Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in May 2014
In May, the consistently poor situation of human rights was exacerbated by the mass arbitrary detentions and arrests of activists of various civil society and political groups and movements, which were carried out before and during the World Ice Hockey Championship (held in Minsk from 9 to 25 May). Human rights defenders registered 39 facts of administrative prosecution. This practice is evidence of an organized campaign of arbitrary detentions of persons involved in civil and political activity. One of the features of this campaign of isolation was bringing charges for several administrative offences at a time, which made it possible to isolate activists for a longer period – up to 25 days of arrest. There were recorded facts of re-imposition of administrative sanctions on activists immediately after their release. The trials in these cases were of purely accusatory character, the verdicts were aimed at imposing maximum penalties, which suggests complete dependence of the judiciary on the executive power in executing the political order of sterilization of the socio-political background during the sporting event and the involvement of courts in the general mechanism of repression.
The mass arrests were followed by reactions from both Belarusian human rights defenders and the international human rights community, who urged the authorities to stop unlawful practices against the activists. Information about the facts of isolation was forwarded to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. On May 16, the arbitrary arrests of activists in Belarus were condemned in a statement released by the European External Action Service. “We are concerned about the harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention of several dozens of representatives of civil society and opposition organisations in the run up to the World Ice Hockey Championship in Belarus. We condemn the use of administrative detention by the Belarusian authorities as an instrument aimed at creating pressure, fear and uncertainty among the young generation of people in Belarus. We urge the authorities of Belarus to immediately stop these actions and to release all those unjustly detained, dropping all charges against them. We also reiterate our call for the immediate and unconditional release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. The EU’s readiness to further develop relations with Belarus remains conditional on concrete steps in Belarus towards democracy, human rights and the rule of law,” says the statement.
The authorities denied the allegations of politically motivated and arbitrary persecution of activists. On May 14, Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich, when talking to reporters in the House of Representatives, said that all the detainees before the opening of the World Ice Hockey Championship in Minsk committed administrative offences. “There can be no such definition as “preventive detention”. Detentions affected the persons who had committed administrative offences – disorderly conduct, disobedience to the police and so on. Such detentions have always been and will continue,” said the official.
Isolation measures were applied to both dissidents and the so called “antisocial elements” – homeless persons, prostitutes, alcohol and drug addicts, with the latter category of people not only being arrested for a short period, but also sent to medical and labour dispensaries (LTPs, activity therapy centres) for a period of up to one year.
The situation with arbitrary detentions demonstrated the maturity of a well-organized repressive mechanism, which involved various governmental authorities, and its readiness to perform all sorts of short-term political objectives.
In May, no major changes have occurred in solving the problem of political prisoners. The release of Andrei Haidukou on May 8 could not be viewed as a positive development, since the release of the political prisoner did not take place in connection with the steps taken by the authorities and their political will, but as a result of the expiry of the sentence. Belarusian prisons continued to hold eight political prisoners: Ales Bialiatski, Mikalai Statkevich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich and Vasil Parfiankou. Human rights defenders gave up the hopes to witness a change in their destiny through the legal mechanism of amnesty, as none of them fell under the bill approved in the first reading by the House of Representatives on May 14 (amnesty declared in connection with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazi Invaders). The bill provides that the amnesty does not apply to prisoners with a penalty for breach of prison rules, while all political prisoners had such penalties imposed on them. Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich, when commenting on the bill, denied the existence of persons convicted for political reasons, saying that “such a term as “political prisoner” does not exist in this law and it cannot exist. The amnesty will apply to those who have committed a crime that does not constitute a threat to society”.
In May, the state failed to soften its stand on the application of the death penalty. On May 12, a representative of the Mahiliou Regional Court said that Ryhor Yuzepchuk, who was sentenced to death on April 23, 2013, had been executed. Questions about the circumstances of a murder of his cell-mate committed by Yuzepchuk in prison with special reinforced supervision of convicts remained unanswered.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On 2 May, representatives of the organizing committee of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy” said that political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich, who had faced harassment from the administration of Mahiliou prison No. 4 with the help of other prisoners, had been transferred to solitary confinement after the publication of these facts. Political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, who was serving a sentence in the same prison, said in a letter to his wife Maryna Adamovich that the penalty imposed on Yauhen Vaskovich was linked to the administration’s unsuccessful attempt to force him to sign a petition for clemency.
On May 8, political prisoner Andrei Haidukou was released from penal colony in Vitsebsk “Vitsba-3” after serving his sentence. He was ordered to start packing things at 6 a.m., although prisoners are usually released at about 11 a.m. At 7 a.m., he was put into a police car, taken to the railway station in Vitsebsk and given 20,000 rubles, so that he could go to his relatives in Navapolatsk. On the day of his release, Andrei Haidukou was put on the preventive register of the KGB and police. On May 14, the former political prisoner was told by representatives of the Navapolatsk Department for Citizenship and Migration that he was forbidden to leave Belarus. However, they refused to explain the reasons for the ban, only saying that the decision was enforced by the KGB.
On May 11, it became known that political prisoner Eduard Lobau was visited by a priest in the colony in Ivatsevichy. Father Dzmitry had earlier travelled to see the prisoner. Just like the previous meetings, this visit took place in the presence of a guard. The political prisoner’s mother Maryna Lobava stresses that her son has the status of a violator of the regime, which has been regularly extended because of new penalties for alleged violations committed by the prisoner.
On May 13, political prisoner Ales Bialiatski was awarded the Ales Adamovich Literary Prize for his book Asvechanyia Belarushchynai (“Enlightened by Belarusian Issue”). This award was established in 1995 by the Belarusian PEN-center and is awarded for the best non-fiction book. The prize was received by Ales Bialiatski’s wife Natallia Pinchuk. She said that the prisoner had been told about the award. Natallia Adamovich, Ales Adamovich’s daughter, in whose honour the award was established, said that Ales Bialiatski became the 34th recipient of the award. “Previously, books were burned, and now – a new form: a ban on importation,” she said, speaking of the court’s decision, according to which the book contained materials which might damage the economic and political interests of the country, in connection with which it was decided to re-export the book to Lithuania. On May 14, a new book by Ales Bialiatski was released. The book is entitled Irtutnaye Srebra Zhytstsia (“Quick Silver of Life”). It tells of the events of 2010-2011. The book was written by Ales Bialiatski during his imprisonment: from September 2012 to June 2013. The edition features letters, memories and reflections, as well as descriptions of the author’s usual workdays, as well as events preceding the arrest of the human rights defender in August 2011 and his foreign trips.
On May 13, a civil society activist Volha Nikalaichyk, referring to recent letters received from political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou, said that he had been placed in solitary confinement in late April or early May. The political prisoner wrote nothing about the penalty or about the reasons for the punishment. Vasil Parfiankou has been held in colony No. 9 in Horki since February. During the time, he has spent more than 40 days in solitary confinement.
On May 12, a representative of the Mahiliou Regional Court said that the death sentence imposed on Ryhor Yuzepchuk on April 23, 2013 had been executed. Ryhor Yuzepchuk, 45, was convicted of killing his cell-mate, who had staked his life in a game of dominoes. In this case, several important questions remain unanswered. The murder was committed in the prison with reinforced supervision of prisoners. Gambling was strictly prohibited there. It was reported that on the day of the murder a guard had twice came up to the cell door and saw that the peep-hole on the door had been sealed with a piece of newspaper. The Department of Corrections never reported if any employees of the prison administration had been prosecuted over the fatal incident.
On May 14, human rights defenders received information about the date of execution of Pavel Sialiun, 23, a student of history at the Belarusian State University accused of a brutal murder of two persons. This was reported by the convict’s mother after she received the death certificate. On April 18, Pavel Sialiun’s lawyer came to meet with her client in prison, but was told that Sialiun had “departed on sentence”, which meant he had been executed. However, no written documents or messages were sent to Pavel Sialiun’s relatives. On May 8, his mother, Tamara Sialiun, requested clarification from the prison administration, who, in their turn, forwarded her request to the Supreme Court. During a personal reception, the Court’s Deputy Chairman Valery Kalinkovich confirmed that the execution had been carried out. The death certificate received by Pavel Sialiun’s mother says the cause of his death is “unknown”. Earlier, similar documents had a dash in the “Cause of Death” box.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On May 6, opposition activist Maksim Viniarski, who had been recently released after serving a term of administrative arrest, said that he was held in a cell together with a black prisoner named Patrick, probably a citizen of one of the African countries, who had been in the detention centre in Akrestsin Street for a long time. However, he spoke neither Russian nor English, which deprived him of any opportunities to communicate with the prison administration. Patrick refused to eat his dinner, and took only the first course for lunch. According to Maksim Viniarski, on May 2, Patrick refused to go into the cell after the morning checking. The guards tried to use physical force, but he protested, repeating the word “embassy”. After an incomprehensible verbal skirmish, the police threw him to the floor in the hallway. Further developments were watched by Viniarski through a crack in the door. Patrick was handcuffed. Then the guards pressed his feet under his hands, making so called lastochka (“swallow”). Patrick was lying on the floor and shouting “Racists”. After a while Patrick could slowly release his legs. Then he was tied up again and till the end of breakfast time was lying in the hallway till the end of breakfast time. Then he was thrown back into the cell. According to the deputy chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Valiantsin Stefanovich, the problem of ill-treatment of migrants is particularly relevant in the light of the forthcoming negotiations between the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and the European Commission on visa facilitation and readmission agreements. Considering this, it is particularly important to create special centres for foreign nationals, which would meet international standards and would not result in cruel and inhumane treatment of these people, who in most cases have not committed any crimes. As vital is the question of training of employees, who could speak foreign languages in order to explain deportation procedures to foreign nationals, as well as their rights and duties. It is possible that some of them could risk their lives if deported home and needed to know their right to receive asylum in Belarus.
On May 6, Ms. Valiantsina Akulich said that on April 18 Judge Pradun of the Svetlahorsk District Court dismissed her appeal relating to the death of her son in the city’s detention centre. The appeal was meant to challenge another refusal by the Investigative Committee to initiate criminal proceedings against police officers. The complaint argued that the findings of the investigator about the use of physical force and special means by the prison employees were erroneous, as Aliaksandr Akulich needed medical aid, while the police beat the person, despite his temporary mental disorder, instead of asking for medical assistance. Such actions constitute a prohibited act of cruel and inhuman treatment. However, the judge inquired solely about the extent of moral degradation of the victim: his alcohol abuse, personal life and relationships with his family, although all this had nothing to do with investigating the legality of the police actions. Indeed, although Akulich had been repeatedly convicted, he was an alcohol addict, he died not in a drunken brawl or in an alcoholic stupor, but in the detention centre, where his life, health and safety were to have been protected by police on behalf of the state. During the announcement of the investigation materials, there appeared several interesting new details, since Aliaksandr Akulich’s mother had not been allowed to see the results before filing her complaint to the court. As it turned out, Akulich’s aggressive behaviour, which was cited by police officers to justify the use of violence, was manifested mainly in the fact that he was hiding behind his cell-mates’ backs and calling for help... by the police. An ambulance paramedic, who arrived after Akulich’s death, saw him lying with his face down and his hand twisted behind his back, which did not correspond to explanations by the policemen who said that they had been doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation. The investigator failed to receive a clear answer from the police officers on this strange method of emergency procedures. Eighteen traumatic contacts – this is the result of legitimate, according to the investigation, actions by the guards of the detention centre. These actions of the police were found legal under the Law “On Bodies of the Interior of the Republic of Belarus”. The court ruling is final and can be appealed only under supervision procedures, i.e. a full review of the case will never take place, as it is not provided by the criminal-procedural law.
On May 17, Pavel Panamarenka found himself in a hospital bed after going to a concert of Korn and Soulfly in the Minsk Palace of Sports. Doctors diagnosed him with a concussion. Pavel argues that he was beaten by a riot policeman. His parents wrote a statement demanding to punish the police officer. The incident happened near the stage, after the fan was pushed several times in the back. As a result, he moved the fence. The policeman who was standing nearby, had warned him twice, and then walked over, grabbed him by the shirt and hit the guy with his head in the face. Pavel asked the policeman to give his name, saying that after the concert he would report his actions to the security chief. According to Pavel, they were approached by another policeman who listened to him. After that the senior policeman invited him to go outside to talk. There he was met by a police chief, who offered Pavel to undergo a medical examination. He said that he would not go anywhere without his parents. As a result, he was grabbed and dragged into a car. One of the riot policeman said that if he did not stop resisting, they would drown him in the river. Pavel was taken to the police department of the Tsentralny district. Then he was brought to hospital for examination, and then back to the police department. At around 2 a.m., Pavel felt nauseous and an ambulance was called. On May 23, Pavel was discharged from the hospital, but remained under the supervision of a physician.
On May 30, the sister of Ihar Ptsichkin, who died under strange circumstances in Minsk’s prison in Valadarski Street in August 2013, said that despite the fact that the exhumation of his body had been carried out back on December 4, his family had not received the autopsy results. Meanwhile, the investigator referred to lack of time. A representative of the Investigative Committee, Yulia Hancharova, said that a probe had been launched following the results of re-examination in order to assess the medical aid provided to the victim ahead of his death. Ptsichkin’s relatives also stressed that after his death Ihar became a defendant in another case related to drugs. “Ihar’s friends have been summoned to the Investigative Committee, they have been asked which cars my brother used and where he went. They said that Andrei N. was facing criminal charges. And he allegedly testified that Ihar had been selling spice. But we found Andrei, and he said that he was just a witness. My brother is dead – and you can say anything of him now. Mother was also called to testify. This is because we understand that a criminal case was opened against Ihar. Who else, when all are just witnesses?” says Ihar Ptsichkin’s sister, Iryna. Another representative of the Investigative Committee in Minsk, Aliaksandr Herasimau, denied this information. Ihar Ptsichkin died in prison while serving a three-month arrest for driving without a license. Investigators say his death might have been caused by negligence on the part of a prison paramedic who was on duty on August 3.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On May 3, Barysau police detained Aliaksandr Marozau, a fan of the BATE football club. He was later sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest.
On May 4, Andrei Tsianiuta, co-chair of the Young Front opposition movement, was detained outside his house in Homel. He was charged with two administrative offences, disorderly conduct and disobedience to the police. On May 6, during a trial at the Court of Homel’s Chyhunachny district, police officers said that while on patrol they had heard the activist swearing loudly and therefore detained him. The policemen testified with standard phrases, while other witnesses, passers-by, were not questioned. Andrei Tsianiuta argued that he had not used foul language. The activist is confident that his detention was connected with the forthcoming World Ice Hockey Championship. Judge Anatol Sotnikau found him guilty and sentenced to 10 days in jail: three days for “hooliganism” and seven days – for “insubordination”.
On May 5, a court in Lida tried local civil society activists, who were charged with holding an unsanctioned rally in commemoration of Belarusian activists on Freedom Day. During the memorial event at the cemetery, the activists were targeted by people in civilian clothes. On April 2, they were summoned to police. The trial began in April, but was postponed after some of the witnesses failed to appear in court. The Lida District Court fined Siarhei Trafimchyk, Vitold Ashurak, Murat Musau, Siarhei Sidarenka and Yury Dziashuk 750,000 roubles each. Activists Mikhail Buracheuski and Stanislau Sudnik been warned.
On May 6, the Leninski District Court of Minsk heard the charges brought against activists of the Young Front, Mikhail Muski and Dzmitry Kremianetski, detained by people in plain clothes and thrown into a car with bags on their heads on the previous evening. The activists were held for over an hour. Judge Mikhail Khoma ruled to sentence Mikhail Muski to an arrest of 20 days, finding him guilty of disorderly conduct and disobeying a police officer. The same judge found Dzmitry Kremianetski guilty of disorderly conduct (Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code) and punished him by a fine of 2.25 mln roubles. The charges were backed by a police officer Tkachenka. The court of Minsk’s Frunzenski district sentenced another Young Front activist, Mikalai Dzemidzenka, to 20 days of arrest. The case was considered by Judge Liudmila Lapo. The witnesses, police officers Kruk and Zianko, testified that Dzemidzenka had been urinating in a public place, ignoring the remarks from the policemen.
On May 6, four fans of the Partyzan football club were detained in Minsk. After being charged under Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct), they were taken to the Court of Partyzanski district. Judge Yury Harbatouski punished them by arrest of 10 days each: Illia Valavik, Siarhei Pazniak, Kiryl Yermalovich and Kiryl Klykau.
On May 6, Minsk police detained a representative of the organizing committee of the National Bolshevik Party, Aliaksandr Paliakou. Judge Alena Niakrasava of the Zavodski District Court sent his administrative case under Art. 17.1 (disorderly conduct) for revision to the police department. The following morning, Aliaksandr Paliakou was once again brought to the court and sentenced to 10 days of arrest for alleged using foul language. On May 6, the apartments of other NBP activists, Dzmitry Paliyenka, Dzianis Sakhar and Yauhen Kontush, were shadowed by policemen and unidentified persons in civilian clothes. They rang the doorbells asking the activists to follow them to the police station. Aliaksandr Paliakou was the only detainee. The activists believe that the harassment by law enforcement agents was related to the recent action staged by the National Bolsheviks to protest against politically motivated prosecutions, during which a banner saying “You Can’t Jail Everyone” was displayed at the main entrance to the city’s Chelyuskintsy Park. On May 26, the Minsk Tsentralny District Court considered another administrative case against Aliaksandr Paliakou. The activist was detained by riot police in the evening of May 24 near the hospitality zone outside the Sports Palace for waving a national white-red-white flag. Judge Viktoryia Shabunia found the activist guilty of an offence under Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct) and punished him by a fine of 300,000 roubles. Prior to the trial, Aliaksandr Paliakou had been held in custody for over 24 hours.
On May 7, the Savetski District Court of Minsk heard the case of Andrei Tkachou, formerly known as the moderator of communities “Tolki SHOS!” and “Sick of this Lukashenka” in the social network “VKontakte”. The activist was charged with administrative violations under Article 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and Article 23.4 (disobedience to the police). Judge Yakubouski sentenced Andrei Tkachou to 15 days of arrest.
On May 7, police broke into the apartment of Siarhei Biaspalau, moderator of the communities “Tolki SHOS!” and “Sick of this Lukashenka” in the social network “VKontakte”. According to his friend Raman Pratasevich, policemen broke the door at around 10 p.m. Siarhei Biaspalau jumped out of the bedroom window and managed to escape. However, his parents and girlfriend were taken to the police department and later released after questioning. The activist said that he was in a safe place. Employees of the Partyzanski and Savetski district police departments continued searching for the head of the Young Christian Democrats Maryna Khomich. Among other things, policemen visited her friends. On May 5, Ms. Khomich received a phone call from a police officer, who invited her to the police station. On May 8, co-chairman of the organizing committee of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy” Pavel Seviarynets was summoned to the penal inspection of the Frunzenski district of Minsk, where he received an official warning about the inadmissibility of illegal actions. Policemen were also searching for an activist of the Zmena movement Yahor Viniatski, but did not find him at home. Co-chair of the organizing committee of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy” Vital Rymasheuski was summoned to the police department of the Savetski district of Minsk. Former political prisoner Siarhei Martsaleu was summoned to the police station.
On May 8, the court of Minsk’s Maskouski district considered an administrative case of an activist of the European Belarus movement, Siarhei Matskoits. He was detained in his apartment and brought to the police station. As a result, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail on charges of violating Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct) and Article 23.4 (disobedience to the police). The Frunzenski District Court heard the cases of civil society activists Anastasiya Kukhto and Aliaksandr Arlou (Art. 17.1 and Art. 23.4 of the Administrative Code). Anastasiya Kukhto (Judge Yuliya Zakreuskaya) received 17 days of arrest, and Aliaksandr Arlou (Judge Lapo) was sentenced to 20 days of arrest. The Pershamaiski District Court considered an administrative case against an activist of the European Belarus campaign, Leanid Kulakou, detained the day before and taken to the Pershamaiski District Police Department. Judge Yury Harbatouski ruled to arrest the activist for 10 days. The Zavodski District Court sentenced Young Front activist Uladzislau Zapasau to 15 days of arrest. Judge Niakrasau of the Zavodski District Court sentenced an activist of the National Bolshevik movement, Dzmitry Paliyenka, to 10 days of arrest. The activist declared a hunger strike to protest against the arrest. The Leninski District Court sentenced former political prisoner Siarhei Kazakou to 20 days in jail. A Slonim member of the Young Front, Dzmitry Yushkevich, was sentenced to 20 days in jail.
On May 8, Siarhei Kuzmich, a fan of the BATE football club, was detained and later sentenced to 15 days in jail. On the same day, Daniel Hancharou was detained in Minsk and was sentenced to 25 days of administrative arrest on charges of disorderly conduct (Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code) and disobeying police officers (Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code).
On May 8, the Kastrychnitski District Court of Hrodna considered administrative charges brought against a Young Front activist, Stanislau Rachkel, and his friend Viachaslau Zavineuski. Judge Alena Toustsik-Samoila ignored the circumstances of the case and sentenced both to 10 days of administrative arrest on charges of disorderly conduct. Stanislau Rachkel and Viachaslau Zavineuski were detained near the local bus station on April 25. They were charged with disorderly conduct and drinking alcohol in a public place, although an examination carried out on the same day found no alcohol in their blood. As a result, the guys had to spend three days in temporary detention. Thereafter, they were summoned to the court on May 8.
On May 8, Mikalai Babushkin was detained in central Minsk. He was targeted by riot policemen for wearing a badge with the EuroMaidan logo. During the detention, Mikalai was not allowed to phone his relatives. The trial took place on Sunday, May 11. According to the police officers, trials were held at weekends because of numerous arrests. Judge Viktoryia Shabunia of the Tsentralny District Court punished Mikalai Babushkin with an arrest of five days on charges of disorderly conduct (Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code). During his time at the detention centre, he was interviewed by KGB agents. They asked the activist if he knew explosives manufacturing technology, as well as the purpose of his stay at the Kyiv’s Maidan protests. Information about the arrest and trial of the youth activist became known only after his release, on May 13. Mikalai Babushkin shared a cell with a resident of Minsk, Yauhen Novikau, who said that he had been detained in his apartment. He also said that he had been punched in the face. His trial was held on May 13. Yauhen Novikau was sentenced to 13 days of arrest.
On May 10, former spokesperson of the campaign “Revolution through Social Networks” Uladzimir Kumets was detained when leaving his apartment and getting into his car. Several unidentified persons in plain clothes stopped him in his car, the activist tried to escape, but was seized. Uladzimir Kumets was taken to the police station of Leninski district, where he was charged with disorderly conduct (Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code) and disobeying police officers (Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code). The trial took place on May 12 in the Leninski District Court of Minsk. Judge Mikhail Khoma sentenced Kumets to an arrest of 20 days.
On May 12, a court in Niasvizh opened a trial of an activist of the organizing committee of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy”, Natallia Bordak. She was detained on May 9 for displaying a home-made antiwar poster “No to Putin’s War with Ukraine!” in the town park. A police car arrived when she was leaving the park. The activist did not resist during the arrest. Though the woman was a mother with a minor son, she was held at the police station until the trial. She was charged with organizing and carrying out an unauthorized mass event. The following morning, the activist was brought to the courthouse through the back door. The trial was expected to be held at the Judge’s office. However, Natallia’s friends, who were waiting for the beginning of the trial, asked for an open hearing. Natallia Bordak requested participation of a lawyer, and Judge Volha Krupets gave her time for finding a counsel. The activist was released in the courtroom. On May 19, Natallia Bordak was found guilty and punished by a fine of 4.5 mln.
On May 13, Minsk police detained Aleh Keral, who was pasting stickers to express solidarity with the activists detained on the eve of the World Ice Hockey Championship. The activist told human rights defenders that he was being taken to the Pershamaiski District Police Department. Aleh Kerul was charged with “disorderly conduct” and “disobedience to police officers”. On May 14, Judge Yury Harbatouski of the Pershamaiski District Court sent the case back for revision, after there appeared a lot of controversial issues in testimonies provided by police witnesses Zharski and Byk. Aleh Kerul was released in the courtroom. However, he decided to pick up his belongings in the police department and was detained again. On May 15, his case was considered again. Aleh Keral was sentenced to 25 days of arrest.
On May 17, activist Yauhen Skrabets was detained by the police outside his apartment in Brest. He told about this in a text message he sent to his colleagues from the Leninski District Police Department. Yauhen Skrabets was charged with disorderly conduct and spent the weekend in the temporary detention. His trial was held on May 19. However, the police refused to tell what exactly was violated by the activist. In the morning of May 19, after Yauhen Skrabets petitioned for admission of a lawyer, the judge decided to adjourn the trial to May 21 and released him. However, the police officers, who had brought the activist to the court building, detained him again and took Yauhen to the police station. As a result, Yauhen Skrabets was once again brought to the court, where he was punished with an administrative arrest of 10 days on charges of hooliganism.
On May 17, Aliaksandr Kurets was detained during an action organized by Food Not Bombs in central Minsk to give out free food to poor people. A little later, the police detained another five members of the charity action. All were taken to the police department. After they were fingerprinted and a car that belonged to one of the participants was searched, all of them were released without charges. Aliaksandr Kurets was the only who remained in the police department. On May 19, his case was heard by Judge Volha Paulouskaya of the Minsk Partyzanski District Court. The activist was accused of disorderly conduct. The testimony was provided by a police witness Aliaksandr Hardziyenka. As a result, the judge ruled to sentence the activist to 15 days of arrest.
On May 21, the mother of Yauhen Manko, 20, champion of Belarus in four types of martial arts, said that her son had been detained on May 8. The Savetski District Court of Minsk sentenced him to 20 days of administrative arrest.
On May 21, an opposition activist from Homel, Yury Rubtsou, was released from local detention centre after serving out a 25-day sentence, handed down on April 28 following the traditional Chernobyl Way demonstration, where Rubtsou had been wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “Lukashenka, Resign!”. The activist was taken to the police station, where he was urged to sign a paper about the absence of complaints about the seized T-shirt, which he refused to do. Rubtsou arrived in Homel by train at about 4 o’clock in the morning. However, as he was walking home he was stopped by two policemen, who asked to show his passport and tried to search him for drugs. As a result, Yury Rubtsou was taken to the police department of Homel’s Chyhunachny district, where the police officers charged him with disobedience and swearing in a public place. The detainee asked for a lawyer. However, the request was denied, as well as an opportunity to call his wife. After that, the activist was taken to a detention centre, then to the court. In court, he faced false testimonies from the two police officers, who argued that “during the detention Rubtsou fell to the ground, fought, used foul language”. The judge, whose name Yury Rubtsou cannot remember, believed the policemen and sentenced the activist to five days in jail. After that, Yury Rubtsou said that he declared a hunger strike against police and judicial tyranny. On May 27, after 30 days and a hunger strike in prison, Yuri Rubtsou admitted to hospital. During the hunger strike, he had lost 39 kilos.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On May 3, a performance of the Kryly Khalopa street theatre was to be held during a theatre festival in Brest organized for children with disabilities. The company was planning a number of master classes for amateur artists and then a procession in the city centre. However, a few days before the performance there appeared reports that the event organizers, the public association “Disabled Persons and Surroundings”, excluded the performance from the festival program. The decision came after local ideology officials learned about the performance.
On May 5, an independent journalist Alena Stsiapanava received a letter signed by the deputy chief of the Kastrychnitski District Police Department of Vitsebsk A. Zakharchankau, who said that the administrative case against her had been dropped. The letter also said that Ms. Stsiapanava allegedly collaborated with Radio Free Europe’s Russian service without accreditation. Police officers argued that on January 20 the journalist “covered the events taking place in the city of Vitsebsk, Belarus, without accreditation”, thus violating Part 1, Article 1 of the Law “On Mass Media”. However, the website does not have any publications about Vitsebsk dated January 20. During an interrogation, senior inspector of law enforcement and prevention Siarhei Viaraksa said that the case dealt with the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty. The decision to drop the charges was sent only a week after it was taken (April 25). However, a copy of the official ruling was not sent to the Vitsebsk journalist. Thus, Alena Stsiapanava was deprived of all opportunities to appeal against the letter from the police department.
On May 12, the Ministry of Information issued a warning to the newspaper Svobodnyie Novosti Plus. Officials accused the editors of damaging the public interest and the formation of a negative attitude to the World Ice Hockey Championship. The warning dealt with the newspaper’s issue of May 6, 2014, which reported that the Russian Federation’s team had dropped all the players who had taken part in the Olympic Games in Sochi. Editor-in-chief Vasil Zdaniuk argued that on the day the issue was printed, May 5, the information fully corresponded to reality, and the editorial office was in no way going to report false data. But on May 6, the day of publication of the newspaper, Russia suddenly changed its team composition, adding two players who participated in the Olympics. This fact was the reason for the reaction of officials of the Ministry of Information of Belarus. The warning was signed by the Minister of Information of Belarus Aleh Praliaskouski.
On May 15, the website of the Belarusian Association of Journalists said that a number of journalists were not accredited at the Ice Hockey Championship. According to the journalists, they had applied for accreditation, but eventually received apologies and refusals. The ban affected Radio Liberty, BBC, Euroradio, NTV and a number of other media working in Belarus. In most cases, the refusals were motivated by the fact that the International Ice Hockey Federation, which was in charge of accreditation procedures, preferred sports periodicals.
On May 22, Viktar Parfionenka, a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists from Hrodna, received from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus a sixth denial of accreditation. The decision refers to the law on mass media and the accreditation rules for foreign journalists. The independent journalists in Hrodna faced a situation of a vicious circle, as they periodically receive warnings from prosecutors; now they faced a wave of administrative trials and penalties for alleged “illegal production and distribution of information”. Essentially, this means a de facto ban on their profession. As a result, the journalists are targeted for cooperation with the Belarusian Radio Racyja and the television channel BelSat.
On May 23, the apartment of a Babruisk blogger Aleh Zhalnou was searched by the police. The search was linked to a criminal case opened against the blogger after an incident in the police department back in February. When going through a security check, the blogger told a police officer that any item could be used as weapons. As a result, the policemen qualified these words as a false danger report. The police were looking for a video footage of his detention in the police department building.
On May 23, a freelance journalist from Mahiliou Aliaksandr Burakou received another message from the local police saying that the investigation initiated at his request had been extended by one more month. The previous notification of similar content was received by the journalist in April. Mr. Burakou sent an application to the department for high-tech crimes of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee’s police department on March 19 after on March 14 unknown persons had gained access to the website formats.by (the domain name owned by the journalist) and published defamatory materials against democratic activists of the Mahiliou region. In his statement, Aliaksandr Burakou asked the police to find the persons involved in hacking the website and bring them to justice according to the Belarusian legislation. The journalist also asked to identify the author of a number of provocative emails that were sent on his behalf to a large number of people from the email address <firstname.lastname@example.org>, which did not belong to Aliaksandr Burakou, and also to bring the person to justice.
On May 27, Tatsiana Chylik, head of the personnel department of the Baranavichy City Executive Committee, refused to provide information to the independent regional newspaper Intex-Press. The newspaper’s correspondent, Arsiom Harbatsevich, inquired about the expenses the city budget paid for a three-day celebration of the City Day, fireworks and the concert of a Eurovision song contest finalist Teo. However, the official refused to tell anything. “I will not give information to your newspaper, because I do not want to even talk to you,” said the employee of the city administration. The reporter had to listen to the official’s insulting remarks about the independent newspaper, which, according to Ms. Chylik, “distorts information”. Following the incident, the Intex-Press editorial office sent a written request to the city authorities.
On May 28, an author and presenter of the Poland-based TV channel Belsat, Ales Zaleuski, was fined 4.5 mln roubles by the Karelichy District Court on charges of illegal production and distribution of media products (Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code). Ales Zaleuski is an employee of a Polish public television TVP, which is part of the Belsat channel. The channel has been seeking accreditation from the Foreign Ministry of Belarus for several years already, however it keeps receiving refusals on trivial grounds.
On May 28, Viktar Buzinayeu, the Babruisk leader of the United Civil Party, received documents from Major Siarhei Rudzko of the Department of Internal Affairs and Head of the Department of Internal Affairs Aliaksander Vasilyeu. The officials said the distribution of the newspaper Novy Chas had been investigated, but the administrative case was dismissed “due to the lack in your (Buzinayeu’s) actions of an administrative violation under Part 2 of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code”. Viktar Buzinayeu said that he did not know that his actions were being investigated. The papers say the newspaper was distributed on the 8th, not the 7th of May. Siarhei Rudzko’s letter says that on “May 8, 2014 the Babruisk City Police Department received information that citizen Buzinayeu distributed the newspaper Novy Chas at the central market. During a check at the market and the adjacent territory, no facts of the distribution of the newspaper Novy Chas were established”. However, he wrote that the police department “has not received any information” on this subject. It was further reported that it was impossible to establish a violation of the law due to lack of a copy of the publication which was distributed. And, therefore, Buzinayeu’s guilt was not proven.
On May 28, Valery Karankevich, a civil society activist from the town of Khotsimsk, Mahiliou region, received a response to his complaint to the head of the Department of Internal Affairs of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee, in which he requested to reopen an administrative case in connection with the alleged failure to identify persons who humiliated his honour and dignity in an Internet publication. The response, signed by the deputy police chief of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee, Colonel Ivanou, said that the police were unable to find the people who posted on the Internet resource voskresinfo.com materials of libellous or defamatory content against Valery Karankevich humiliating his honour and dignity. The owner of this online resource was allegedly registered in Ukraine and it was impossible to identify the IP address of the person or persons, as the Interior Ministry’s letters remain unanswered, so they could not be held liable.
On May 30, Judge Dzmitry Kedal of the Kastrychnitski District Court of Hrodna opened a hearing of the administrative case against independent journalist Andrei Mialeshka, who faced charges of illegally producing and distributing information. The charges stemmed from an article published on Radio Racyja’s website in April. The trial lasted only a few minutes. Andrei Mialeshka petitioned to postpone the consideration in order to conclude an agreement with a lawyer and to study the case file. The continuation of the process was scheduled for June 4.
On May 30, Mikalai Bianko, a freelance journalist and member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists from Homel filed an appeal to the city’s Tsentralny District Court to challenge an official warning issued to him on March 5 by First Deputy Prosecutor of the Homel region Vadzim Sushchynski. The Prosecutor’s Office accused Mikalai Bianko of preparing information materials for foreign media, Radio Racyja (registered in the territory of Poland), without accreditation. Earlier, the freelancer attempted to appeal against the warning to the Homel Regional Prosecutor Siarhei Azemsha and Prosecutor General Aliaksandr Kaniuk, but his complaints were turned down. Head of Department for Supervision over the Implementation of State Security Legislation of the Prosecutor General’s Office, V. Shuliak, wrote in an answer to the journalist: “the official warning issued to you about the inadmissibility of violating the law on mass media does not affect your civil rights to receive and impart information and does not contradict the Constitution and the international legal agreements referred to in your letter”. Mikalai Bianko, in his turn, views the groundless warnings as intimidation and obstruction of his professional activity.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On May 8, an activist of the movement “For Freedom”, Dzmitry Rabtsevich, sent an appeal to the Council of Ministers, in which he asked to make a proposal before Parliament to exclude single picketing from the scope of the Law “On Mass Events in the Republic of Belarus”. In his address, Mr. Rabtsevich highlights the abnormal situation, when the said law regulates the conduct of individual pickets. The activist believes that the proposed changes to the law will allow more citizens to exercise their right to freedom of expression. This proposal was supported by the human rights activist Raman Kisliak, who said that the phrase “single mass picketing” was absurd. According to Mr. Kisliak, “the legislative restrictions of the law are truly relevant for mass events, but not for a single picket”. The human rights activist said that in other countries pickets are held without asking for permission and without restrictions established for mass events.
On May 10, an activist of the campaign “Without a Visa!” from the town of Salihorsk, Viktoryia Fohel, was summoned to the local police station, where she received an official warning about the inadmissibility of illegal actions. The decision related to her application for holding a picket in support of the campaign. The event was scheduled for May 11 and was expected to be held outside the Čyžoŭka Arena in Minsk. After the city authorities dismissed the activist’s bid, Ms. Fohel said she would not stage an unauthorized event. Salihorsk police, however, summoned her to the local police department to warn against prohibited activities and forced the activist to sign a warning.
On May 13, the Biaroza District Court started hearing a complaint by local human rights defenders Tamara Shchapiotkina and Siarhei Rusetski, as well as a civil society activist Tatsiana Tarasevich, against the Executive Committee, who had first gave permission, and then banned the rally on March 25. During the court session, the Executive Committee’s lawyer, Yauhen Kashtalian, said that the permission had been revoked by order from a superior body, the Brest Regional Executive Committee. The claimants suggested listening to Deputy Chairman of the Biaroza District Executive Committee Mikhail Kreidzich, who had put his signature to both the positive and the negative decisions, as well as to officials from the Brest Regional Executive Committee, who argued that one of the goals of the picket was inciting ethnic hatred (the picketers were expected to protest against the Russian aggression on the territory of Ukraine and the deployment of Russian military bases on the territory of the Republic of Belarus). The human rights defenders also asked for a linguistic examination. Judge Alena Niamtsova agreed to summon the officials to the next hearing. On May 21, the Executive Committee’s representative Yauhen Kashtalian suddenly recanted his earlier statement, claiming that the Brest Regional Executive Committee had no relation to the prohibition of the picket, and the decision was taken by an official of the District Executive Committee, but refused to disclose the person’s name. Neither Judge Alena Niamtsova not Prosecutor Aksana Hardzeyuk were interested in the official’s name. On May 22, the court dismissed the human rights defenders’ complaint, finding the ban legal. Tamara Shchapiotkina, Siarhei Rusetski and Tatsiana Tarasevich sent an appeal to the Brest Regional Court, asking the court to cancel the decision of the District Court and to send the complaint back to the court for consideration by another judge.
On May 14, a coordinator of the Belarusian Christian Democracy’s Babruisk office Taisiya Kabanchuk received a response from the City Executive Committee, which banned a picket in support of political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich. The ban was signed by Deputy Mayor Aliaksandr Markachou. It argues that the application does not comply with Article 2 of the Law “On Mass Events”. In particular, it failed to specify the procedure for payment of health care services and a clean-up of the territory. Mr. Markachou also said the publication of information about the planned picket in the media was a violation. Another reason for the ban was a sports competition allegedly planned for the same date, time and venue, the stadium of the Slavianka factory.
On May 18, activists of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy planned to hold a picket in the centre of Mahiliou to support political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich, but their application was rejected. The reason for the ban, according the Executive Committee, was that the organizer of the picket Aleh Aksionau failed to attach to his application agreements with the police, health care and community services. As a result, the application was said to run counter to a ruling of the Mahiliou City Executive Committee of December 19, 2007 “On Mass Events in the City of Mahiliou”, says an official letter. Aleh Aksionau said that if officials had allowed the rally, there would have been no problems in signing the contracts, as these services tend to refuse to enter into contracts, if the event in question is not already authorized by the executive committee.
On May 21, it became known that the UN Human Rights Committee found a violation in the case of a member of the Zhlobin office of the Belarusian Left Party “Fair World” Uladzimir Kirsanau, whose right to freedom of peaceful assembly was infringed by prohibiting him to hold a picket in Zhlobin in 2008 with the aim to attract public attention to problems faced by the country’s political parties and public associations. Uladzimir Kirsanau’s complaint was submitted to the Committee after he was unable to protect his rights within the country. The Zhlobin District Executive Committee did not allow him, together with a number of other activists, to stage a series of events in connection with the decision of the Ministry of Justice to suspend for six months the activities of the Communist Party of Belarus (now the Belarusian Left Party “Fair World”). Local officials then demanded that the Communists paid for the serviced provided by the police, ambulance and community services. The UN Human Rights Committee stresses that if the government imposes a restriction on the freedom of peaceful assembly, then it should support the exercise of the right instead of seeking unnecessary or inappropriate constraints. And since the government of Belarus decided that it could ensure public order and safety, protection of morals, health or the rights and freedoms of other persons only by prohibiting a peaceful assembly, it therefore violated the applicant’s right to freedom of peaceful assembly under Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Under the Committee’s decision, the government is “under an obligation to provide the author with an effective remedy, including adequate compensation”. The State party is also expected “to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future”. Unfortunately, the activist did not live to see it, as he died a few years ago. His interests were represented by a human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka.
On May 27, the authorities of Mahiliou banned a picket that was expected to attract the attention of officials and local residents to the eviction of Ms. Iryna Ilyinskaya from a dormitory together with her two minor children. The picket was scheduled for June 1, International Children’s Day. The ban refers to the fact that the woman had chosen an improper location. Ms. Ilyinskaya had lived in a dormitory of a local building trust for 14 years. She had a contract for accommodation at the request of a third organization. A year ago she was fraudulently forced to sign a one-year contract, and the administration started eviction proceedings. The woman tried to protect her right to remain in the hostel through the court, but Judge Yuliya Trapynina of the Leninski District Court sided with the administration of the trust. The Mahiliou Regional Court quashed the decision of the District Court in connection with numerous violations during the trial and sent the case back for retrial.
On May 28, the Minsk City Executive Committee banned another picket of solidarity with the Ukrainian people organized by the Belarusian Popular Front. BPF deputy head Ihar Lialkou asked for permission to hold a rally at the monument to Taras Shevchenko. A letter signed by the deputy chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee Ihar Karpenka said that the place would be occupied by a different event. However, the official failed to specify what kind of event was scheduled for the same time.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On May 5, an independent trade union activist from Mazyr, Pavel Nazdra, was notified that his employment contract would not be renewed “due to expiration”. The activist had worked as an electrician in the housing department since 2010. Pavel Nazdra’s employer had no complaints or remarks. The activist said the decision was linked to his trade union activities, as he faced harassment after last year’s creation of a local office of the independent trade union.
On May 5, a member of the Free Trade Union of Belarus and employee of the TDiA plant (tractor parts and units) in Babruisk, Viktar Osipau, learned that his employment contract would not be extended. Prior to that, he received a notice saying that his labour contract expired on April 30. The decision was taken despite petitions from the activist’s supervisor and his colleagues. These measures did not affect the decision of the Deputy Director for Personnel and Ideology Uladzimir Yeliseyenka. The decision is said to be linked to Viktar Osipau’s involvement in a hunger strike held in March and his membership in the Free Trade Union. Last year, the Babruisk plant administration refused to renew the contracts with three trade union members, Dzmitry Kurmaz, Dzmitry Sakalouski and Siarhei Pichuhou. In 2014, two more activists, Aliaksandr Mikita and Viktar Osipau, lost their jobs in the same way.
On May 23, leader of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka said that UCP activists had received 15 refusals to their requests for premises that were expected to host the party’s congress. The party members regarded this as an attempt to disrupt the congress, because in case it was not held, the Ministry of Justice could start the procedure of dissolution of the party.