Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in September 2014
In September, there were no positive developments in the human rights situation in Belarus, systemic and systematic violations persisted. During the month, there was a further consolidation of the most negative practices developed in the preceding period: arbitrary preventive detention and punishment of civil society and political activists, harassment of journalists for contributing to foreign media, the impossibility of holding peaceful assemblies to express alternative opinions, bans on establishing independent associations.
No positive changes occurred on the issue of political prisoners. Mikalai Statkevich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich and Vasil Parfiankou continued to be held behind bars. The authorities did not take any steps to release them, either on their own initiative or under pressure of external factors, primarily related to demands from the European Union and the United States for the release of political prisoners as a prerequisite for restoring normal relations. However, it should be noted that these demands were not so numerous, as there has been an obvious increase in cooperation with the Belarusian authorities. At the same time, the remaining agenda of negotiations with the official Minsk remained virtually unknown to the public.
In particular, from 8 to 11 September Minsk was visited by a US inter-agency delegation. Summing up the results of the visit, Deputy Assistant of the Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labour, Thomas Melia, said that the issue of political prisoners was raised during a meeting at the Foreign Ministry of Belarus, which took place on September 9. Thomas Melia said that the United States’ position remained unchanged. “The US has always called for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus,” he said. “We also met with relatives of political prisoners, where I assured them that this issue remained important for us.” Responding to a question about the Belarusian Foreign Ministry’s reactions, Mr. Melia said: “Their position has not changed for several years. They continue to call them “so-called political prisoners”. And yesterday’s statement by the Foreign Ministry [after the meeting] reflects the differences that we have on this issue.”
At the same time, when assessing the visit, Deputy Foreign Minister Aliaksandr Huryanau said at a press conference in Minsk on September 17 that “our relations with the European Union, the closest neighbours of the EU, with the US are dynamic”. He reiterated the willingness of Belarus to pursue a pragmatic dialogue and cooperation, especially in the economic sphere: “We have repeatedly stressed that the economy and the socio-economic development of Belarus in general are a priority. Therefore, fixating solely on the political process is not in the interests of our country.” Aliaksandr Huryanau said that “fortunately, there comes a certain understanding of the fact that Belarus is ready to discuss political issues, too, which concern our western counterparts, but in parallel also promote economic projects that the business is interested in”.
Thus, none of the sides mentioned whether they had achieved a balance of interests of political and economic nature during the negotiations and how it could affect the situation of democracy and human rights in Belarus and the fate of political prisoners.
An important event in the assessment of the human rights situation in Belarus was the presentation at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights of an alternative report by Belarusian non-governmental organizations submitted under the Universal Periodic Review procedure. Noting certain steps taken to implement the recommendations made in the first cycle of the UPR, human rights defenders expressed concern about the lack of real progress on key problem areas of human rights in the country: “The Belarusian authorities have not demonstrated the minimum level of policy of support and respect for human rights. The UPR recommendations on the release of political prisoners, liberalization of the law on freedom of expression and electoral laws were found inadmissible and were not fulfilled; on some issues, the legal framework is even more rigid. There are no bodies in the country which can be responsible for the development and promotion of policies on human rights, no periodic comprehensive plans in this area have been adopted. Activities of the parliamentary commission, the competence of which, inter alia, includes human rights issues, has been nearly unknown during the reporting period.”
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On September 3, political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich thanked BAJ activists for the kind words and congratulations on the 100th anniversary of the Bobruiskiy Kurier independent weekly, where he had worked before his arrest. “Of course, I cannot work as a journalist here, writing for mass media. However, what I had learned from the Bobruiskiy Kurier and BAJ gave me a good school of life and helped survive, remain cheerful and not to grieve,” said the political prisoner. On September 20, Rushaniya Vaskovich, Yauhen Vaskovich’s mother, said that in mid-October he was expected to be transferred to Mahiliou penal colony No. 15, where he had been serving his sentence before being transferred to prison No. 4. The move was to complete a 3-year prison term handed down by the court for violating colony rules.
On September 4, after two months of silence, political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou was visited in the Horki penal colony by lawyer Volha Bezbarodkina. During the meeting, the lawyer agreed on the text of a supervisory appeal against the sentence and learned about Vasil Parfinakou’s detention conditions. According to the lawyer, Vasil could not explain why his friends did not get letters from him. Vasil Parfiankou was still held alone in so-called PKT, a cell-type room. The counsel said that the prisoner was pale and had lost weight. On September 28, activist Volha Mikalaichyk, who regularly corresponds with Vasil Parfiankou, said that the political prisoner did not receive letters again. In mid-September, Volha Mikalaichyk visited the colony in Horki, but was not allowed to see Vasil Parfiankou and the prison staff refused to accept a parcel for the prisoner. Since then, Volha had sent him several letters with magazines, newspapers, blank postcards, but received a message from him saying that her letters and messages of other friends and associates were not reaching the prisoner.
On September 6, Maryna Adamovich, wife of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, reported learning from a husband's letter about the confiscation of seven letters with comments on the recent developments in Ukraine. On September 8, Mikalai Statkevich’s father, Viktar Statkevich, received an anonymous letter with threats to him, his son and his wife Maryna Adamovich. The letter was found in the mailbox, and the text was written by an unknown hand in big letters. The anonymous author said that when Mikalai was released from prison, he would be killed. On September 10, the 88-year-old Viktar Statkevich, who lives in Baranavichy alone, and Mikalai Statkevich’s wife filed a statement to the police about receiving the anonymous threat. On September 15, Maryna Adamovich said that the censors of the Mahiliou prison, where Statkevich was serving a punishment, had seized his letter to his father. It was the first time in almost four years of the political prisoner’s imprisonment. On September 12, Statkevich was visited by a lawyer. On September 29, Maryna Adamovich said that her husband had phoned to say that he managed to protect his right to choose clothing during prison physical exercise. Previously, the political prisoner was prohibited to do sports with no prison uniform on, and told him that the violation could result in punishment. Mikalai Statkevich disagreed and challenged the unlawful restrictions. Maryna Adamovich said that in September Mikalai Statkevich and other prisoners of the Mahiliou prison were visited by a supervising prosecutor. According to her, the prosecutor noted that “Statkevich looks good in prison”. The political prisoner’s wife knows nothing of any complaints to the prosecutor.
On September 8, Maryna Lobava, mother of political prisoner Eduard Lobau, said that despite the fact that in the early summer her son completed a course of welding, he could not be employed in the colony. According to Maryna Lobava, her son sometimes received assignments in the industrial zone, performs some work, but it had nothing to do with welding.
On September 15, Uladzimir Alinevich, father of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said that his son was employed in woodworking in prison “Vitsba-3”. He could not clarify what exactly his son was doing in the colony where he had arrived in July. According to Uladzimir Alinevich, his son had been given a phone card, and he could at least occasionally, but regularly call home. During his stay in the Navapolatsk colony, where Ihar Alinevich had served more than three years, he was actually deprived of this possibility. In addition, Ihar Alinevich’s father started receiving more letters from his son.
On September 16, the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk started the criminal proceedings against an opposition activist from Homel, Yury Rubtsou, who faced charges under Article 391 of the Criminal Code, “contempt of the judge”. The case was heard by Judge Natallia Vaitsekhovich. The charges stemmed from a statement by Judge Kiryl Palulekh of Minsk’s Savetski District Court, who claimed that Yury Rubtsou had insulted him during the consideration of his administrative case on April 28. The judge questioned Yury Rubtsou. He explained that on April 28 he had been taken to the court of the Savetski district of Minsk despite wearing no shirt and glasses, which offended his dignity. Moreover, he could not read the materials of the administrative case. Therefore, he said that it was “not a trial, but a show”. Then there was a questioning of the victim, Kiryl Palulekh, and several witnesses, police officers Sharko and Bely, as well as a district police officer Pavel Neliubovich, who were present at the administrative proceedings, and Secretary Darya Stasiuk, who confirmed Judge Palulekh’s statement that Rubtsou had insulted him. They said that Rubtsou had used foul language, saying that it was not a court but a show, and called Judge Kiryl Palulekh a “scum”. Due to the fact that some of the witnesses failed to show up at the trial, the hearing was postponed until October 6.
On September 20, Viyaleta Prakapenka, the mother of political prisoner Artsiom Prakapenka, said that her son had received a temporary job in the Mahiliou-based colony No. 15, where he was serving his sentence. According to her, Artsiom’s parents had received several letters and phone calls from their son. In a conversation with his sister, Artsiom said that in July he had received a penalty for wearing inappropriate clothing, when he took off his uniform during a heat. Meanwhile, other prisoners were allowed to do so.
On September 22, Aliaksandr Dziadok, father of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, who is serving a sentence in prison No. 4 in Mahiliou, said that his son had spent 20 days in a punishment cell. The prison authorities punished him for a violation of the dress code for the prisoners. The penalty was issued just a day after the political prisoner’s birthday, August 23. Over the period of his imprisonment, Mikalai Dziadok has received more than 20 penalties from the prison administration. After his release from the punishment cell, the political prisoner was visited by a lawyer.
On September 1 Raisa Mikhailouskaya, head of the Belarusian Documentation Center, said that Uliana Zakharanka had received the status of a victim in the case of her son Yury Zakharanka and therefore received access to the materials investigation into his disappearance. The human rights activist said that in May 2014 the BDC had helped Uliana Zakharanka write an application based on Article 252 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which sets out the rights of victims. The investigator initially dismissed the petition. This refusal was appealed twice, and as a result on July 14 Uliana Zakharanka was granted victim status. She learned about the decision only on August 28 after two complaints had been submitted against investigator Yury Varauka who did not respond to her request. Were it not the Investigative Committee who informed her about the results of considering the complaint, she would never have learned that the investigator had taken a positive decision. This case is a gross violation of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as in accordance with Article 50 of the CCP the victim has the right not only to know the essence of the charges, but also has to receive reports of the decisions that affect their rights and interests, and to obtain copies of these decisions. Meanwhile, even the means of signing the document chosen by Yury Varauka looked strange. He came to the woman’s house accompanied by a few people, did not give his name, frightened the old woman, slipped the paper into her hands and told her to sign it. The 90-year-old woman signed, but feared that this would deprive her grandchildren of an apartment in Minsk, all that was left from Yury Zakharanka. The family has been unable to dispose of the property for 15 years, because the civil case on the recognition of the general deceased has not been completed. Raisa Mikhailouskaya also said that BDC lawyers prepared and sent to the Investigative Committee a petition on behalf of the victims, Volha Zakharanka and Iryna Krasouskaya, asking to merge the criminal cases into one proceeding. The letter also asked to view the actions of individuals involved in the crime according to Article 128 of the Criminal Code, as Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski were victims of criminal acts against the security of mankind (systematic implementation of extrajudicial executions, kidnapping, entailing their disappearance). A decree of July 17, 2014 issued by the same investigator Yury Varauka once again unreasonably rejected the petition, referring to lack of evidence.
On September 8, the Belarusian Documentation Center (BDC) prepared a separate presentation for the “right to life” section of the joint alternative report by Belarusian NGOs under the Universal Periodic Review. The paper sets out the problem of enforced disappearances of political opponents of Belarusian authorities Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasouski and Dzmitry Zavadski. BDC is deeply concerned with the fact that the 15-year statute of limitations for criminal liability for the disappearances expires in 2014, which will allow the authorities to close the criminal cases and perpetrators of crimes against humanity will go unpunished. These documents will be considered at the 22nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in May-June 2015.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On September 23, the Mahiliou Regional Court held the first hearing in the case of a three-month suspension of activities of the Mahiliou Human Rights Center. The lawsuit filed by the justice department said that the NGO “failed to submit in a specific time the documents required for registration of changes in the legal address”. In connection with this, the public association received two warnings that were not appealed, and the violations were not corrected. The Mahiliou Human Rights Centre was registered in a room with a declared area of 17 square meters, the figure specified by the human rights activists in their documents. Employees of the department of justice found that the actual area of the premises was 17.3 square meters, and asked the founder of the organization to make corrections to the documents. The clerical error could have been easily fixed, but the owner of the premises, who initially agreed to shelter the non-governmental organization refused to re-sign the contract with the corrected information on the office after the return of documents from the justice department . The NGO’s leader Uladzimir Krauchanka argues that the position of the landlord changed after he received “strong recommendations” from above, alluding to pressure from local authorities. In case an NGO doesn't find premises for the registration of its legal address within three months it can be dissolved through court.
On September 23, human rights defender Elena Tonkacheva, a citizen of the Russian Federation, who has for nearly 30 years lived in Belarus, received a notice of the initiation of revocation of her residence permit. The human rights activist said she would take all necessary legal actions that might affect the situation. Ms. Tonkacheva hoped for a positive solution to the problem and the opportunity to stay in Belarus. Elena Tonkacheva is the leader of an educational institution “Legal Transformation Centre (Lawtrend)”.
On September 30, the Supreme Court upheld the legality and validity of the position of the Ministry of Justice, which denied registration to the human rights association “Movement for the Implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (“Covenant”). Judge Mikalai Babkou dismissed an appeal by Uladzimir Bukshtynau, Leanid Sudalenka and Mikhail Pastukhou, who asked the court to reverse the refusal to register the public association, since this decision violated the constitutional right to freedom of association of 52 citizens of Belarus – founders of Covenant. The Supreme Court refused to grant the applicants’ request to review legal acts relating to the registration of public associations.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On September 3, Minsk police detained an activist of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Dzianis Laikou who was campaigning against broadcasting of Russian TV channels in Belarus. Police officers also detained two independent journalists who covered the event, including a reporter for the Novy Chas weekly Viachaslau Piashko. All of them were taken to the police department of the Frunzenski district. Nearly three hours after the arrest all detainees were released without charges.
On September 11, Yahor Viniatski, activist of the Zmena youth opposition group, was detained by police in Minsk. The activist was taken to the police department of the Tsentralny district, where he was charged with resisting arrest (Art. 23.4 of the Administrative Code). On September 12, Judge Dziankevich of the Court of the Tsentralny district found the activist guilty and sentenced him to 15 days of administrative arrest.
On September 12, the Court of Minsk’s Maskouski district sentenced Pavel Vinahradau, activist of the Zmena youth initiative, to 15 days of arrest on charges of disorderly conduct. He was also fined 1.5 mln rubles for violation of the rules of preventive supervision and 450,000 roubles on charges of alleged drinking alcohol in a public place. According to witnesses, who were police officers Kantsavy and Viarbitski, on September 11 Pavel had been allegedly drinking beer at the stadium near the police station. However, on that day the activist was in the police station, where he came to check in as required by preventive supervision. Despite this, Judge Tatsiana Matyl found him guilty on all charges. Pavel tried to impeach the judge, but the request was rejected. The activist pleaded guilty only of violating the rules of preventive supervision: he was out when police officers came to check his residence.
On September 12, friends lost contact with Vital Vasilkou, activist of the Zmena opposition movement. On September 15, it became known that he had been detained by police on charges of disorderly conduct (Art. 17.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences) and disobedience to the police (Art. 23.34 of the CAO). He was taken to the police department of Minsk’s Partyzanski district. The activist spent the weekend in the detention centre. On September 15, Judge Natallia Dziadkova of the Partyzanski District Court found Vital Vasilkou guilty and sentenced him to ten days of arrest.
On September 12, Minsk police detained 25 participants of the initiative “Cinema in the Underpass”. The screening was to be held in the city’s central Gorky Park. All the detainees were taken to the police station of Partyzanski district, but three hours later released. On September 18, 20 persons were detained near the metro station “Frunzenskaya”, where a documentary film about street artist Banksy was going to be screened. Among them were Dzmitry Latushkin and Anastasiya Dol. The detainees were taken to the police department of the Maskouski district. All of them were later released, except for Latushkin and Dol. On September 19, they were taken to the Maskouski District Court. They activists were charged under two articles of the Administrative Code: disorderly conduct (Art. 17.1) and disobeying police officers (Art. 23.4). Judge Tatsiana Matyl sentenced Anastasiya Dol and Dzmitry Latushkin to arrests of six and five days, respectively. Moreover, Latushkin was convicted secretly – without a lawyer and witnesses.
On September 16, activist Illia Dabratvor was detained before the start of the trial of Yury Rubtsou in Minsk. The police did not like his T-shirt with the inscription “Freedom to Political Prisoners”, which was the cause of his detention. The activist was charged with violation of Articles 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and 23.4 (disobedience to the police) of the Administrative Code. On September 17, the Leninski District Court heard the administrative charges. The trial was conducted by Judge Mikhail Khoma. Police officers, who testified in the court, claimed that Dabratvor had been drunk, but the judge rejected the request for examination for alcohol. The judge also refused to interview journalist Siarhei Satsuk, who witnessed the arrest of Illia Dabratvor, as well as other witnesses who were outside the court building on that day. The judge also refused to screen police video footage. As a result of the trial, Mikhail Khoma found the activist guilty and ordered on administrative arrest for a period of 20 days.
On September 19, Hrodna police detained civil society activist Volha Krapotsina. The police officers took 17 leaflets with the text “Return the Crimea to Ukraine”, and the activist herself was taken to the police station. Human rights activist Uladzimir Khilmanovich wanted to accompany the detainee, but was not allowed to do so. Volha Krapotsina was questioned for two hours. After that, she was taken to her place of residence and the police searched the room. No printed materials were found, but the police seized a laptop that did not belong to Volha Krapotsina.
On September 27, Salihorsk police detained an activist of the European Belarus movement Uladzimir Lemesh, who has been for several years studying abroad and therefore rarely visited Belarus. The activist was approached by two unknown persons in the street. One of them said he was police officer named Zhyhimont and said that they needed to take Lemesh to the police department. There he was met by another police officer, who charged him with disorderly conduct for allegedly swearing outside his house. Before the trial, Uladzimir Lemesh was held in the detention centre for two days. On September 30, Judge Siarhei Samuilik of the Salihorsk District Court found the young man guilty of a violation of Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code and fined him 300,000 roubles. After the court session, Uladzimir Lemesh was taken back home for a so-called review. The review was authorized as part of a probe into vandalism allegations, which stemmed from an art performance by an unknown group called “Partyzan” who had painted a 15-meter sign at the entrance to Salihorsk in white-red-white. As a result of the search, police officers seized copies of signature sheets for presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau in the 2010 election, a book by Ales Bialiatski, a white-red-white flag and several ribbons. The police officers failed to explain what these things had to do with the vandalism case.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On September 3, it was reported that United Nations Human Rights Committee found that the rights of Maryna Koktysh, journalist of the Narodnaya Volia newspaper, hadbeen violated when she had been denied accreditation at the House of Representatives of the Belarusian parliament back in 2008. The journalist had requested accreditation, but her request was rejected without explanation, although previously she had received such accreditation. Narodnaya Volia’s editorial office sent a letter to the Chairman of the House of Representatives. However, the newspaper received a reply from chairman of the Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media Yury Kulakouski. He explained that the journalist was denied access to the Government House. Thereafter, Ms. Koktysh filed several lawsuits, but the situation did not change. The Committee concluded that the Belarusian authorities violated Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to a free collection, retrieval and dissemination of information.
On September 4, the Supreme Court ordered the Polish Television to stop using the trademark “BelSat” when broadcasting to the territory of Belarus, as well as on the webpage “BelSat”, accessible to users on the territory of Belarus. The court also decided to recover from the defendant 9,998,800 roubles of legal costs. The lawsuit against the company Telewizja Polska SA, which owns the trademark “BelSat”, was filed by the owner of the Belarusian company “BELSATplus” Andrei Beliakou in May 2013. According to Beliakou, his firm was selling equipment for receiving satellite and cable television and allegedly suffered losses due to consonance with the name of the channel. On January 27, 2014, the Supreme Court dismissed Beliakou’s lawsuit due to the fact that the applicant had not provided evidence of a violation of his exclusive rights to the trademark. But five months later, the Praesidium of the Supreme Court decided to send a lawsuit against the TV channel for a new trial in connection with the allegedly flawed examination of the evidence in the case.
On September 16, seven police officers led by Major Uladzimir Puhachou broke into the apartment of an independent journalist Ales Burakou. The policemen ordered a woman who introduced herself as an employee of the housing office to ring the bell, and as soon as Ales Burakou opened the door, he was nearly knocked down. Law enforcement officials conducted an inspection of the apartment. All their actions were recorded on video. They said that Burakou was suspected of breaking the law “On Mass Media” because of allegedly collaborating with the German radio “Deutsche Welle” without accreditation. The police officers relied on publications posted on the radio’s website and signed by Ales Burakou. After the apartment had been inspected, the police went to search the apartment of Ales’ parents, where they also seized computers. As a result, the police seized two PCs and two laptops for examination. They promised to return the computers within one or two weeks, as soon as the check was finished. Ales Burakou noted that he only had a protocol on the inspection. No protocol on withdrawal of the computers was given to him. On September 18, Ales Burakou filed a complaint about the actions of the Leninski district police department of Mahiliou with the Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich and Chief of Police Department of the Mahiliou Regional Executive Committee Aliaksandr Kavalchuk. He also sent a complaint to the Mahiliou Regional Prosecutor. The journalist believes that the searches that were conducted on September 16, as well as the seizure of computer equipment in his apartment and the apartment of his parents, were unlawful, and all evidence obtained during the conduct of these proceedings has no legal force. On September 23, Ales Burakou once again met with police officers in the Leninski district police department of Mahiliou. The journalist was accompanied by human rights defender Barys Bukhel and Ales’ parents. They asked to attend the questioning, but police Major Uladzimir Puhachou rejected the request. This time the conversation did not result in any charges. The policeman knew about the numerous complaints of violations during the inspection in the apartments, which the journalist had sent to various authorities. He handed a summons for September 30 and said that by this time the decision had to be taken whether he could face administrative charges, or receive apologizes and his administrative case would be closed. On September 30, deputy chief of enforcement and prevention department of the Leninski district police department, Major Uladzimir Puhachou showed the journalist a report of administrative offence. According to the document, the journalist was charged under Part 2 of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, illegal production and distribution of media products. The protocol mentioned example of such “illegal products”, an article entitled “Smuggler’s Trail: Do Russian sanctions work near border?”, signed by Ales Burakou and posted on dw.de (“Deutsche Welle”) on August 25, 2014. The police officers returned to the journalist two laptops that belonged to his wife and were taken during the inspection of his apartment, as well as one of the PCs seized at the apartment of his parents. The other PC remained in the Leninski district police department.
On September 16, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatovic said during her official visit to Minsk that the requirement for mandatory accreditation of journalists in Belarus should be abolished, because it actually limits opportunities of the media. She stressed that she constantly raised the issue in the course of her contacts with representatives of the Belarusian authorities. Besides the abolition of compulsory accreditation of journalists, Belarus should reform media legislation and laws governing access to information, said Dunja Mijatovic. These laws, according to her, are “in urgent need of reform” and should be “harmonized and liberalized in accordance with international standards”. Changes in legislation in the field of media are needed for a real improvement of the situation in the country, said the OSCE Representative. An important issue is also the freedom of the Internet, she said: “In my agenda, this question occupies an important place in relation to all the countries participating in the OSCE in order to ensure that no restrictions are planned on the Internet or something like that”.
On September 24, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belarus denied foreign media accreditation to Viktar Parfionenka, journalist of the Radio Racyja. He was told about this by the press service of the Foreign Ministry. The journalist sent his application on July 16. It was his seventh attempt, which, juts like all the previous ones, ended in a failure. The journalist says the decision discriminates against society’s ability to obtain accurate and comprehensive information from the Belarusian Radio Racyja.
On September 25, Judge Natallia Charapukha of the Babruisk City Court announced her judgement in the case of independent journalist Maryna Malchanava, who was accused of collaboration with foreign media without accreditation. The judge read out the request of a police officer Siarhei Rudzko sent to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ministry’s answer. She also read out the policeman’s letter to the Krasnapolle police department requesting to interrogate the woman shown in a story on the BelSat TV channel. Maryna Malchanava’s lawyer explained to the court that her client could not be punished for the offence she was charged with. She noted that Malchanava was an individual, and Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code provides for the punishment of legal persons. She also explained the difference between a finished product, i.e. mass media, and the collection of materials, recalling Article 34 of the Constitution which guarantees the free collection and dissemination of information by any citizen of Belarus. After an hour’s break, Judge Natallia Charapukha announced her ruling: Maryna Malchanava was found guilty of violating Article 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code and punished with a fine of 4.8 mln rubles.
On September 26, the Belarusian Association of Journalists adopted a statement regarding the illegality of harassment of reporters, whose names and materials appeared in the foreign media. The journalists’ union believes that such pressure on journalists has an open character of intimidation and blackmail, and is contrary to the rules of national law and the international obligations of the Republic of Belarus in the field of freedom of information. The Belarusian Association of Journalists noted that the provisions of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, “violation of legislation on the media”, had been repeatedly and unlawfully used against journalists who submit their materials to the foreign media. This practice violates both the domestic legislation of the Republic of Belarus and the international commitments of our country in the field of freedom of expression.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On September 1, Brest authorities banned a series of pickets in support of small border traffic. According to one of the initiators of the pickets Aliaksandr Khrapko, their applications emphasized that the pickets would be held in a local park and at the Locomotive stadium. It is these sites that the city authorities themselves specified in their decision as places where mass actions of this kind could be held. In total, according to Aliaksandr Khrapko, only one picket (in Pruzhany) was authorized out of all applications for holding similar events across the Brest region.
On September 1, Deputy Chairman of the organizing committee of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Orsha, artist Mikola Kupava, received an official ban from the Orsha district executive committee. The official reason for the ban was lack of service contracts with the police, ambulance and public utilities. According to a ruling of the executive committee, such contracts must be concluded by the applicant before applying for permission. However, it is impossible to enter into such contracts as the appropriate services insisted they did not provide such services. Therefore, local civil society activists didn't manage to hold a single street action for the last four years. Mikola Kupava believes that if Orsha authorities had agreed that the battle was a momentous historical event, and its 500th anniversary was an important date, they would have written what the organizers of the celebration needed to do and in which order to obtain a permit. Moreover, they could help organize it, which would eliminate the need of the service contracts. However, the executive committee protracted the time as long as it could, and then sent a denial.
On September 3, human rights defenders Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Schapiotkina received a reply from the Brest Regional Executive Committee to their petition asking to assess the compliance of decisions of the Biaroza district executive committee with decrees of the Council of Ministers. The answer was signed by Deputy Chairman of Executive Committee Leanid Tsuprik. The letter said that the district executive committee was instructed to bring its decisions into conformity with ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers, according to which the local agency should itself apply to the police to secure the maintenance of public order at public events.
On September 4, activists of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy in the Hrodna region reported receiving 13 refusals to their 13 applications for information pickets in different cities. They intended to hold the events to inform the population about the problems of the introduction of local border traffic. The peculiarity is that all applications for different days were filed by one person, activist Anatol Makarau. He received bans from the Astravets, Ashmiany, Berastavitsa, Vaukavysk, Voranava, Iuye, Lida, Masty, Svislach, Smarhon and Shchuchyn district executive committees, as well as from the Hrodna and Skidzel city executive committees. The overwhelming majority of refusals referred either to the fact that the indicated action site was not determined as a place for mass events by the authorities, or that the applicant had failed to enter into service contracts with the police, ambulance and public utilities. There were also original reasons: for instance, the Masty executive committee explained its refusal by holding the event “Hello, school!” at the specified time and place, and the Iuye executive committee said that the industrial market did not work on September 6, as a result of which the picket could not be held. The Berastavitsa and Vaukavysk executive committees violated the Law “On Languages” by answering in Russian, whereas the applications were filed in Belarusian. The answers were signed by Chairman of the Berastavitsa executive committee Anton Kulisevich and Deputy Chair of the Vaukavysk executive committee Uladzimir Zakharchuk. The answer from Berastavitsa openly stated: “Makarau A.P. shall be banned to hold the mass event”.
On September 5, the District Court of Khoiniki ruled to meet the complaint by a UCP activist Aliaksandr Protska and cancel the decision of the local executive committee to ban a picket. Aliaksandr Protska planned to stage two pickets on July 27 in order to highlight the values of independence and sovereignty, as well as to express solidarity with the Ukrainian people in their fight to preserve the integrity and independence of the state. The activist submitted to the executive committee an appropriate application for holding the pickets at two sites – near the supermarket Yubileiny and on Lenin Square. However, the executive committee banned the pickets, citing the fact that these sites could be only used for meetings of candidates with the citizens or other meetings during elections. According to the official, the locations were not designed for pickets. Aliaksandr Protska did not agree with this decision, arguing that it limited his rights, and challenged it in the Court of Khoiniki district. Over the past ten years, this is the first case when a court did not agree with a decision of an executive committee.
On September 5, Biaroza human rights defenders and civil society activists were not allowed to hold a picket on September 8 with the aim of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Orsha, so called Day of Military Glory, and expressing protest against the deployment of Russian military bases on the territory of Belarus, and the presence of political prisoners. The ban was signed by Deputy Chairman of the Biaroza District Executive Committee Yauhen Tarasiuk, the order for the ban – by Chairman, Yury Narkevich. One of the reasons for the picket ban was that the applicants had mistakenly attached a copy of the contract with the public utilities for a picket with a different date, August 25. Despite the fact that the error was corrected by the applicants, the executive committee used it to ban the event. The other reason was lack of service agreement with the police, although the district executive committee had been instructed by the Brest Regional Executive Committee to amend its ruling “On the order of holding mass events” in accordance with Ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers, according to which police should be ordered to guard mass events by the executive committee, not by the organizers.
On September 9, human rights activist Siarhei Housha filed a complaint to the Chairman of the Brest Regional Executive Committee against the decision of the Baranavichy City Executive Committee dated July 14, 2014, prohibiting picketing on 27 July. As it was stated in the complaint, the picket dedicated to the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of Belarus, was banned by officials as the applicant had allegedly failed to submit timely copies of contracts with the police, ambulance and public utilities. Mr. Housha reported that the human rights defenders had filed their application for the picket one month before its date, and somewhat later brought copies of the agreements for serving the event. At the same time, Siarhei Housha reminded that the organization and conduct of mass events was governed not only by law, but also by ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers of March 4, 2012, which doesn't require the organizers to enter into service agreements with the police. According to this regulation, the day after the registration of the application for a mass event, the executive committee was to have presented a copy of the application to the police, which was not implemented by the city authorities. That’s why Mr. Housha asked the Brest Regional Executive Committee to oblige the Baranavichy City Executive Committee to amend its ruling No. 1497 of June 16, 2009 “On the order of conduct of mass events in Baranavichy” in connection with the adoption of Ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers of March 5, 2012, and refrain from violating the rights of organizers of mass events in the future.
On September 10, Salihorsk City Executive Committee did not authorize a picket aimed at campaigning for a healthy environment. The event was organized by the local Young Front activist Ivan Shyla. According to Ivan Shyla, the officials allegedly didn’t like the proposed place for the event. He said that the organizers had taken into account all the constraints of national legislation, including the required 50-meter distance from buildings of the government. However, as it turned out later there was a 10-month’s old ruling of the Salihorsk City Executive Committee, according to which pickets were prohibited on the central square, allegedly to prevent “emergency incidents”.
On September 19, members of the Conservative Christian Party BPF Yan Dziarzhautsau, Aleh Yemialyanau and Peter Sarapenia received bans from the three regional administrations where they had applied for holding pickets in three districts of Vitsebsk. The purpose of the actions was publicly condemning the Russian aggression against the sovereignty of Ukraine. The pickets were to be held from 22 to 24 September in places specially designated by authorities for mass actions. The bans were issued on the grounds that the organizers had not entered into service contracts with the public utilities, the clinic and the city police, which were required in accordance with the decision of the Executive Committee of Vitsebsk. However, this decision is impossible to implement, as the doctors and policemen never agree to sign such contracts. Therefore, the activists decided not to apply to them at all.
On September 24, civil society activist Tatsiana Hrachanikava received a ban on holding a one-person picket against the war in Ukraine issued by the Minsk city executive committee. “Your application does not comply with Art. 9 of the Law “On Mass Events,” said the decision signed by deputy chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee I. Karpenka. In particular, the official believes that mass event “will not contribute to the preservation of elements of improvement and green spaces, may cause interference with pedestrian and car traffic, distract motorists from observing traffic rules”. In addition, the application “does not provide specific measures to ensure public order and safety during the conduct of the mass event”.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On September 26, Warsaw hosted the OSCE’s annual meeting on human dimension, which included a side event entitled “Freedom of association and the legal environment for civil society organizations in Belarus”. The event was organized by the Assembly of Democratic NGOs of Belarus and the Legal Transformation Centre. The meeting was aimed at familiarizing the participants with the content of the alternative report, submitted by Belarusian organizations to the United Nations Human Rights Council in preparation for the second round of the Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights. The event focused on the implementation of recommendations for improving the legal framework for the activities of non-governmental organizations, received by the Belarusian authorities during the first round of the UPA in 2010. In his speech, the Assembly’s lawyer Yury Chavusau noted that the Belarusian government had not fulfilled the absolute majority of the recommendations relating to freedom of association. It did not follow the recommendations, which in 2010 were recognized by the Government of Belarus to be acceptable, and therefore, our country assumed the obligation to take them into account. In particular, the recommendation of decriminalizing unregistered organizations (the infamous Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code) was not implemented: though there have been no new sentences under Article 193-1 since 2008, the article continues to operate and has a negative impact on the development of Belarusian civil society. Director of the Centre for Legal Transformation Volha Smalianka stressed that the numerous changes in the law on non-governmental organizations that occurred between 2010 and 2014 in no way solved the major legal issues and limitations for non-profit organizations. The Centre’s expert Aliaksei Kazliuk noted that, compared to the first round of the Universal Periodic Review, the intensity of interaction of the government with national human rights institutions had decreased and was limited mainly to formal events with a theoretical discussion of human rights issues, far from practical issues of their implementation in public policies.
On September 30, it became known that the Belarusian authorities denied registration to the public association “Regional Union of Litvins”. “The list of founders of the NGO Regional Union of Litvins” contains incomplete and inaccurate information about the founders of the public association, which makes it an invalid document,” said the ban from the Ministry of Justice. In particular, there was no information on the home and work phones of two co-founders, and inaccurate information about the place of residence of three co-founders. Moreover, the authorities cited another example of false information: “town of Slauharad, K. Marx Street”, whereas, according to the Ministry of Justice, it should look like this: “town of Slauharad, Karl Friedrich Marx Street”. And this is despite the fact that Karl Marx’s father was Heinrich. The NGO’s chairman Aliaksandr Straltsou said the founders would appeal against the refusal to the Supreme Court.