Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2015
The Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2015
September was marked by an ongoing trend of certain mitigating in the human rights situation in the country, which began in August, with no systemic changes in the area observed, however;
- on August 31, two persons involved in the so-called ‘graffiti case’, Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski, were released from pre-trial prison No. 1 in Minsk, after their preventive measure was changed. However, the investigation of the criminal case initiated under Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) has not yet been terminated;
- Ales Mikhalevich, a former presidential candidate in the 2010 election, remained under an investigation after he was detained while crossing the state border of Belarus, where he returned after four years of exile. Due to the risk of ongoing politically motivated criminal cases, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" urged the government to stop them;
- in September, Minsk hosted a series of pickets organized by a number of opposition politicians. These public events were held without interference of internal affairs bodies, neither participants or the organizers were detained, and the protests were not forced to stop, but their organizers were later fined in administrative proceedings. Meanwhile, the regions saw an ongoing practice of bans on public events, including related to the subject of elections;
- on September 24, President Lukashenka signed Decree No. 401, which enforced Belarus’ accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 13, 2006. It should be noted that the Belarusian human rights organizations have repeatedly called on the authorities of Belarus to accede to the United Nations Convention.
2. Politically motivated prosecution
On August 31, two persons involved in the so-called ‘graffiti case’, Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski, were released from pre-trial prison No. 1 in Minsk, after their preventive measure was changed. Both defendants were held in custody for more than 20 days. On August 11, five men were violently detained on suspicion of being involved in three criminal cases: drawing graffiti "Belarus Must Be Belarusian" and "Revolution of Consciousness, It Is Already in Progress...", as well as smearing with paint of a billboard with the image of the police officers.
On August 20, the Investigative Committee formally charged Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski under Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code, "hooliganism committed by a group of persons."
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" released a statement about the situation and demanded the immediate release from detention of Viachaslau Kasinerau, Maksim Piakarski, and Vadzim Zharomski.
The investigation in this case is still in progress, and has already involved four persons: Maksim Piakarski and Vadzim Zharomski as the accused, as well as Yaraslau Uliyanenkau and Viachaslau Kasinerau as suspects.
On September 8, border officers detained Ales Mikhalevich, one of the presidential candidates in the 2010 election, as he was crossing the Belarusian-Lithuanian border. The politician was detained and handed over to the Interior Ministry, who has been wanted in a criminal case under Part 1. Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (organization of mass disorders).
Ales Mikhalevich was returning from the Czech Republic, where he asked for political asylum in 2011. On the same day, the investigating authorities changed the measure of restraint and released Mikhalevich on bail, but the case against him has not been closed yet. It should be noted that Ales Mikhalevich is the last person involved in the case of "mass riots" opened following the events of December 10, 2010. All the other persons convicted over the protest were either pardoned and released from prison or were released in connection with the expiration of their terms of imprisonment or in respect of which the proceedings were dismissed. After being released from the KGB detention center in 2011, Mikhalevich said publicly about torture and ill-treatment against him and other defendants in the case, which were held in custody.
To protest against the ongoing politically motivated criminal cases, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) issued a joint statement in which they called on the authorities to close all politically motivated criminal cases and launch systemic reforms in the field of human rights.
3. Presidential election
Observers reported an important trend when analyzing the composition of a number of election commissions: they are headed by managers of enterprises and organizations, while regular members include representatives of the same labor collectives nominated in a variety of ways. Technically, it does not violate the Election Code, but in fact deprives commission members of any independence in exercising their powers.
Local authorities decided on the choice of locations for campaigning by presidential candidates; there is no uniform practice or common criteria for the determination of such places; decisions of local executive bodies are often inconsistent and restrict candidates' ability to campaign. In general, such restrictions violate the citizens’ right to peaceful assembly.
In September, election officials completed the verification of signature sheets in support of the nomination of presidential candidates; on September 10, the CEC registered four presidential candidates.
On September 11, the office of the HRC "Viasna" hosted a press conference of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders For Free Elections" on the occasion of completion of the three important stages of organizational measures on the preparation and holding of this year’s presidential election, which actually makes up half of the election campaign.
Already in September, human rights defenders documented preparation for coercion of voters to vote at individual companies and organizations.
The stage of election campaigning is still underway. Campaigning for the incumbent is accompanied by numerous instances of the use of administrative resources and the resources of state-owned media.
4. Arbitrary detentions
On September 9, police officers in Jeĺsk, Homieĺ region, detained Aliaksandr Rybachenka, an activist of the European Belarus opposition movement. He was detained after attempting to photograph flyers calling for a boycott of the elections. The activist was held in the police station for more than three hours. He was eventually released without charges.
On September 27, a group of football fans (about 30 people) were detained by police officers in Baranavičy, after they approached a picket staged by local civil society activist Ryhor Hryk to protest against the deployment of a Russian military base in Belarus. The fans were then taken to the police station.
5. Violations of freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly
Local authorities banned a number of peaceful assemblies across Belarus: the Mikaševičy town executive committee did not allow the parents of pupils attending local school No. 3 to protest against the closure of the school, while the Salihorsk district executive committee banned a picket against urban densification.
Belarusian courts continued to dismiss activists’ and human rights defenders’ appeals against groundless bans on peaceful assemblies, while higher courts agree with such decisions, e.g. an appeal against an earlier decision of the Biaroza District Court to confirm a ban on a peaceful assembly.
Former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich was invited to the head of Minsk city executive committee’s department of internal affairs, after he announced his intention to hold on September 10 a rally in the center of Minsk. He was accused of breaking the law. On September 10, during the rally he was charged with an administrative offense under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code; however, the picket was resumed. On September 22, Mikalai Statkevich was fined 7.2 million rubles.
Opposition politician Uladzimir Niakliayeu was also prosecuted for his involvement in the picket.
On September 16, chairman of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka and other opposition activists held a picket in Minsk to mark the anniversary of the enforced disappearance of opposition leader Viktar Hanchar and businessman Anatol Krasouski. The organizers of the picket, Anatol Liabedzka and Mikalai Kazlou, were charged with an administrative offense, which violated their right to peaceful assembly.
On September 23, Minsk hosted a mass event to discuss the outcomes of the activities of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The organizers of the picket, Mikalai Statkevich, Uladzimir Niakliayeu and Anatol Liabedzka, faced administrative charges; however, the rally continued.
On September 30, the Centraĺny District Court fined Anatol Liabedzka a total of 7.2 million rubles for his involvement in the two protests. Mikalai Kazlou was fined 5.4 milion rubles. Uladzimir Niakliayeu and Mikalai Statkevich were fined in absentia 5.4 and 9 million rubles, respectively.
6. Ill-treatment and torture
Maksim Piakarski, a defendant in the ‘graffiti cases’, told about his brutal arrest and the detention of other defendants in the case by the police. The detainees were beaten, including with a stunning device, subjected to psychological pressure, which grossly violated their procedural rights. In addition, police officers put psychological pressure on their relatives, including Yaraslau Uliyanenkau’s pregnant fiancée. Viachaslau Kasinerau was also severely beaten, which resulted in a broken jaw; this happened after the actual arrest.
A request by Yaraslau Uliyanenkau, one of the beaten detainees, to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers was dismissed by the Investigative Committee.
The authorities continued to investigate the death of Ihar Ptsichkin, an inmate of Minsk-based pre-trial prison No. 1. The probe was resumed after repeated requests by his mother, Zhanna Ptsichkina. However, the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General's Office did not allow Zhanna Ptsichkina to have access to a decision of the Prosecutor General's Office to cancel an earlier order to close the case. The entire process of investigation is classified, as the victim’s mother is deprived of any opportunity to speak about the details of the investigation under the threat of criminal punishment.
Former political prisoner Yury Rubtsou reported inhuman and abusive treatment in the Baranavičy remand prison.
Facts of cruel and degrading treatment of prisoners in the country’s penal colonies were told to the Human Rights Center "Viasna" by a former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok.
A great public outcry was triggered by the excessive use of violence during the arrest of a Minsk resident who begged alms in a pedestrian underpass. He was detained and prosecuted for resisting arrest and alleged use of violence against police officers. However, instead of an unbiased investigation in the unprofessional and violent actions of police officers, as well as the reasons that caused the citizen to oppose them, the Investigative Committee and the Interior Ministry focused on creating a negative reputation of the victim and refused to admit a violation by the police.
7. The death penalty
On September 25, the OSCE Human Dimension Conference in Warsaw hosted an exchange of views on the abolition of the death penalty. At the hearing, Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus", told in detail about the situation with sentencing and executing death convicts in Belarus.