Situation of Human Rights in Belarus. March 2015.
In March, the human rights situation in Belarus remained at an unsatisfactory level. Siarhei Ivanou, 21, was sentenced to death. The authorities still used the practice of harassment of journalists in the administrative procedures for their work with foreign media without accreditation, while obtaining accreditation from the Foreign Ministry still remained a problem for a number of media and journalists. Opportunities of exercising freedom of assembly and expression through street protests were extremely restricted, although in March the authorities allowed two peaceful assemblies organized by pro-democratic groups: a demonstration held to mark the anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic in Minsk on March 25 and a picket against violations of the Constitution in Kapyĺ. It should be noted that, despite the fact that the demonstration in Minsk was authorized, the authorities were not able to refrain from traditional arbitrary detentions, although they did not end in lawsuits.
The country’s penal facilities continued to hold six political prisoners: Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Yury Rubtsou. Despite statements by the authorities to prepare amnesty in connection with the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, the possibility of using this mechanism with respect to political prisoners was minimal. Artsiom Prakapenka, Yauhen Vaskovich and Ihar Alinevich, who were convicted of willful damage or destruction of property, could not reckon on the amnesty; Mikalai Dziadok in late February was convicted under Article 411, for allegedly committing an intentional crime during the serving of his initial sentence and thus the amnesty could not be applied to him; Mikalai Statkevich has some penalties that could potentially result in receiving the status of a malicious offender. Only Yury Rubtsou could still count on early release under the amnesty, as there was no information of any penalties imposed on him by the end of March.
In this situation, the main hopes were associated with the political mechanism of influence from the international community on the Belarusian authorities to address the issue of political prisoners. Despite the presence of the issue on the need to release political prisoners in the agenda of the talks between Western politicians and the official Minsk, this failed to bring positive any changes during March. Moreover, absence of progress in this issue did not influence the apparent intensification of contacts between representatives of the European Union and the Belarusian authorities. In particular, at a meeting of foreign ministers of EU member states on March 7 in Riga, Latvian Foreign Minister Edgars Edgars Rinkēvičs said that there was “apparent potential for expanding and deepening of relations with Belarus.” He noted that the dialogue with Minsk still had “unresolved issues”, but the EU considers it possible to move towards the Belarusian authorities. Such a departure from the principled position of the EU on the issue of political prisoners left less hope to witness a change in their situation under the influence of foreign factors with the least possible impact on this area within the country.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of public activists
In March, political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, who on February 26, five days ahead of his expected release, was sentenced to an additional one year of imprisonment in a penal colony under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (“willful disobedience to the correctional institution administration”), wrote an open letter in which he urged to do everything possible to abolish this article. “The Constitution, the Criminal Code and the Criminal Executive Code of Belarus guarantees many good principles and rights, but they are trampled into the mud, while in Belarus there is Article 411 of the Criminal Code, which allows you to send a person to a colony for one year (or two years under Part 2 of this article) for wearing or not wearing a garment, or talking with his cellmate (...). Of course, I would really like to shout to the whole world about the injustice and evil made against me by the penal system, but even more I want to be the last convict under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. Therefore I address the international and Belarusian human rights organizations, all international human rights organizations and all people of Belarus with an appeal: do everything possible for the repeal of Article 411 of the Criminal Code.” A few days after receiving this letter, human rights activists from the Human Rights Center “Viasna” sent a petition to the House of Representatives with a proposal to exclude Article 411 from the Criminal Code, which was dubbed as the Undone Button Act by the prisoners themselves.
Political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich told by his wife Maryna Adamovich about his recent attempts to document detention conditions in the Škloŭ colony by submitting complaints to the Prosecutor’s Office. According to Mikalai Statkevich, prison authorities use an entire system of repressive means to put pressure on political prisoners. Prisoners who cooperate with the administration on this issue receive privileges. For example, some prisoners are allowed to have personal ‘aides’. Mr. Statkevich sent two complaints to the Prosecutor General. In late January, he complained about trumped-up reasons for imposing penalties, and in March he received a response from the Mahilioŭ office of the Department of Corrections, which said that as a result of an investigation no facts of physical and moral impact were found. After that Mikalai Statkevich wrote a new complaint, which listed the facts of physical and moral pressure on him since he was transferred to the colony in the summer of 2011. On the same day, he faced another charge of alleged improper performance of duties and abuse of prison rules. Mikalai Statkevich was ordered the territory of the colony, and in late March he wrote a letter to the prison administration to reject the so-called self-service duties, as he considered them illegal. This work includes cleaning the territory of the colony. Refusal to work is a grave offense. At the same time, Mikalai Statkevich finally started receiving independent newspapers.
Political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, who is serving a sentence in the Viciebsk-based colony Vićba-3, received a job in woodworking and was involved in this work every day. According to the political prisoner’s mother Valiantsina Alinevich, her son “had almost no time left on the books and letters, but he does not grumble, not in his nature.” Ms. Alinevich does not know how much money her son earns for doing this work, because this issue is never discussed during short meetings between them. According to her, Ihar Alinevich faced restrictions on the number of parcels, he still had problems with receiving correspondence, since not all letters reached the prisoner and his phone calls were very rare – once in three months.
The death penalty
On March 18, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Siarhei Ivanou, 21, to death on charges of murdering and raping a 19-year-old girl. The investigation revealed that at the time of the murder the accused was drunk and used psychotropic substances. The young man attacked the girl for the purpose of rape. As a result, the victim died of brutal beatings and numerous serious injuries. After the murder, the offender took the victim’s valuables. The court found the defendant guilty of hooliganism, which was accompanied by violence, committed repeatedly by a group of persons under Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code; intentionally causing serious bodily injury, endangering the life of the victim from molester motives provided by para. 7. Part 2, Article 147 of the Criminal Code; robbery related to the use of violence dangerous for life and health of victims, committed repeatedly by a group of persons under Part 2, Art. 206 of the Criminal Code; theft committed repeatedly by a group of persons under Part 2, Art. 205 of the Criminal Code; intentional unlawful deprivation of another person’s life (murder), which was committed with particular cruelty, provided by para. 6, Part 2, Art. 139 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus. Taking into consideration the numerous charges, the court ruled to sentence the accused to an exceptional measure of punishment – the death penalty. The defendant was found not guilty of deliberately committing other acts of a sexual nature against the will of the victim of violence, resulting in serious bodily injury under Part 3, Art. 167 of the Criminal Code, and acquitted for lack of evidence of his involvement in the commission of the crime. The trial was held behind closed doors.
The families of a number of persons earlier sentenced to death and executed continued campaigning for introducing changes in the procedure of execution of the death penalty. On March 12, the Lieninski District Court of Hrodna refused to institute civil proceedings against the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Interior requested by Tamara Sialiun, the mother of Pavel Sialiun, who was executed on murder charges, after she received her son’s prison uniform, and was not allowed to take the body after his execution. The death convict’s mother also complained about lack of information about the date of execution and the exact place of her son’s burial. The Court said that the provision of such information is regulated by the penal law, therefore, it cannot be challenged in civil proceedings. Based on its findings, the Court considers that there is no reason for the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus to question the constitutionality of criminal-executive legislation, namely Art. 175 of the Criminal Executive Code, which regulates the enforcement of death sentences. In its reply of March 25, the Constitutional Court rejected Ms. Sialiun’s complaint, referring to the fact that such questions are considered by the Constitutional Court on the basis of proposals submitted by the authorized bodies. In addition, the response argued that the citizens of the Republic of Belarus could only enjoy indirect access to constitutional justice.
The use of torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment
In March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Belarus published its National Report to the Universal Periodic Review (second cycle). The report’s authors argue that the prisoners in Belarus have effective mechanisms to appeal the illegal actions of prison officials. However, statistics featured in the document suggest otherwise. According to the government, “all claims and complaints about misconduct committed against the citizens are carefully considered and investigated. In the case of violations the perpetrators are prosecuted in accordance with the legislation. For example, in 2014 the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus registered and reviewed 96 complaints of citizens against unlawful actions of the authorities and institutions of the correctional system, medical-labor dispensaries of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In 2011-2014, the prosecuting authorities considered 158 complaints about measures against convicts and persons in custody (67 in 2011, 35 in 2012, 37 in 2013, and 19 in 2014). All complaints were rejected. In 2012-2014, the Courts considered 15 cases of complaints by convicts against arrest, imprisonment, life imprisonment of persons held in custody, the application to them of penalties and complaints against the use of disciplinary sanctions in respect of administrative detainees. The complaints were deemed groundless.” The number of complaints was questioned by human rights activists, but even taking this number as real, they stress the most important aspect, namely the result: none of the complaints was met.
In early March, the mother of Ihar Ptsichkin, who had died in the Minsk remand prison on 4 August 2013, received a response to her appeal to the Investigation Committee of Belarus, in which she asked to report the results of the preliminary investigation into the causes of the death of her son, to issue a certificate indicating the cause of death, as well as to answer the question whether the duty officials of remand prison No. 1 were suspended from office for the time of the investigation. Ms. Ptsichkina was told that she could receive a copy of the ruling about the termination of the preliminary investigation, if she wanted, but was reminded that she “have been warned about the inadmissibility of the disclosure of data of the preliminary investigation in conformity with the established order. However, the law does not prohibit discussing the information of the investigation known to you with your representative (counsel).” Thus, the woman has almost no opportunities to get qualified legal assistance in the preparation of complaints in the case, because it requires the disclosure of certain information of the preliminary investigation. Nor can she familiarize journalists and other interested parties with details of the investigation so as to give publicity to the case and assure a qualified and unbiased investigation. The response also said that the duty officials of prison No. 1 weren’t suspended from office for the time of the preliminary investigation. Ihar Ptsichkin died of cardiac arrest, the reasons for which weren’t discovered during the forensic examination of his body. His relatives believe that he died from beatings by the guards and pointed at numerous injuries on his body, as can be seen in the photos.
Harassment of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
In early March, the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, said in an urgent appeal that the recent deportation from Belarus of human rights defender Alena Tankachova “demonstrates the immense challenges that continue to exist for human rights defenders to fulfill their work in Belarus.” Evaluating the actions of the authorities regarding the expulsion of the well-known human rights activist, the Special Rapporteur noted that “this clearly disproportionate measure has been taken by the Government in retaliation for Ms. Tankachova’s human rights work in the country.”
Only after public protests of the Belarusian human rights activists and international organizations, the authorities began to respond to the threats received by human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka and his family. The Homieĺ City Prosecutor’s Office quashed an earlier decision of the Čyhunačny district police department to refuse to open a criminal investigation into the threats and requested that the police made every effort to locate the IP-address of those responsible for intimidating the activist’s family over the Internet.
Belarusian human rights organizations remained under pressure. The Mahilioŭ Human Rights Center, the only registered regional human rights organization in Belarus, was on the verge of closure. From 10 to 17 March, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court held the consideration of a lawsuit lodged by the justice department of the Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee to dissolve the NGO. The lawsuit stemmed from a problem with the legal address faced by the organization. As stated in the lawsuit, the Center, carrying out its activities, violated the law, namely failed to submit to the Department of Justice documents necessary for state registration of the change of legal address which was introduced in the Charter of the organization. The lawsuit further said that on 5 December 2014 the NGO was not located at the address specified in the Statute, as the lease agreement had been unilaterally canceled by the lessor. Thus, the Mahilioŭ Human Rights Center actually lost the premises to for its governing body, and the main department of justice did not receive the documents required for registering a new address. In late 2014, the Regional Department of Justice tried to suspend the activities of the organization, but the human rights defenders managed to solve the problem: they signed a new lease agreement, which, however, was soon broken by the lessor. Uladzimir Krauchanka, head of the NGO, is sure that all the owners of the premises who terminated rent contracts made it illegally, under pressure from local authorities. During the trial, he was able to receive a letter of guarantee from the new landlord who gave his consent to provide a new legal address in order to make changes to the statutory documents of the organization, and a new lease agreement. This was the basis for the suspension of the proceedings by mutual agreement of the parties.
On March 13, at the Kamenny Loh border crossing Belarusian customs officers seized 47 copies of “Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in 2014” in English and Belarusian, which was prepared by the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” on the basis of monthly reviews of human rights violations. The books were found in the car of Smarhon human rights activist Aleh Dzerhachou who was transporting them through the border. As a result, the books were sent for examination to determine whether the editions were permitted for importing in Belarus.
In March, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” faced the blocking of its website by a number of Internet providers after the resource was blacklisted among other websites with limited access (the decision was made by the Prosecutor General’s Office in August 2011). When trying to view the website, for example through the life:) mobile operator, there appeared the following message: “Dear subscriber of life:), you have you tried to visit the resource access to which is denied on the basis of Presidential Decree No. 60 of 1 February 2010 “On Measures to Improve the Use of the National Segment of the Internet” (paragraph 4, p. 13), Decree No. 6 of the President of the Republic of Belarus of 28 December 2014 “On urgent measures to combat drug trafficking” (Art. 5, para. 10), the Law of the Republic Belarus of 17 July 2008 “On Mass Media” (Part 3 of Art. 51-1).” Similar blocking was enforced by providers adsl.by (Belinfonet), Business Network, Iptel.by, IP TelCom (in Minsk and Homieĺ) and Harant (Homieĺ). However, two days later electroname.com said that all the websites, including the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, which were added to it until 1 January 2015, would be deleted from the list of restricted access, and the blocking must be removed within 24 hours.
Arbitrary detention and administrative prosecution for political reasons
March was marked by a fairly low level of arbitrary detentions. Only one case ended in charges and a trial – that of one of the leaders of entrepreneurs’ movement Aliaksandr Makayeu. He was detained on the Ždanovičy market in Minsk on March 1, which was at that time paralyzed by a strike of individual entrepreneurs. He was brought to the police station, but soon released. The following day, Aliaksandr Makayeu was detained by the police outside his apartment. He was then charged with a violation of Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event, committed repeatedly within a year). Judge Viktoryia Shabunia of the Court of Minsk’s Centralny district found him guilty and ordered the imposition of a fine of 50 basic units.
Five people were detained during and after the demonstration held on March 25 in Minsk: Tsimur Sidoryk who argued with riot police regarding the folding of a flag after the demonstration; a man with a flag of Azerbaijan, and two 17-year olds who had come to the rally wearing black balaclavas and national symbols and were released without charges three hours later. Police officers also detained former political prisoner Eduard Lobau, who was released 10 minutes later without charges.
Activist Siarhei Sukhaverkhi was detained at the entrance to his house in Brest. He was taken to the police station and questioned about his involvement in the dissemination of leaflets, which were posted in Pinsk and reminded of the fate of the well-known members of the opposition in Belarus, who had been abducted or disappeared. The documents, which were shown to Siarhei Sukhaverkhi, suggested that the case was initiated by the KGB department in Pinsk. Police officers confirmed this and said that they were hastened to clarify all the circumstances of this case.
Brest activist Andrei Sharenda was detained by Belarusian border guards when he was returning by bus from Poland. After passing through passport control, he was sent to a personal inspection. During the search, among his things customs officers found seven flags of the European Union. As a result, head of the department of customs clearance and control Viachaslau Panasiuk, who conducted the inspection, ordered to seize the flags for examination.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
In March, the situation with freedom of speech and expression remained unsatisfactory.
There were more cases of denying official accreditation to journalists who cooperate with foreign media, and at the same time bringing them to administrative responsibility for illegal production and distribution of media products, namely for the preparation of materials for foreign media without Foreign Ministry’s accreditation. In particular, official accreditation was denied to Andrei Mialeshka, a journalist from Hrodna who was three times tried and sentenced to fines for preparation of materials for the Belarusian Radio Racyja without accreditation. Tamara Shchapiotkina, a journalist from Biaroza, was punished with a heavy fine of 40 basic units for cooperation with this foreign media without accreditation. This trial took place without her participation.
The Poland-based TV channel Belsat was another foreign media who continued to be denied accreditation and whose journalists were systematically brought to administrative responsibility. In March, a fine of 20 basic units was imposed on journalist Larysa Shchyrakova for making a story for the channel. She pleaded not guilty, because the rules of law on mass media deal with editorial offices, i.e. legal entities, so the charges should not apply to journalists. The judge admitted that indeed Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, dealt with the media, and individuals, but in pronouncing her verdict she pointed out that the journalist was accused of “complicity of illegal production and distribution of media products.” Similar charges were brought against Aliaksandr Liauchuk, a journalist from Brest, who was eventually fined 21 basic units, despite not even receiving a summons to the hearing. The administrative charges stemmed from a publication posted on the website of the TV channel Belsat signed ‘AL’.
March was also marked by a wave of warnings from the Information Ministry to independent media. In all cases, warnings dealt with minor flaws in the outlets’ output. Warnings were received by newspapers Hazieta Slonimskaja, Intex-Press from Baranavičy, Hancavicki Čas, Borisovskiye Novosti and Rieklamnyi Borzhomi from Barysau, as well as Novy Čas. For example, Hazieta Slonimskaja was warned for the fact that in its two February issues it allegedly failed to specify the circulation of the newspaper, although the PDF-versions posted on the newspaper’s website show that the circulation is indicated on the very first page. The editorial office of the newspaper Intex-Press was accused of violating the law for abbreviating ‘Republic of Belarus” as ‘RB’ in the newspaper’s output. Similar claims from the Ministry of Information were sent to the regional newspaper Hancavicki Čas. After similar violations were noticed in publications run by the government, written warnings were issued to magazine Vožyk and newspaper Naš Kraj in Baranavičy. Two warnings within one year may result in a court decision to close the media.
In late March, the websites Charter-97 (charter97.org), Belarusian Partisan (belaruspartisan.org), as well as the website of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (spring96.org) were blocked by Internet service providers adsl.by (Belinfonet), Business Network, Iptel.by, IP TelCom, and Harant (Homieĺ). These online resources were included in the list of restricted access for users in government agencies, educational and cultural institutions. Two days after the blocking, electroname.com said, citing “sources in the telecommunications industry of Belarus”, that the restricted websites would be removed from the list, and the blocking should be cancelled within a day. According to electroname.com, this applied to Charter 97, belaruspartisan.org, the website of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, prokopovi.ch, europeanbelarus.org, Yauhen Lipkovich’s blog and other websites that were added to the list of restricted access by the General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus.
Restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly
The authorities’ actions in the field of freedom of peaceful assembly were restrictive and selective. In particular, officials banned Freedom Day rallies (March 25) in Hrodna, Viciebsk, Biaroza, Lida and other cities, as well as a meeting in Minsk. At the same time, they allowed a demonstration in Minsk. The event is traditional for the Belarusian opposition taking place every year on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918.
Giving permission, the Minsk City Executive Committee, however, changed the start time of the demonstration, appointing the gathering of participants at 3 p.m., which coincided with working and academic hours for a large part of citizens. Despite the peaceful nature of the assembly and compliance of the organizers and participants with the requirements put forward by the authorities, the latter were not able to refrain from arbitrary detentions during and after the event. Five people were detained in total. Despite the fact that the detainees were soon released, such actions by the police were clearly illegal. The obligation of the organizers to pay an excessively large amount for the protection of public order and the work of medical services did not meet the standards of freedom of peaceful assembly, as these commitments are positive obligations of the state. The organizers were forced to pay a total of over 21 million rubles.
As to the grounds for issuing bans on Freedom Day events, they were different in different regions. In particular, in Viciebsk’s Čyhunačny District Administration banned the demonstration due to lack of service contracts with the police and an ambulance, which had to be signed in advance and submitted together with the application. At the same time, both the police and the central clinic refused to sign the agreements. Hrodna authorities banned a Freedom Day picket, saying that, according to a decision of the executive committee, holding public events in Gilibert Park was illegal. The Biaroza district executive committee rejected the application for holding a picket after it named one of its goals as “incitement of national enmity or ethnic hostility.” However, local official failed to specify which of the two objectives violated the law: celebration of the 97th anniversary of the proclamation of the BNR or expressing solidarity with political prisoners. Before that, in early March, the Biaroza executive committee banned a rally, one of the aims of which was expression of protest against the deployment of Russian military bases on the territory of Belarus, describing it also as “extremism and inciting ethnic hatred.”
In March, the authorities did not give permission for a number of public events on various subjects, which gives reason to believe that bans on public events is a way to reduce civic activity and restrict freedom of expression. For example, Baranavičy authorities did not allow a picket against intimidation of entrepreneurs and confiscation of the goods on spurious grounds. The Mahilioŭ city executive committee banned a picket in support of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, adopting a law on social parasites and his nomination for a fifth term in office, as well as the nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating in matters of peace in Ukraine. Seeing this as hidden sarcasm, the authorities banned the protest, but only on formal grounds, citing the fact that the place for the event was not authorized for the purposes specified by the executive committee.
Another authorized mass event was held in Kapyl. Local activist Viktar Dashkevich was able to obtain from the government permission to hold a peaceful assembly against violations of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. However, he was only able to stage his protests on a deserted stadium and was forced to pay for services associated with the picket in the amount of half a million ruble. It is worth mentioning that according to the international standards responsibility for maintaining public order during public events rests with the State.