the metro station "Traktarny Zavod" in Minsk, where he was handing out leaflets and invitations to a meeting with voters along with his proxy Hanna Kanapatskaya. As a result, Anton Zhylko was charged with an administrative offence under Article 23.32 for illegal picketing. On March 24, the Court of Minsk’s Partyzanski district found A. Zhylko guilty and sentenced to five days’ administrative arrest, but released him pending the consideration of his appeal.
On March 22, Dzianis Sadouski, a proxy to candidate Maksim Hatsak running in constituency No. 20, was detained at polling station No. 53, when trying to find out the reason for removing a BCD observer from the polling station. As a result he was charged with disorderly conduct (Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code) and taken to the detention centre to await trial. On March 24, Judge Hermanovich of the Kastrychnitski District Court of Minsk punished the activist with arrest for 2 days and released him in the courtroom, as Sadouski had already served the term in custody. A police report said that Sadouski “intentionally started a row with the chairman of the commission Kastsiukevich, during which he was running, shouting loudly, actively gesticulating, refusing to react to repeated demands to stop, by which he violated public order and showed disrespect for the society”.
On March 23, Valery Karankevich, a candidate for the Mahiliou Regional Council running in Khotsimsk constituency No. 54 and at the same time a candidate for the District Council of Khotsimsk, was detained by police and taken to the local police department. According to the candidate, he was detained by a police major, who said that he had received a statement from an election commission member accusing Mr. Karankevich of libel. Half an hour later, he was released without charges. The candidate believes that his detention is linked to the fact that election officials wanted to prevent him from observing counting of ballots at the polling station.
On March 24, two opposition activists from Vitsebsk, Barys Khamaida and Aliaksandr Salauyan, were detained over the possession of a national flag. Both were detained in the evening in the village of Ruba near Vitsebsk. The elderly men were detained by riot police. They were forced to lie with their faces to the ground, were beaten and threatened with shooting. During a trial at the Chyhunachny District Court, riot policemen who detained the activists said they did not obey their demands and refused to give their names. Judge Alena Tsyhankova sentenced both to three days of arrest. While serving their arrest, the activists heard of a new charge. They were questioned and forced to confess which of them was Miron, who is famous for hanging out white-red-white flags on electric power lines across the city. The Investigative Committee started trying to find it out from the first day of the detention. On March 27, Barys Khamaida was taken out of the detention centre to witness a search at his apartment, authorized by Prosecutor Ramanouski. The search warrant said that it was linked to a case opened under Article 10.9 of the Administrative Code, destruction of or damage to property in a small amount. The case was reportedly instituted at the request of the RUE “Vitsebskenerha” over numerous cases of hanging flags on electric wires. Such cases were reported in Vitsebsk for many years, but the charges were only brought on March 27, when the opposition activists were serving arrest. After their release, Mr. Salauyan said that the police had searched his private house in the village of Zaitsava, Vitsebsk region.
On March 25, Hrodna police actually detained local opposition activist Ales Kirkevich. At first, he was summoned to the police station for questioning and “preventive conversation”. An hour and a half later, the activist was taken to the police department of the Leninski district, where he was fingerprinted and had to provide samples of saliva. Kirkevich’s apartment was then searched for prohibited materials. It later turned out that the police inquired about his possible involvement in the production of leaflets calling for a boycott of Russian goods, which allegedly appeared in the neighbourhood. However, no materials were found in Kirkevich’s apartment, and then the activist was once again taken to the police department of Leninski district, where he received a warning about illegal actions.
On March 25, Brest police detained activists of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Heorhi Dzmitruk and Zmitser Shukhrai. They were detained when leaving the Consulate of Ukraine. The activists were taken to the police department of the Leninski district, where they checked for alcohol and drug intoxication. According to the police, the detention was caused by a phone call from an unknown person who said the activists were carrying drugs. However, no prohibited items were found and the activists were released after 5 hours of detention.
On March 26, activist of the National Bolshevik movement Dzmitry Paliyenka was transferred to the detention center to serve an administrative arrest of 13 days on hooliganism charges. Meanwhile, for two days, his whereabouts and legal status remained unknown. The court, as well as various departments of the Interior Ministry, who were addressed by the activist’s relatives and friends, denied his detention. Dzmitry Paliyenka told the HRC “Viasna” about his detention in the evening of March 24. The activist said that he was held in the police station of Zavodski district.
On March 26, the Pershamaiski District Court of Vitsebsk considered the case of a member of the Conservative Christian Party “Belarusian Popular Front” Yan Dziarzhautsau charged with participating in an unauthorized mass event on March 22. On March 25, he was detained by police when returning from Freedom Day celebrations. He was held in temporary detention during the night before the trial. The charges stemmed from a picket Yan Dziarzhautsau and Alena Kavalenka had staged on the eve of the main voting day to campaign for an election boycott. They were displaying posters “Boycott Electoral Farce”. Judge Natallia Karablina rejected all of the requests by the defendant, namely not allowing an interpreter and not listening to the activist’s witnesses. She also refused to allow the involvement of Yan Dziarzhautsau’s representative, Piotr Ivanou. As a result, Yan Dziarzhautsau was sentenced to 7 days of arrest under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event).
On March 26, the Court of Minsk’s Zavodski district heard administrative charges brought against two activists detained during Freedom Day demonstration, Maksim Viniarski and Aliaksandr Blizniuk. Maksim Viniarski was detained at about 8:30 p.m. after the protest was over. During the procession, the activist was carrying a black banner with the words “Death to Kremlin Invaders”. Both activists spent the night in the detention centre in Akrestsin Street. They were charged with disorderly conduct under Art. 17.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. During the trial of Maksim Viniarski, which was presided by Judge Alena Niakrasava, chief witness in the case, a riot policeman Tarasau, who worked in civilian clothes during the event, said that Viniarski attracted attention by chanting anti-government and Nazi slogans – “Putin is a Fascist”, “Down with the Lukashenka False Regime”. In addition, the witness said that the activist had resisted arrest. Viniarski completely denied the accusation. The activist also told the court that after his detention he heard policemen talk about the opposition, saying that they should be eliminated and burnt in crematoria, to prevent the situation of Ukraine. As a result, Maksim Viniarski was sentenced to 15 days of arrest (Art. 17.1, 23.4 of the CAO). Aliaksandr Blizniuk was sentenced to 5 days of arrest on the same charges for carrying a Ukrainian flag and chanting “For Ukraine!”.
On March 26, the Barysau City Court considered an administrative case of a football club BATE fan Aliaksandr Marozau. On March 25, the young man was returning by train from Hrodna together with his girlfriend. He was stopped by four police officers for allegedly using foul language at the railway station of Barysau. He was held in custody until the trial. Aliaksandr Marozau was carrying with him a few BATE merchandise and several T-shirts with the inscription “BNR Private Squad”. Judge Herasimovich accused Marozau of disorderly conduct under Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code and punished him with arrest for five days. After serving his sentence, the things were returned, except for the T-shirts, which were sent for examination. It is unknown why the T-shirts were targeted for examination. BNR is an abbreviation of the Belarusian People’s Republic, the first Belarusian state formed on March 25, 1918.
On March 28, Brest police detained a local activist of the Movement “For Freedom”, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, during a picket against the death penalty. The police officers took him to the police station and seized a poster. He was then released without charges. The activist wanted to draw attention to the rapid execution of death verdicts following their entry into force. He was forced to stage an unauthorized picket, since it is forbidden to hold pickets in the city centre. On the same day, a number of Brest human rights defenders sent to the Council of Ministers a proposal to amend the Criminal Code in order to allow a five-year reprieve of executions. Dzmitry Rabtsevich was one of the six authors of the appeal.
On March 30, poet Slavamir Adamovich was detained near Minsk’s “Mahilyouskaya” metro station, for having yellow-blue and white-red-white ribbons on his clothes. He was held for a few hours, allegedly to find out his identity, and then released without charges.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On March 3, Pavel Mitskevich, correspondent for the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussii daily, was searched and questioned by Russian border guards for six hours. Pavel Mitskevich and Kastus Zhukouski, resident of the Homel region, were detained on March 3 at the border checkpoint Novyia Yurkavichy. The journalist was preparing an article about life in neighboring villages situated in different states. Both the journalist and the driver had all necessary documents. The border guards held the Belarusian citizens for six hours; the detainees were fined 100 Russian roubles each for violating the rules of staying in the border territories. Several groups of border guards questioned the detainees in details about their aims, family relations, and about the assignment. The border guards copied all the photos and stories from the reporter’s voice recorders, and even contacts from their cell phones.
On March 3, during the trial of Siarhei Finkevich, who was detained outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk, Judge Aliaksandr Yakunchykhin of the Tsentralny District Court forbade reporters to record the hearing. The judge warned the reporters after he saw voice recorders in the correspondents’ hands. Aliaksandr Yakunchykhin said audio recording could be only carried out with his permission, and that in case of disobedience, the journalists could be punished. It is noteworthy that at a press conference held in late December 2013, the deputy chairman of the Supreme Court of Belarus Valery Kalinkovich told the journalists that he knew about such cases. He promised to correct the approaches. “Today, both the criminal and the civil procedure laws contain explicit provisions for audio and video recording without any restrictions in an open trial,” he said. Soon, the website of the Supreme Court published the ruling of the Plenum signed by the Chairman Valiantsin Sukala and entitled “On ensuring transparency in the administration of justice and the dissemination of information about the activities of the courts”. The document states that audio recording cannot be banned in open trials and the judge’s permission to conduct records is not needed.
On March 5, Radio Racyja journalists Mikalai Bianko and Yuliya Sivets received official warnings from the Homel Regional Prosecutor’s Office, signed by Deputy Prosecutor Sushchynski. The warning dealt with violating the law, and in particular illegal journalistic activity in the region. The Prosecutor’s Office presented as evidence the materials which were published on Radio Racyja’s website, including a report entitled “Forgotten Chernobyl”, covering the problems of the liquidators of the consequences of the Chernobyl accident, and the problems of radiation-hit villages in the Homel region. Another publication was a report about the traditional Christmas festivities in Homel. Some violations were also discovered in the blogs on the website of Radio Racyja. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, Radio Racyja is a foreign mass media, that’s why its activities without accreditation are banned in Belarus. The journalist’s interests were represented by a lawyer of the Belarusian Association of Journalists. At first, senior assistant prosecutor Dzmitry Deboi refused to let the lawyer into the office and agreed to it only after the journalists refused to talk with him without a counsel.
On March 11, police officer Siarhei Rudzko, deputy head of the order and crime prevention department, phoned Maryna Mauchanava, a journalist for the Bobruiskiy Kurier newspaper, and said she should come to the police station to face charges for illegal picketing, namely covering an anti-war picket on March 6. It was staged by local activists who had previously filed a formal application to the city authorities. The peaceful picket was held by two activists. They raised a poster “We are against War” near the stadium in Uritskiy Street and then walked two blocks on the sidewalk. After the picket was over, a police car caught up with one of the picketers. Police officers asked him to explain what was going on and give his name. The activist showed the poster, said that nothing was happening and went home. He didn’t tell his name. Maryna Mauchanava watched the incident. She wrote an article in the evening, and Bobruiskiy Kurier published it. As a result of a conversation with the police officer, Maryna Mauchanava asked to send her a summons. Rudzko did so. The summons said that Maryna was involved in administrative proceedings under article 23.34 (violating the rules of organizing or holding mass events or pickets).
On March 16, TV reporters Natallia Valakida and Ales Silich were detained in Minsk when covering an election rally of the United Civil Party, held near Kamarouski market. During their stay at the police department of Savetski district, the journalists had to show their IDs. No other procedures were carried out. After their release, Ales Silich discovered that the police officers had erased all the records and formatted the memory card of his video camera. Three hours later, the journalists were released.
On March 17, the Babruisk District Court fined local blogger Aleh Zhalnou 5.850.000 roubles over a YouTube video. The blogger was charge under article 23.4 of the Administrative Code – “disobeying legal demands of an official representative in performance of duties”. On January 30, 2014, Aleh Zhalnou came to a meeting with Aliaksandr Vasilyeu, head of the police department of the Babruisk City Executive Committee. The duty officer told the blogger to leave all personal belongings. Aleh Zhalnou had to obey and left his cell phone, a video camera and a laptop. However, later on, a video appeared on the blogger’s YouTube channel showing the meeting between the blogger and the police officer. The video does not show faces, only voices are heard. Seeing the video online, the police officers decided to charge the blogger with disobedience, i.e. for failing to leave all his electronic devices at the entrance, as the duty officer had demanded. The trial lasted for three days, with testimonies of the police officers involved. According to the police officers, decree No 185 of the Interior Ministry (labelled “classified”), with an annexed instruction, stipulates that police officers can demand that visiting citizens should leave their audio or video recording devices, including cell phones. Aleh Zhalnou argued that the Constitution of Belarus ensures the citizens’ rights to gather, store and disseminate information that does not contain national or commercial secrets. A meeting with an official representative of the authorities cannot be a secret. Since the Ministry’s decree is not registered in the Register of State Acts, it is not a legal document and is not binding for citizens. Besides, the blogger argued that a Ruling by the Council of Ministers demands that all legal acts affecting citizens must be open for public access. In spite of all the arguments, Judge Natallia Sheheda ruled to find the blogger guilty.
On March 20, Smarhon police detained Uladzimir Shulzhytski for handing out the human rights newsletter “Smarhonski Hrak”. The activist was charged with an administrative offence. In addition, 31 copies of the newsletter were seized. According to the police, the activist didn’t have permission to distribute the edition. Uladzimir Shulzhytski’s home was then searched and one more copy of the newsletter was seized. The activist was released, but received a summons to appear at the police station on March 25. The newsletter “Smarhonski Hrak” has a circulation of 299 copies and has been published irregularly during the last three years by a Smarhon-based human rights defender Ales Dzerhachou. On March 25, Smarhon police interviewed Ales Dzerhachou and Uladzimir Shulzhytski over the incident and urged them to send free copies to government agencies and archives. No charges were brought, but Mr. Dzerhachou was recommended to observe the laws. Deputy Chairman of the NGO “Belarusian Association of Journalists” Andrei Bastunets commented that the requirement to send “control copies” of the newsletter to public authorities was illegal, as “Smarhonski Hrak” was an unregistered small-circulation publication.
On March 22, independent journalist Yauhen Skrabets was interviewed at the Brest City Prosecutor’s Office. As told by the journalist, prosecutors inquired about his work with the Belarusian Radio Racyja. Assistant Prosecutor Ms. Paulava asked if he had accreditation as a representative of Radio Racyja in Belarus. The second question was whether the journalist had published materials that discredited the Republic of Belarus, its internal and external policies in the media. Yauhen Skrabets refused to answer these questions and to sign the protocol of questioning. On March 31, the Brest City Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning about the inadmissibility of illegal actions by Yauhen Skrabets. The warning was related to journalist’s publications on Bialystok-based Radio Racyja’s website. It is noteworthy that the prosecutors refused to provide the journalist with a copy of the warning. Yauhen Skrabets immediately wrote a statement to the Prosecutor’s Office asking to issue a copy of the document for further appealing.
On March 24, a Hrodna member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Ales Dzianisau, was accused of allegedly committing an administrative offence under Part 2 of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, “illegal production and distribution of information”. A representative of the police department in Hrodna said the charges stemmed from the testimony of chief director of the Hrodna Regional Puppet Theater Aleh Zhuhzhda. The Theatre director said that on February 6, 2014 the journalist recorded a story for the channel “BelSat” about a new production at the theatre. The video recorded by Ales Dzianisau was later shown on “BelSat”.
On March 25, during a Freedom Day demonstration in Minsk, police officers ordered to erase the photos taken by a journalist of the newspaper “Salidarnasts”, Alena Yakzhyk, and interfered in the work of a BelSat reporter Aliaksandr Barazenka. On the same day, unidentified hackers blocked access to the website of the newspaper “Nasha Niva” (between approximately 7.15 to 11.30 p.m.) and live broadcasts from the rally at the website of Radio Liberty’s Belarus service.
On March 27, Heorhi Stankevich, a teacher of the town of Beshankovichy, Vitsebsk region, who has been for several years publishing the newspaper “Kryvinka”, was charged under paragraph 2 of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, “infringement of the media law”. Senior police officer Dzmitry Karas came to his school and said that there was the testimony of two witnesses against the teacher: two businessmen at the farmers’ market said that he handed out his newspaper there. Heorhi Stankevich did not deny the fact, saying that he really was the publisher of the newspaper. However, he stressed that it was not a periodical, as it only had a circulation of 290 copies, so he did not need to register it. He also said he had been sending every issue of “Kryvinka” to Minsk libraries and the Information Ministry, but there were never any complaints. Claims against Heorhi Stankevich, as he himself says, begin at the time of some significant public events. In particular, the first administrative case against him and “Kryvinka” was opened in 2010. Then it was the time of an election campaign, and Mr. Stankevich was running for the District Council. The case ended with a trial and a fine of 20 basic units. The next penalty in 2012 was twice as much – 40 basic units. Mr. Stankevich was also running in the election campaign then, he was a candidate for the District and Regional Councils. Statements from the witnesses were received right before the main voting day. On April 2, Judge Natallia Reut of the Beshankovichy District Court fined Heorhi Stankevich 50 basic units.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On March 4, Chairman of the Homel regional office of the Belarusian Left Party “Fair World” Uladzimir Siakerka received a response to his request sent to the Homel City Executive Committee, suggesting the executive body allowed pro-government communists, the Communist Party of Belarus (CPB), not to abide by requirements of its ruling on mass events. In his letter, the activist asked to explain under what conditions the CPB rally dedicated to the October Revolution was held on November 7, 2013 in Homel. As it turned out, the rally was sanctioned by Chair of the City Executive Committee, Piotr Kirychenka. The official not only ordered the public utilities to clean the area after the rally, but also to install two bonfires with flags near the Lenin monument. He also ordered the city polyclinic to serve the rally participants if necessary, and the police – to secure the public order. According to the Executive Committee’s ruling “On Mass Events”, entering into paid service agreements with the police, medics and police is the duty of the organizers of mass events. Political parties and NGOs are allowed to hold mass events only in two places in Homel. The ruling provides no exceptions for any political party, including the CPB.
On March 4, Aliaksandr Kamarouski, co-chair of the organizing committee of the “Defenders of Fatherland” NGO, was notified that the United Nations Human Rights Committee had ruled in his favour, after considering his complaint against the Zhodzina City Court who had sentenced him to seven days of arrest on charges of illegal picketing back in March 2008. The Committee referred to the requirement of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on the necessity and proportionality of restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression (Article 19, Paragraph 2 of the ICCPR). In particular, the Committee noted that the Belarusian authorities had not sufficiently demonstrated in which way it was necessary to detain and punish the author and how it was justified to impose a seven-day administrative arrest on him. In his complaint to the Committee, Aliaksandr Kamarouski reported that the arrest was imposed on him for involvement in a memorial picket held on March 23, 2008 on the occasion of the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the Belarusian People’s Republic, after his request for permission to hold a procession and a concert was dismissed by the Zhodzina City Executive Committee on a trumped up pretext. The authorities referred to their plans to organize “the 25th republic-wide marathon” on the date specified by the activists in their bid and issued an official order, refusing the events. Aliaksandr Kamarouski, together with three other organizers, said they would cancel the planned events, but informed the Executive Committee that they were discussing the possibility to hold a peaceful event in any other location not interfering with the marathon. However, on March 20, the Executive Committee informed the organizers that it could not examine their request, as it did not satisfy the requirements set out in the Law “On Mass Events”. The activists were told that if they held the meeting on March 23, it would be considered as an unsanctioned mass event. As a result, Aliaksandr Kamarouski and other activists decided not to organize the event. However, in order to inform the persons who were aware of the venue of the event that the rally had been cancelled, on 23 March at 3 p.m., Mr. Kamarouski and the other organizers arrived at the Park of Culture of Zhodzina and met there some 10-15 persons. More people arrived shortly after. The persons decided to commemorate the heroes who had died during battles fighting for the country and to place flowers at the foot of the obelisk “Heroes Live Forever”. According to Aliaksandr Kamarouski, the commemoration and the placement of flowers lasted only five minutes. On March 24, the Court of Zhodzina sentenced Aliaksandr Kamarouski to seven days of imprisonment on charges of holding an unauthorized mass event.
On March 5, Judge Volha Apanovich of the Baranavichy District and City Court considered a complaint submitted by Ryhor Hryk to challenge unlawful actions of the city officials who illegally denied the trade union activist’s right to hold a picket. Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee Dz. Kastsiukevich decided that the slogan of the mass event “Actions of the Authorities and the Laws of the Republic of Belarus – Under Civilian Control” violated Article 10 of the Law “On Mass Events”, which was the main reason for the prohibition of the rally. Ryhor Hryk’s public representative in court, human rights defender Uladzimir Malei said that, according to Article 10 of the Law, a picket may be banned if its purpose is to advocate war or extremist activity. Representative of the Executive Committee, Pavel Kytkin told the court that, in his opinion, the slogan did not violate Art. 10 of the Law “On Mass Events”. However, he could not answer the judge’s question why the City Executive Committee banned the trade union activist’s picket, alleging a violation of Article 10. An employee of the Committee’s department of ideology, culture and youth affairs, Tatsiana Chylik, noted that the slogan could provoke discontent of citizens, while biased criticism of the city authorities could lead to destabilization of the political situation, i.e. extremism and war. In the end, the judge ruled that the decision of Deputy Chairman of the Executive Committee Dz. Kastsiukevich of January 15, 2014 was illegal. Judge Apanovich also ordered to pay the claimant a state fee in the amount of 130 thousand roubles.
On March 10, Brest regional branch of the United Civil Party intended to hold a procession to express solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The protest was expected to bring together 10-15 people. However, the Brest City Executive Committee banned the rally, saying that the Law “On Mass Events” prohibited holding mass events less than 50 meters away from administrative buildings. Chair of the UCP’s Brest regional branch Uladzimir Vuyek said that the local authorities prohibited a procession in support of the Euromaidan protest on December 21, 2013 for the same reasons. At the same time, the Brest officials authorized a May Day procession with more than 100 participants on the same.
On March 10, it became known that holding a Freedom Day picket scheduled for March 25 in Orsha was impossible. Local activists had not even applied to the Executive Committee, as the result became known at the stage of preparations: local police department, health care officials and public utility service refused to sign agreements with the applicants, which are necessary for obtaining permission from the executive authorities. The need for a preliminary conclusion of agreements is provided for in ruling No. 74 “On some issues of organization of mass events in Orsha” by the Orsha City Executive Committee. According to local activist Ihar Kazmiarchak, the company “Spetsautabaza” said that it would not sign the agreement, because its workers should clean the snow, including on March 25. The refusal from the city clinic said that they did not even have such a service or a price-list for it. The police department asked if the vent had been allowed, saying that it would be appropriate to discuss any agreements only after permission had been obtained. The situation faced by the BPF members Ihar Kazmiarchak and the other applicant Ales Shutau, is very symptomatic. The City Executive Committee’s Ruling No. 74 makes it impossible to implement the conditions it mentions.
On March 12, two women from Babruisk, Valiantsina Kavalenka and Liubou Sankevich, filed a complaint in the city court to appeal against the actions of local authorities, who did not allow them to hold a rally on Constitution Day, March 15. The activists were going to use the posters reading “Constitution has Rights and Freedoms on Paper, but We Need Them in Life”, “Officials are not Guided by the Constitution, but by Their Own Laws” and “Officials and Deputies Hide from the People behind the Fence of Formal Replies”. The refusal was motivated by the fact that the Babruisk Department of Internal Affairs failed to agree on the place of the picket, and also reminded the applicants that, according to a ruling of local authorities, a permanent venue for events in Babruisk is a stadium in Uritskiy Street. At the same time, officials did not name the cause why the venue was not agreed. In their complaint to the court, the applicants pointed out that they had the right to determine the place of the action in accordance with law. And since the rally is a means of public expression of protest or interests of citizens, the action has no meaning, if carried out in an isolated area. They drew the court’s attention to the fact that the picket is not a picnic, and isolation behind the fence of a stadium is meaningless.
On March 19, Biaroza human rights defenders Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina were told that they had been unable to enter into a contract with the local police department in order to hold a picket scheduled for March 25. Police representatives referred to the fact that the Executive Committee had not written to them after it received an application for holding the picket, as provided by a Decree of the Council of Ministers of March 5, 2012, in order to discuss the possibility of maintaining public order at the mass event. Meanwhile, contracts with the hospital and public utilities had been signed. On March 20, after a call from the Executive Committee the organizers began to prepare for the picket, and on March 21 they received permission signed by the Acting Chairman of the Executive Committee Mikhail Kreidzich. However, in the morning on March 22 they received another letter, which cancelled the previous decision. It was signed by the same Executive Committee’s Acting Chairman Mikhail Kreidzich. The official reason for the refusal was promoting national enmity. Meanwhile, the announced purpose of the picket was marking the 96th anniversary of the independence of the Belarusian People’s Republic and protesting against the Russian Federation aggression on the territory of Ukraine and the deployment of Russian military bases on the territory of the Republic of Belarus, as well as demanding to release political prisoners. The official failed to specify which of the above contained propaganda of national hatred.
On March 19, the Vaukavysk District Court dismissed a complaint lodged by Vital Huliak to challenge the actions of the District Executive Committee’s Deputy Chairman Uladzimir Zakharchuk, who had earlier rejected two applications for a march and a rally scheduled for January 25 and February 19 respectively. Judge Sviatlana Lantsevich summoned the official to speak as a defendant, but he failed to appear in court. Instead, the Executive Committee was represented by two other officials, Natallia Ihnatsiuk and Dzmitry Ziaziulia, who said that the deputy chairman was away on business on that day. As a result, the complaint was dismissed. The activist started preparing an appeal to the Hrodna Regional Court.
On March 25, an authorized mass event (demonstration and rally) was held in Minsk to mark the 96th anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BNR). It was attended by 1,500-1,800 people. Participants of the rally gathered at a specific location (plaza outside the cinema “Kastrychnik”), unfurled white-red-white flags, a few national flags of Ukraine, banners “Long Live Belarus”, “Young Front”, “Belarusian Movement”, “Freedom to Political Prisoners”, “Russia is War”, “Glory to Ukraine – Glory to Heroes”, “For Our and Your Freedom”, “Freedom Day”, “Young Front – Heroes Don’t Die”, “Russian Aggressor! Out of UN Security Council”. Observers reported high concentration of police forces in the area of the event. Courtyards, adjacent to the area of the Academy of Sciences, were occupied by special vehicles for transportation of detainees and riot police units with special gear, truncheons. There were not many police officers at the meeting place, but the concentration of police officers in plain clothes was rather high. The place was attended by heads of the Minsk City Executive Committee’s police department in plain clothes. None of them were wearing ID badges. During the procession, a small chain of police officers prevented demonstrators from walking onto the roadway. The procession was regulated by traffic policemen. The ground in the Druzhby Narodau Park was fenced and turnstiles were installed at the entrance. Police officers checked both personal belongings and the content of posters. There were attempts to seize some of the posters, in particular the poster “Russia is War”. The entire event was videotaped by police cameramen. Ten participants of the rally were detained by police officers in civilian clothes after the end of the event: activists of the EuroBelarus movement Leanid Kulakou, Uladzimir Barodka, Alena Lazarchyk, Siarhei Matskoits, Maksim Viniarski and Aliaksandr Blizniuk; activists of the Young Front Dzmitry Drozd and Stanislau Rachkel, as well as an underage Viktar Kashkevich; an activist of the UCP’s youth wing “Young Democrats” Aliaksei Markau. Late in the evening, all the detainees but Maksim Viniarski and Aliaksandr Blizniuk were released without charges. The next day, Maksim Viniarski was sentenced to 15 days of arrest (Art. 17.1, 23.4 of the Administrative Code), and A. Aliaksandr Blizniuk – to five days in prison. Observers reported cases of obstruction by the police in the work of journalists. Observation of the protest was carried out by volunteers of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) and the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. All of them were wearing BHC badges with photos and stamps. The list of observers was sent in advance to Minsk police department to inform of the monitoring in accordance with the BHC’s statutory goals and objectives. In general, there were no serious obstacles in the observers’ activities from the demonstrators and the police. However, two observers, Anisiya Kazliuk and Arseni Hurski, were detained ahead of the event. They were brought to a police room in the metro station “Akademiya Navuk”, where their personal data were registered, after which the observers were released.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On March 25, five members of the Free Trade Union’s office at the Babruisk-based Plant of Tractor Parts and Units started a three-day hunger strike. The trade union leader Mikhail Kavalkou, together with activists Siarhei Pichuhou, Iryna Korshunava, Henadz Labachou and Aksana Kernazhytskaya, protested against the employer’s failure to follow agreements reached during negotiations on changes in the collective employment contracts, which were expected to apply to all employees of the plant, as well as against discrimination on trade union membership grounds. Mikhail Kavalkou had not been allowed to the plant, while the trade union activists faced dismissals, which resulted in a gradual destruction of the independent office. Mikhail Kavalkou declared a hunger strike at the entrance to the plant, and the four activists protested at their workplaces. Police Major Siarhei Rudzko and head of the Executive Committee’s department of ideology Mikalai Baliuk arrived at the enterprise to tell Kavalkou that the action was regarded as an unauthorized picket. On March 26, the protest was joined by Viktar Osipau and Aliaksandr Benasik, as well as two more Independent Trade Union members, who lost their jobs after their contracts were not extended, Vital Sadouski and Aliaksandr Mikitka. On March 27, there were already twelve hunger strikers, after three more people joined the protest: Aliaksandr Varankin, Aliaksandr Hramyka and Mikalai Zhybul. The strike was stopped in the evening. According to M. Kavalkou, it was essential that the protest helped attract public attention. According to him, the company’s administration seemed not to react to the hunger strike: the plant’s ideology official did not meet with the hunger strikers, despite the fact that the action is within his sphere of work. M. Kavalkou expressed his intention to meet with the head of the Regional Executive Committee to tell about the situation in the enterprise. If the problems faced by the trade union activists were not solved, M. Kavalkou said they reserved the right to organize further protests.