Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in November 2014
November was marked by a tendency towards deterioration of the human rights situation. Seven political prisoners continued to be held behind bars, and one of them, Mikalai Dziadok, expected to be released after serving the full term of punishment on March 3, 2015, faced new criminal charges under Part 1, Article 411 of the Criminal Code – wilful disobedience of the lawful demands of the administration of correctional institutions. These charges have been previously used against political prisoners in order to further isolate them, prevent their activity and foster intimidation.
In November, a verdict against Homel activist Yury Rubtsou entered into force, after his appeal was dismissed. Thus, after being saying to the correctional facility he became another political prisoner held by Belarus.
The department of citizenship and migration of the Pershamaiski district police department decided to expel for three years Elena Tonkacheva, leader of the Centre for Legal Transformation “Lawtrend”. Such a disproportionate punishment was selected for the human rights defender, a Russian citizen living in Belarus for almost 30 years, over four cases of minor traffic offences and is regarded as persecution for her work and the authorities’ wish to destroy the critical voices in the country.
In November, it was reported that Aliaksandr Hrunou, a resident of Homel who had been sentenced to death, was eventually executed. His individual complaint was registered and has not yet been considered by the UN Human Rights Committee.
The authorities continued the practice of prosecuting journalists over working for foreign media without accreditation for alleged “illicit manufacture and distribution of media products”. Meanwhile, obtaining accreditation is still blocked by the Foreign Ministry of Belarus.
The possibility of exercising the right to freedom of peaceful assembly remained restricted. Officials banned a number of public events on purely restrictive and illegal grounds. Moreover, not only unauthorized, but even authorized events resulted in persecution, as it happened with the organizer of the memorial rally Dziady including a procession to the place of execution of the victims of the Bolshevik terror in Minsk’s Loshytsa district Yury Belenki.
In the absence of real mechanisms of internal influence on the possibility of protecting human rights, greatest expectations of positive dynamics continued to be associated with external factors, especially in the issue of the release of political prisoners. However, intensive contacts between the Belarusian authorities and the European Union, its institutions and individual countries, as well as the United States did not lead to specific improvements in this area. Contacts took place against the background of reducing the requirements for the release of political prisoners as a principled precondition for the resumption and development of pragmatic communication and cooperation to the traditional rhetoric of values.
In particular, on November 19, Gunnar Wiegand, the European External Action Service director for Russia, Eastern Partnership, Central Asia, Regional Cooperation and OSCE, told reporters about raising the issue of release of political prisoners at all meetings with officials of Belarus. According to him, it was not a surprise to his interlocutors. “Everybody understands that there are a number of steps to be taken for enabling the potential in Belarus-EU cooperation. There are certain steps that may already be implemented, but more intensive cooperation is impossible with no movements in rule of law, democracy and human rights sphere,” he said. Answering the question on a possible thaw in Belarus-EU cooperation in case of the release of political prisoners and positive movements in democracy sphere, Wiegand said that “now we are working on this issue. And it would be better if both sides are ready to cooperate and move towards it”. The diplomat noted that the relations between Belarus and the EU were not limited to a single issue of political prisoners, but “there are issues that cannot be ignored”. Gunnar Wiegand’s visit to Belarus was the fourth round of the intermediate phase in the dialogue on modernization which the European Commission conducts both with the civil society and the government of Belarus. The meeting focused on cooperation in the implementation of reforms in education, regional development and social issues. “That was a profitable discussion,” said Wiegand. “We discussed the possible steps to reform the mentioned spheres and possible EU assistance. Today we have met to find spheres for cooperation”.
This statement by the European official suggests that the EU intends to continue cooperating with the official Minsk regardless of the decision of the Belarusian authorities on the issue of political prisoners, which gives reason to doubt the strong position of the European Union with respect to previously announced principles of rapprochement only after their release. This is extremely alarming, since a departure from the publicly stated position can contribute to freezing the issue and bypassing for the sake of economic and political expediency.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On November 1, Maryna Adamovich, the wife of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, told what foodstuffs the prisoner could buy on two basic units he received a month: 140 grams of cheese and 100 grams of sausages, marshmallows (half a piece a day), waffles (one waffle a day). According to Statkevich, heating was on at the prison and the prisoners received warm clothes. On November 8, Maryna Adamovich said that on January 12, 2015 Mikalai Statkevich was expected to complete a three-year term prison term, after which he could be returned to the Shklou colony, where he would have to serve two years more. On November 29, Maryna Adamovich said that for the first time since spring Mikalai Statkevich was allowed to buy 2 kilos of onions. According to her, earlier the administration had said that there were enough onions, but the prisoner had not received them.
On November 1, Rushaniya Vaskovich, mother of political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich, said that her son had been transferred from Mahiliou prison to a local colony. She learned that after she phoned the special section of the prison where she was told that Yauhen had already left prison. The political prisoner had served three years in prison, after an exit trial convicted him on charges of violation of detention restrictions. Vaskovich has almost three more years to serve at the penal colony.
On November 8, Valiantsina Alinevich, mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said that her son was out of touch after a meeting with his parents on October 21 and 30 days in solitary confinement. Ihar Alinevich’s mother did not rule out that her son was again harassed by the prison administration.
On November 15, Valeryia Khotsina, the wife of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, said that her husband had been placed in solitary confinement in the Mahiliou prison. Prior to this, Mikalai Dziadok had spent eight days in a punishment cell, but failed to report on the reasons for the punishment in a letter to his wife. During his time in solitary confinement, a parcel with medicines arrived at the prison, which he received after being released. On November 20, it was reported that Mikalai Dziadok was facing criminal charges under Part 1, Article 411 of the Criminal Code, “wilful disobedience of the lawful demands of the administration of the correctional institution”. This was reported to his parents by the state counsel who had been invited for arraignment. The case was initiated on November 13. The political prisoner was expected to be transferred to jail as a defendant. On November 22, Valeryia Khotsina said that Mikalai Dziadok was going to undergo a forensic psychiatric examination. The political prisoner was to be released in February, after serving his sentence of 4 years and 6 months. Human rights activists view Article 411 of the Criminal Code as a legacy of the Soviet Union, which migrated to the modern criminal legislation of Belarus. There are no analogues of this article in the legislation of the Russian Federation or Ukraine. In fact, it prolongs the sentence in prison, as this criminal article gives the possibility of selective application to “undesirable” prisoners. Human rights activist expressed concern that the trial of Mikalai Dziadok could be held behind closed doors.
On November 15, Piotr Parfiankou, the father of political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou, referring to a letter from his son, described detention conditions in solitary confinement in the prison in Horki: the walls were wet, prisoners had to sleep fully clothed and it was still cold. Vasil Parfiankou was held in solitary confinement for several months. The political prisoner was to be released on December 5.
On November 17, it became known that on October 24, 2014 the United Nations Human Rights Committee adopted a decision in the case of Ales Bialiatski, Chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), recognizing that the government of Belarus violated his rights guaranteed by Articles 9 (right to liberty and security), 14 (right to a fair trial) and 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. After “Viasna” was deprived of state registration in 2003, its founders on three occasions (in 2007 and 2009) applied to the Ministry of Justice of the Republic of Belarus for registration, but the state three times refused to register the organization, thus depriving it of the possibility of opening an account to receive funds for their activities. According to the findings of the Committee, the government violated the organization’s right to freedom of association by refusing state registration on the sole ground that the documents submitted for registration contained minor flaws, which could be corrected in case such a possibility had been provided to the founders by the Ministry of Justice. Denial of registration led to a ban on the activities of the organization in Belarus and prevented the exercise of the rights of its members. The sentencing of Ales Bialiatski to a lengthy term of imprisonment for activities related to the receipt and expenditure of funds aimed to finance the activities of the organization was the direct result of violations of freedom of association. When considering the charges, the Belarusian courts rejected evidence that these funds were intended and used for these purposes, and did not consider the matter from the point of view of safeguarding the right to freedom of association. Under these conditions, the criminal prosecution of Ales Bialiatski was regarded by the Committee as a violation of the law. The Human Rights Committee also concluded that the detention of Ales Bialiatski during the preliminary investigation was arbitrary, since the decision to arrest him was made by the prosecutor, not the court, and was based only on the severity of the charges, but not on the facts witnessing the need for and feasibility of the measure. The Committee recognized that in the course of the prosecution of Ales Bialiatski the government violated the presumption of innocence, which resulted in a number of reports by state-owned media and statements by the President, who had affirmed the guilt of Ales Bialiatski prior to the entry into force of a court judgement, as well as the fact that in the course of the hearing Mr. Bialiatski was kept in a cage and brought to court in handcuffs. The decision of the Human Rights Committee stated that Ales Bialiatski had the right to appropriate remedies, namely the review of Viasna’s application for state registration, removal of a criminal record, adequate compensation, including compensation payments made under judicial decisions. In addition, the Committee agreed that the government should review its domestic law on associations and bring it into conformity with Article 22 of the Covenant. The Committee’s decision in this case is precedent-setting. It clearly demonstrated that government actions aimed at preventing the activities of the human rights organization, from the denial of state registration to bringing to justice its members for the exercise of their right of association, was a violation of international law. No manipulation of the domestic law by the authorities could hide this violation before the international community.
On November 21, the Minsk City Court considered an appeal of opposition activist Yury Rubtsou, who was sentenced on October 6 by the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk on charges of committing a crime under Article 391 of the Criminal Code, “insulting a judge”, to one and a half years of imprisonment in an open-type penal institution. The charges stemmed from a statement of the Savetski District Court Judge Kiryl Palulekh, who claimed that during the consideration of an administrative case on 28 April the activist had allegedly insulted the judge by using offensive words. Mr. Rubtsou said that he was brought to the courtroom in a way that offended his human dignity and honour, namely he stood trial without a shirt. In addition, he was unable to read the case file, being left without his glasses. Therefore, he told the judge that it was “not a court, but a show”. The activist tried to impeach the judicial panel headed by Judge Liudmila Shapashnikava and expressed distrust to all Belarusian judges. As a result of the trial, Yury Rubtsou’s appeal was dismissed.
On November 25, Maryna Lobava, the mother of political prisoner Eduard Lobau serving a sentence in the Ivatsevichy colony, had a meeting with her son, which lasted about two hours. She could speak to him on the phone through the glass. Eduard Lobau was expected to be released on December 18. According to his mother, he was looking forward to his release, and did not to say much about his life in the colony. On November 29, Maryna Lobava said after speaking with her son that Eduard had been subjected to preventive supervision for the period of one year, which would take effect after he was released from prison on December 18. According to Maryna Lobava, she did not know the exact date of the trial. Eduard Lobau was brought to an exit court session, where this decision was taken without a lawyer. Maryna Lobava stressed that the counsel had requested in advance not to hold the hearing without her, but her petitions were not taken into account. Moreover, during the meeting with Eduard,which took place a few days before, the mother was not told anything about the trial. The prisoner did not know about the forthcoming court hearing either. After his release Eduard Lobau was planning to go to study abroad, but now those plans should be delayed for at least a year.
On November 3 it was reported that a resident of Homel sentenced to death, Aliaksandr Hrunou, had been denied clemency. According to the information received by human rights activists, on October 13 his case was received by the Homel Regional Court with the mark that he was denied clemency and all procedural actions concerning the appeal against the death verdict were exhausted. On November 4, Volha Hrunova, mother of Aliaksandr Hrunou, reported having received a notice for taking a parcel with his belongings. In the parcel, there were the clothes which Aliaksandr was wearing during his stay on the death row in the prison in Valadarski Street in Minsk. The prison uniform had an acronym ИМН on its back, which stands for the exceptional punishment. This is the second case when mothers of executed persons receive the uniform of their sons which they were wearing during their stay in prison. The first such case was with the mother of Pavel Sialiun. Human rights activists believe that such actions by the authorities added to the suffering of relatives of the executed, and constituted cruel and inhuman treatment. On November 12, the Homel-based Centre for Strategic litigation sent a message to Christof Heyns, the UN Special Rapporteur on extra-judicial killings. The human rights defenders informed the Special Rapporteur about the execution of Alexander Hrunou, whose individual complaint was pending before the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The activists expressed concern about executing a death verdict, which essentially was extra-judicial killing. The human rights defenders called on the UN Special Rapporteur to take all possible steps within his mandate. On November 27, the Homel Regional Court, which earlier sentenced local resident Aliaksandr Hrunou to death, refused to disclose the death convict’s place of burial to his mother. Volha Hrunova received a written ban signed by the Chairman of the Court Siarhei Shautsou. She is going to seek changes in the Belarusian legislation, which imposes a taboo on information about the burial site of executed prisoners. According to Article 155 of the Criminal Executive Code, which regulates the execution of the death penalty in Belarus, the administration of the institution in which the death penalty is carried out is required to send a notice of the execution of the sentence to the court that handed it down, while the court should notify one of the family members. The body is not given for burial, the place of burial is not disclosed.
On November 14, it became known that the case of Vasil Yuzepchuk, a resident of the Drahichyn district, had been considered by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in October 2014. The Committee admitted violation of paragraph 3, Article 9 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as Yuzepchuk hadn't been brought before a judge promptly to address the issue of his arrest. The Committee also found a violation by the State of Article 7 of the Covenant, which prohibits torture and inhuman treatment. After detention Mr. Yuzepchuk was tortured: he was beaten by police officers, starved, thrown into solitary confinement, forced to drink vodka and take unknown pills. Under duress, Vasil Yuzepchuk confessed to committing a series of murders of elderly women in the Drahichyn district, but then recanted his confession and reported torture. After that, he was placed in isolation and tortured again to make him confess again. Vasil Yuzepchuk repeatedly stated about torture, but these claims were not considered properly. Human rights lawyer Raman Kisliak, who represented Vasil Yuzepchuk’s interests at the Committee, noted that the international body also concluded that the trial of Vasil Yuzepchuk failed to meet the criteria of independence and impartiality, the evidence of guilt was circumstantial and did not allow an unambiguous conclusion about the guilt. None of the conducted forensic examinations confirmed the guilt of the convicted person. The Committee considered that the condemnation to death as a result of the trial did not meet the requirements of Article 14 of the Covenant (minimum guarantees for a fair trial), and evidenced arbitrary deprivation of life, i.e. a violation of the right to life (Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). According to Mr. Raman Kisliak, the case of Vasil Yuzepchuk was the third one in which the Committee identified a violation of the right to life in connection with the imposition of the death penalty. Vasil Yuzepchuk was an ethnic Roma who had mental retardation, poorly oriented in time and was illiterate. The Brest Regional Court convicted him on charges of murders with aggravating circumstances and sentenced him to death in July 2009. The sentence came into force on October 2, 2009, after hearing of the appeal at the Supreme Court of Belarus. The case of Vasil Yuzepchuk was registered at the United Nations Human Rights Committee on October 12, 2009. The Committee adopted protection measures, informing the government about the need to refrain from executing the death penalty while the case was pending before the Committee. Nevertheless, in March 2010, Vasil Yuzepchuk was shot.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On November 5, the Prosecutor’s Office for the fourth time cancelled a refusal to open a criminal investigation into the torture of Piotr Kuchura, who is held in penal colony No. 15 in Mahiliou. Despite the present inability to break the vicious circle of investigator Skavarodkin’s rulings and their subsequent terminations by the prosecutor, Liudmila Kuchura said she was not going to surrender. Ms. Kuchura said that she would continue seeking access to the materials of the examination, which were carefully concealed by the investigating authority. She did not lose hope that the officials who had committed crimes would eventually be punished.
On November 24, it became known that the Svetlahorsk District Court had quashed a decision by the district department of the Investigative Committee, which earlier refused to open a criminal investigation into the death of Aliaksandr Akulich, who had died while serving an administrative arrest in the detention centre of the town’s police department in May 2012. The judge agreed with all the arguments of the victim’s mother and the human rights defenders of the HRC “Viasna”. The case received a new turn when Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court, having examined a supervisory appeal prepared by the HRC “Viasna”, on September 22 ordered cancellation of a ruling of the Svetlahorsk District Court and sending the case for a new trial in this court. In early October, the order was considered by the Praesidium of the Homel Regional Court, who met it and forwarded the case to the Court of Svetlahorsk district. As a result, Judge Iryna Aliseika cancelled the initial decision on October 24. It is worth noting that the judge granted the complaint on all the grounds specified by the human rights defenders. In its ruling, Iryna Aliseika highlighted the contradictions which “could affect the correctness of the decision taken by employees of the Svetlahorsk department of the Investigative Committee”. Firstly, “an additional forensics examination established a different, other than established by the initial inspections, cause of death of A.A. Akulich”. The death certificate featured “pulmonary embolism”, and expert opinion No. 72 of April 29, 2013 says it was chronic alcohol intoxication, which was complicated by the development of alcoholic delirium. We emphasize that before neither the investigation nor the court mentioned this distinction. Secondly, the court ruling points out the contradictions in the explanations provided by employees of the detention centre Stseshankou and Bachko about their use of violence against Aliaksandr Akulich. The judge concluded that they had not been questioned properly. “For example, the inspection failed to establish how many times and in what parts of the body they inflicted strikes with a truncheon to A.A. Akulich; what manifested A.A. Akulich’s disobedience; why an ambulance was not called immediately, but after a period of time; who inflicted blows to the head and the feet of A.A. Akulich and how, and whether it was necessary to inflict such bodily harm.” Moreover, the judge, following the steps of the human rights activists, draws attention to the fact that instead of calling an ambulance the police officers beat the detainee, who was in a morbid state. In addition, the judge says that the investigators failed to question the persons who were held in the same cell with Aliaksandr Akulich, as well as those held in other cells of the detention centre. Separately, she notes that the investigating authorities did not evaluate the actions of Stseshankou and Bachko in the context of implementation of the requirements of Article 23 of the Law of the Republic of Belarus of “On the Bodies of the Interior of the Republic of Belarus”, namely, the duty of immediate medical and other appropriate assistance to a person in a helpless or dangerous condition, as well as the requirements of Article 26 – the legality of the use of special means and physical force, as well as measures for immediate medical assistance, which Aliaksandr Akulich obviously needed.
On November 24, Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, activist of the independent trade union of radio-electronic industry (REP) in the city of Baranavichy, who had served a 2-day detention in the police department of Niasvizh for requesting a book of complaints in a local canteen, wrote a complaint to the Prosecutor General’s Office. In his complaint, the activist told about poor conditions of detention and asked to close the temporary detention facility of the Niasvizh district police department. Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk said that the cell was very cold, especially at night, since the battery was not warm. He argued that the daytime temperature was about 12-14 degrees Celsius, and at night it was around +10. As a result, the prisoner could not sleep and it was impossible to keep warm. The ventilation was out of order, and the smoke made it difficult to breathe. Therefore, he had a bad cough, pain in the back and waist. The complaint stated that the cell had no toilet and the inmates had to use a bucket that was located in a dirty corner. The stench in the cell was disgusting, said the activist, and the prisoners had to take their meals and sleep in such anti-human and anti-sanitary conditions. The inmates, said Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, were not allowed to visit the toilet due to lack of police officers. There was neither drinking water, nor enough daylight and electric light in the cell, the doctor never examined the detainees, it was impossible to call the family, the prisoners were not taken out for walks.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On November 4, the Mahiliou Regional Department of Justice withdrew its claim against the Mahiliou Human Rights Centre due to the fact that the human rights organization managed to find a new legal address. The lawsuit was filed to the Mahiliou Regional Court after the NGO failed to provide documents which were necessary to record changes of its legal address. On the eve of the trial, the Human Rights Centre received two written warnings from the Department of Justice. The NGO had a registered address, but due to the fact that the submitted documents had inaccuracies concerning the size of the premises, these documents were sent back. The human rights activists had hoped that the revised document could resolve the issue, but the landlord refused to renew the lease contract.
On November 5, the Department for Citizenship and Migration of the Pershamaiski District Police Department of Minsk considered the question of the expulsion from Belarus of Chair of the Board of the Centre for Legal Transformation “Lawtrend” Elena Tonkacheva, whose residence permit in Belarus had been annulled. Within a month, the human rights activist was expected to leave Belarus without the right to enter the country for three years, after which the decision could be reviewed. About 7,000 petitions for suspending the procedure of expulsion were passed to the Department for Citizenship and Migration. The procedure of deprivation of residence in respect of the citizen of the Russian Federation Elena Tonkacheva, who has been living in Belarus since 1985, was launched in September 2014. The formal reason for the beginning of the procedure was four cases of speeding committed by the human rights defender while driving her car. On November 28, Elena Tonkacheva appealed against the decision to the Department of Internal Affairs of the Minsk City Executive Committee. On the same day, the Pershamaiski District Police Department of Minsk extended by one month the residence registration for the human rights defender. In accordance with the Law “On the Legal Status of Foreign Citizens and Stateless Persons in the Republic of Belarus”, submission of a complaint is an occasion to pause the expulsion for the period of its consideration.
On November 21, human rights activist and journalist Uladzimir Khilmanovich received a phone call from an employee of the Leninski district police department who said that the activist faced charges of committing an administrative offence. Then the policeman visited Khilmanovich’s house, handing him the offence report and interviewing the human rights defender. The report was reportedly written by head of the Svislach district police department, Major Viktar Hancharevich. Uladzimir Khilmanovich was charged with involvement in a traditional action in memory of the insurgents of the 1863 anti-Russian uprising, held in the town of Svislach on October 26. He was also accused of being photographed on the background of a white-red-white flag. On November 25, Judge Alena Piatrova of the Leninski District Court of Hrodna fined Uladzimir Khilmanovich 5.25 mln roubles.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On November 1, Yury Hlebik, an opposition activist of the town of Svislach, was visited by representatives of local police. They told him that he was facing administrative charges over an offence allegedly committed on October 26 during a traditional action in memory of the 1863 anti-Russian insurgents. Yury Hlebik then spoke to the crowd, holding a national white-red-white flag. On November 24, the activist was fined 1.5 mln roubles by the local district court on charges of participating in an “unauthorized mass event”.
On November 17, Lieutenant Anatol Tarasiuk of the Kobryn District Police Department invited local activist Ales Mekh to the department in connection with his participation in a traditional action in memory of the 1863 anti-Russian insurgents held in Svislach on October 26. Ales Mekh demanded an official summons, and on November 18 the summons was served to him and his minor son Anton. On November 21, Alexander Fur visited the Kobryn district police department to read the materials of the case sent from Svislach. The offence report was written and signed by the chief of the police department, Major Viktar Handarevich. The activist’s involvement in the event was reportedly witnessed by local policemen Yury Sadouski and Dzianis Pauliuchenia. The trial of Ales Mekh was scheduled for December 4. On the same day, the case of his son Anton was expected to be heard at a meeting of the Juvenile Commission of the District Executive Committee.
On November 25, the Court of Hrodna’s Leninski District heard the administrative cases of four people who attended the traditional action in memory of the 1863 anti-Russian uprising in the town of Svislach on October 26. Judge Alena Piatrova fined journalist and human rights activist Uladzimir Khilmanovich and United Civil Party activist Yezhy Hryhencha 5.25 million roubles each, and Radio Liberty journalist Mikhail Karnevich and UCP activist Vital Lopasau were fined 2.25 mln each on charges of participating in an unsanctioned event. In fact, all of them were convicted on the basis of merely being present in Svislach on the day, since the materials of their cases and the testimony of witnesses, local police officers, had nothing that would confirm the commission of any offence. However, this did not affect the judge’s decision. Particularly absurd was the penalty for an accredited journalist, Mikhail Karnevich, who was covering the event.
On November 8, the members of the rock band Dzetsiuki and the shooting crew were detained in Zaslauye while shooting a video for their new album. A total of 18 people were detained. The police regarded the shooting of the video as an unauthorized mass event and detained the musicians as they failed to present an official permit for their actions. After being taken to the police station, the musicians were released.
On November 11, the Leninski District Court of Hrodna fined local opposition activist Yezhy Hryhencha, detained by police on November 2 while campaigning as part of the People’s Referendum initiative. Judge Yury Kazakevich ignored the circumstances of the administrative case and ruled that the activist was to be fined 1,350,000 roubles. The Court ruled that the activist violated election laws, as he allegedly failed apply for registration of the initiative group in the CEC, which is required if a referendum is organized on people's initiative. However, the signatures were collected under an appeal to the Chamber of Representatives and President’s Administration, who were urged to initiate a referendum. At the trial, Mr. Hryhencha not only told about it, but also asked to attach to the case the Law “On Petitions of Citizens”.
On November 17 the Pershamaiski District Court of Minsk heard the administrative charges against deputy chairman of the Conservative Christian Party BPF Yury Belenki on charges of violating Part 2, Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of holding mass events). According to police reports, Yury Belenki failed to secure the protection of public order and health care during the rally of Dziady held on November 2. Despite the fact that on October 27 the event organizer had met with representatives of Minsk police and prosecutors, the offence report insisted that had did not taken measures to maintain public order. Judge Anastasiya Papko rejected Yury Belenki’s motion to summon a representative of the public security police of the Minsk City Department of Internal Affairs and Prosecutor Smalenski. A representative of the Minsk City Executive Committee, Yury Uralski, said in court that there were “no significant violations on the part of the organizers”, and they received no information about their failure to pay for the expenses. The judge found Mr. Belenki guilty and ruled to fine him 3 mln roubles.
On November 28, the Leninski District Court of Minsk considered the administrative case of deputy chairman of the Conservative Christian Party BPF Yury Belenki and sentenced him to a fine of 4.5 million roubles for involvement in a procession to the place of execution of the victims of the Bolshevik terror, held on November 9. The charges were heard by Judge Maryna Zapasnik. The judge granted all the motions by Mr. Belenki (involvement of a lawyer, questioning a witness), but refused to screen a video of a general meeting in the Minsk City Executive Committee on October 27, as well as a footage of the memorial action in Loshytsa. The defendant argued that the security measures had been agreed at the meeting of October 27 (which could be proved by the video footage), as well as before the action on November 9, and he had not been notified of the procedure of payment. Besides, the charges were brought against him on November 12, although, according to the law, the CCP BPF should have paid the expenses within 10 days after the event.
On November 21, former political prisoner Andrei Haidukou was detained while distributing leaflets about Belarusian political prisoners in Navapolatsk. The police detained him for allegedly holding an unsanctioned rally, but later charged him with distributing leaflets without imprint. After that, Andrei Haidukou was released. On November 24, the activist was detained again for distributing leaflets in Polatsk. He was brought to the police department, charged with illegal picketing (Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code) and ordered to appear in court on November 27. However, on November 25, Andrei Haidukou was taken to the court building directly from his apartment. In court, he filed a motion for a defence lawyer, saying that he had signed a contract with a lawyer in Minsk who could not so quickly arrive in Polatsk. Judge Uladzimir Biasetski refused to wait: he gave the defendant half an hour to contract a local lawyer. As a result, the Judge found Andrei Haidukou guilty of violating Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code and sentenced him to ten days of arrest for “holding an unauthorized picket and the distribution of leaflets”.
On November 24, Pavel Vinahradau, leader of the Zmena opposition group, known for his frequent arbitrary detentions and arrests, announced his intention to move from Minsk to his native town of Berazino. The main reason was that was a risk of being sent to an activity therapy centre. The activist had a record of three administrative penalties for “appearing in a public place in a state of intoxication”. As a result, police could send him for a medical examination, and then after the first drinking offence report the activist could have become a client of the correctional institution. Meanwhile, the activist appealed against the administrative violations.
On November 25, activist Yury Liashenka was detained by an ambulance while trying to stage a protest outside the Svetlahorsk district executive committee building. A wheelchair user himself, the activist was going campaign for the rights of people with disabilities, including against discrimination of their rights during the renovation of a residential building in Lenin Street. However, the executive committee banned the event. Nevertheless, Yury Liashenka appeared in the central square of Svetlahorsk. A few minutes later, an ambulance pulled over and the man was dragged into the car. At the hospital, he had his blood pressure measured and a cardiogram done. He was told that he had tachycardia and the doctors made an injection. Then there appeared a policeman who interviewed the activist. After the policeman charged the disabled activist under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code, a nurse told Yury Liashenka that he could go home because he had received the “necessary assistance”. On November 27, the Svetlahorsk City Court was expected to hear the administrative charges brought against Yury Liashenka. However, the trial did not take place after a police lieutenant colonel told the activist that the case file needed to be corrected. As the social activist was planning a foreign trip for medical treatment, he wrote a letter to the court asking not to consider the case in his absence.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On November 3, journalist Alina Litvinchuk of Brest reported being charged with violation of Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, “illegal transfer and production of information for a foreign media that is not accredited in the Republic of Belarus”. The alleged victim in the case was the head of the Brest city department of the public organization “Christian Commonwealth of Youth and Adults”, Aliaksandr Drachuk. Another document attached to the case was a statement by head of the Brest Regional KGB Department A. Krupenkin, which said that A. Litvinchuk was allegedly engaged in “illegal journalist activities” while preparing a publication about the abuse of drugs by residents of the Brest region (an article entitled “Pupils’ Mates Will Tell about Spice School”, published at the website of Radio Racyja). The KGB officer accused Alina Litvinchuk of violating Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production of mass media). After reading the case materials, the journalist refused to testify using her constitutional right not to incriminate herself. After that, police officer Dzmitry Sverba drew up an offence report and handed a summons to appear in court on November 6. However, as it turned out, this date had not been agreed with the judge. In addition, the information about the victim and the witnesses wasn’t reflected in the violation report. In the evening of October 31, police officers visited the journalist’s apartment in order to rewrite the report. However, Ms. Litvinchuk again refused to testify and sign the new report. On November 6, the trial was adjourned at the request of the journalist, who was going abroad and asked the court of Brest’s Leninski district to postpone the consideration of the case. As a result, the court ordered the journalist to appear on November 25.
On November 5, on the world day “Stand Up for Journalism”, a number of journalists and activists in Vitsebsk were photographed against the background of a graffiti on the wall of a building, an image of three cages and paper birds leaving them. The people in the photographs were holding paper birds or cages. Soon they were invited to the police station and charged with an administrative offence. On November 28, the Chyhunachny District Court of Vitsebsk considered the administrative cases of journalist Dzmitry Kazakevich and Alena Stsiapanava, as well as activist Alena Shabunia. As a result, all were found guilty of violating Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of organizing or holding mass events) and fined 20 basic units (Dzmitry Kazakevich and Alena Stsiapanava) and 18 basic units (Alena Shabunia). The trial took about 30 minutes. The prosecution was by the head of law enforcement and prevention department of the Chyhunachny District Police Department of Vitsebsk Aliaksandr Rybakou. He said that the photo session was an action because it was described so on the Internet. Judge Dzianis Hubanau convicted journalist Alena Stsiapanava. The same judge ruled to fine Alena Shabunia 18 basic units. The judge said that the amount was lower because the activist had three children, including two minors. In total, seven people faced charges over the photo session. Trials of journalist Kanstantsin Mardzvintsau and activist Tatsiana Seviaryn were appointed for December 1. Piotr Biarlinau, a passer-by who joined the photo session, was expected to be tried on December 3. Human rights activist Pavel Levinau was yet to face his charges after he said that he would sign a contract with a lawyer, so his visit to the police station was postponed.
On November 13, independent journalist Andrei Mialeshka received a phone call from the police department of the Leninski district of Hrodna and informed about administrative charges under Art. 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code (“illegal production and distribution of media products”). He was summoned to the police station to provide explanations over an interview with Professor Valery Charapitsa of the Hrodna University, but the journalist requested an official summons. The same day, police officers Vaitseshyk and Hryn of law enforcement and prevention department of the Leninski district police department came to the journalist’s apartment to receive explanations regarding this interview. The police officers said that the case had already been opened and it was expected to reach court a few weeks later. This was already the third administrative case against the journalist on the same charges within the year: first, he was fined 30 basic units in June, then 35 basic units in October.
On November 13, journalist Ales Zaleuski was invited to the Slonim district police department. Head of the department Valery Ramanchuk said that his actions constituted “an administrative offence” and his case was going to be sent for trial. Ales Zaleuski was an employee of the Polish public television TVP, the owner of the BelSat independent TV channel. He is the author and host of a number of TV shows. This was already the second administrative case against him during the year. In May, the Karelichy District Court sentenced the journalist to a fine of 30 basic units for alleged “illegal production and distribution of media products” (Art. 22, Part 2 of the Administrative Code). The charges stemmed from a report about a local history museum in the town of Mir.
On November 17, the tax inspection of Mahiliou’s Leninski district invited a freelance journalist Ales Burakou to report on his foreign income for 2010-2013. Ales Burakou noted that this was his third visit to the tax authorities over the past few months. He stressed that after police seized his PC as part of an administrative case, law enforcement officers scanned his computer for materials that could prove his cooperation with foreign media without accreditation, in particular the Free Format project and Deutsche Welle.
On November 18, the Leninski District Court of Hrodna considered the administrative case of local activist Volha Krapotsina, detained on 19 September when handing out leaflets in support of Ukraine. Judge Dzmitry Bubenchyk found the activist guilty of “illicit manufacturing and distributing of printed materials” (Art. 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code) and fined her 4.5 million roubles. Volha Krapotsina pleaded not guilty on the grounds that every citizen of the Republic of Belarus is entitled to a right of free flow of information. The case file also featured an opinion by the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Belarus, which recognized the home-made flyers a “mass political non-periodical publication”.
On November 24, Russian border guards detained Belarusian journalist Larysa Shchyrakova and opposition activist Kanstantsin Zhukouski. The Homel-based journalist was making a story about the Belarusian-Russian border in the Dobrush district. Later they moved across the border into Russia and there filmed trucks going from Belarus to Russia to prove restrictions on transit of Belarusian exports. They were stopped by Russian border guards, who took their passports and asked about the purpose of their trip. Larysa Shchyrakova and Kanstantsin Zhukouski were held for two hours. They were interviewed by men in plain clothes who did not identify themselves. The Belarusians were asked why they were making a story in the border area. Claims were that the journalist might film agents of the Russian security service, FSB.
On November 26, Tamara Shchapiotkina, a human rights defender and freelance journalist in Biaroza, Brest region, received a phone call from deputy head for public order of the police department Mikalai Prakurat. The police chief said that Ms. Shchapiotkina would have to come to the police department because of her contribution for Radio Racyja. The activist said that she had a different appointment for the day, so she could not come at the requested time. First, she accepted the offer to come on the 27th in the morning, but then she told Mikalai Prakurat that if she broke the law, then the police should send her a summons and indicate her status and the essence of the case. As a result, Mikalai Prakurat agreed to do so. On November 30, Tamara Shchapiotkina visited the police department to see the case file. The administrative offence report written by the deputy chief of department of protection of public order of the Biaroza district police department Mikalai Prakurat said that Tamara Shchapiotkina violated Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code. The charge stemmed from a publication posted on the website of Poland-based Radio Racyja. Meanwhile, the interview with local pharmacist Aleh Kaziupa did not mention the author’s name. Among the images of four women shown to Aleh Kaziupa and head of secondary school No. 1 Mikalai Zhukovich, who was also interviewed by the journalist, they recognized Tamara Shchapiotkina. Only Kaziupa said that Shchapiotkina named herself Halina Vasilevich. After reading the case file, the journalist refused to give explanations, using her constitutional right not to incriminate herself. The case was going to be forwarded to court in the near future.
On November 30, human rights activists in Salihorsk said that chairman of the executive committee Aliaksandr Rymasheuski recommended all heads of enterprises and organizations of the district to subscribe to local government-owned newspaper Shakhtsior. “In order to provide the public with ideologically correct information on the political and socio-economic situation in the country, Minsk region and Salihorsk district”, the executive committee chairman also encouraged to take steps to involve employees of local state-owned enterprises in the subscription to the newspaper. Following the appeal of Aliaksandr Rymasheuski, managers of local organizations received a letter from the chief editor of Shakhtsior Siarhei Kvitkevich. Referring to the governor’s recommendation, the editor directly told the managers to arrange compulsory subscription to the newspaper, citing the minimum rate of 50% of subscribers among the employees. The managers were also ordered to submit a report on the implementation of the plan to the ideology department of the Salihorsk district executive committee.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On November 2, a traditional memorial action, Dziady-2014, including a march and a rally, took place in Minsk. The event was organized by the Conservative Christian Party BPF. Observers of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee who monitored the entire event described it as peaceful. Observers positively assessed actions of the traffic police to ensure the movement of the column through road intersections. They also welcomed the presence of specially designated police information service officers. At the same time, observers registered problems in the work of police officers maintaining public order during the mass event. There was an interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly, namely groundless detention of participants, which should be assessed as illegal and arbitrary. Human rights defenders continued to stress the impossibility to identify law enforcement officers due to the lack of uniform, as well as the absence of identification cards on the clothes of policemen wearing uniform. In such circumstances, observers doubted the ability of the police to adequately fulfil their function of protecting public order, since the protesters could not identify police officers in case they needed help. It should also be noted that the order of holding mass assemblies in Belarus, adopted by the Law “On mass events in the Republic of Belarus” of December 30, 1997 (as amended on 08.11.2011), is contrary to international standards. In a joint opinion of the Venice Commission and OSCE/ODIHR (CDL-AD (2012) 006) it is observed: “The law on mass events is characterized by excessive regulation of the procedural aspects of the assembly. The law creates a complex procedure under strict and time-consuming procedures for obtaining permits, at the same time leaving more leeway to the administrative authorities in the application of the Act. This procedure does not reflect the positive obligation of the state to ensure and promote the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.”
On November 7, members of the Conservative Christian Party Belarusian Popular Front Piatro Sarapenia and Yan Dziarzhautsau wanted to stage a protest in order to inform the citizens about the consequences of the 1917 October Revolution and the need to ban the Communist Party of Belarus and its ideology. The official reason for the picket ban was the notorious ruling No. 881 of the Vitsebsk City Execution Committee “On Mass Events in Vitsebsk”. According to this decision, the applicants shall attach to the application to the district administration contracts for the services of medics, police officers and public utilities. However, medics and police refuse to enter into any service contracts with the applicants.
On November 19, it was reported that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found a violation of the right to peaceful assembly and information in the case of BPF member Siarhei Lazenka. The activist sent his individual communication back in 2008. Siarhei Lazenka was detained in August 2007 and brought to administrative responsibility for taking part in an unauthorized mass event – a congress of the BPF city office in Brest. 25 more people were detained then, among them politician Pavel Seviarynets, who presented his new book “Letters from the Forest”.
On November 20, it was reported that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found numerous violations of the right to disseminate information against a United Civil Party activist from Homel Uladzimir Niapomniashchykh. The Committee recommended the Belarusian authorities to restore the activist’s rights, to compensate for all the costs incurred, as well as to amend the law “On Mass Events”. One of the episodes mentioned in Uladzimir Niapomniashchykh’s complaint dealt with a “silent protest” held in the summer of 2011 in Homel. The activist took part in a “clapping protest” staged in one of the city’s squares. He was accused of violating the law on mass events, and Judge Ilya Svirydau of Homel’s Chyhunachny District Court punished him with a heavy fine. On October 7, 2011, the opposition activist handed out leaflets calling for participation in the National Assembly, which was held on the initiative of local pro-democracy activists in order to discuss the socio-economic situation in the country. Judge Alena Tsalkova of the Tsentralny District Court sentenced Uladzimir Niapomniashchykh to a large fine, too.
From 20 to 24 November, members of the UCP’s Babruisk office were going to hold a series of pickets against the deployment of a Russian military base. The venue was a stadium of the Slavianka factory, the only place in Babruisk, which was authorized by the executive committee for holding pickets. However, officials found a reason to ban the events. Deputy Mayor Aliaksandr Markachou wrote that exactly on these days there would be a youth football cup at the stadium. Then the activists started applying for other dates: November 30 to December 4. Halina Smirnova decided to visit the stadium to see if the football tournament really took place. But there was no competition there. But instead of football she saw a note on the door saying that the tournament, which was scheduled for the period from 20 to 24 November, was put off till November 30 to December 4 due to weather conditions, exactly the dates the activists had mentioned in their bids.
On November 21, the court of the Maskouski district of Minsk considered an appeal against a decision of the Minsk City Executive Committee banning a picket of solidarity with Ukraine citing obviously far-fetched reasons. In support of the ban, Deputy Chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee Ihar Karpenka wrote that the picket would not contribute to the preservation and improvement of greenery, would interfere with pedestrians and traffic, would not contribute to the implementation of the traffic rules. The officials referred to Article 9 of the Law “On Mass Events in Belarus”. During the court session, another representative of the Minsk City Executive Committee, Mr. Uralski, announced more absurd claims to the applicant. He argued that Uladzimir Andryenka, who had applied for holding the picket, should have attached a map with the exact location where the picketer would be standing and concluded an agreement in advance with the police and other structures. The activist also should have considered weather conditions, as they would also be taken into account when deciding on approval of the event. Despite the fact that the decision of the city authorities violated the rights of citizens guaranteed by the Constitution and was contrary to standards of international law, the judge found the appeal unreasonable and dismissed it.
On November 22, Yury Liashenka, a campaigner for the rights of people with disabilities in the town of Svetlahorsk, planned to stage a picket in the town’s central square in order to draw public attention to violations of the rights of people with disabilities. However, the executive authorities banned the protest, since “the place of the picket does not comply with the decision the executive committee”. “The District Executive Committee prohibits picketing in the central square,” said the response. The only place where it is permitted to hold pickets is a stage in the city park of culture and recreation, which is situated on the outskirts of town.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On November 5, members of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, Aliaksandr Hramyka, Aleh Shauchenka, Aliaksandr Varankin and Mikalai Zhybu, who had been dismissed from the Tractor Details and Aggregates Plant, declared a hunger strike in the building of the Babruisk City Executive Committee. The workers argued that the plant administration didn’t extend their labour contracts due to their membership in the FTUB. The activists intended to spend the first day of the hunger strike in the government building, but about 12 o’clock they were thrown out by a police officer. On November 6, the activists continued their protest in front of the company’s office. Another member of the trade union, Henadz Labachou, joined the hunger strike at his working place. The trade union activists spent the entire day at the entrance to the office. However, the company’s administration did not send a representative to negotiate. On November 10, the activists continued to protest outside the Babruisk city executive committee. They were eventually detained by the police. Two hours later, the detainees were released after being warned against holding an unsanctioned rally. On November 12, their meeting with chairman of the executive committee Andrei Kavalenka ended without result. On November 14, the members of the Free Trade Union announced that they were going to stop the hunger strike. Their demand for reinstatement was not met. The police told the activists that they faced administrative charges. According to police officers, the activists staged an unsanctioned mass event – a hunger strike.
On November 13, an official warning signed by the deputy prosecutor of the Brest region Aliaksandr Tachko was issued to the local coordinator of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party Aliaksandr Khrapko. The document, issued to Mr. Khrapko on November 13, said that he was officially warned “about the inadmissibility of participation in the activities and speaking on behalf of the unregistered party”. The officer of the regional Prosecutor’s Office referred to Part 3 of Article 7 of the Law “On Political Parties”. The Prosecutor’s Office came to such conclusions on the basis of materials received from the State Security Committee (KGB). In particular, the Brest activist was accused of taking part in the campaigns “For Small Border Traffic” and “Let’s Save Our Children from Alcoholism”, initiated by members of the BCD’s organizing committee.
On November 25, representatives of “Our Generation”, an association of elderly people, said that their email account had been hacked by unknown attackers, who also changed the password to the organization’s website administration panel. According to the NGO leaders, the attack caused irreparable damage to its business reputation. “In particular, as a result of breaking the organization’s mail, the attackers were in correspondence on behalf of the organization’s partner, which resulted in disrupting of some of the planned activities. In addition, irreparable damage was suffered by the business reputation of the organization among some foreign partners, members of “Our Generation” and activists of an NGO named “Pension Event”.