Situation of human rights: April 2015
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Situation of human rights. April 2015.
- Despite ongoing intensification of contacts between the Foreign Ministry of Belarus and the EU and the United States, there were no positive changes in the field of human rights in the country in April;
- Prosecution of political prisoner Yury Rubtsou, denial of clemency to political prisoner Artsiom Prakapenka, the forthcoming trial of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich and the extension by one year of the initial sentence of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok are the most recent evidence of the deterioration of the situation of political prisoners and the authorities’ unwillingness to release them;
- The authorities still used the practice of administrative prosecution against freelance journalists for working with foreign media without accreditation, with eight cases documented during the month;
- In some regions of Belarus, there were cases of pressure and intimidation of human rights defenders. In particular, police raided and seized equipment in the office of human rights defenders in Mahilioŭ; there was another attempt to close the Mahilioŭ Human Rights Center; a search was conducted in the private apartment of human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka in Homieĺ;
- Despite the fact that on April 26 the Minsk city executive committee allowed the traditional opposition protest Čarnobyĺski šliach (“Chernobyl Way”), local authorities across the country continued to ban street protests;
- Mothers of executed prisoners Pavel Sialyiun and Andrei Hrunou were not allowed to receive information about the places of their burial, as government officials continued to ignore the views of the UN Human Rights Committee urging them to change procedures for the enforcement of the death penalty in order to allow the families of executed prisoners to receive their bodies for burial and to have access to information about the place of burial;
- On April 2, President Lukashenka signed Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social dependency”, which provides for compulsory labor for unemployed persons under the threat of paying a special fee to the state budget or administrative liability in the form of a fine or administrative arrest;
2. Political prisoners, prosecution of civil society and political activists
April was marked by a continued downward trend in the situation with political prisoners.
Of great concern is the situation related to Mikalai Statkevich, who is serving a 6-year term in prison. He was deprived of receiving a food parcel and banned to be visited by his relatives. On April 1, he was placed for two months in cell-type premises. As it became known, on May 4 Mikalai Statkevich is expected to stand trial, which may decide to send him back to prison until the end of the period of imprisonment.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” and the Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend issued an appeal in this regard, calling on representatives of intergovernmental organizations to visit Mikalai Statkevich and to monitor the forthcoming hearing. The appeal was sent to the missions of the United Nations and the European Union.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” learned about the new criminal charges brought on March 18 against Yury Rubtsou, who is serving a sentence of restriction of liberty in the village of Kuplin, Brest region. He was accused under Art. 415 of the Criminal Code (evasion of serving punishment of restraint of liberty) and was taken into custody on April 6. The charges stem from the prisoner’s refusal to work.
Yury Rubtsou is currently being held in the detention center of the city of Baranavičy and has already been allowed to study the case file. The date of the trial has not yet been appointed.
On April 17, political prisoners Artsiom Prakapenka phoned his relatives to say that his request for pardon had been rejected by a special commission. The decision mentioned no explanation. The document was not given to the prisoner, and he was only allowed to read it.
Political prisoner Artsiom Prakapenka wrote to President Lukashenka in February 2015. In 2012, a petition for clemency sent by Pavel Syramolatau, another convict in the same case, was granted and he was eventually released from prison.
On April 30, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court dismissed an appeal by political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, upholding an earlier verdict of the Lieninski District Court (26 February 2015), according to which the political prisoner received an additional term of 1 year and 3 days in prison.
According to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, this situation, combined with an earlier extension of sentence for political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, is evidence of an increasing pressure on political prisoners and the Belarusian authorities’ unwillingness to release them, at least before the presidential election scheduled for November.
3. Harassment of journalists
In April, the authorities still used the practice of administrative prosecution against freelance journalists for working with foreign media without accreditation. It should be noted that the Belarusian legislation does not provide for this responsibility, but the authorities arbitrarily use Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, which provided for responsibility for illegal production and (or) dissemination of mass media products. This practice is illegal, since it is not journalists but editorial offices who produce or disseminate media products. These actions by the authorities unreasonably restrict the right to freedom of expression and dissemination of information. The same position is shared by the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
In April, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, administrative fines were imposed on seven journalists, one of them twice.
Ina Khomich was fined 5.4 million rubles for cooperation with the Belarusian Radio Racyja.
Kanstantsin Zhukouski from Homieĺ, whose amateur video footage appeared on the website of TV channel Belsat, was convicted of the illicit manufacture of media products under Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code and sentenced to an administrative fine 5.4 million rubles.
Journalist Larysa Shchyrakova was a fine of 4.5 million rubles for a video posted on the website of the TV channel Belsat.
Aliaksandr Dzianisau and Aliaksandr Kirkevich were fined 3.6 million rubles each for shooting a story later aired on the channel Belsat.
A court in Homieĺ fined journalists Natallia Kryvashei and Kanstantsin Zhukouski (second time during the month) were fined 5.4 million rubles for an interview, which was shown on TV channel Belsat.
Tamara Shchapiotkina was punished by a fine of 7.2 million rubles for making a publication for Radio Racyja’s website.
All attempts by reporters to be accredited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as foreign journalists were unsuccessful. Journalist Viktar Parfionenka was denied accreditation as a correspondent of the Belarusian Radio Racyja. His later appeals against the decision were dismissed by courts.
4. The death penalty
Belarusian courts continued to pass death sentences. Siarhei Ivanou sentenced to death in March. The defendant appealed against the sentence to the Supreme Court. The appeal will be supplemented by evidence of violations of his rights under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Human rights defenders helped relatives of executed prisoners to protest against a ban on handing over the bodies for burial and accessing information on the place of burial, which according to them, is an act of ill-treatment.
In particular, Volha Hrunova, the mother of Aliaksandr Hrunou, who was executed in late 2014, was not allowed to be notified of the place of burial of her executed son.
A similar complaint by Tamara Sialiun, the mother of another death convict Pavel Sialiun, was also left without consideration.
Tamara Sialiun wrote to state authorities, who have the right to appeal to the Constitutional Court with a proposal to change the law regarding the ban.
Replies to her appeals to the Standing Commission for Legislation of the House of Representatives and the Standing Committee for Legislation and State Building of the National Assembly said that there were no grounds to change the provisions of the law and that they were consistent with the Constitution and international commitments of Belarus.
5. Arbitrary detentions
The month was marked was continuing cases of arbitrary detentions and administrative arrests of opposition activists on trumped-up charges of violating public order and disobedience to lawful demands of police officers. Environmental activist Stanislau Ramanovich was detained and sentenced to 15 days in jail.
6. Violation of freedom of association, harassment of human rights organizations and human rights defenders
The temporary absence of a legal address in an NGO Mahilioŭ Human Rights Center – the only registered regional human rights association – was a formal ground for the Department of Justice of the regional executive committee to demand its dissolution in court.
After a new legal address was officially registered, the lawsuit was withdrawn and the case was dismissed. It should be noted that this was the second attempt to ban the activities of the association in court over the last eight months.
On April 8, the civil society and political center in Homieĺ, which hosts several NGOs, was searched by local police. The police also searched the apartment of human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka. They took a system unit and a laptop. The formal reason for the raid was alleged dissemination of a pornographic video.
The allegations of distributing pornographic materials from Leanid Sudalenka’s e-mail addresses, control over which he lost back in December 2014, became the basis for opening a criminal case. The human rights activist said that this was provocation aimed at creating obstacles to his human rights activities.
In March, Mahilioŭ police seized computers from chief editor of an online publication “Nash Mahilioŭ” Ihar Barysau in the framework of a probe launched as a result of a request to prosecute the author of one of the articles of this edition. Three more computers were removed from the office of local human rights defenders, which was frequented by Ihar Barysau. All the equipment was searched for illegal content. The keywords that were used in search queries suggest that the true purpose of seizing the computers was receiving information about the activities of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
7. Violation of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly
In April, there were no positive changes in the field of freedom of assembly, as the trends of the previous period prevailed.
On April 26, Minsk hosted one of the four demonstrations traditionally allowed by the Minsk city executive committee – Čarnobyĺski šliach. The protest was generally peaceful and unimpeded by law enforcement officials. Observers reported detention of two protesters who were later released without charges. Just like after the procession of March 25, the organizers of Čarnobyĺski šliach were obliged to pay 13.5 million of expenses associated with the assembly (services for the protection of public order, health care and cleaning).
Local authorities banned similar protests in other cities of the country.
In particular, Viciebsk dismissed an application by local activists of the CCP BPF Party. The reason for the ban was traditional: absence of service contracts with the public utilities, doctors and the police.
There were also numerous bans on events on the occasion of May 1 – International Workers’ Day. For example, local authorities did not allow events in Baranavičy, Brest, Minsk and other cities.
8. Violation of social and economic rights
Despite the recommendations of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the government of Belarus failed to liquidate the elements of forced labor in the country. After a lengthy debate, on April 2 President Lukashenka signed Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social dependency”. Belarusian and international human rights organizations interpreted this decree as a violation of the Constitution of Belarus and international standards of human rights, since it aims to promote employment under the threat of paying a special fee and administrative responsibility, including fines and arrest. It should be noted that Aliaksandr Lukashenka did not hide the actual purpose of the decree. During his visit to the town of Slaŭharad, Mahilioŭ region, he said that “all drones will be forced to work”.