Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in December 2014
In December, the human rights situation deteriorated; the negative trends of human rights violations and restrictions were expanded, both on the legislative and law enforcement levels.
A large-scale attack on freedom of speech was reported during the month. On December 17, the House of Representatives adopted in two readings amendments to the Law “On Mass Media”, which allowed the government to significantly increase its pressure on the independent media. On December 18, the bill was approved by the Council of the Republic, and on December 20 it was signed by President Aliaksandr Lukashenka (date of entry into force – January 1, 2015). According to the bill, online media are fully subject to the law on mass media, except for the requirement of registration. The amendments also define what information can not be distributed by the media. In particular, it is prohibited to disseminate “information that can harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus”. Restricting access to online media will be applied after receiving two warnings during one year, as well as for the dissemination of prohibited information and failure of the owner of an online resource to follow the legal requirements of the state authority to eliminate violations of the law on mass media. Moreover, the dissemination of information that may, according to the authorities, threaten national security, may result in the blocking of websites without issuing any warnings. Another very serious challenge for the media community is the ability of the Ministry of Information to order the blockage of an Internet source on an out-of-court basis.
Meanwhile, several information Internet resources were blocked on December 19, ahead of the announced date of entry into force.
In particular, without any explanation access was limited to the websites belapan.com, belapan.by, naviny.by, belaruspartisan.org, charter97.org, udf.by, 21.by, gazetaby.com, and zautra.by.
Experts linked these repressive measures against the independent media to the preparation of the authorities to the 2015 presidential election, as well as their unbiased coverage of the current crisis in the country.
Representatives of the media still faced detentions while performing their professional activities, administrative prosecution for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation against the background of ongoing denials of accreditation from the Belarusian Foreign Ministry and warnings issued by the prosecuting authorities.
Expression through public events was extremely minimized. The authorities banned over ten peaceful assemblies expected to mark the Human Rights Day, with only one picket allowed in Brest. Activists continued to be subjected to administrative prosecution for participation in public events, including in authorized protests, as well as arbitrary and groundless detentions.
Belarusian authorities clearly demonstrated that they were not going to stop their repressive policy against their opponents and dissidents, or show political will for the release of political prisoners. Despite the fact that two political prisoners, Vasil Parfiankou and Eduard Lobau, were released in December, this failed to become a sign of addressing the acute problem, since their release was solely due to the expiration of their full terms of imprisonment. The unchanged position of the authorities in the issue of political persecution was confirmed by the emergence of a new political prisoner – activist Yury Rubtsou, who on December 22 began serving an 18-month imprisonment in a special settlement in the village of Kuplin, Pruzhany district. Thus, by end-December there were six political prisoners in detention: Mikalai Statkevich, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou. The authorities showed their willingness to use criminal prosecution as a means of suppressing or restricting public activity by the arrest of Aliaksandr Alesin, a military expert for the newspaper Belarusy i Rynok. The KGB accused him of cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies. After being released from the KGB detention centre, he told that in his work he used only open sources of information. Aliaksandr Alesin remains under investigation and was released on his own recognizance.
The deterioration of the human rights situation was expanding against the background of increasing contacts of the European Union and the United States with the Belarusian authorities, which cast doubt on the principled position of the West regarding the restoration of contacts with the official Minsk only after the release of political prisoners. Thus, there was a further departure of the EU and the US from the value-based position towards pragmatic cooperation imposed by the Belarusian side. This became a disturbing trend, since it was primarily the foreign factor that could bring positive dynamics to the issues of political prisoners, democracy and human rights, with absence of means to affect the issues within the country.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On December 1, political prisoner Eduard Lobau turned 26. This was the fourth birthday he marked in prison. On December 18, Eduard Lobau was released from penal colony No. 22 in Ivatsevichy. He was met by his family and associates. According to Eduard Lobau, he was offered three times to write a petition for clemency back in 2011, but refused. Since then the issue had not been raised by the prison authorities. The former political prisoner said that since he was subjected to preventive supervision, he did not know yet what he would do next, but he previously planned to go abroad to study. Eduard Lobau said that his views had not changed in prison and he would continue being engaged in socio-political activities. On December 19, Eduard Lobau held his first press-conference after his release. Remembering the trial of March 24, 2011, when he and Dzmitry Dashkevich faced criminal charges, Eduard noted: “This trial was a pure formality, because from the beginning it was known who and how much would get and it was known that this case was completely trumped up. In general, I did not view this as a trial.” The former political prisoner said that his relations with other prisoners were normal. Prison officials knew why he was held there and sometimes invited him for conversations. Lobau felt little pressure as a political prisoner, although he received 18 penalties over four years and was repeatedly placed in solitary confinement. He said that the conditions of his detention in the colony, where he was serving his term, were common, but admitted that he had nothing to compare, as he never was held in other colonies. Speaking about health care, Lobau told that he asked for treatment on a number of occasions and the assistance he received was satisfactorily, while those who had complex or chronic diseases complained about the prison doctors. As for nutrition, it was common for such institutions: porridge for breakfast, soup for lunch, pasta or porridge with a sausage or potatoes with fish or sauerkraut for dinner. “As I understand it, this food is given only to maintain vital functions. Such amounts are barely enough for this,” concluded Mr. Lobau.
On December 4, Valeryia Khotsina, wife of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, said that her husband had undergone a psychiatric forensic examination at Mahiliou prison No. 4, the test all prisoners have to pass before being tried in custody. According to Valeryia Khotsina, the examination results were not yet known. On December 6, Valeryia Khotsina said that Mikalai Dziadok was charged with resistance to the legitimate demands of prison administration (Art. 411 of the Criminal Code), which might result in another year in prison. According to her, the trial could be held in January 2015 and her husband would be tried behind closed doors. Mikalai Dziadok was also deprived of a visit scheduled for January 5, which he and his wife were looking forward to for almost a year. This was due to the fact that the prisoner had allegedly created a situation of conflict in the prison cell, but Mikalai denied the charges. After that, according to Valeryia Khotsina, the political prisoner finally decided to go into solitary confinement. According to his wife, he kept bright. She said that the recent letters and telephone conversations suggested that a new wave of pressure did not break him, and he was more worried about his family than about himself.
On December 5, political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou was released from penal colony No. 9 in Horki. His friends and journalists gathered to meet him, but the prison officers took him to the railway station and made sure that he took a train to Orsha. After arriving in Orsha, Vasil Parfiankou met with his colleagues, after which he left for Minsk. Vasil Parfiankou noted that during his stay in prison he had received 39 penalties for various violations, and before his release, on November 11, the colony hosted a trial, which imposed on him a preventive supervision for a period of 12 months. The former political prisoner said that on the day the court heard about 40 similar cases. As to whether it was possible to appeal against imposed penalties, Vasil said that theoretically it could be done, however, as the petitions and complaints were considered by the same person who issued the penalties, it brought no results: the prison chief issues a standard runaround that the penalty is perfectly legal. According to him, one can send a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office or the Department of Corrections, but such complaints rarely get beyond the walls of the colony. During the year he spent in the colony, Vasil Parfiankou worked for just five days, and spent only 29 days in the residential area, then he was placed in PKT (cell-type premises), and then repeatedly in a punishment cell. The prisoner could spend some 300 thousand roubles on foodstuffs. He said the prison shop usually sold fruits: apples and oranges. The store had sausages and cheese, too. Vasil Parfiankou was deprived of visits and parcels from his relatives. Parfiankou said that the state of health care in prison was very bad. Medicines were practically absent. HIV-infected prisoners, who needed special medicines, could only receive them from the Red Cross, but it was very difficult to demand them. TB patients were kept separately in PKT and in the cells. The punishment cell is a regular cell with eight beds, with a wooden floor, and the beds are attached to the walls during the day. It is prohibited to lie here during daytime. There is a bench to sit and a table. When it was cold, the cell was heated, but in the morning it was cold. On December 19, Vasil Parfiankou left for Ukraine, despite preventive supervision restrictions. According to him, he was not going to return to Belarus, and intended to “defend Ukraine from the Russian invaders”. His wife and 11-month-old son now live in the Lviv region.
On December 6, Valiantsina Alinevich, mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said that her son had sent a letter home, saying that he knew about a new criminal case against his associate Mikalai Dziadok. Valiantsina said that her previous letter was rejected by the prison censorship because it featured greetings from Mikalai Statkevich and Mikalai Dziadok. On December 25, Valiantsina Alinevich said that she and her husband had a long-term meeting with their son, but instead of the usual three days it lasted only a day. According to Valentina Alinevich, her son was thin and pale, but this was understandable, since during the autumn he spent 40 days in solitary confinement. However, his mood was good. Ihar Alinevich’s mother said that unlike all other prisoners who left the meeting with the foodstuffs that they were allowed to take, Ihar was not allowed to take even an apple.
On December 6, political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich said in a letter to Bialynichy journalist Barys Vyrvich that some of his letters hadn't reached the prisoner. In particular, Mikalai Statkevich had not received letters from the journalist for several months. At the same time, Mr. Vyrvich sent monthly letters or a postcard with the latest news from the life of the democratic forces of Mahiliou. Mikalai Statkevich said that he had been receiving only letters from relatives more or less regularly, as he informed his father and wife which letters he had received. Mr. Statkevich also wrote that he was to be transferred from prison to colony on January 12, after the end of a three-year prison term. In the absence of admonitions, he could have been returned to a colony 1.5 years earlier, but, as he wrote, “this is not an option for political prisoners”. On December 17, Mikalai Statkevich’s wife Maryna Adamovich had a two-hour meeting with him through the glass. According to her, Statkevich had not changed: his eyes were still very clear and bright, with no signs of fatigue or frustration, he still believed in himself, he is very strong and courageous with an absolutely precise understanding of what he is doing, why, and what he is ready to do for the sake of his beliefs. Speaking of various means to force him to ask for pardon, Mikalai Statkevich told his wife that a piece of paper could not erase all his life, and that he would never do it. Maryna Adamovich said that her husband was preparing to his transfer to a colony, but he did not know where he would be sent. According to him, the prison shop had recently offered a better choice of foodstuffs.
On December 13, Viyaleta Prakapenka, the mother of political prisoner Artsiom Prakapenka, learned during a short visit to the prison that her son had been given the status of a malicious offender of prison rules, which is why he could not count on parole. According to her, the one-year period of a previous penalty was expected to expire in September, but in July a fresh penalty was imposed on the prisoner, and Artsiom Prakapenka could count on early release only a year after its expiration provided there were no more penalties. The prisoner was accused of wearing slippers instead of shoes in the heat. Other prisoners were not punished for such actions. Viyaleta Prakapenka visited deputy head of the colony and asked how things were going with her son. He replied that everything was fine, but it was all in his mind. According to the political prisoner’s mother, the administration official meant that if Artsiom wrote a petition for clemency, he would have been released, but he refuses to write it. Ms. Prakapenka also said that her son was no longer employed in the colony, because there were no orders (formerly Artsiom worked with metal). According to his mother, the prisoner did not regret the lost wages, because they did not exceed 40,000 roubles.
On December 22, a new political prisoner appeared in Belarus: opposition activist Yury Rubtsou, convicted of insulting the judge, arrived in the village of Kuplin, Pruzhany district, to serve his sentence in open-type correctional facility No. 7. Immediately after his arrival, he received a note from the administration of the special settlement because he should have arrived there the previous day. The activist said that according to the reprimand, he had to come to the place of punishment within three days. But it turned out that the political prisoner should have measured the period from zero hours of the day, instead of the moment he had received the notification. The facility administration told Rubtsou to write an explanatory note, but he said he would not write or sign any official papers. According to Yury Rubtsou, the settlement has a kitchen where prisoners should cook their food themselves. There is no store, but a shop trailer that arrives once in two weeks. Prisoners can only leave the territory with written permission of the administration. Yury Rubtsou will live in a small room with three bunk beds. Yury said he did not know where he would have to work. He is a driver by profession. He would probably have to look for a job in Pruzhany. A bus is running to Kuplin twice a week, and it may be problematic for him to get there.
On December 19, political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich was visited by his mother and grandmother. The meeting lasted two hours. The political prisoner’s mother Rushaniya Vaskovich brought her son medicines and vitamins, as he had problems with his back and stomach. His mother also sent Yauhen a parcel with envelopes and postcards. His friends and party associates had gathered a parcel with warm clothes and personal-care products. They also subscribed him to newspapers and magazines. According to Rushaniya Vaskovich, her son was employed at the colony: he was sewing sweatshirts, and he had two days off a week. She hoped that her son would be released early for his good behaviour.
On December 1, the United Nations Human Rights Committee expressed its grave concern over the fact that Belarus executed a person whose complaint was under consideration by the Committee. The Committee was informed that the death sentence against Aliaksandr Hrunou was carried out on 22 October 2014. Mr. Hrunou had been found guilty of murder and sentenced to death by the Homel Regional Court in December 2013. “The position of the Human Rights Committee remains unchanged regarding the breach of the Committee’s request for interim measures of protection to avoid irreparable harm,” said Sir Nigel Rodley, the Committee’s Chairperson. He highlighted that this was not the first time that Belarus had executed complainants whose cases are registered and pending examination, with a request to have their execution put on hold. “This amounts to a grave breach of its international legal obligations by Belarus,” said Sir Nigel. As per usual practice, irrespective of this execution, the Human Rights Committee will continue to consider Mr. Hrunou’s case.
On December 3, the Supreme Court said, after a request from the BelaPAN news agency, that Eduard Lykau, who was sentenced to death by the Minsk City Court, had filed a petition for clemency. The petition was filed after the authorities reported on the execution of another death convict, Aliaksandr Hrunou. Human rights activists feared that Eduard Lykau, who was also convicted in 2013, could have been executed at the same time. A response from the Supreme Court signed by the deputy chairman Valery Kalinkovich said that since convict Lykau had applied to Aliaksandr Lukashenka for clemency “the execution of the judgement in respect of the person sentenced to death is suspended pending petition for clemency”. Lawyer Aliaksandr Kliukach refused to report on the state of his client, and the date the petition for clemency had been filed.
On December 4, Volha Hrunova, mother of the executed death convict Aliaksandr Hrunou, asked the Constitutional Court to pay attention to collisions of the Criminal Executive Code which prohibits to issue the bodies of the executed to their families or to inform the families about the places of their burial, as it is contrary to the Constitution of Belarus and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “I asked the Homel Regional Court to inform about the exact time of the execution and the place of my son’s burial. However, the court denied me this right, citing Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code. In this regard, I state that the acting legislation of Belarus and the practice of its implementation continue bringing me moral suffering and psychic stress,” commented Ms. Hrunova. The woman believed that the atmosphere of a complete secrecy surrounding the procedure of the death penalty, the places of burial of the shot convicts and the refusals to issue their bodies to their relatives were equal to intimidation and punishment of their families, as far as the latter are deliberately left in the state of uncertainty and psychic distress. “Such attitude of the state to the families and relatives of a convict constitutes a violation of Article 25, part 3 of the Constitution, according to which no one should be subjected to cruel or inhumane treatment. This also entailed a violation of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which reads that “no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment,” wrote the mother in hear appeal to the Constitutional Court. In her appeal, Mrs. Hrunova asked to initiate the proceedings on elimination of the legal collisions in the light of the guarantees provided by Article 25, part 3 of the Constitution and Article 7 of the ICCPR, and to introduce appropriate amendments to the national legislation. On December 15, Volha Hrunova received a reply to her petition. The Constitutional Court said that under the law the right to introduce proposals to the Court was entitled only to the House of Representatives, the Council of the Republic, Chairman of the Supreme Court and the Council of Ministers. “In the Republic of Belarus, citizens have an indirect access to constitutional justice – they send their petitions to the authorities having the right to introduce such proposals to the Constitutional Court,” argued the Constitutional Court who suggested applying to the above-listed bodies. On December 23, Volha Hrunova appealed to the President, both Houses of Parliament, the Supreme Court and the Government asking them to request the Constitutional Court to address the question of the constitutionality of the Criminal Executive Code, which prohibits issuing the bodies of executed persons and to disclose their places of burial.
On December 13, the Tsentralny District Court of Homel refused to institute civil proceedings against the Homel Regional Court and the Department of Corrections, which refused to inform Volha Hrunova about the burial place of her son. On the same day, the woman filed an appeal against the refusal to the Homel Regional Court. Earlier, Chairman of the Homel Regional Court Siarhei Shautsou turned down Volha Hrunova’s request to issue her son’s body or to disclose the location of his grave. The Court referred to Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code, according to which “the death penalty is executed by non-public execution. The body is not issued for burial, the place of burial is not disclosed". With the help of Homel human rights activists, the woman started a strategic litigation aimed at changing both the legislation and practice that every time lead to the suffering of parents and relatives of death convicts in Belarus.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
On December 10, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” presented an analytical report on the results of monitoring places of detention in the Republic of Belarus. The report was prepared by human rights activists in cooperation with an expert Pavel Sapelka. The monitoring covering the period from 2013 to 2014 was conducted by analysing the penal law in order to obtain objective information from public sources as well as through interviews with prisoners. At the same time, measures were taken in the framework of national legislation to improve conditions of detention. Speaking at the presentation of the report, Pavel Sapelka noted that the study provided current data on the number of places of detention and the number of prisoners and a detailed analysis of the labour rights of prisoners which, as shown by the monitoring, are violated everywhere. The report also included an analysis of the legislation regulating the rights of prisoners to correspondence and access to various authorities, which are unduly limited. Particular attention was paid to analysing the opportunities for civilian control of places of detention. As a result, it was concluded that such institutions were totally closed from the public. Human rights activists stated virtual inability to legally conduct such monitoring. The state of closed educational institutions (special vocational colleges, etc.) was studied as well. As a result, human rights defenders concluded that these institutions had features of deprivation of liberty. The study paid a particular attention to the problem of torture and cruel, inhuman treatment in prisons. It provided documented examples of such treatment and stated that such cases were usually not investigated by independent and impartial authorities. Pavel Sapelka acknowledged that human rights defenders had limited possibilities to influence the situation in places of detention, but it was possible to make these facts public and propose the state to take certain measures to prevent such violations. Following the monitoring, researchers proposed measures both in the field of statutory regulation and law enforcement, which could improve the situation of prisoners.
On December 19, Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, an activists of the trade union of radio electronic industry (REP), received a letter signed by head doctor of the Republican Centre of Hygiene and Epidemiology of the Department of Finance and the Rear of the Ministry of the Interior, A.L. Zhuk, which said that the experts of the state agency had considered his complaint against the facts of non-compliance with sanitary-epidemiological legislation in the temporary detention centre of the police department in Niasvizh. The letter said that a probe had confirmed some of the facts mentioned in his complaint to the Prosecutor General. In particular, the letter said that the cells in the detention centre did require repairs, and installing toilets in the cells and yards for walks on the territory of the institution needed large investments. The letter also said that the government did not allocate money on a paramedic at the detention centre, therefore prisoners were examined by police officers. The letter noted that, in accordance with the plan of liquidation of the revealed violations, in December 2014 the detention centre was expected to be closed for repairs and chief of Niasvizh police department would receive a written request to eliminate violations of sanitary-epidemiological legislation.
On December 23, the Salihorsk District Prosecutor’s Office said that at the request of Uladzimir Lemesh, an activist of the European Belarus opposition movement, it had checked the conditions of detention in the city’s police department. As a result of the probe, prosecuting authorities identified certain violations of regulations for special institutions of the Interior. As it turned out, the Prosecutor’s Office only spotted one of the numerous violations: the number of seats on the bench and at the table in the cells appeared to be lower than the number of persons the cell could accommodate. On this occasion, the Prosecutor of Salihorsk district Aleh Audzei wrote to local police chief urging the official to install the necessary equipment. All other arguments by Uladzimir Lemesh concerning the degrading conditions of detention were called groundless by the District Prosecutor’s Office. During the inspection, officials allegedly interviewed Mr. Lemesh’s former inmates and the staff of the detention centre. Together with the experts of the Centre for Hygiene and Epidemiology, they examined the cells, took water samples, allegedly made measurements of artificial lighting and climate, but found no violations.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On December 17, human rights activist Elena Tonkacheva, leader of the Centre for Legal Transformation Lawtrend, visited the Department of Citizenship and Migration of the Minsk city police department in order to see the case file and to be able to submit the full text of her complaint. However, on coming to the police department she was handed a notice saying that back on December 12 it had been decided to uphold the decision of the Pershamaiski district police department. It contained a decision on Ms. Tonkacheva’s expulsion from Belarus and a ban on entry into the country for three years. That is, none of the arguments that have been presented in the complaint regarding the dis-proportionality of the decision, an incorrect assessment of the facts and so on were taken into account. On December 24, Elena Tonkacheva sent to the court of Minsk’s Pershamaiski district an appeal against the decision of the district police department to expel her from the country for three years. On the same day, the police authorities extended by one month her residence permit in the territory of Belarus in order to have an opportunity to appeal against the decision. The deportation of Elena Tonkacheva was reportedly caused by several minor traffic violations.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On December 1, the Chyhunachny District Court of Vitsebsk heard the charges against participants in a photo session on a background of graffiti, coordinator of the BCD’s organizing committee Tatsiana Seviarynets and journalist Kanstantsin Mardzvintsau. The police qualified the action as “unauthorized picketing” (Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code). Judge Alena Tsyhankova was going to hold the hearing behind closed doors, but the defendants addressed to the chairperson of court; finally, five people were allowed to the room. The Judge dismissed a request of Kanstantsin Mardzvintsau to conduct the trial in the Belarusian language or to invite an interpreter. Disqualification of the judge was also rejected, despite requests from both Kanstantsin Mardzvintsau and Tatsiana Seviarynets, who witnessed a clearly negative attitude of Alena Tsyhankova to those present in the courtroom. The court fully supported the opinion of the police, and eventually fined Tatsiana Seviarynets 25 basic units and Kanstantsin Mardzvintsau – 20 basic units. Three more participants of the photo session were convicted in late November: journalists Alena Stsiapanava and Dzmitry Kazakevich was fined 20 basic units and an activist of the BCD’s organizing committee Alena Shabunia was fined 18 basic units.
On December 3, the Court of Vitsebsk’s Chyhunachny District sentenced Piotr Biarlinau to three days of arrest for taking part in a photo session against the background of graffiti. The peculiarity of the situation was that he had spent these three days in detention before the trial: he was detained on November 28 and the trial started on December 1. He was detained in the street, taken to the Chyhunacnhy District Police Department and charged with “unauthorized picketing” for being photographed with paper birds near a building in Ilyinski Street. According to Piotr Biarlinau, he wanted to meet the participants of the photoshoot, as he noticed some journalists among them. He had a problem to which he wanted to draw public attention. Several years ago his plot of land with buildings on it had been taken away from him by the state. Instead of it, he was given a three-room apartment. However, Mr. Biarlinau didn’t regard it as an equivalent compensation for the lost property and refused to move to the apartment.
On December 12, the Chyhunachny District Court of Vitsebsk began consideration of the case of human rights defender Pavel Levinau on charges of involvement in an illegal picket – a photo session near graffiti on the wall of a building. The court session was chaired by Judge Alena Tsyhankova. Pavel Levinau tried to prove that the photo shoot was not picketing, that no one was forbidden to be photographed, and even asked to attach to the case file several photographs from his archive that were taken in different circumstances. Mr. Levinau also asked to attach to the case file the photos from an action held by foreign journalists in Brussels in order to support their Vitsebsk colleagues. The foreigners also got photographed with flowers and paper birds in their hands, as well as with posters “Is this a crime?”. However, the judge decided that these items had nothing to do with the case. Her decision was supported by police Major Aliaksandr Rybak, who had charged the participants of the photoshoot. In particular, the police officer violated the law by writing a violation report in Levinau’s absence, though the latter had warned him about his going away from Vitsebsk. The Judge granted the petition for participation of a lawyer hired by Mr. Levinau. As a result, the trial was put off till December 17. On December 17, Pavel Levinau was found guilty of “participation in an unauthorized picketing” and fined 25 basic units.
On December 3, the Minsk District Court began its consideration of an administrative case against Deputy Chair of the Conservative Christian party “Belarusian Popular Front” Yury Belenki on charges of violating the order of holding a mass event in the Kurapaty memorial forest on November 2. Since the police officers who were expected to witness in the case did not attend the trial, the court session was postponed. However, no judgement was pronounced on December 17. On that day, it was announced that the charges would be heard by a different judge. As a result, Judge Ihar Ihlikau put off the trial to a later date. On December 24, Yury Belenki was found guilty and sentenced to a fine of 25 basic units. It was the third administrative case opened against Yury Belenki for organizing two events on November 2 and 9, which were officially allowed by the authorities.
On December 4, the Vaukavysk District Court fined another participant in the commemoration of the 1863-1864 anti-Russian insurgents held in Svislach and Yakushouka. Vital Huliak was fined for “participation in unauthorized event”. The charges stemmed from a violation report drafted at the Salihorsk District Police Department. During his presence at the memorial event, Vital Huliak didn’t hold any symbols, cry out any slogans. He didn’t deliver any speeches and didn’t violate public order. However, Judge Yury Yakimovich of the Vaukavysk District Court sentenced him to a fine of 3 million roubles.
On December 4, the Kobryn District Court started hearing an administrative case against Ales Mekh, charged with participation in an unauthorized mass event. The case concerns his and his son’s participation in the commemoration of participants of the 1863-1864 anti-Russian uprising, which was held in the town of Svislach. Deputy Chairman of the Kobryn District Court Piotr Tsimashenka, who heard the charges, granted Ales Mekh’s petition for summoning the police witnesses from Svislach. They wrote a violation report in Mr. Mekh’s absence, and the paper contained serious mistakes. In particular, his home address was not written correctly. As said by Ales Mekh, he didn't know the “police witnesses” and first learned their names at the Kobryn District Police Department, while reading his case file. In their explanations, the witnesses wrote that they allegedly recognized the “old members of the BPF Party”, though neither Ales Mekh nor his 17-year-old son (who also faced similar charges) were members of the BPF. On December 11, Piotr Tsimashenka found Ales Mekh guilty of participating in unsanctioned events and fined him 10 basic units.
On December 8, the Svislach District Court fined a member of the United Civil Party Uladzimir Prudnikau 1.5 million roubles for taking part in the commemoration of the 1863-1864 insurgents in Svislach on October 26. The trial lasted for about an hour and was led by the Chair of the Svislach District Court Aliaksandr Shylin.
On December 15, an activist of the United Civil Party Kanstantsin Dzmitryieu was fined for participation in the Day of Commemoration of the participants of the 1863-1864 Kalinouski uprising in Svislach. The Svislach District Court insisted on his presence at the trial, as a result of which Mr. Dzmitryieu had to come to the hearing from Minsk, where he is currently working, and was fined 1.5 million Belarusian roubles.
On December 16, Chairman of the Svislach District Court Aliaksandr Shylin fined Aliaksandr Vasilevich, chairman of the UCP’s Hrodna regional branch, 25 basic units.
On December 23, the Shklou District Court fined Ryhor Kastusiou, deputy chairman of the BPF party, 3.37 mln roubles for participation in the celebration of the Day of Remembrance of Kastus Kalinouski rebels in Svislach on October 26. The charges were considered by Judge Svialana Barantsava. In his speech at the court, Ryhor Kastusiou pleaded not guilty of the administrative offence, since participation in the funeral of activist Viktar Dziasiatsik, laying flowers at the monuments and candles near them, honouring the memory of the heroes could not be viewed as an offence. Ryhor Kastusiou became the twelfth person to be fined for attending the memorial events in Svislach and Yakushouka, as well as the funeral of local activist Viktar Dziasiatsik.
On December 5, Andrei Haidukou, a member of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, was released after serving a 10-day arrest. After that he was taken to the court of Navapolatsk, where he was sentenced to five more days for distributing leaflets on charges of violating Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of holding mass events). His mother could only see him for 20 minutes. He was sick: he had a cough and a sore throat. Earlier, Andrei Haidukou had been arrested on November 25 for distributing leaflets about political prisoners in Polatsk.
On December 12, Aliaksei Shubarau, was detained in Minsk’s central Kastrychnitskaya Square while staging a one-man picket with a write-red-white flag and a poster “People, we need to stop Putin urgently!” and “No to World War!” to protest against the policy of the Russian President and fomentation of World War III. Aliaksei Shubara spent the weekend before the trial at the Tsentralny District Police Department of Minsk. On December 15, the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk sentenced Aliaksei Shubarau to an arrest of seven days. Judge Natallia Vaitsekhovich found him guilty of violating Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of order of holding mass events). The charges were supported by police officers Hryzenka and Korzun who detained the activist and spoke at the trial as witnesses.
On December 12, it became known that Baranavichy police detained activist Dzmitry Paloika who had spent the past six months in Ukraine. He was detained at the railway station as soon as he got off the train from Kharkiv. He was charged with disorderly conduct, and on December 11, the Baranavichy City Court found him guilty and sentenced him to 10 days in jail. The sentence was pronounced by the Court’s Chairman Mikalai Kmit. While the activist was serving his arrest, police officers summoned and interrogated all his relatives, forbidding them to leave Baranavichy. After serving the arrest, Dzmitry Paloika said that the reason for the detention was that his name was on the list of the Donbass battalion, published on the Internet. The activist did not admit his involvement in the battalion. According to him, almost every day he was visited in the detention centre by KGB employees, including Deputy Chairman of the Baranavichy department, as well as criminal investigators. Security officers asked him about Belarusians who were in Ukraine.
On December 18, the Babruisk Court heard the charges brought against four members of the Free Trade Union of Belarus, who were earlier dismissed from the factory TDiA – Aliaksandr Varankin, Mikalai Zhybul, Aliaksandr Hramyka and Aleh Shauchenka. The activists were charged with participating in an unauthorized mass event. The case was considered by Judge Natallia Sheheda. The trial was attended by several policemen who testified as witnesses, including a police officer who had been on duty in the building of the executive committee on the day of the hunger strike, and deputy chief of the factory’s security department. The judge asked the witnesses whether they had seen the guys in the days of the hunger strike at the factory gate and in the executive committee, and they confirmed it. They said that there had been no posters, and they chanted no slogans. The activists pleaded not guilty. The only thing they admitted was that they hadn't asked for permission to hold a hunger strike. They explained to the judge that it was a gesture of despair after their dismissal. The judge read the activists’ personal profiles and saw that none of them had been prosecuted before. However, Natallia Sheheda said that the hunger strike had received wide publicity, and therefore fined them seven basic units each.
On December 20, the Court of Minsk’s Maskouski district considered the administrative charges brought against film director Volha Mikalaichyk, accused of disobeying police officers. Activist Nina Bahinskaya displayed a white-red-white flag in Nezalezhnastsi Square in memory of the events of the 2010 post-election protest. This action was filmed by Volha Mikalaichyk. When the riot police were detaining Nina Bahinskaya, Volha Mikalaichyk tried to defend her. As a result, the activist was released, while Volha herself was detained. Volha Mikalaichyk was taken to the Maskouski district police department to await trial the following morning. The case was heard by Judge Tatsiana Motyl. Later it became known that the hearing was adjourned as the offence report was reportedly lost. As a result, the police officers had to write a new one, which featured many inconsistencies. According to Ms. Mikalaichyk’s counsel, these flaws were stressed during the trial. The report argued that Volha Mikalaichyk “publicly expressed her own social and political interest by waving a white-red flag without the permission of the Minsk City Executive Committee, which violated the order of picketing”. Witnesses representing the police did not appear in court. Despite this, Judge Tatsiana Motyl ruled to sentence Volha Mikalaichyk to a fine of 2 mln roubles.
On December 22, the Court of Svetlahorsk district considered the administrative charges brought against Yury Liashenka, a wheelchair user of Homel, who tried to stage a picket in front of the executive committee on November 25, but was prevented by an ambulance car, which took him to hospital. Yury Liashenka was charged with violation of Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of holding mass events). Judge Iryna Aliseika punished the disabled activist by a fine of 300 thousand roubles. The main claim was the fact that he staged the picket at a distance closer than 50 meters to the building of the executive committee.
On December 23, Aliaksandr Akhmach was fined 10 basic units for being photographed with a poster “Russian army, go home” in the Brest Fortress on 8 September. Judge Sviataslau Kalina of the Leninski District Court said that the action was a mass event. The activist learned about this from a letter he received after he had missed the last court session. Aliaksandr Akhmach asked to postpone the trial. He later filed a motion asking to hear the case in absentia. He also pointed that under law the period of limitation for initiating administrative proceedings was two months. It expired on November 9. However, Judge Sviataslau Kalina ignored this argument and issued a fine of 1.5 million roubles. The decision said that Akhmach “pleaded not guilty and explained that he had committed these actions because he wanted to express his disagreement with the presence of military units of the Russian Federation on the territory of the Republic of Belarus. These photos of the specified inscription were taken in the memorial complex Brest Fortress against the background of war graves and military equipment because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the presence of the Brest fortress on the site of the old city of Brest, which was demolished during the construction of the fortress.”
On December 27, the Pershamaiski District Court of Vitsebsk considered the administrative case of Siarhei Kavalenka, activist of the Conservative Christian Party BPF. The Vitsebsk opposition activist spent three days before the trial in the detention centre, having declared a hunger strike. He was taken into custody on December 24 – the day when a white-red-white flag appeared in Vitsebsk. Siarhei Kavalenka was brought to the courtroom in handcuffs, which particularly angered his relatives and human rights defenders. According to the first police report, Siarhei Kavalenka was detained for disorderly conduct – he was allegedly urinating close to his house. In their other report, the police department employees wrote that he had not obeyed their orders – he had reportedly refused to follow them to the police station. The activist requested to be given time to sign a contract with a lawyer from Minsk. But Judge Andrei Preis of the Pershamaiski District Court dismissed the motion saying that Kavalenka had time to hire a lawyer while he was in the detention centre. The activist said that he had no opportunity to do this, since on the first day he was forbidden to call his wife to find out the number of the lawyer and on the second day he was told the telephone was out of order. According to the judgement, Siarhei Kavalenka was sentenced to 10 days in jail: three days for alleged disorderly conduct, and seven more – for disobedience to the police.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On December 2, Hrodna freelance journalist Andrei Mialeshka was sentenced to another fine under Article 22.9, Part 2 of the Code of Administrative offences (illegal production and distribution of information products). Judge Yury Kazakevich of the Leninski District Court of Hrodna fined the journalist six million Belarusian roubles. On October 16, Andrei Mialeshka recorded a short commentary of Valery Charapitsa, professor of the Yanka Kupala Hrodna University, at a presentation of his book at the regional library. Later the audio was posted on the website of Radio Racyja’. The Leninski district police department opened an administrative case against Mr. Mialeshka for this “violation”. This was the third penalty imposed on Andrei Mialeshka for his journalistic activities.
On December 3, the Minsk-based book-store Lohvinau was closed due to an extra-schedule inspection held by the Ministry of Dues and Taxes. The examination was conducted on request of the Ministry of Information. On December 17, it became known that the tax inspection of Minsk’s Tsentralny District came to the conclusion that the store was allegedly engaged in selling of books without a mandatory registration from the Ministry of Information. This requirement came into effect in January 2014. Since then, the book-store filed eight applications for registration to the Ministry of Information, but always received refusals for clearly frivolous reasons. The inspection came to the conclusion that the book-store, through illegal trade, had got a profit of almost 1 billion roubles; the inspection took into account the gross sales of the book-store. In September 2013, the owner, Ihar Lohvinau, was deprived of a publisher’s license by the Information Ministry for the release of the album “Belarus Press Photo 2011”, which was found extremist long after its publication. For many years, the book-store has been an important centre of Belarusian culture and a social platform, a meeting place for readers and writers. On December 29, it was announced that the trial in the case was scheduled for January 5, 2015.
On December 4, independent Belarusian media reported the arrest of Aliaksandr Alesin, a journalist of the newspaper Belarusy i Rynak. The KGB could neither confirm nor deny the information about his detention. On December 5, the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and the Belarusian Association of Journalists called upon the KGB to inform the public about the cause and place of the journalist’s detention, as well as the essence of the accusation against him. “We believe that the information about the arrest or detention of a person, the essence of the suspicions and accusations, procedural status, place of detention and other aspects that are not related to the details of the prosecution, can not violate the secrecy of the investigation, protected by law, and voicing such information does not pose a threat to the interests of national security or of public order,” said the statement. On December 8, reporters learned from Aliaksandr Alesin’s relatives that the State Security Committee charged the journalist with treason and revealing state secrets to a foreign state, a foreign organization or representative, or espionage. They noted that a foreign diplomat faced charges along with Aliaksandr Alesin, who was not the main accused in the case. On December 10, Aliaksandr Alesin was released from the KGB jail on recognizance. The journalist said he was not guilty and that he was sure that he was framed by people with whom he collaborated. He stressed that he took the information from public sources. Mr. Alesin said that the treason charges had been dropped, while the charge of cooperation with foreign intelligence services was still in place (Article 356.1 of the Criminal Code, an attempt to establish cooperation with the special services, security or intelligence agency of a foreign state). Aliaksandr Alesin neither denied nor confirmed that he was detained after meeting with a Western diplomat because he had signed a written non-disclosure obligation. It turned out that Aliaksandr Alesin had been detained back on November 26 or 27.
On December 4, the Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich said during his speech at a meeting on combating illicit trafficking in narcotic drugs and psychotropic substances that there was an urgent need to adjust the legislation related to Internet activities. In particular, in his opinion, all Belarusian Internet users must be prohibited to enjoy access to the websites put on the list of restricted access. It is known that this list includes several key independent sites, such as charter97.org, belaruspartisan.org, spring96.org, the livejournal blog of Yauhen Lipkovich and other socio-political sites. Human rights defenders welcomed the authorities’ measures to strengthen fight against drug trafficking in Belarus, but strongly opposed the fact that under this pretext the government was trying to clean up the already limited independent information space.
On February 6, police officers detained a freelance photographer, member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Uladzimir Hrydzin. He was detained along with several civil society activists, director of the Art-Siadziba cultural centre Pavel Belavus and journalist Franak Viachorka as they were handing out tapes with the Belarusian ornament outside the Kamarouski market in Minsk. Uladzimir Hrydzin was taking photos of the action. The policemen said they someone had called and reported on the action. The detainees were taken to the police department of the Savetski district, where they were forced to give explanations and were eventually released without charges.
On December 8, Judge Alena Azaranka of the Krychau District Court ruled to recover 7 million roubles from the founder of the newspaper Volny Horad Uladzimir Kudrautsau, its editor Siarhei Niarouny and journalist Mikalai Herdziy as a compensation of the moral damage, 450,000 roubles for the court fee and 3.6 million roubles for the lawyers’ services to the plaintiff, Maryna Maksimava. Volny Horad Journalists argued that the information published in the newspaper corresponded to the reality and could not damage the honour, dignity and business reputation of Maryna Maksimava. The article “In Wrong Seat?” did not insult Maryna Maksimava: the passage “she knows the ideological work no better than a well-known animal knows the species of oranges” was written just to show that she didn’t know her work well enough. The ideology division of the executive committee and the local district newspaper Krychauskaye Zhytstsio paid almost zero attention to the consequences of the collapse of the roof of the local school, though this topic was regularly covered by state-owned TV channels, the BelTA news agency, Sovetskaya Belorussiya and other state-owned newspapers.
On December 11, Judge Andrei Likhach of the Slonim District Court found journalist Ales Zaleuski guilty of violating Art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offences (illegal production and distribution of media products). Ales Zaleuski is a staff journalist of BelSat TV channel, author and host of a number of shows. The journalist was making a report about the abuse and corruption in the housing sector of Slonim. His work was soon spotted by local police, who on December 4 told him the date of the trial. Ales Zaleuski links such actions of the police to the public attention caused by his report. Mikalai Syantovich, head of the city’s utilities department, witnessed in court. He confirmed that Zaleuski talked with him, but did not say for which channel he was shooting his story. This was the second administrative case against Zaleuski during the current year. On December 16, Ales Zaleuski received a warning about the inadmissibility of violations of the law on mass media, signed by deputy prosecutor of Minsk Kazimir Kezhun. The penalty stemmed from the journalist’s coverage of the expulsion from Belarus of the prominent human rights activist Elena Tonkacheva. According to information gathered by the prosecution, Ales Zaleuski was shooting a video for BelSat, and thus violated the law. The journalist said that the Belarusian authorities forced independent journalists to work illegally, as the Poland-based channel had many times tried to obtain official accreditation in Belarus, but the Ministry of Foreign Affairs kept denying its bids.
On December 15, after the seventh refusal of accreditation as a Radio Racyja journalist from the Foreign Ministry, Hrodna freelance journalist Viktar Parfionenka filed a complaint in the Leninski District Court. The journalist had repeatedly written to the Ministry and the government, arguing that he was deprived of the right to profession.
On December 17, the House of Representatives adopted amendments to the Law “On Mass Media”. They were presented by the Information Minister Liliya Ananich. Under the amendments, the Act will apply to Internet resources, except for the requirement of registration. The Ministry of Information will be able to restrict access to websites after issuing two warnings during one year, as well as for the dissemination of prohibited information and failure of the owner of an online resource to follow the legal requirements of the state authority to eliminate violations of the law on mass media. The owner of an information resource bears the responsibility to prevent the dissemination of information, the content of which is contrary to the law. Refutation of information disseminated on the Internet should be published on the same information resource not later than the day following the day of the requirement of refutation. The refuted information should be removed from the resource. In addition, the amendments provided for limiting the proportion of foreign funds in the activities of the media – from 30 to 20 percent. The bill introduced the State Register of media distributors. According to Liliya Ananich, “the changes in the sphere of the Internet will become an effective instrument for implementing the state information policy”. The updated law comes into force on January 1, 2015. Meanwhile, back in October 2014, the Commission on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media of the House of Representatives wrote to the Belarusian Association of Journalists that “currently no adjustments are required to the legislation of Belarus in the field of freedom of expression”. Moreover, the Information Minister Liliya Ananich said that among those who had taken part in drafting the bill there were the Ministry of Information, the Belarusian Union of Journalists and the Union of Publishers and Distributors of Printed Materials. On December 18, the Council of Republic approved the draft law “On amendments and additions to the Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Mass Media”. On December 20, the amendments to the law were signed by the head of state Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
On December 17, the Biaroza District Court consideration the administrative case of a freelance independent journalist Tamara Shchapiotkina on charges of illegal manufacture of media products (Art. 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code). According to a violation report submitted by deputy chief of law enforcement of the district police department, Captain Mikalai Prakurat, the journalist, who lacked accreditation, interviewed manager of pharmacy No. 18 Aleh Kaziupa. The interview was later posted on the website of Radio Racyja. Judge Natallia Vakulchyk found Tamara Shchapiotkina guilty and sentenced her to a fine of 30 basic units.
On December 18, Ales Liauchuk, member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, received a phone call from a police officer of the Brest Leninski District Police Department. The police officer said that he wanted to question the journalist concerning the interview he had made in the city centre on November 24. He also said that Mr. Liauchuk faced administrative charges, but the offence report had just arrived at the police department. On December 24, Brest’s Leninski District Court fined Aliaksandr Liauchuk 40 basic units on charges of illegal manufacture and distribution of media products (Art. 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code). Liauchuk noted that when he was reading the case file, it was written clearly there: as it was established by the KGB that he worked for the BelSat TV channel. The court was considered a response from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which said that Liauchuk had no accreditation as a foreign journalist. The journalist showed the court a written confirmation that he was a freelance correspondent for the BelaPAN news agency and his ID, but “they were not even considered”.
On December 18, the Horki District Court continued after a long break hearing the lawsuit by head of local office of the Belarusian Society of the Disabled Tamara Kaltunova against the BelaPAN news agency and the private enterprise Uzgorak, which publishes the newspaper of the same name. Judge Viktar Yaskevich ordered to collect a total of 6 mln roubles in moral damages. The court also ordered the defendants to pay the legal costs incurred by Tamara Kaltunova in the amount of 780 thousand roubles.
Starting from December 19, several information Internet resources were blocked for unknown reasons. In particular, without explanation access was limited to the websites belapan.com, belapan.by, naviny.by, belaruspartisan.org, charter97.org, udf.by, 21.by, gazetaby.com, and zautra.by. On December 21, the Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a statement saying that the blocking of a number of socio-political sites, for which no one claimed responsibility, was lawlessness. “There are no legal grounds to restrict access of Belarusian citizens to information about events in the country. Such actions on the eve of the forthcoming presidential elections in fact deprive electoral campaigns of any sense, because de facto the state of emergency was imposed on information in the country. This totally breaks all international obligations of Belarus in the sphere of free media, and contradicts to the earlier voiced intentions of the authorities to improve relations with the West. It is obvious that the attacks on independent media cause even higher disbelief in what Belarusian official sources claim. This can only worsen the situation, including the economic conditions. Lack of alternative, professionally prepared information will foster most unbelievable rumours about the real situation in the country,” said the statement. The Belarusian Association of Journalists called upon the Ministry of Information, the Operative Analytical Centre under the auspices of the President of Belarus, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and all bodies possibly involved in the unlawful blocking to: “take urgent measures to restore access to the mentioned websites; hold an inquiry into the unlawful blocking of access to the mentioned websites in the territory of Belarus; identify persons responsible for the violations of law and hold them accountable according to legislation of Belarus.”
On December 20, at the request of the Ministry of Trade, onliner.by domain was deleted from the register of the national domain zone. “In connection with violations by the owners of the online resource onliner.by of the legislation on trade, including regulations on the sale of goods (works, services) with the use of the Internet, which were identified by the Ministry of Trade, and missed deadlines to take measures to address them, on December 20, 2014, it was decided to delete the corresponding domain name from the registry of the national domain zone,” said a report of the Operational and Analytical Centre under the President of Belarus. The day before, the Ministry of Trade reported that it would close online stores for displaying prices in conditional currency units, instead of roubles. The Ministry had repeatedly accused the portal of various violations. In particular, in November, the online shop aggregator was subjected to administrative responsibility as a result of an inspection of a number of stores hosted by onliner.by. The website is the largest trading floor in Belarus. It provides hosting to firms and entrepreneurs that sell gadgets and household appliances. The portal is among the five most popular sites in Belarus.
On December 22, official letters signed by the chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists Zhanna Litvina were sent to the Prosecutor General of Belarus, Department for Crimes in the Sphere of High Technologies of the Interior Ministry (department K) and the Operational and Analytical Centre of the Presidential Administration. The NGO noted that the information resources belapan.com, belapan.by and naviny.by were owned by BelaPAN Ltd., which was officially registered in the Republic of Belarus as a news agency. It had received no warnings about violations of the legislation. “Limiting access to the websites of the news agency violates, besides the right to impart information, the commercial interests of BelaPAN Ltd., as well as the interests of its subscribers (subscription to information, analytical and multimedia materials provided by BelaPAN is performed on a fee basis). The organization recalled that, according to Art. 7 of the Law “On Mass Media”, unlawful restriction of media freedom entails responsibility in accordance with Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code (“violation of the law on media”) and Art. 198 of the Criminal Code (“impeding the legitimate professional activities of a journalist”). “In addition, the actions of persons who illegally restricted access to websites on the territory of Belarus can be viewed as evidence of a crime provided for in Chapter 31 of the Criminal Code (“crimes against information security”) and Art. 232 of the Criminal Code (“obstruction of a legitimate business”). In this regard, the BAJ called upon the agencies to urgently fix a violation of the rights and legitimate interests of citizens and organizations affected by the restrictions on access to the above websites, to inspect their illegal blocking, to identify those responsible for violations of the law and to bring them to the liability provided by the law.
On December 22, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Dunja Mijatović said that amendments tightening government control of the Internet in Belarus posed a major threat to free speech and free media. She also pointed to recent blocking of a number of news portals in the country. “These amendments are based on vaguely formulated legal provisions and give the state the vast right to interfere with any information posted on the Internet,” Mijatović wrote in a letter to the authorities in Belarus on December 18. “They also impose quasi-censorship functions on disseminators of information,” she said. “The Internet should remain a free space for citizens to exchange information and express critical views,” Mijatović said. “The wide interpretation of these new amendments will result in excessive control of online content by the authorities.” The Representative also noted that a number of independent online news platforms, including Charter97.org, Naviny.by, Belaruspartisan.org, as well as the website of BelaPAN information agency have been intermittently blocked since December 19.
On December 24, it became known that the United Nations Human Rights Committee had considered the case of an activist of the Movement “For Freedom” Vital Symonik and found a violation of his right to disseminate information (Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). In July 2006, Vital Symonik, together with activist Andrei Sharenda, was handing out leaflets with an invitation to the meeting on July 27, the anniversary of the proclamation of independence of Belarus. As a result, they were detained. The leaflets were confiscated and the activists were brought to administrative responsibility for disseminating information about a banned rally. The meeting was initially allowed by the authorities. However, after the announcement that the rally would be attended by Aliaksandr Milinkevich, the mass event was banned. The formal reason for the ban of the rally was the dissemination of information about a mass event before obtaining permission from the local authorities.
On December 24, the Plutos-Market printing house refused to print the latest issue of the newspaper Svobodnye Novosti Plus, providing no explanations to the periodical’s editorial office. Later, deputy director of the private printing firm Ihar Vishneuski explained the refusal by an equipment failure. Svobodnye Novosti Plus is one of the most popular independent political newspapers of Belarus. Its circulation exceeds 31 thousand copies.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On December 1, human rights activist Siarhei Housha received from the Baranavichy city executive committee an answer to his appeal, signed by the committee’s deputy chairman Dzmitry Kastsiukevich, which said that by the end of 2014 ruling No. 1497 of June 16, 2009 “On the order of conducting events in Baranavichy” would be brought into line with the Council of Ministers’ decree of March 5, 2012. The assignment was given to the Baranavichy city executive committee by the Brest regional executive committee. The Baranavichy city executive committee unreasonably forced citizens to enter into contracts with the police before holding mass events. However, according to the Council of Ministers, the executive committee within a day after the registration of an application for a mass event should send a copy of the application to the police, which was not done in Baranavichy.
On December 4, Deputy Chair for ideology of the Salihorsk District Executive Committee, Mikalai Maskevich, turned down an application of the local representatives of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee for holding a picket on the occasion of the Human Rights Day on the central square of the town. The official explained the ban by the alleged unsuitability of the chosen site for holding the event (the “suitable” places are determined by the ruling of the Salihorsk DEC “On measures to prevent incidents during mass events”, adopted on October 7, 2004). The official website of the Executive Committee does not have the text of this, while Mikalai Maskevich refused to provide a copy of the document. On December 26, the Prosecutor’s Office of Salihorsk district did not respond to a ban imposed by the district executive committee and the absurd actions of an ideology official who classified the decision as a state secret. An appeal filed by Leanid Markhotka was dismissed without consideration by the District Prosecutor Aleh Adzei. On December 30, the human rights activist sent to the court of Salihorsk district an appeal against the ban. In his complaint, the human rights activist said that the reason for the ban was a decision of the Salihorsk district executive committee, the text of which, for unknown reasons, was still a secret.
On December 5, the Baranavichy City Executive Committee banned a picket dedicated to the 66th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, organized by human rights activists Viachaslau Bolbat and Siarhei Housha. This followed from a letter by deputy head of the Baranavichy CEC Dzmitry Kastsiukevich. The activists had filed a timely application and attached the contracts for serving the event by the city polyclinic and the public utilities. According to ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers of March 5, 2012, the executive committee should file a copy of the application to the law-enforcement agencies. The applicants followed all the requirements of the law and expressed their intention to challenge in court the decision of the executive committee.
On December 5, deputy chairman of the Biaroza district executive committee Yauhen Tarasiuk told local human rights activists Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina that amended ruling No. 138 “On the order of conducting mass events” of 2010, according to the Council of Ministers’ Decree No. 207 of 2012, had not passed legal expertise in the Chief Directorate of Justice of the Brest Regional Executive Committee. According to the response of the official, the legal sector of the administration and the department for ideology, culture and youth affairs of the district executive committee would have to draft a new edition of the ruling to amend the present one. After passing a legal examination, the ruling will be published in the media. The meaning of this change is that on the first day after the receipt of an application for holding a mass event the executive committee should contact the police to address issues related to the protection of public order during the rally. Such a requirement is enshrined in the Council of Ministers’ regulation, and this means that it is not the applicants but the executive committee itself who should approach the police and sign a contract for protecting public order during the mass event.
On December 7, it became known that Brest authorities had allowed a two-hour event expected to mark the 66th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The resolution was signed by Deputy Mayor Henadz Barysiuk. On December 10, the rally was held in the authorized place. The main purpose of the event was to draw public attention to the existence of political prisoners in Belarus. Participants of the rally were holding photos of Mikalai Statkevich, Ihar Alinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Eduard Lobau and Mikalai Dziadok. The picket failed to gather many people. The site of the rally was watched by police officers and persons in plain clothes. At the end of the event, there appeared a representative of the executive committee, who said that there were no political prisoners in Belarus and accused the protesters of using unregistered symbols. However, receiving clarification from the picketers that it were not symbols, but the name of the civil initiative, the official had no more claims and the event ended without incidents. It was the only authorized mass event in the country held on the International Human Rights Day.
On December 8, Homel human rights defenders Anatol Paplauny and Leanid Sudalenka, together with civil society activist Halina Bialova, received an answer from Homel City Executive Committee regarding their application for holding a procession on Human Rights Day, December 10. One of the expected aims of the event was drawing public attention to the problem of political prisoners in Belarus. The formal reasons for the ban were a failure of the applicants to enter into service agreements with the ambulance and public utilities, as well as the location of administrative buildings not far from the scheduled route of the procession. According to the ruling of the Homel City Executive Committee “On Mass Events”, applicants for pickets, rallies and processions should pay for the services of the ambulance and public utilities. The authorities authorized just two sites for holding such events, both of which are located on the outskirts of the city. Meanwhile, doctors refuse to serve such events citing a lack of free cars or the absence of a permit from the city executive committee (which, in its turn, claims it can authorize an event only if its organizers submit a service contract with the ambulance). Therefore, local authorities haven’t authorized a single event organized by local pro-democratic community over the last ten years. Appealing such bans at court yields no results.
On December 10, Vitsebsk authorities banned three one-minute pickets in different parts of the city. Three applications were filed in the district executive committees of Vitsebsk by local human rights activist Pavel Levinau. However, he received predictable bans. This was not the first time when the human rights activist was trying to show the absurdity of the bans on mass events, issued by the local authorities with reference to the deficient ruling of the Vitsebsk City Executive Committee “On Mass Events in the City of Vitsebsk”. According to this document, the organizers of a picket should submit service contracts with the ambulance, police and public utilities along with the application for the picket. These institutions refuse to enter into such contracts, that’s why the events are always banned. Pavel Levinau chose his own tactics of struggle in this situation: by his applications he drives the situation with the bans to extreme absurdity.
On December 10, Vitsebsk human rights activist Pavel Levinau received a reply from the administration of the Chyhunachny district. Earlier, he had informed the executive committee about his intention to take a series of photos near a building with graffiti, a picture of three cells from which newspaper birds are breaking free. He especially emphasized in his appeal that his only goal was to take photos, not to express any political or other views. However, Pavel Levinau was prohibited to take photographs, citing a decision of the executive committee regulating the organization and conduct of mass events in the city. The petition stemmed from an incident with several journalists and activists who had been fined for allegedly holding an unsanctioned rally after their photos outside the building appeared on the Internet.
On December 15, Uladzimir Siakerka, Chairman of the Homel regional office of the Belarusian Party of the Left “Fair World”, filed an appeal with the Tsentralny District Court of Homel against the actions of the duty officials of the city ambulance station and the central polyclinic. In his lawsuit, Mr. Siakerka said that on December 2 the Homel City Executive Committee didn’t authorize his picket, referring to the failure of the organizer to enter into a service contract with the ambulance station and the central polyclinic. Uladzimir Siarkerka argued that while preparing for the mass event its organizers took all necessary steps to enter into a service contract with the medics. The ambulance station responded that “due to the growing burden on the ambulance station, which is associated with an increase in the respirator viral infections, we are unable to sign a contract with you”. At the request of the Ministry of Health Care, the central polyclinic considered a complaint concerning its own inaction and found it legitimate. Uladzimir Siakerka asked the court to recognize the actions of the ambulance station and the central clinic unlawful. The Fair World Homel leader also wrote to the Ministry of Health Care and the Homel Health Care Department. He asked the ministry to raise the question of the need to adopt government regulations that would regulate the organization of interaction of health care institutions and organizers of public events concerning their services during mass events. Uladzimir Siarkerka stressed the fact that the party’s repeated attempts to sign contracts with medical institutions brought no results as they continued receiving denials for far-fetched reasons.
On December 23, the Court of Svetlahorsk district considered the administrative charges brought against Yury Liashenka, a wheelchair user of Homel, who had tried to stage a picket in front of the executive committee on November 25, but was prevented by an ambulance car, which took him to hospital. The civil society activist was going to campaign for the rights of people with disabilities. The executive committee banned the event. The ban referred to the fact that the central square of the city was not a place authorized for public events. According to the relevant ruling of the executive committee, pickets and rallies are only allowed on the stage of a local recreation park. In reality, the park is neglected and there is no stage there at all. The Judge also voiced doubts about the existence of the stage: he advised the representative of the executive committee to deal with this issue. The trial was expected to be resumed after January 10, 2015. On the same day, Yury Liashenka petitioned the Minister of Health Care asking to punish the doctors who had detained him during the unauthorized picket on November 25. As a result, he was taken to hospital where he received an injection, allegedly due to high pressure. The activist believes that the health care workers were involved in the political persecution of citizens. “Please submit at my disposal a full medical report on the state of my health on November 25, 2014, including answers to the questions why, what injection and on what basis was made to me in the emergency room of the hospital,” writes the activist in his complaint to the Minister of Health Care.
Restrictions on freedom of association
On December 4, the Mikashevichy-based Granite industrial enterprise refused to extend the employment contract with driver Uladzimir Kryvau, alleging a violation of labour safety, which happened in the spring. Aleh Stakhayevich, local leader of the Belarusian independent trade union, said that the dismissal was linked to formal reasons, since Mr. Kryvau was accused of wearing no coat when coming to his superior’s office at the end of the work shift. For this violation, the driver received a reprimand and then came the order of the company’s head manager Eduard Haurylkovich, which later became a cause for dismissal. Uladzimir Kryvau worked at Granite for twenty years and during that time there hadn't been any serious penalties from the administration of the enterprise. Therefore, Aleh Stakhayevich believes that in this way the management of Granite took revenge on all who three years ago were involved in the creation of the independent trade union’s office at the company (Kryvau was among the activists). Since then, citing various reasons, the employer has dismissed a dozen workers who wanted to launch a trade union movement in Mikashevichy.