Situation of Human Rights in Belarus. February 2015.
February was marked by a negative trend in the field of human rights. Political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok was sentenced to an additional year in prison on charges of resisting the correctional institution administration. The verdict came just a few days before his expected release. There was a threat of a criminal case for allegedly evading punishment for political prisoner Yuriy Rubtsou. Other political prisoners continued to be subjected to various methods of pressure and constraints: punishment cell, imposition of penalties, which can further be used as a ground for criminal charges, extending of imprisonment or denying parole.
Alena Tankachova, human rights activist, director of the Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend, was forced to leave the country, after law enforcement authorities decided to expel her for three years. All attempts to appeal the decision were not a success.
The authorities continued using arbitrary detentions against representatives of various social groups in order to suppress their activity. The trials that followed were extremely biased performing a political order from the executive branch, and politically motivated decisions once again demonstrated a clear lack of judicial independence in the country.
There was ongoing harassment of journalists in the administrative procedure for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation, as well as detentions while performing their professional activities. New restrictions included control over press photographers when photographing government buildings. According an order of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, law enforcement employees were instructed to carry out “personal search, interrogation and identity check, as well as fingerprinting and photographic and video recording”. The new “Regulations on the restriction of access to information resources (their components) located on the Internet” was another step aimed at limiting the freedom of information. Of particular concern is the possibility of blocking information resources by the authorities in the extrajudicial procedure and a lengthy procedure of unblocking the websites.
In February, the authorities did not allow a single of the scheduled peaceful assemblies, and the ability of expression through public protests remained extremely restricted. Given that holding unauthorized mass events in most cases ends in an arrest or a fine, the applicants refrained from using this form of drawing public attention to the events of social significance.
The deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus failed to receive an adequate reaction from the European Union and the United States and was accompanied by an increase in the intensity of their contacts with the Belarusian official side. February was marked by a real diplomatic breakthrough for Belarus: the country was visited by an unprecedented number of senior Western leaders and officials. As part of the negotiations on the situation in Ukraine, Minsk hosted a meeting of the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko. Despite the fact that Belarus only served as a negotiating platform, the Belarusian authorities received apparent international dividend. The same month, Minsk was visited by Andrea Rigoni, rapporteur on Belarus of the PACE Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy, Helga Maria Schmid, Deputy Secretary General of the European External Action Service, Sandra Kalniete, Deputy Chairperson of the Group of the European People's Party in the European Parliament, and Eric Rubin, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. Despite the fact that the rhetoric of the Western officials and diplomats traditionally touched upon the topic of the release of political prisoners, it was evident that the general trend focused on an intensive dialogue with the Belarusian authorities. Most precisely this position was expressed by Eric Rubin: “Despite the fact that our differences on such issues as the human rights situation in Belarus and the existence of political prisoners may continue, we can strive to make progress on other issues of common interest (...) We believe that the development of relations between the United States and Belarus, support for the independence and sovereignty of Belarus, support for economic growth, trade, creating new jobs do not conflict with those areas where we have differences”. Thus, there was a clear departure of the EU and the US from a value-based approach in their relations with the Belarusian authorities. One can say that the official Minsk restored a dialogue on its own condition, which is based on a pragmatic relationship. This is a very serious challenge, because in recent years the international factor has been one of the most powerful and influential instruments of influence in the field of human rights with the lowest possible level of impact on the subjects of this area in the country.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
In February, the situation of political prisoners further deteriorated: they encountered all sorts of restrictions, penalties and punishment, including solitary confinement and other forms of pressure. The most blatant form of persecution is the extension of imprisonment as a result of a new criminal case. This mechanism was used against political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, who was expected to be released on March 3 after serving 4 years and 6 months of imprisonment. However, in November 2014, three months before the expiration of the term, Mikalai Dziadok faced new criminal charges under Article 411 of the Criminal Code, “willful disobedience to the correctional institution administration”. The investigation lasted for two months and then the case was returned to the prosecutor for another month. The trial took place on 25 and 26 February in prison No. 4 in Mahiliou. Mikalai Dziadok was charged with sixteen violations, the main being wearing a tracksuit instead of prison uniform. The hearing was attended by his father Aliaksandr and his wife Valeryia Hotsina. Mikalai admitted some accusations, however saying that it were the prison conditions that forced inmates to violate the rules. For example, if it is hot in the cell, one cannot always be wearing a prison uniform – the prisoners have to take it off and wear a T-shirt instead. As a result, the court sentenced Mikalai Dziadok to an additional year of imprisonment in a penal colony (this is the maximum term under this article). He will also have to serve three more days from the initial term. Human rights defenders regarded the verdict as a politically motivated decision, focusing on the fact that the presence of Art. 411 in the Criminal Code is inadmissible, as it allows prison authorities to use it selectively in respect of disloyal prisoners.
In February, another political prisoner Yury Rubtsou was under the threat of a new criminal case, while serving a sentence in special settlement No. 7 in the village of Kuplin, Pruzhany district. On February 9, he was taken to the District Investigative Committee for questioning in connection with a conflict with the head of the correctional facility, after he refused to give explanations. On February 1, Yury Rubtsou received a warning under Art. 415 of the Criminal Code for evading punishment, and thud faced a new criminal case. The charges stemmed from the political prisoner’s refusal to work due to poor salaries. Yury Rubtsou on several occasions declared that he did not refuse to work, but required a salary corresponding to the average amount in Belarus. In its annual report, which was released in late February Amnesty International, noted that the prosecution of Yury Rubtsou was linked to violations of freedom of assembly in Belarus.
In early February, it was reported that political prisoner Ihar Alinevich was again placed in a punishment cell for 10 days. This was the fifth penalty over the past six months he spent in prison, where he was transferred in September 2014 after a colony in Navapolatsk was closed. All the penalties referred to a refusal to do cleaning. According to the political prisoner’s mother, Valiantsina Alinevich, her son also faced restrictions in correspondence and telephone calls. During a short meeting with his family, which took place in late February, Ihar Alinevich said that he did not receive all letters and newspapers. He also said that was transferred to another unit, which held former officials, prosecutors, police officers and judges.
Political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich could not be employed in the Shklou colony, though he had tried to find a job. The administration said that the inmate might receive injuries if employed in prison. It was reported by Mikalai Statkevich’s wife Maryna Adamovich who talked to the political prisoner on the phone in late January. He also said that after he had rejoined the rest of the prisoners after quarantine. The political prisoner said there were certain improvements of the building where he was held, saying that was nutrition had also improved. At the same time, he started having problems with receiving newspapers, as he said that he did not receive all the publications to which he had been subscribed.
In early February, political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich, who was transferred from prison to colony No. 15 in Mahiliou in late 2014, was allowed for the first time during four years of imprisonment to have a 24-hour meeting with his mother. According to Rushaniya Vaskovich, her son looked thinner, diligently doing his job (sewing jackets) and hopes for an early release. After the meeting, the political prisoner was not allowed to take legal literature, including the Criminal and Criminal Procedure Codes. Prison officials failed to explain the reasons for the ban. On February 26, Yauhen Vaskovich turned 25, four years of which he has spent in prison.
The death penalty
In February, the families of several death convicts continued their attempts to force authorized state bodies to initiate changes in legislation and practice in order to receive information about the burial place of their executed relatives and to be allowed to receive their bodies for burial.
Volha Hrunova, the mother of Aliaksandr Hrunou, who was executed on murder charges in April 2014, received a reply from the Presidential Administration signed by head of the main department for work with appeals of citizens and legal entities Stanislau Buko. The official refused to initiate before the Constitutional Court the question of changing the legislation prohibiting relatives of death convicts to receive the body for burial. “The limitation, which is established by Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code, is dictated by the need to ensure public order and the protection of morals, because the information about the burial place of a convicted person may provoke negative behavior on the part of relatives and friends of the victims of a crime, as well as lead to other excesses,” said the Presidential Administration representative. A similar reply was issued by the Council of Ministers. “Please be informed that the Presidium of the Council of Ministers decided to dismiss your request for a proposal to the Constitutional Court on the audit of Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code for compliance with the Constitution,” wrote head of the department for work with citizens and legal entities of the Council of Ministers, L. Astrouskaya.
Volha Hrunova could not achieve a solution to the painful question through the court system. In early February, Judicial board on civil cases of the Homel Regional Court refused to verify her claims, upholding the verdict of the Tsentralny District Court of Homel, which refused to institute civil proceedings against the Homel Regional Court and the Department of Corrections, who refused to disclose the burial place of her son Aliaksandr Hrunou. Volha Hrunova filed a supervisory appeal to the Chairman of the Homel Regional Court Siarhei Shautsou and simultaneously submitted a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Volha Hrunova asked the Committee to establish the fact of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment by the state, and to recommend to the Government of Belarus to bring national legislation and practice in this part in accordance with the international obligations of the country.
In February, a similar attempt to initiate a change in the law on extraditing the bodies of executed prisoners and receiving information about the place of their burial was launched by Tamara Sialiun, mother of Pavel Sialiun, who was executed in the spring of 2014. She sent to the Leninski District Court of Hrodna a complaint against the Hrodna Regional Court and the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The woman said in her complaint that the Hrodna Regional Court referred to Article 175 of the Criminal Executive Code to refuse to disclose the burial site and hand over the body for burial.
Torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
In February, it was reported that a forensic expert commission once again refused to assume that Aliaksandr Akulich, who died while serving an arrest in Svetlahorsk in May 2012, could inflict himself numerous bodily injures, which were registered during the examination of the corpse. This is stated in the conclusions on the results of a new examination carried out at the insistence of his mother, who argued that her son died as a result of an inhuman treatment by police officers Bachko and Stseshankou. In its new conclusion of 16 January 2015, the department of complex forensic examinations refuted the findings of earlier probes: “Given the nature of all bodily injuries, which were registered on the corpse of A. Akulich, their localization in various anatomic areas of the body, their formation from a single fall from a standing position, with a collision with a flat surface is impossible”. The victim’s mother said that she would continue seeking punishment for the police officers, who, in her opinion, were responsible for the death of her son.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On February 21, human rights activist Alena Tankachova, director of the Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend, was forced to leave Belarus. The previous day, the panel of judges on civil cases of the Minsk City Court rejected her cassation appeal against the decision on expulsion. The decision to expel the human rights defenders stemmed from several minor traffic violations. It was taken on November 5 by the Pershamaiski district police department of Minsk. A Russian national, Alena Tankachova has lived in Belarus for about 30 years. For 20 years, she has headed the Center for Legal Transformation, which provides professional legal and expert support to non-profit organizations in Belarus, as well as in situations of human rights violations. Belarusian human rights activists regarded the expulsion of their colleague as persecution for her principled stance in assessing the human rights situation in the country.
Arbitrary detention and administrative prosecution for political reasons
The practice of arbitrary detention did not stop in February. There was ongoing persecution of representatives of the country’s anarchist movement. Arbitrary detention was used against entrepreneurs and civil society activists. Charge of disorderly conduct and resisting police officers were still applied to isolate members of certain social groups, in some cases in combination in order to increase the sentence. The courts in all cases were uncritical to the testimony of police officers who detained the activists, accepting it as a basis for convictions. It is obvious that in such cases the judges were guided by political orders, legitimating abuses by law enforcement agencies.
A striking example of a trumped-up case was the situation with former political prisoner, an activist of the anarchist movement Aliaksandr Frantskevich. On February 2, he was visited by police officers at his working place. Aliaksandr’s employer asked him to come downstairs to be detained by people in civilian clothes. The activist was taken to the police department of the Savetski district of Minsk, where he faced two charges: Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct) and Art. 23.4 (disobedience to the lawful demands of an official). The following day, the Savetski District Court hosted a trial where police officers Siniak and Palavinkin said that Frantskevich behaved suspiciously, walking back and forth, twitching nervously, and this attracted their attention. Both witnesses said that they allegedly showed their IDs, then Frantskevich started running away. When he was caught, they once again showed their IDs, and he, in turn, began swearing. After that, he was allegedly warned about the use of physical force, put in a police car and taken to the police department of the Savetski district. Despite the obvious false testimony of the police officers, Judge Artsiom Biaskishki found Aliaksandr Frantskevich guilty and sentenced him to 25 days in jail. The purpose of isolating the activist became apparent during his stay in jail when he was visited by investigators from the police department of the Leninski district, who were trying to find participants in a protest against the illegal actions of the police held in January. On the same day, another representative of the anarchist movement was convicted on similar charges by Judge Kiryl Palulekh of the Savetski District Court. She was also detained in her workplace, but during a trial that followed police officers Yanouski and Biziukou claimed that when walking down the street they allegedly heard a noise and foul language in the house with doors and windows closed, and that was the reason for the detention and brining the administrative charges.
Siarhei Shtoda, owner of a trucking company, was subjected to arbitrary preventive detention to stop his activity in promoting the interests of carriers and to prevent possible protests. On February 3, Siarhei Shtoda was going to meet with Deputy Prime Minister Vasil Matsiusheuski, and in case no agreement was achieved to lift the penalties imposed on carriers for alleged violations of transportation rules, on February 4 he promised to stage a protest with participation of thousands of affected businessmen. After his visit to the Council of Ministers, the businessman was unavailable on the phone, and later it became known that Siarhei Shtoda was detained by riot police after leaving the government building, taken to the police department, where he faced administrative charges under Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct). The court sentenced him to an arrest of 15 days. After serving his sentence, Siarhei Shtoda said that the authorities did not rule out that the protest could happen and prepared several vacant cells at the city’s detention center. According to Shtoda, the protest of carriers did not take place precisely because of his arrest.
On February 19, Kanstantsin Zhukouski, an opposition activist in Homel, went to the city executive committee to file a complaint. On entering the building, there was a dispute with a security guard, who called the police. As a result, the activist was brought to court, where he was arrested for 10 days for alleged using foul language (Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code). For more than 24 hours, neither his relatives nor friends or colleagues knew about his whereabouts. It was only in the evening of February 20 that Zhukouski’s wife received a phone call from an unknown woman, who said that he was arrested and placed in the detention center. In protest against the conviction, the activist declared a hunger strike.
On February 20, four members of the Alternatyva opposition initiative were detained by police in the center of Minsk. The incident occurred at about 12 p.m. near Yakub Kolas Square, as the activists were pasting posters to mark the International Mother Tongue Day. Later the same day, the Court of the Savetski district fined each of them 50 basic units.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
In February, the sphere of freedom of speech retained problems and restrictions registered in the previous months, as well as several new trends.
In particular, on February 25, Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Mikalai Melchanka issued an order allowing law enforcement employees to “locate, detain and bring to the department of internal affairs persons involved in photographing and video recording of government buildings, including those in charge of law enforcement, as well as other critical facilities” and to “to carry out personal search, interrogation and identity check, as well as fingerprinting and photographic and video recording”. The document came after an incident in Loyeu on February 23, when police officers detained a Russian researcher Alexey Kolesnichenko for photographing buildings, among which there were several government agencies. He was later sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest. According to experts, the order is illegal, as it calls for ordinary employees to commit official misconduct, in particular illegal detention. The first journalist who experienced the effect of the new restrictive order was Dzmitry Lasko, a press photographer of the Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belorussiyi weekly, who was detained for four hours for taking pictures of the main building of the Academy of Sciences. This happened on February 26. Later, the press service of the Ministry of Interior explained that law enforcement officers have a right to know about the purpose of photographing government buildings, but there was no ban on taking photos. However, the practice of detentions was not stopped.
On February 26, the operational and analytical center of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of Communications in consultation with the Ministry of Information announced entry into force of “Regulations on the restriction of access to information resources (their components) located on the Internet”. According to the document, after officials decide to block access to a website, the Ministry of Information shall within three days notify the State Inspectorate for Telecommunications and the owner of the Internet resource, if it is located in the national segment of the Internet. If officials find out that anonymizers and such software as Tor are used for accessing the blocked websites, they will add identifiers of these websites to the list of restricted access. The website owner has the right to apply to the Ministry of Information to regain access to their resource. Officials may consider the decision within a month. In case of a positive result, they have three days to send it to the State Inspectorate for Telecommunications and the owner of the resource, and providers should restore access to the resource within a day. Media experts stress that this obviously repressive mechanism does not correspond to the principle of freedom of expression, besides it is delegated to the authorities, which have never showed respect for these basic principles. It is essential that blocking access to websites is enforced within three days or even 24 hours, while restoring access may take up to a month.
In February, the authorities continued harassment of journalists for their cooperation with foreign media without accreditation. On February 25, Alina Litvinchuk, a freelance journalist in Brest, learned that she had been found guilty of violating Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products) and fined 40 basic units. The verdict was handed down by Judge Aliaksandr Semianchuk of the Leninski District Court of Brest. According to the court ruling, on January 8, Alina Litvinchuk worked without accreditation when interviewing chairman of the Brest Regional Branch of the Belarusian Peace Foundation Lidzyia Ramaniuk for the Belarusian Radio Racyja. According to Alina Litvinchuk, she was not notified about the administrative offense report or the trial. It was the second trial the journalist stood since the beginning of the year. On February 27, the same judge returned for revision to the Department of Internal Affairs of Brest’s Leninski district the case of freelance journalist Tamara Shchapiotkina of Biaroza. Tamara Shchapiotkina was also accused of illicit manufacture of media products (Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code) for an interview with a road police officer, which was posted on the website of Radio Racyja.
Systemic problems in the field of freedom of speech in Belarus and lack of political will to solve them were reflected in the rating of the international organization Reporters without Borders. Belarus was 157th in the list. The Press Freedom Index is published annually and measures the level of freedom of information in 180 countries on a variety of criteria, including media pluralism and independence, respect for the safety and freedom of journalists, the state of legislative, institutional and infrastructural environment in which journalists work.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
In February, the authorities continued the practice of restricting freedom of peaceful assembly and the prohibition of mass events. In particular, the Baranavichy city executive committee banned a picket against corruption and high utility prices. Deputy Mayor Dzmitry Kastiukevich said that the applicant – Mikalai Charnavus – had indicated a wrong venue of the picket, which violated a new decision of the executive committee. However, at the time of submission of the application, the regulation had not yet been officially published. After getting acquainted with the new rules, which regulate public gatherings in Baranavichy, it became clear that the new authorized location is even more distant than the previous one: a completely unsatisfactory territory of an old park in Mickiewicz Street, with nearly no pedestrians and a construction underway.
The Polatsk authorities banned a picket scheduled for February 12 by employees of the Polatsk-Shklovalakno enterprise who were going to campaign for the suspension of President’s Decree No. 5. The reason for the ban was that the organizers did not attach agreements with doctors, police and officials providing public utilities. Mikalai Sharakh, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Free Trade Union’s office at the company, said that the law on mass events requires that the organizers negotiated paying for the services financed from the state budget, but this argument was not accepted by the city authorities.
The absence of contracts with state agencies is the most common ground for imposing bans on peaceful assembly. In many cases, it is virtually impossible to receive them. For example, three pickets were banned in Vitsebsk, after local members of the CCP BPF failed to submit the agreements. The organizers were going to highlight problems associated with Belarus’ membership in the Eurasian Economic Union. In addition to applications for pickets sent to three districts of the city, they filed their copies to the Director General of the Vitsebsk city housing and communal services, the Department of Internal Affairs of the Vitsebsk Regional Executive Committee and the health care facility “Vitsebsk city center clinic”. As a result, none of the agencies agreed to sign the contracts, except for public utilities. Based on the absence of the necessary agreements, the district authorities banned the events.
In February, local authorities of a number of regions across Belarus adopted new decisions regulating the procedure of holding mass events, most of which included new venues for public gatherings. In most instances, the new places became even more unfavorable for attracting the attention of the public and the relevant public authorities to the problems usually raised by the organizers of mass events. For example, Svetlahorsk officials defined a new location – the “right stand of the Bumazhnik stadium” owned by sports school No. 2. The authorities received an additional reason to ban protests – sports events.