Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2015
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
Human Rights Situation in Belarus
- in May, there were no positive developments in the human rights situation in Belarus;
- there were signs of continuous development of the practice of pressure on political prisoners: political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich was transferred to serve his sentence under tightened detention conditions, political prisoner Yury Rubtsou was sentenced to a new term of imprisonment of two years; political prisoners Ihar Alinevich and Mikalai Dziadok continued to be subjected to pressure, including by being placed in solitary confinement;
- Belarusian authorities continued to deny the existence of political prisoners in the country, while recognizing the existence of obstacles to the normalization of relations with the EU;
- on May 28 President Lukashenka signed the bill “On amnesty in connection with the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945”, the provisions of which, according to human rights defenders, were not going to apply to the political prisoners;
- there were more facts of pressure on independent journalists working for foreign media, as well as obstructing their legitimate activities;
- during the month, there were numerous cases of bans imposed by local executive authorities on requests to hold public events; at the same time, there were facts of bringing to administrative responsibility, including arrests, for involvement in unsanctioned peaceful gatherings;
- in May, it became known that the UN Human Rights Committee adopted another observation, which found a violation by the Republic of Belarus of the right to life in relation to Aleh Hryshkautsou, a resident of Hrodna, who was executed in 2011. This is the fourth observation by the UN HCR adopted on individual communications by citizens of Belarus sentenced to death and executed at the time of consideration of their complaints;
- on May 4, an official Belarusian delegation headed by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Valiantsin Rybakou took part in the procedure of passing the second round of the Universal Periodic Review in the UN Human Rights Council. The UPR is one of the few UN procedures recognized by Belarus[i].
2. Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society and political activists
May was marked by a continuation of the negative trends in the deterioration of the situation of political prisoners.
On May 4, the Škloŭ-based penal colony No. 9 hosted a hearing, which considered the issue of changing the regime of detention of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich. As a result, Judge Sviatlana Barantsava of the Škloŭ District Court ruled to change the prisoner’s detention regime and sent Mikalai Statkevich to serve the rest of his sentence – 1 year, 7 months and 15 days — in prison.
The trial actually took place behind closed doors. Representatives of the media, human rights activists, including the chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights Ales Bialiatski, lawyer Pavel Sapelka, as well as representatives of the European Union in Belarus were not allowed to attend the hearing. A prison officer told the audience gathered near the colony that the trial would be held behind closed doors and demanded to leave the territory adjacent to the facility. An exception was made only for Statkevich’s wife Maryna Adamovich, who was allowed to attend the trial[ii].
Later it became known that Mikalai Statkevich was transferred to prison No. 4 in Mahilioŭ, where he had arrived from the Škloŭ colony three months before.
On May 12, political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, who was sentenced on 26 February 2015 to one year’s imprisonment under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code, was transferred to serve his sentence in penal colony No. 9 in Horki (colony for people who have earlier served a sentence of imprisonment)[iii]. After his arrival in the colony, M. Dziadok received four disciplinary penalties, including two resulting in the placement in a punishment cell for 5 and 7 days. During his latest solitary confinement on May 19, he found himself in a cold cell. Trying to draw the attention of the administration to a violation of his rights, in the morning on May 20 M. Dziadok cut his arms and abdomen[iv].
Earlier, the EU issued a statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to reconsider the sentence for Mikalai Dziadok and to immediately release him, as well as other political prisoners[v].
On May 3, the mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich learned that on April 22 he was placed in a punishment cell, where he spent several days[vi].
On May 27, the Pružany District Court opened the hearing of charges brought against political prisoner Yury Rubtsou under Art. 415 of the Criminal Code (evasion of serving punishment of restraint of liberty). On May 28, a court verdict found Yury Rubtsou guilty of evasion from punishment and sentenced him to two years’ imprisonment[vii].
Before the trial, Rubtsou was held in the detention center in Baranavičy, where he was on a hunger strike[viii].
Belarusian authorities continue to deny the existence of the problem of political prisoners in the country, noting that “the so-called political prisoners” are a certain obstacle to a dialogue with the European Union. This, in particular, was told to reporters by Foreign Minister of Belarus Uladzimir Makei during his official visit as the head of the governmental delegation of Belarus at the Eastern Partnership summit in Riga.
On May 28, Aliaksandr Lukashenka signed the bill “On amnesty in connection with the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945”, the provisions of which, according to human rights defenders, were not going to apply to the political prisoners.
3. Harassment of journalists
Journalists working for mass media, which are not accredited in Belarus, continued to face pressure from the authorities. They are arbitrarily subjected to a provision of Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, which provides for responsibility for the unlawful manufacture of and (or) distribution of media products[ix]. A fine of 4.5 million rubles was imposed on Kanstantsin Zhukouski (third time in two months)[x].
Appeals against decisions pronounced in administrative cases are dismissed by higher courts.
Employees of independent media face unreasonable restrictions and obstacles in the implementation of their activities. A cameraman for the Babrujski Kurjer independent newspaper were admitted to the site for journalists during the celebration of Victory Day in Babrujsk[xi].
Homieĺ freelance journalists Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Natallia Kryvashei were detained by police and held for more than three hours at the district police station for shooting a video near the courthouse on the day when it considered the administrative case of Kanstantsin Zhukouski.
The Ministry of Information sent to a number of websites statements about reported violations of media legislation and explained consequences prescribed by the Law “On Mass Media” for the spread of false information that could harm the state or public interests. If such violations are established by the Ministry of Information, these websites may face restricted access.
The Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus wrote to the Warsaw District Court for the purpose of execution of a decision to ban the use of the trademark of the Belsat channel. Such actions are assessed as aimed at creating obstacles to the activities of the only independent television channel[xii].
4. The death penalty
In May, it was announced that the United Nations Human Rights Committee found a violation of the right to life in relation of a Hrodna resident Aleh Hryshkautsou.
On 14 May 2010, a judgment of the Hrodna Regional Court sentenced Aleh Hryshkautsou and Andrei Burdyka to death. On 25 May 2011, it became known that the sentence against both convicts had been carried out despite the registration of Hryshkautsou’s individual communication in the UN HRC in 2010 and the Committee’s urgent measures of protection in accordance with procedure 92, of which the Belarusian MFA and other government agencies were notified.
This is the fourth observation taken by the UN HRC on individual communications of Belarusian citizens to find a violation of the right to life and the right to a fair trial, the right to defense and the use of torture against the claimant[xiii].
5. Arbitrary detentions
There were continuing cases of arbitrary detention and administrative arrests of opposition activists on trumped up charges of disturbing public order and disobeying the lawful demands of police officers. On May 7, police officers arbitrarily detained, accused of disorderly conduct and punished by an administrative arrest for a period of 15 days one of the fans of FC Dynama Yury Belavusau; police confiscated his personal computer and tablet. There are reports of the arrest of three other fans of the same club[xiv].
6. Violation of the freedom of association, pressure on human rights defenders
On May 3, chairman of the Homieĺ office of the NGO “Legal Initiative” Leanid Sudalenka was summoned to the regional department of the Investigative Committee for questioning as a witness in a criminal case. The Investigative Committee opened a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 343 of the Criminal Code (distribution of pornographic material in the Internet) into the alleged distribution of pornographic movies from an electronic mailbox belonging to the human rights activist, with the IP address registered with the city opposition community center. Within the framework of the investigation, police officers searched and seized computer equipment both in the community center and in Sudalenka’s apartment[xv].
On May 24, Belarusian border guards searched the car of human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka. As a result, the officers seized a laptop. The human rights activist was returning from the Non-Profit Law Forum, which was held in Vilnius on May 23-24[xvi].
All the facts of pressure on L. Sudalenka are viewed by human rights organizations as means aimed at sanctioning his human rights work.
The founders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party failed to receive permission to rent premises for the party’s constituent assembly in Minsk. It should be noted that the Ministry of Justice had four times denied the founders state registration.
7. Violation of the right to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly
On May 8, police officers detained opposition activist Leanid Kulakou, who on May 11 was brought to administrative responsibility for organizing and holding an unauthorized picket. The activists was sentenced to an administrative penalty in the form of administrative arrest for a period of 7 days for displaying a flag and a poster “Invaders Out” on the Mound of Glory memorial complex near Minsk on the eve of the arrival of representatives of the Russian motorcycle club “Night Wolves”[xvii]. He served the sentence in conditions that can be regarded as cruel, inhuman and degrading[xviii].
On May 12, he was sentenced to an administrative penalty of a fine in the amount of 5.4 million rubles for posting a banner “Freedom for Political Prisoners”.
Opposition activist Volha Nikalaichyk was fined 5.4 million rubles under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for displaying a flag and a poster “Invaders Out” on the Mound of Glory memorial complex near Minsk[xix].
Activist Dzmitry Dziakau was punished in Navapolack by a fine of 3.6 million rubles for posting a banner with the BCD acronym on the fence of the city square[xx].
Opposition activists Volha Nikalaichyk and Katsiaryna Sadouskaya were arbitrarily brought to administrative responsibility on trumped-up charges for staging an action, in which they brought a “beauty bag” for the notorious Night Wolves Russian motorcycle club and put it outside the gate of the Embassy of the Russian Federation in Minsk. Volha Nikalaichyk was sentenced to 13 days of administrative arrest, and Katsiaryna Sadouskaya – to a fine of 10.8 million rubles[xxi].
At the same time, local authorities keep banning pickets and other street protests. In particular, the Brest City Executive Committee and the Orša District Executive Committee did not allow activists of the United Civil Party to hold pickets against forced labor citing the absence of mandatory agreements with the public utilities, health care and police departments[xxii]. Similar bans were received by the party activists in Lida, Slonim, Astraviec[xxiii] and Babrujsk[xxiv]. The Belarusian trade union of radio-electronic industry (REP) was not allowed to hold a May Day rally in support of the trade unions and for the protection of social and labor rights and economic interests of working people. The ban said that the venue – one of the few authorized locations in the city – would be occupied by other planned events[xxv]. For the same reason, the Minsk City Executive Committee banned for the third time a rally by victims of a construction company.
The Škloŭ authorities rejected all requests to hold a round table discussion on the role of local government and the history of Magdeburg rights in the district[xxvi].
Appeals to the court against the authorities bring no results[xxvii].
8. Ill-treatment and torture
On May 3, police officers in Baranavičy severely beaten, including with the use of operational gear, football fans, 56 of whom were detained and taken to the police department[xxviii]. They were then forced to write statements that they had no claims to the police. A complaint against the incident by local human rights activist Siarhei Housha was not considered by the Prosecutor’s Office, but forwarded for consideration to the police department, whose staff allegedly broke the law[xxix].
9. The prohibition of forced labor
On May 6, the House of Representatives approved Presidential Decree No. 3 “On prevention of social dependency”, which created the conditions for the expansion of the practice of forced labor in Belarus.
[ix] This is legally wrong, since journalists do not manufacture products and do not spread the media; this is done by the editorial office of the media.