Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in October 2014

2014 2014-11-17T13:08:00+0300 2015-01-28T18:30:31+0300 en http://spring96.org/files/images/sources/review-chronicle-cover-2013.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations

Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations

The human rights situation in Belarus in October remained consistently bad, preserving the systemic and systematic nature of abuses. The growth of the practice of arbitrary detention and sentencing to administrative arrests required a separate emphasis from human rights defenders on this issue as a very dangerous topic from the point of view of the pressure on activists, their defencelessness against illegal actions of law enforcement bodies, further degradation of the judicial system and readiness to fulfil political orders. Human rights defenders expressed serious concern that the tactic of short-term arbitrary arrests would be extended and used to block social and political activity both in preparation for the presidential election campaign, and during it next year, taking into account the factor that such actions by the authorities do not cause sharp reaction from the international community.

Of pervasive nature is the negative trend for administrative prosecution of journalists working for foreign media without accreditation. Meanwhile, obtaining such accreditation was still impossible due to ongoing refusals from the Foreign Ministry.

There were no positive developments in addressing the most pressing problem – the existence of political prisoners. The Belarusian authorities did not take any steps to solve this problem either on the basis of their own political will or under the influence of foreign factors, first of all – implementation of preconditions of establishing normal relations with the European Union and the United States. However, it should be noted that in a situation of a substantial increase of contacts between the EU and US and the Belarusian authorities, the level requirements for the release of political prisoners was clearly reduced to the traditional rhetoric rather than fundamental requirements. Human rights defenders observed further detaching of value-based perspective from the areas of cooperation of mutual interest, and further development of pragmatic contacts.

A traditional step in this situation was the extension for one year by the EU Council of restrictive measures against physical and legal bodies of Belarus involved in the implementation of repression, human rights violations and financial support for such actions by the authorities. A statement released by the European Council on October 30 said: “This is because not all political prisoners have been released and rehabilitated, and the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles has not significantly improved in Belarus.” The Belarusian Foreign Ministry responded to this in the context of the new trends: “Unfortunately, the definition of the European Union's policy towards the Republic of Belarus is still dominated by inertia of the past. The decision that the Council of the European Union made on 30 October 2014 in favour of prolonging restrictions against a number of Belarusian citizens and companies represents yet another lost opportunity to remove the main hindrance on the way towards normalizing our relations and to start tangible work for the sake of building mutually beneficial cooperation in the interests of our citizens.”

Thus, the fate of political prisoners remained unchanged, as the prisons of Belarus continued to hold seven prisoners of conscience: Mikalai Statkevich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich and Vasil Parfiankou. In October, there was a real threat to see the extension of the list of political prisoners after an activist in Homel, Yury Rubtsou, was sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment in an open penal facility. Human rights defenders stated that in case the Court of Appeals upheld the verdict and the activist was sent to serve his sentence he would be recognized another political prisoner held by Belarus with all ensuing consequences.

The position of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus of the United Nations Human Rights Council on the issue of political prisoners remained principled. In a report submitted on October 28 at the 69th session of the UN General Assembly, Miklós Haraszti urged the Belarusian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally release all political prisoners and to ensure full rehabilitation of their civil and political rights”. In his report, the UN Special Rapporteur drew attention to other painful points in the human rights situation in the country, including the activities of human rights defenders and civil society actors. He recommended that the Belarusian government guaranteed the independence of civil society organizations and human rights defenders, creating conditions to enable them to work without fear of reprisal. The official representative of the delegation of the Republic of Belarus to the United Nations once again confirmed the position of non-recognition of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur and described the report as “an attempt to interfere in the internal affairs”, saying that “reports on the situation in Belarus are written by the Special Rapporteur under dictation from Brussels”. Once again, the official Belarusian authorities refused to be involved in constructive dialogue with international institutions for the advancement of the human rights situation in the country. In turn, the Belarusian human rights community confirmed its intention to further cooperate with the Special Rapporteur to develop recommendations concerning the system of positive changes in the human rights situation.

Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists

On October 4, Mikalai Statkevich, who has been for almost three years held in the Mahiliou prison, wrote in a letter to his wife Maryna Adamovich about the foodstuffs he could not buy at the prison shop. It was a response to a letter from Maryna Adamovich, who during her visit to the prison came to the prison canteen and saw a notice saying that meat was on sale, which she wrote to her husband. Mikalai Statkevich replied that his wife was wrong. That there were neither sausages, nor fruit and vegetables. He noted that even in the spring onions were not sold there. He also added that after he wrote her not send him nuts last summer, as the prison shop had bars of halva, halva disappeared.

On October 4, Maryna Lobava expressed her concern about absence of heating in the Ivatsevichy colony, where her son, political prisoner Eduard Lobau, was held. Besides, Maryna Lobava stressed that the prisoners had not yet started wearing winter uniforms, which could result in colds. The woman said that she had not received any letters and phone calls from her son for a month already.

On October 6, Judge Natallia Vaitsekhovich of the Court of Minsk’s Tsentralny district found Yury Rubtsou, an opposition activist from Homel, guilty of a crime under Article 391 of the Criminal Code “insulting a judge” and sentenced him to two and a half years of imprisonment in an open penal institution. However, the sentence was reduced to 18 months due to an amnesty. The state prosecutor Hardzeyenka asked to punish Yury Rubtsou with three years of personal restraint. The charges stemmed from a statement by Judge Kiryl Palulekh of the Savetski District Court, who claimed that during the consideration of an administrative case on 28 April the activist had allegedly insulted the judge by using offensive words. Yury Rubtsou explained during the preliminary hearing that on that day he had been brought half-naked to the Savetski District Court of Minsk, which insulted his dignity. In addition, he was unable to read the materials of the administrative case, because he did not have his glasses. Therefore, he said that it was “not a court, but a show”. The lawyer asked to acquit Rubtsou as there was no direct evidence of insulting Judge Kiryl Palulekh: the April administrative trial was not audio or video taped. The accusation was based solely on the testimony of the police officers who had arbitrarily detained Rubtsou during the Chernobyl Way opposition rally. Therefore, it was impossible to say with certainty whether Rubtsou insulted the entire judicial system or the judge. Moreover, the testimony of such witnesses causes legitimate doubts. Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Valiantsin Stefanovich, who observed the trial, said that if the sentence for Yury Rubtsou was upheld, it would mean that Belarus would have a new political prisoner. According to him, the trial was a direct result of actions by the authorities, who practice arbitrary detention of activists that have not committed any crimes. Actions of the police were obviously illegal, as Yury Rubtsou was detained for wearing a T-shirt “Lukashenka, Go Away!” In this way, he expressed his personal opinion, which is guaranteed by the Constitution of Belarus.

On October 13, Valiantsina Alinevich, the mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said that her son was again placed in a punishment cell. In late September, the prisoner was expected to meet with his family, but a few days ahead of the visit they received a phone call from the administration of “Vitsba-3”, where Ihar Alinevich is held, and told that the meeting was postponed because the inmate had been sentenced to 10 days in a punishment cell for a disciplinary violation. Ten days later, Ihar Alinevich’s relatives learned that the penalty had been followed by two more. It turned out that the political prisoner refused to clean the toilets, because then he would have received the low social status. Ten days later, he received a similar order from the administration and once again refused to obey. The third penalty was imposed for the fact that the guards allegedly heard the political prisoner, who was in solitary confinement for 30 days, talking to prisoners from the neighbouring cell. The prison officials told Ihar Alinevich’s father that the following penalty for disobedience might result in insulation in a so-called PKT (cell-type premises), and then – a transfer to prison. On October 23, after spending 30 days in a punishment cell, the political prisoner was allowed to see his parents. In turn, they were allowed to pass him a food parcel and warm clothes. The visit lasted for half an hour and Ihar Alinevich talked to his parents through the glass. According to Valiantsina Alinevich, he looked thin. He asked about his grandmother, who had recently passed away, since he was not allowed to read the letters telling about this. According to the prisoner, he could only read the newspapers he was subscribed to. He was not allowed to receive the Novy Chas and the Svobodnye Novosti Plus weeklies, which the editorial offices had sent him.

On October 18, activist Volha Mikalaichyk, which corresponds with political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou, said that he had spent 12 more days in a punishment cell. The reason for the penalty is unknown. After 10 days of silence, on October 29, Volha Mikalaichyk received a letter saying that Vasil Parfiankou had served another term of 10 days in solitary confinement. The political prisoner wrote that of the 253 days he had been held in the penal colony in Horki, he had spent 226 days either in solitary confinement or in a PKT (cell-type premises). At that time, he had 45 more days of punishment to serve.

On October 21, Pavel Prakapovich, a member of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, said that political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich had been transferred from Mahiliou maximum security prison to penal colony No. 15. The transfer came after the prisoner completed his 3-year prison term ordered by the court for alleged violations of the rules of serving the sentence in the colony. During his three years in prison, Yauhen Vaskovich was held in a punishment cell for 247 days.

On October 27, Valeryia Khotsina, the wife of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, said that her husband had received several packages, including one with books. He also asked to send him a medical parcel because he had problems with his stomach, as well as special ointment for doing sports.

Death penalty

From 5 to 10 October, a series of human rights activities was held in Minsk under the slogan “Death Penalty is Murder”. On October 5, an exhibition was opened to display posters from the series “Six Arguments against the Death Penalty”, created by a Vilnius-based Belarusian artist Aleh Ablazhei, and the works of a large-scale project “Death Is Not Justice”, provided by the World Coalition against the Death Penalty. On October 7, the campaign presented a joint project of photojournalist Siarhei Balai and the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”. The project, entitled “Capital Punishment”, featured the photos of Sviatlana Zhuk, Liubou Kavaliova, Tamara Sialiun, Volha Hrunova and Tamara Chikunova – the mothers of persons sentenced to death. On October 8, a public lecture was given by the event’s special guest, Karel Schwarzenberg, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Parliament of the Czech Republic, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic and head of the office of President Vaclav Havel. On October 9, a public lecture was given by human rights activist Tamara Chikunova, founder and head of the Uzbek organization “Mothers Against the Death Penalty and Torture”. Her activism was prompted by a personal tragedy: her only son was executed in 2000; he was then posthumously acquitted. Various events dedicated to the issue of the death penalty were held in Babruisk, Biaroza, Baranavichy, Homel, Barysau, Hrodna, Mazyr, Maladechna, Rechytsa, Brest, Mahiliou and Vitsebsk.

On October 11, the congress of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, among other decisions, approved changes to the party’s political program. One of the innovations was a demand to abolish the death penalty in Belarus: “The death penalty should be abolished as a form of punishment which is incompatible with the modern legal system of the European countries, irreversible in its nature and unable to be corrected in the case of a miscarriage of justice. The abolition of the death penalty is a necessary condition for the Belarus’ full accession to the Council of Europe”. For the first time in the history of Belarus, a demand for the abolition of the death penalty has become a part of a party’s program.

Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment

On October 5, Uladzimir Lemesh, an activist of the European Belarus opposition movement, who had spent two days in the Salihorsk detention centre, said he was going to submit a complaint against the conditions of detention. In 2013, after repeated complaints, the Salihorsk detention centre was renovated. According to Uladzimir Lemesh, certain changes were made. A wash basin appeared in the cell, and the toilet was separated from it by a small wall. The polyethylene on the windows was replaced with double-glazed windows. However, the repairs did not essentially affect the situation: there were still no standard beds for arrestees and the people had to sleep on the so-called wooden “stage”. The cell accommodated up to 15 people, and the “stage” could take no more than eight persons. The rest lay below or even on the concrete floor. Most people could not sleep all night. Moreover, there were only three mattresses. The toilet flush was not working. The prisoners had to carry water from the sink in a cropped plastic bottle. Later, they poured tea in the same bottle, because there were no cups in the cell. The overcrowded cell was full of cigarette smoke, ventilation was either not working at all or simply could not cope with that. The windows were replaced, but remained very small. The level of natural lighting was critical in the daytime. On October 25, Uladzimir Lemesh filed a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office against the conditions of detention. The activist believes that these conditions are degrading.

Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations

On October 30, Elena Tonkacheva, director of the Centre for Legal Transformation “Lawtrend”, received a notice of revocation of her residence permit and her possible deportation from the Republic of Belarus. In September, it was reported that Elena Tonkacheva, a Russian national who had lived in Belarus since 1985, might face deprivation of residency permit. The human rights activist said that she did not intend to assess the authorities’ actions until the procedures was complete and a final decision was taken.


Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention

On October 2, Ivan Shyla, an activist of the Young Front opposition movement in Salihorsk, paid a visit to the Salihorsk District Police Department, to which he was summoned for a “talk”. There, he was questioned by head of department of public order and prevention, Heorhi Kryvaltsevich. The police officer told Ivan that he was yet to serve two more days of administrative arrest over taking part in one of the so-called silent protests that took place back in 2011. After the conversation the young man was taken to a temporary detention facility.

On October 2, Asipovichy police detained member of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, Aleh Masalski. He was waling along the street together with his wife and had a T-shirt with a portrait of Yauhen Vaskovich on. When the activist’s wife went into the shop, he was detained by a police car passing by. The activist was eventually released without charges.

On October 2, Hrodna police detained local opposition activist Yezhy Hryhencha. As a participant of the campaign “Tell the Truth”, he was collecting signatures of citizens for the initiative called “People’s Referendum”. One of the citizens whose apartment was visited by the activist grew suspicious and called the police. Yezhy Hryhencha was taken to the Leninski district police station, where he was held for three hours. The activist was released without charges, but the petitions were taken for examination.

On October 2, Pavel Vinahradau, an activist of Zmena, the youth wing of the campaign “Tell the Truth!” subjected to police supervision, went to check in at the criminal executive inspection of the Maskouski district and did not return home. Later his wife reported that the activists was detained for an administrative offence. On October 3, after Pavel Vinahradau was released from the police station, he was questioned by police officers: “The police officer in charge of supervision gave me an ultimatum: either I move to Berazino, where my father lives, or am going to swear in a public place. I said that I was not going to Berazino, at least for now, maybe later. Our conversation was short.” After that, the activist was taken to the head of the inspection Mikalai Luzhyn. “Among other things, he asked me where Zavadski was (journalist Dzmitry Zavadski, who disappeared in the summer of 2000). My answer was “I do not know”. And he says that soon my wife will have to answer that she does not know where Pavel is. I asked him if it was a threat. He says, “No, it’s a warning”,” said Vinahradau. As a result, the activist had to spend the night in the Maskouski district police department. The following morning he was charged under Art. 17.3 of the Administrative Code (drinking alcohol, soft drinks or beer in a public place or appearance in a public place or at work while intoxicated). The police report said that he was found in front of the police station in a drunken state. Pavel Vinahradau was eventually fined 1.2 mln roubles.

On October 6, police officers attempted to break into an apartment of former political prisoner, activist of the anarchist movement Aliaksandr Frantskevich. The reason for this remained unknown. On the same day, police officers detained civil society activist Aliaksandr Stukin. He told over the phone he had been sentenced to 10 days in jail.

On October 9, police officers started hunting football fans ahead of a match between the national teams of Ukraine and Belarus in Barysau. The Court of Minsk’s Kastrychnitski district convicted several fans, including the well-known football activist Yauhen Aderykh, on charges of using foul language in a public place and disobeying police officers. Yauhen Aderykh was sentenced to seven days of arrest, others – up to 10 days in jail. Among the detainees there were the authors of a banner of solidarity of the Belarusian and Ukrainian nations that the fans were going to display during the match.

On October 9, on the eve of the CIS summit in Minsk and the visit of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Judge Volha Listratsenka of the Maskouski District Court considered an administrative case of Pavel Vinahradau, activist of the Zmena youth opposition group. Pavel Vinahradau was charged with disorderly conduct: on October 8, when he came to the police department and allegedly used foul language in the presence of police officers. In addition, police officers argued that Vinahradau was drunk when he came to them. The police officers conducted a medical examination and the device showed 0.0. However, it was not recorded anywhere, and the activist was taken back to the police station. After a lunch break, police officers showed a paper saying that the result of the examination at 1 p.m. was 1.0 per mille of alcohol. As a result, Pavel Vinahradau was sentenced to 15 days’ administrative detention for “disorderly conduct”, fined 1.2 mln rubles for “drunkenness”, and the same judge ruled to extend his preventive supervision for another year. Human rights activists regarded the persecution of Pavel Vinahradau as an unprecedented campaign of harassment against the activist, which had nothing to do with law and justice.

On October 9, Andrei Kasheuski, an activist and distributor of independent press in the town of Smaliavichy, was detained by the police outside the Central Department Store in Minsk. He was reportedly wearing a T-shirt “Freedom for Political Prisoners”. After facing three administrative charges (Art. 17.1, disorderly conduct, Art. 23.34, unauthorized mass event, and Art. 23.4, disobedience to the police), the activist was told that he would be held at the police station until the trial. On October 10, Judge Eduard Yakubouski of the Court of Minsk’s Savetski district sentenced the activist to 15 days of administrative arrest.

On October 9, 41 persons were taken to the Barysau District Police Department after a EURO-2016 qualification match between the national teams of Belarus and Ukraine. 29 fans faced charges, 25 persons were held to await trial (14 Ukrainians and 11 Belarusians). Trials were held on October 10 in the Barysau District Court. Judge Samuseva considered the administrative cases of detained Ukrainians, who were accused of disorderly conduct (Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code). According to a court ruling, Yuri Chebolyuk, Yuri Olkhovych, Ostap Lyshchuk, Andriy Polishchuk, Denys Tymofeyiv, Yana Vasyl’kova and Vyacheslav Heorhiyevich were sentenced to five days in jail each. Oleksandr Lopaniv was sentenced to 10 days of arrest for having a sticker of the Celtic cross on his clothes. Yuri Netsky, who was detained for wearing a T-shirt “Glory to the Nation!”, was sentenced to a fine of 1,050,000 roubles, as well as Bohdan Yaremchuk. Andriy Delyura was sentenced to a fine of 1.5 million roubles. The Ukrainian consul, who attended the trials, said that the Embassy would file a protest note to the Belarusian MFA concerning the mass detention of Ukrainian citizens on the territory of Belarus. Fifteen Belarusian fans were fined 600,000 roubles each. The Ukrainian fans were eventually deported from Belarus, without serving the sentences ordered by the court.

On October 13, a resident of Minsk Mikhail Mekhedka, who unsuccessfully tried to get an appointment with the President of the Supreme Court, was detained by security officers in the court building and taken to the Leninski District Court. He was accused of participating in an unauthorized mass event (Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code), and punished by a fine of 2.25 mln roubles. The case was considered by Judge Aliaksei Kamushkin.

On October 13, Belarusian border guards detained co-chairman of the organizing committee of the party Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynets as he was crossing the Bruzgi checkpoint on the Polish border. The officers seized 20 books by Zianon Pazniak. The editions were sent to the Hrodna City Executive Committee’s commission on extremism.

On October 15, the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” held a press conference to tell about various aspects of preventive detention in Belarus and to highlight flaws in the legislation, as well as most common types of abuses by the police and new trends in the issue. Human rights defenders had been working on this problem for more than a year, and it became the subject of a research, the results of which were presented to the journalists. A report entitled “Arbitrary Preventive Detention of Activists in Belarus” was a result of a joint research by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, held in Belarus after the Ice Hockey World Championship in June 2014. The mission's attention was focused on of so-called preventive arrests, i.e. the arbitrary detention of citizens, without legal grounds, on the eve of important political or social events in order to isolate the activists, to prevent their participation in public street actions, to limit their relations with international delegations or the press and other kinds of political and civic engagement. In presenting the report, deputy head of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” Valiantsin Stefanovich said that “now arbitrary preventive detention can be described as a kind of political persecution, along with political criminal prosecution, and is used by the authorities to prosecute activists because of their affiliation to the different political groups and the implementation of their peaceful political activities”. Human rights defenders also told about a new problem: a wave of bringing activists to responsibility with the aggravating factors – the state of alcoholic intoxication, in which they allegedly were during the detention. With respect to this kind of abuse of law by the police, human rights defenders advise to demand the examination in a civil institution in order to have the data for the appeal.

On October 23, relatives and friends were not able to meet Pavel Vinahradau, who was expected to be released from the detention centre in Minsk after a 15-day arrest. Vinahradau was to have left the facility at about 10 a.m., but the people who came to meet were told by the jail head Ihar Sakalouski that the activist had been taken from the centre at 8 a.m. It was later reported that Vinahradau was taken to the Maskouski district police department, where he was briefed on the changes in checking-in procedures at the police department in connection with his preventive supervision restrictions. The following day, October 24, when Pavel Vinahradau came to the Department of Internal Affairs of the Maskouski district of Minsk, he was detained without explaining the reasons for the detention. Five hours later, he was released without charges. According to the activist, one of the reasons for his detention could be Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s visit to the Mikhalova-2 residential district, located nearby. Pavel Vinahradau also did not rule out that the police put pressure on him to force him to leave Minsk.

On October 23, police officers stopped a presentation of Viktar Martsinovich’s novel Mova. The event was to be held in the building of the local Greek-Catholic centre, located next door to the police department. Earlier, the church building hosted numerous presentations and meetings. The event was stopped after the police officers broke into the premises at the very beginning of the presentation. Father Andrei Krot, a representative of the publishing house Miraslau Lazouski and the writer were forced to provide explanations. Others were told to show their IDs. On October 24, head of the Executive Committee’s ideology department said he had no claims to the writer, while the situation with the priest and the publisher remained uncertain: it was possible that their actions could be viewed as an administrative offence.

On October 25, Minsk police violently detained civil society activists from St. Petersburg (Russia), Andrey Fedarkov and Ivan Solovyov, for allegedly using foul language and insubordination to police officers. The police also detained an unknown resident of Minsk. The detainees were taken to the police department of Zavodski district, where they were charged with administrative offences. They were held in detention for two days. On October 27, the Court of Zavodski district considered their administrative cases. Judge Osipchyk convicted the three activists under Article 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code (disobeying a lawful order or request of an official of the state body in the exercise of official authority) and sentenced them to various jail terms: Belarusian activist – ten days, and the Russian nationals – three days of arrest.

On October 28, Uladzislau Koshaleu, an activist of the For Freedom opposition movement, was collecting signatures for the People’s Referendum initiative in the dormitory of a vocational school in Minsk. As a result, deputy director for ideology took the petitions and called the police. However, Uladzislau Koshaleu managed to leave the building. The following day, the volunteer, who was accompanied by politicians Andrei Dzmitryeu and Yury Hubarevich, decided to meet with official to explain the legality of campaigning and to return the signature sheets. However, during the meeting, deputy director Kazlova once again called the police, who detained the campaigner and took him to the police station of Partyzanski district. The activist was charged with violation of the order of organizing or holding mass events. Deputy Chairman of the Movement “For Freedom” Yury Hubarevich tried to explain that the collection of signatures was legal. As a result, he was asked to bring the organization’s charter and a statement certifying that Koshaleu was a member of the Movement. On October 31, Judge Paulouskaya of the Partyzanski District Court of Minsk found Uladzislau Koshaleu guilty and sentenced him to three days of administrative arrest.

On October 29, Belarusian border guards searched former political prisoner Dzmitry Dashkevich as he was crossing the Lithuanian-Belarusian border at the Kamenny Loh checkpoint. As a result, twelve copies of the activist’s book Charviak were taken for examination for extremism. The book is a collection of short stories written by the former political prisoner during and after his imprisonment. Dzmitry Dashkevich was searched as he was returning from the presentation of the book “Voice of Freedom from Behind Bars. An Anthology of Works by Belarusian Political Prisoners”, which was held in Vilnius.

Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists

On October 7, the Hrodna District Court completed the consideration of the administrative case of freelance journalist Andrei Mialeshka on charges of violation of Article 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of information products). The journalist was represented by lawyer Andrei Shchapiatkou. Aleh Sozinau, head of the Department of Botany of the University of Hrodna, was invited to the trial as a witness. It was his comment that he had given Andrei Mialeshka during an environmental seminar on August 26 that was the reason for the administrative charges of cooperation with foreign media without accreditation. On that day, the building of a club in the village of Kaniukhi hosted a scientific seminar on the Nioman reserve. During a break, Mialeshka recorded Sozinau’s comment. Later, a fragment of the comment was posted on the website of the Belarusian Radio Racyja, as well as some other online resources. Inspector Kurpik of the Kastrychnitski police department of Hrodna spotted the publication and senior police inspector Pitsko compiled a report. Judge Hanna Liavusik punished the journalist with an administrative fine – 5.25 mln rubles.

On October 8, Judge Alena Volkava of Mahiliou’s Leninski District Court found an independent journalist Aliaksandr Burakou guilty of violating Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products) and fined him 6 mln roubles. The administrative offence report mentioned a specific example of “illegal products” which were allegedly “produced and distributed” by the journalist – a publication posted on the website dw.de on August 25, 2014 and entitled “Smuggler’s Trail: Do Russian sanctions work near border?” the article was signed by Aliaksandr Burakou. His contribution to the Deutsche Welle Russian online service was also a basis for a search of his personal apartment and the apartment of his parents on September 16.

On October 20, the Vitsebsk Regional Court heard an appeal lodged by resident of Orsha Tatsiana Siachko, who was detained for distributing leaflets about the People’s Referendum initiative on August 12. After the detention, the activist was released without charges, but a week later, on August 20, an administrative case was opened against her by deputy chief of department of public order and prevention, Siarhei Biazliudau. He qualified Tatsiana Siachko’s actions under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code – a violation of the law on the media. On September 11, a court in Orsha heard the activist’s administrative case. Judge Alesia Drankova upheld the conclusions of the police officer and ruled to impose a fine. Thus, for “violating the law on mass media” the campaigner was fined 6 mln roubles. A number of Orsha activists petitioned the Ministry of Information demanding explanations for viewing leaflets as media products. Deputy Minister Uladzimir Matusevich, in response, noted that according to the state standards, the printed products were non-periodical publication and, accordingly, could not be regarded as mass media. Tatsiana Siachko took the letter from the Ministry of Information to the Vitsebsk Regional Court, which heard her appeal against the verdict. At her request, Judge Sviatlana Ivanova attached the letter to the case file, but this did not affect the outcome of the trial: the judge upheld the decision of the trial court, despite explanations from Deputy Minister that leaflets are not mass media, and accordingly, the distribution of leaflets cannot be considered a violation of the law on the media.

On October 20, during an interview with Uladzimir Niakliayeu, police officers detained cameraman Ales Liubianchuk and journalist Maryia Artsybashava. They were all taken to the police station. The journalists were detained by an employee of the police department of Savetski district, Yury Chyrkou. An hour after the arrest, the journalists and the politician were released without charges. Law enforcement agents were reportedly interested in the video made by the journalists.

On October 31, head of the Homel-based Centre for Strategic litigation, Leanid Sudalenka, having analysed the decisions of the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Belarusian cases, concluded that Belarus primarily persecuted its citizens for expressing opinions. At this point, the Committee adopted 68 decisions in Belarusian cases, and found in 34 of them violations of the right to freedom of expression. Thus, every other Belarusian case submitted to the UN deals with violations of the right to freedom of expression. For ease of reference, the human rights defenders divided them into several categories: dissemination of information – 13 cases; expression at a peaceful assembly – 10 cases; prohibition of peaceful assembly – 4 cases; transportation of printed materials – 3 cases; publication of opinions – 2 cases; search for information – 2 cases.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly

On October 1, Baranavichy human rights activist Siarhei Housha received a letter from the Brest Regional Executive Committee, signed by the deputy chairman Leanid Tsuprik, which reported that the executive committee was mandated to make changes in its ruling No. 1497 of June 16, 2009 “On the order of holding mass events in the city of Baranavichy” in order to bring it in line with requirements of Resolution No. 207 of the Council of Ministers of March 5, 2012 “On approval of regulations on the organization of interaction of law enforcement officials, organizers of public events and the public fulfilling the duties on protection of public order at mass events”. The human rights activist noted that earlier it was nearly impossible to sign an agreement with the police, and that was the reason why the city executive authorities banned pickets, meetings and rallies. City officials ignored the decision of the Council of Ministers, which does not require a contract with the Department of Internal Affairs in the organization of a mass event. According to this decision, the Executive Committee on the second day after the registration of an application for holding a mass event should itself submit a copy of the application to the police, which was not implemented in Baranavichy.

On October 2, Homel activists Piotr Kuzniatsou, Yury Zakharanka, Anatol Paplauny, Larysa Shchyrakova, Vasil Paliakou and Uladzimir Katsora learned that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found a violation of their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The decision was posted on the official website of the United Nations. The case concerned a memorial action held on May 7, 2009, the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of Interior Minister Yury Zakharanka, in front of the regional police department. All of them were sentenced to heavy fines except for Uladzimir Katsora, sentenced to a short-term arrest.

On October 3, human rights activists in Biaroza said that they had managed to change the executive committee’s decision regulating a mandatory rule of signing an agreement with the police. It took almost a year to force the legal department of the executive committee, represented by lawyer Yauhen Kashtalian, to bring its decision in line with the Council of Ministers’ Ruling No. 207. According to the executive committee’s decision, a copy of the contract with the police should be submitted together with the application for holding the event, while according to the ruling, after submitting the application to the executive committee it should within 24 hours contact the police to agree on measures for the protection of public order. The Council of Ministers’ decision appeared in early 2012, but as late as in 2013, lawyer Yauhen Kashtalian said during a trial that they were not going to amend their decision, “because the Council of Ministers did not tell us about it”. The human rights defenders had to apply to the Brest Regional Executive Committee, which initially supported the position of the executive committee, to the Regional Department of the Interior, the Ministry of Justice and the Council of Ministers. And it was only after complaining to the Council of Ministers that the dispute came to its logical conclusion. In early October, the human rights activists were notified by the executive committee’s Deputy Chairman Yauhen Tarasiuk. At the same time, the executive committee’s decision presented on October 14 in the District Court at the hearing of the human rights activists’ claim against a ban on a rally on August 25 showed that the change did not take effect. During the trial, lawyer Yauhen Kashtalian said that the picket was banned due to lack of agreement with the police, which was legal because, in spite of the amendment to the executive committee’s decision, a copy of the contract with the police should still be submitted along with the application for a picket.

On September 16, Yan Dziarzhautsau, a member of the Conservative Christian Party BPF in Vitsebsk, was not allowed to hold two pickets of solidarity with Ukraine. This was the second ban on protests of the same subjects, and the activist demanded liability for representatives of organizations that were expected to service the events. The pickets were scheduled for October 17 and 20. However, the administration of the two districts did not give permission to hold the events, after neither the police nor the central city clinic signed service contracts with the applicant. Only the utility service – the Vitsebsk Zeliansbud enterprise – agreed to enter into a contract with him. The police department said that they would enter into a contract only after the district authorities gave their permission, while the clinic sent a standard formal reply saying that they could not enter into preliminary agreements because they did not know what the situation would be on the given day.

On October 16, the Homel Regional Court, having considered an objection from the Regional Prosecutor’s Office, overturned a decision of the Khoiniki District Court challenged by an activist of the United Civil Party Aliaksandr Protska. On July 27, 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. The District Court sided with the UCP activist and on September 5 it ruled to meet the complaint and to cancel the decision of the local executive committee. On the basis of the court’s decision, Aliaksandr Protska petitioned the executive committee again, demanding to allow holding a picket. However, the case was intervened by the Regional Prosecutor’s Office, which issued a protest against the decision of the District Court. The Praesidium of the Regional Court, in turn, quashed the decision of the lower court and demanded to reconsider the case.

On October 23, it was reported that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found a violation of the rights of Vitsebsk activists Ihar Bazarau, Valery Aliaksandrau and Siarhei Kavalenka in an incident of March 25, 2009, when Freedom Day celebrations ended up with the detention of the activists. Two days later, the Kastrychnitski District Court fined them two basic amounts each. According to a decision of Judge Alena Kazilava, the protesters staged an unauthorized march – came to Liberty Square with white-red-white flags and walked a few meters before being detained by the police. All three were charged with violation of Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code. Ihar Bazarau and Valery Aliaksandrau appealed against the verdict to the Vitsebsk Regional Court and the Supreme Court, but their appeals were rejected. According to the decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, the authorities violated Part 2 of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (right to freedom of expression), and in respect of Bazarau Belarus also violated Article 21 of the Covenant (right to peaceful assembly).

On October 23, civil society activist Anzhalika Kambalava received a letter signed by deputy chairman of the executive committee of Baranavichy Dzmitry Kastsiukevich. The official said that the authorities would not allow a rally dedicated to the 77th anniversary of the Kristallnacht of Belarusian culture. He said that the applicant violated Part 5, Article 5 of the Law “On Mass Events in the Republic of Belarus” and Part 4 of ruling No. 1497 of the executive committee “On the order of holding mass events in the city of Baranavichy”. In particular, Anzhalika Kambalava failed to enter into service contracts with the police, medical and utility services. On the night of 29 to 30 October 1937, Soviet secret police shot 22 Belarusian writers and more than 80 representatives of intelligentsia in a prison in Minsk.

On October 29, Vitsebsk human rights activist Pavel Levinau received a decision of the Vitsebsk City Executive Committee, which banned a street procession he was going to stage. The ban referred to the applicant’s failure to meet the requirements of the Executive Committee’s decision “On the organization of public events in the city of Vitsebsk”. The human rights activist applied to the city authorities, since the expected route of the protest passed through the territory of two districts – Kastrychnitski and Pershamaiski. The ban argued that the applicant had failed to enter into service contracts with local police department, city clinic and public utilities. Pavel Levinau prepared a lawsuit against the ban on the march. The human rights activist believes that the requirements of the Executive Committee’s ruling No. 881 are absurd and he decided to demonstrate the absurdity of such documents. He argued that such an approach to the mass events law could result in prohibiting any public activity, including going shopping. Over the past five years, since the adoption of the decision, Vitsebsk officials have not allowed a single street protest requested by local opposition activists. Pavel Levinau says that the conditions for obtaining a permit for public events in Vitsebsk should be changed, because they are impracticable.

Restrictions on freedom of association

On October 1, the administration of the Babruisk-based tractor parts and units plant refused to extend the labour contracts with two members of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, employees of the enterprise Aliaksandr Varankin and Aliaksandr Hramyka. The activists were supported by their immediate superiors and colleagues, but the decision was insisted upon by the factory manager Aliaksandr Ahranovich. On October 7, it was reported that the administration terminated the employment contracts of three more trade union activists – Aleh Shauchenka, Aliaksander Bianasik and Mikalai Zhybul. All of them were employees of the same company. Mikalai Zhybul had only two years left to retirement. He had worked on the enterprise for 30 years, but was suddenly fired “due to the optimization of the number of workers”. Meanwhile, the plant is said to be constantly searching for new employees. Free Trade Union members say the harassment is linked to their union membership, as well as the fact that they were not afraid to defend labour rights.

On October 17, it became known that the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal lodged by a member of the campaign “Tell the Truth” Aliaksandr Kuzmin from the town of Belaaziorsk, who asked to cancel the court orders regarding the eligibility of the written warning issued to him by the Biaroza District Prosecutor’s Office under Art. 193.3 of the Criminal Code – activities on behalf of an unregistered organization. The activist received the warning in March 2013. Criminal liability for activities on behalf of an unregistered organization was requested by the former chairman of the Belaaziorsk Town Executive Committee Viachaslau Dambrouski. Biaroza police refused to initiate criminal proceedings, saying that there were no signs of an organization in the public campaigns carried out by the supporters of “Tell the Truth”. However, the Biaroza District Prosecutor’s Office disagreed and issued a warning under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code. The Supreme Court also found that the District Prosecutor’s Office responded correctly to the actions of Aliaksandr Kuzmin. The answer was signed by the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court Andrei Zabara.

On October 21, students of the Mahiliou branch of the Belarusian State Academy of Music said that the director of the institution Mikalai Aldanau was forcing them to join the pro-government Belarusian Republican Youth Union. According to Mikalai Aldanau, those who did not join the organization might face problems with passing their examinations and tests. According to the students, despite the threats, no more than 20 persons applied for membership in the Youth Union.

 

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