Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2015
The Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2015
- there were no positive developments in the human rights situation in Belarus during the month;
- the presidential election campaign is underway since June 30 to be completed on the voting day, October 11;
- the overall public and political activity remained low-profile and somewhat revived with the beginning of the presidential elections;
- the country’s prisons continued to hold six political prisoners: Mikalai Statkevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Yauhen Vaskovich, and Yury Rubtsou;
- conditions of detention and increasing pressure on political prisoners continued to be an issue of particular concern for human rights organizations;
- there were no new politically motivated criminal cases during the month, while one previously opened criminal case under Art. 367 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus) was discontinued;
- the authorities continued using the practice of persecution of freelance journalists cooperating with foreign media. Since the beginning of the year, there were a total of 26 cases of administrative responsibility for journalists in the exercise of their journalistic activity, the total amount of fines levied by the courts amounted at 137 million Belarusian rubles (about 8,000 Euros);
- the month was marked by this year’s first prosecutor's written warning about the possibility of criminal responsibility under Art. 193.1 of the Criminal Code for the implementation of activities on behalf of an unregistered religious organization;
- on July 4, a death penalty verdict handed down to a resident of Rečyca Siarhei Ivanou by the Homieĺ Regional Court came into legal force. This is the first death verdict pronounced in 2015;
- on July 28, Brussels hosted the first round of a renewed human rights dialogue between Belarus and the EU. In this regard, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights Center "Viasna" sent a letter to EU diplomats with a series of proposals on the possible framework and modalities of such a dialogue;
- the US State Department released a report devoted to the issues of human trafficking and forced labor, which heavily criticized Belarus due numerous documented facts of forced labor. It should be noted that the Human Rights Center "Viasna" has repeatedly drawn the attention of both the Belarusian and the international community to the practice of forced labor in the country;
2. Political prisoners and politically motivated criminal prosecution
Over the month, the situation of political prisoners did not improve and continued to cause particular concern of the country’s human rights community. Belarusian prisons continued to hold six political prisoners.
On 24 July, the Brest Regional Court dismissed an appeal of political prisoner Yury Rubtsou, confirming the verdict of the Pružany District Court. Thus, the verdict, which sentenced Yury Rubtsou to two years imprisonment under Art. 415 of the Criminal Code (evasion of serving punishment of restraint of liberty), entered into force. As it became known, Rubtsou decided to stop his hunger strike, which he began on July 1 to protest against the conditions of detention and ill-treatment in prison in Baranavičy.
In July, there were more cases when prison officials banned meetings of political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok with his lawyer. In particular, on July 2, the administration of penal colony No. 9, where Dziadok is serving his sentence, once again refused to allow a visit by his lawyer. The ban referred to the fact that the prisoner had not allegedly filed an official request. At the same time, representatives of the prison administration told the lawyer that Mikalai Dziadok had been placed in the cell-type premises without explaining the reasons for and the period of the confinement. These actions were appealed to the head of the colony and the Prosecutor’s Office.
In July, the law enforcement authorities reportedly dropped criminal charges against a resident of Brest Mikhail Lukashevich, 63, due to lack of evidence. The criminal case was opened in late 2014 under Art. 367 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus) and dealt with political graffiti on a fence near the house in which he lived. During the investigation, Mikhail Lukashevich’s house was searched, and he was placed in psychiatric hospital for examination, which eventually said that his mental condition was satisfactory.
3. Presidential election
On July 1, the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections launched an observation campaign of the presidential election. Observation reports have been prepared to cover each stage of the election.
On July 17 and 20, the Central Election Commission registered eight nomination groups out of fourteen applicants. In particular, the CEC refused to register the nomination group of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.
By July 17, local authorities had decided on the places where collecting signatures by members of nomination groups would be prohibited. These decisions demonstrate the absence of a uniform approach to the practice of selecting such places, but, in general, did not considerably restrict the rights of campaign activists.
By July 22, the joint meetings of the Councils of Deputies and the Executive Committees formed territorial election commissions. Only 10 members of the opposition parties became members of a total of 153 commissions; most of the 1,916 TEC members are representatives of labor collectives and five pro-government NGOs – Youth Union, Belaya Rus, Federation of Trade Unions, the Union of Women, the Association of Veterans, which by definition do not have a political objective in their work.
On July 23, election officials announced the beginning of a campaign of collecting signatures by initiative groups to nominate candidates for the presidency. Observers documented violations committed by the nomination group of the incumbent President, which were associated with the use of administrative resources.
There were cases of pressure on campaign activists who collected signatures in support of the nomination of opposition politicians. On July 29, unknown persons broke a flagpole during a picket staged in Navapolack in support of the nomination of Tatsiana Karatkevich, an activist of the campaign "Tell the Truth". Traffic police attempted to disrupt a nomination picket in support of Siarhei Kaliakin in Rahačoŭ.
4. Harassment of journalists and obstacles to the media
The authorities continued prosecuting journalists working with foreign media, which are not accredited in Belarus. They arbitrarily used the provision of Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code, which provides for responsibility for illegal production and (or) distribution of media products.
On July 2, a fine of 9 mln rubles was imposed on Ales Liauchuk; on July 9, journalists Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Natallia Kryvashei were sentenced to a fine of 6.3 million rubles each; Tatsiana Smotkina was punished by a fine of 4.5 million rubles.
Due to the increased pressure on freelancer journalists, the Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a statement expressing protest and demanding that the authorities remained within the legal field and adhered by corresponding practices.
The KGB harassed Dzmitry Lupach, a freelance journalist of Hlybokaje: he was threatened with criminal and administrative persecution, forcing the journalist to cooperate. On July 23, Dzmitry Lupach was fined 4.5 million rubles.
In 2015, there have been a total of 26 documented cases of administrative responsibility for independent journalists, the total sum of fines amounted to 137 million rubles.
5. Arbitrary detentions
On July 2, opposition activist Leanid Kulakou was detained by the police for wearing a T-shirt with the Pahonia coat of arms and a white-red-white flag; he was released after three hours of unlawful detention in Minsk’s Lieninski district police department.
On July 7, police officers detained Miraslau Lazouski, who was wearing a T-shirt with the insignia of the Ukrainian Azov Battalion. After five hours of detention, he was groundlessly prosecuted for disorderly conduct and fined 360,000 rubles.
Police continued unjustified harassment of football fans, including for the use of the historical national symbols.
On July 17, police officers detained Yury Shulhan and Pavel Kanavalchyk, who came to the Central Election Commission to register a nomination group of presidential candidate Yury Shulhan. They were detained in suspicion of being intoxicated in a public place. However, the court convicted them of using foul language after they were brought to the police department; the charge was supported by testimony from employees of the police department. Records of surveillance cameras were not examined by the court. Thus, according to human rights activists, the incident is a fact of arbitrary “preventive” detention. The court ruling will be appealed to the Minsk City Court.
6. Violations of freedom of association, harassment of human rights defenders
On July 29, it became known that the Homieĺ City Prosecutor's Office issued a written warning to Siarhei Nikalayenka, pastor of a Protestant community called "Transfiguration".
The warning, in particular, said that according to information received by the Prosecutor's Office, the priest was conducting unsanctioned religious meetings in the assembly hall of one of local enterprises.
In addition, as stated by the prosecutor's warning, these meetings were held on behalf of an unregistered religious organization called "Church of Christ the Savior", which is prohibited by applicable law. In this regard, the Prosecutor's Office of Homieĺ warned Pastor Nikalayenka that, in the case of further illegal activities, he could be prosecuted under Art. 193.1 of the Criminal Code (illegal organization of the activity of a public association, religious organization or foundation, or participation in their activities). This was the first similar warning since the beginning of the year.
7. Violations of freedom of expression, conscience and assembly
Mikalai Lusto was detained on July 24 near the building of the Central Election Commission, where he staged a picket with a poster saying “Why Elect? Let’s Crown! No to Elections!” He was later punished by a fine of 4.5 million rubles on charges of illegal picketing (Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code).
Numerous appeals by civil society activists and human rights defenders against bans imposed by local authorities on pickets were rejected by the courts for formal or frivolous reasons.
Illia Dabratvor received a message from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which confirmed the registration of his complaint of a violation his right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
The Investigation Committee of the Lida district opened a criminal case into a flashmob staged in the town of Biarozaŭka. On July 25, an unknown masked man left several car tires and lit smoke bombs outside the entrance to the Nioman glassworks. He also scattered leaflets depicting a skull and a crossbones icon. As a result, police officers searched the apartment of local activist Vitold Ashurak, seizing a computer, a printer and a USB flash drive.
The department of ideology of the Minsk city executive committee banned a concert of a famous Belarusian artist Dzmitry Vaitsiushkevich, which was scheduled for July 22. The ban referred to alleged violations of the law reportedly committed by the performer. However, the decision did not specify which violations were committed by Vaitsiushkevich: the document cited a regulation covering a wide range of violations, including propaganda of war or extremist activities.
8. Ill-treatment and torture
Political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok was held in cell-type premises, where he was transferred for a period of six months. He shares a cell of 5 square meters with another prisoner. Although consistent with national standards, these conditions are a means of ill-treatment for the prisoner held there almost 24 hours a day.
The Homieĺ Regional Prosecutor found no violations in a probe into the death of Aliaksandr Akulich in a temporary detention facility of the Svietlahorsk district police department. His mother has been for more than three years trying to prosecute police officers who, instead of providing medical care to her son, beat him with rubber batons, having fastened the prisoner to an iron door.
Another ill-treatment complaint by Piotr Kuchura, who is serving a sentence in prison No. 4 in Mahilioŭ, was actually left without consideration by the General Prosecutor's Office: it was forwarded to the Investigation Committee, whose actions were appealed in the complaint. Head of the Regional Department and Deputy Chairman of the Investigation Committee refused to open a timely probe at the request of the prisoner’s wife. As a result, an expert statement of injury became impossible.
9. Guarantees of a fair trial
Shabnam Hudoydodova, an activist of the Tajik opposition movement Group 24, was unable to see her lawyer for more than ten days while awaiting extradition to Tajikistan in a detention facility in Brest, which violated her rights and limited the ability to prepare for the consideration of the case.
10. The death penalty
On July 4, the Supreme Court considered the appeal by Siarhei Ivanou, a resident of Rečyca who was sentenced to death on 18 March 2015 by a verdict of the Homieĺ Regional Court for a murder committed with special cruelty. Thus, the verdict entered into legal force and, in case of failure to appeal the sentence under supervisory procedures and obtain pardon from the President, the death sentence will be executed.
It should be noted that this is the first death verdict in 2015.