Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2015
The Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2015
- during November, there were no systemic changes indicating the willingness of the authorities to drastically improve the human rights situation in the country;
- the month was marked by a continuation of the policy of ‘soft practices’ observed earlier since August. During November, there were no new politically motivated cases, while a series of street, including unauthorized, protests organized by a number of opposition and public figures in the capital, took place without the intervention of law enforcement and without arrests of their organizers and participants;
- despite some positive developments, the authorities continued the practice of bringing to administrative responsibility and imposing fines on organizers and participants in unsanctioned events. In November, there were also a number of cases of arbitrary detentions. Of particular concern are the facts of cruel and inhuman treatment by law enforcement officials;
- the authorities failed to take any steps to restore in full the civil and political rights of recently released political prisoners, while the politically motivated criminal charges against A. Mikhalevich, Y. Ulyianenkau, M. Piakarski, V. Zharomski, and V. Kasinerau were not dropped;
- in November, there were several facts of putting pressure on human rights defenders in connection with the exercise of their human rights functions. In particular, the law enforcement authorities initiated administrative proceedings against Natallia Satsukevich and Siarhei Kaspiarovich, observers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, who monitored an unsanctioned meeting on November 24 in Minsk;
- on November 20, the Hrodna Regional Court handed down a death sentence to Ivan Kulesh. The verdict was the second death sentence handed down this year.
1. Politically motivated prosecution
On November 2, the Berazino District Court ruled to terminate the preventive supervision of Pavel Vinahradau.
After the events of December 2010, Pavel Vinahradau was arrested and then sentenced to 4 years imprisonment. On September 14, 2011, the activist was released under a pardon decree signed by the head of state. However, he was placed under preventive supervision for a period of 3.5 years.
On December 12, 2014, Pavel Vinahradau, leader of the youth opposition organization Zmena, was forced to leave Minsk in order to avoid harassment and administrative prosecution by law enforcers.
On November 26, a court in Minsk overturned a warning issued against Pavel Kanavalchyk about the possibility of sending him to an activity therapy center.
In particular, Judge A. Rudnitskaya found that at the time of issuing the warning Pavel Kanavalchyk was not suffering from chronic alcoholism, as evidenced by a copy of a medical report, and had not been brought to administrative responsibility three or more times during the year for the commission of administrative offenses while intoxicated. In this regard, the court held that there were no grounds for issuing a warning to Pavel Kanavalchyk.
Yury Shulhan and Pavel Kanavalchyk were detained on July 17 near the entrance to the CEC where they were expected to register Yury as a presidential candidate. Both were charged with an administrative offense under Art. 17.3 of the Administrative Code, "drinking alcohol, soft drinks or beer in a public place, or the appearance in a public place in a drunken state, which offends human dignity and morality." Before the trial, they were held in the detention center, and then the court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district sentenced them to a fine of 5.4 mln rubles each on charges of hooliganism.
On July 31, police officers visited Pavel Kanavalchyk’s apartment and took him to undergo a special medical examination to diagnose him with "alcohol dependence syndrome". The medical commission did not confirm this diagnosis, however the police issued a written warning about the possibility of sending him to an activity therapy center.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" considers this case as politically motivated pressure on Pavel Kanavalchyk, who was active in trying to nominate his associate Yury Shulhan as a presidential candidate.
On November 17, 2015, Andrea Wiktorin, head of the EU Delegation to Belarus, said in an interview with the BelaPAN news agency that the EU would continue to raise the issue of the need to complete the rehabilitation of former political prisoners. She particularly recalled a joint statement of the EU High Representative Federica Mogherini and Johannes Hahn, Commissioner for European Neighborhood Policy & Enlargement Negotiations, of August 22, welcoming the release of political prisoners, but saying that the EU expects the Belarusian authorities to “remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of full civil and political rights of the released”.
2. Violations of freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly
On November 1 and November 8, Minsk hosted traditional demonstrations organized by the party of the CCP BPF to mark Dziady festival. The events were allowed by the Minsk city executive committee and were not marred by any incidents and violations of public order.
In November, there were more trials in the administrative cases of persons involved in peaceful assemblies that were held in Minsk and other cities of the country during October.
In particular, on November 19, the Svislač District Court fined activist Yury Hlebik 4.5 mln rubles for participation in a traditional rally in memory of the 1863 insurgents, which was held on October 31 in the towns of Svislač and Jakušoŭka. The administrative case was heard by Chairman of the District Court Aliaksandr Shylin, who in previous years - in 2012 and 2014 - had sentenced numerous activists to administrative detention and fines. Administrative charges under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (organization of or participation in an unauthorized mass event) were brought against Hrodna human rights defenders Viktar Sazonau and Uladzimir Khilmanovich, as well as opposition activist Edvard Dmukhouski.
On November 20, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk ruled in a case concerning an administrative offense under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code against the leader of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka, who was fined 9 mln rubles for participating in an unsanctioned meeting in memory of the victims of Stalinist repression outside the KGB building in Minsk on October 29.
In addition, the same court considered the administrative case of opposition activist Viachaslau Siuchyk. The charges were heard by Judge Mikhail Khoma. Viachaslau Siuchyk was fined 10.8 million rubles on charges of profanity and participation in an unsanctioned rally on October 4 – a protest against the Russian military base held in Freedom Square. Siuchyk allegedly chanted an offensive phrase against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
On November 24, the center of Minsk hosted an unauthorized meeting organized by opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich. The protest was staged to mark the anniversary of the 1996 referendum. The meeting was held without the intervention of law enforcement officers and detention of its participants and organizers. Despite the fact that the event was not allowed by the Minsk city executive committee, its conduct was not accompanied by a violation of public order and did not violate any other legally protected rights. Despite this, at least 12 people were charged with administrative offenses under Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code. Among them were observers from the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Natallia Satsukevich and Siarhei Kaspiarovich. Thus, police officers equated monitoring freedom of assembly to taking part in a demonstration. Apart from that, administrative charges were brought against journalists Dzmitry Halko (Novy Chas weekly), Halina Abakunchyk (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty), Katsiaryna Andreyeva (Narodnaya Volia newspaper). Later, press secretary of the Minsk police department Aliaksandr Lastouski said that the administrative charges against the journalists were dropped. At the same time, according to police officers, the human rights defenders who monitored the demonstration had no right to be present at the place and are thus participants in an unauthorized meeting. A number of UN and OSCE Special Rapporteurs have been notified about the fact of persecution of human rights defenders.
On November 24, officials from the Ministry of Culture ordered the removal from an exhibition of two works by Aliaksei Marachkin "Duel, or Resistance to the Two-Headed Mutant" and "The Virgin of Heaven’s Hundred", as well as Ales Pushkin’s painting "In Memory of Belarusians who Died for Ukraine", and a work by artist Viktar Markavets. Later, the painting "The Virgin of Heaven’s Hundred" was returned to the exhibition.
However, the following day unknown officials ordered to remove two more pictures: a work by Ales Tsyrkunou dedicated to the participation of Belarusians in the battle of Monte Cassino and a painting by Uladzimir Krukouski entitled "What Kind of People Are We?".
These facts are nothing but a manifestation of censorship. It should be noted that in accordance with Art. 33 of the Constitution, censorship is not allowed in the country.
3. Violations of freedom of association, harassment of human rights defenders
On November 9, tax inspector Tatsiana Haspadarava submitted an act of a desk audit saying that human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka concealed 500 rubles of salary and 387,000 rubles from the dividends received on shares. At the same time, the tax authority asked Sudalenka to explain how and to whom he had sold agricultural products, from the sales of which he declared a cash income for the period.
According to Leanid Sudalenka, it is absurd to demand explanations about onions and beets sold three years ago, in 2012. “And if I asked the inspector from whom he bought watermelon on the market three years ago? As for the dividends, the inspector mentioned the assessed amount, while I declared the received one, that is, 12% tax on dividends have already been calculated. Hiding a salary of 500 rubles is a calculation error, which would be ignored if any other citizen were in question,” said the human rights activist.
It should be noted that during the year, Leanid Sudalenka has been repeatedly subjected to pressure from various governmental authorities in connection with his active human rights work.
4. Arbitrary detentions
Police authorities continued using ill-treatment and arbitrary detention in respect of football fans: at a match between FC Sluck and FC Homieĺ on November 21, a banner was raised and firecrackers were lit in the away sector. After the match, all the away fans (about 50 people) were taken to the police station. Both on the way and in the department, according to belultras.by, the fans were constantly subjected to beatings, threats and insults from the riot policemen. The detainees were forced to stand along the perimeter of the yard, and the police officers videotaped them, forcing them to show pictures on T-shirts and tattoos, selectively beating the fans with truncheons. A few hours later, all of them were released, and one minor detainee was charged with an administrative offense.
On November 6, Tamara Siarhei, leader of a civil initiative “Against Lawlessness in the Courts and Prosecutor’s Offices”, was detained at the central railway station in Minsk. She was accompanied by several activists of the initiative. The women had intended to come to the site of the inauguration of Lukashenka in order to hand him a petition. The police officers had no legitimate grounds for detention; according to them, Tamara Siarhei was suspected of committing a theft.
5. Ill-treatment and torture
Viachaslau Kasinerau, an activist accused of drawing graffiti in public places, received a message saying that a criminal case had been opened to investigate inflicting less serious bodily injuries during his brutal detention by riot police (special detachment of the Interior Ministry) on August 11 this year. The investigation is carried out by the Minsk City Department of the Investigative Committee.
The authorities continue investigating the death Ihar Ptsichkin, who died as a result of ill-treatment in Minsk remand prison No. 1. The investigation was resumed after his mother Zhanna Ptsichkina requested to do so. She, as a victim in the case, received the results of another examination. However, Ms. Ptsichkina is still forbidden to disclose investigation materials: the victim’s mother is deprived of the possibility to speak about the investigation under the threat of criminal punishment.
Investigating officials have not yet completed a probe into the beating and ill-treatment of fans detained at a punk concert in August this year. As explained by one of the victims, three months have passed, but so far the investigator has only interviewed all the witnesses in the case. The investigation has not announced any conclusions yet.
In addition, the organizers of the concert have been unable to return the equipment and musical instruments seized by the police, as the Minsk district department of internal affairs took the equipment due to violation of the order of organizing or holding a mass event, but later the administrative case was closed. The owner of the instruments and the equipment has repeatedly written to the law enforcement agencies asking to return the equipment, but received refusals on the grounds that she had no documents confirming the purchase of the equipment, because it was bought within several years in different countries.
Zmitser Khvedaruk, who was detained during a football match in Barysaŭ on October 12 and held for almost 24 hours in the district police department, complained of the conditions of detention in the local temporary detention facility. The answer received by the activist from the National Epidemiology Center of the Department of Finance and the Rear of the Interior Ministry confirmed his words about the conditions in which people awaiting trial or under arrest are held. An inspection found that the sanitary condition of the cell was poor: there are traces of water at the junction of the wall and the ceiling near the windows, the sanitary equipment is extremely worn. The washbasin is defective. One of the two windows had no glass. The window frames are worn. The natural lighting is insufficient. An overhaul was planned for 2015, but due to lack of funding has been shifted to a later date.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" wrote to the head of the Department of Corrections of the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the conditions of detention of Andrei Bandarenka, former head of the Platform Innovation NGO, after it was reported that during the period of serving the sentence there was a danger to his life and health. As a result, he was repeatedly placed in a so-called safe place, which, in fact, is an isolated cell. This occurred with the connivance of the colony administration of informal relations among prisoners, which allowed to create the conditions for cruel, degrading treatment of individual prisoners. Of all the measures mentioned above, the administration used only one which does not solve the problems of the convicted persons and the rule of law in the colonies as a whole, limiting the degree of freedom with respect to the rules of serving the sentence of imprisonment. The prison, instead of protecting the rights of the imprisoned human rights defender, formally and without special conditions created by some of the prisoners towards Bandarenka, in the absence of proper monitoring from the colony administration, responded to the formal violation of the disciplinary rules. Bandarenka received several disciplinary sanctions, was labeled a “malicious offender”, as a result of which he was deprived of his right to amnesty. Moreover, the prison administration expressed its intention to toughen the conditions of his detention by putting him in maximum-security prison. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" called to put an end to groundless harassment of Andrei Bandarenka by the administration of the penal colony; to investigate the detention conditions of Andrei Bandarenka; to order the prison authorities to provide safe conditions of detention of Andrei Bandarenka, which would not humiliate his human dignity; to allow a meeting of Andrei Bandarenka with representatives of the country’s human rights organizations. The human rights activists were also forced to send another appeal to the Department of Corrections and the Ministry of the Interior in connection with the fact that the original appeal was left without consideration due to lack of power of attorney from Bandarenka. The appeal is also expected to remind the officials about the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms.
Leanid Kulakou, activist of the European Belarus opposition movement, who complained about the conditions of detention in Smaliavičy, where he was serving an administrative arrest, received a reply to his appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office of the same district. The Prosecutor's Office said that a probe into alleged violations of living and sanitary conditions of detainees failed to confirm the activist’s report. However, this conclusion is contrary to the violations of the rules of detention established by the Office of the supervisory and executive activities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs: an earlier inspection found several shortcomings in logistics at the Smaliavičy police department. After Kulakou’s complaint was sent to the Prosecutor’s Office, the detention center was renovated to improve the living conditions of prisoners, but the Interior Ministry found no violations of the rights of prisoners.
As a result of a complaint by the mother of Aliaksandr Akulich, who died in the detention center of the Svietlahorsk district police station, the District Court reversed a decision of the investigator on the refusal to institute criminal proceedings; the probe into the death has been underway for more than three years. The basis of such a decision was the incompleteness of the investigation.
6. Violation of social and economic rights. Forced labor
On October 27, the Kruhlaje district hosted the Day of Unpaid Labor in the Workplace. According to the executive committee, all the employees are required to donate the money earned on the day to a special account of the district executive committee.
The district newspaper Sieĺskaje Žyccio wrote that the executive committee decided to arrange the action “at the suggestion of a number of local labor groups in order to raise funds to carry out work on the improvement, current repair of parking lots, repair of the children's hospital, purchase of furniture for the children’s department of the district hospital.”
The organizations were recommended to transfer funds earned on the day of unpaid labor on a voluntary basis to an off-budget account of the district executive committee.
This year, Kruhlaje hosted the Dažynki agricultural festival, which was preceded by weekly voluntary work. On February 25, the district hosted another Day of unpaid labor, according to the decision of the executive committee, in order to raise funds to carry out work on the improvement of the town connection with the district festival.
7. The death penalty
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied to Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus”, who earlier notified the MFA about the registration of an individual communication submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Committee on behalf of Siarhei Ivanou, a resident of Rečyca sentenced to death in March 2015. The human rights activist stressed that, in accordance with the Committee’s Rules of Procedure, the state should not execute the death sentence, pending consideration of the convict’s complaint by the Committee. The Ministry said in its reply that it informed the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Interior about the registration of the complaint.
Earlier, Andrei Paluda received replies from the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Interior Ministry. They refused to consider his petition, citing the fact that the human rights defender failed to submit a power of attorney for the right to represent Siarhei Ivanou. The power of attorney had been signed by the convict, but was not sent by the Department of Corrections to the human rights defender. Andrei Paluda said that that after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had informed the competent authorities, international rules should be met in respect of Siarhei Ivanou, namely, that the death penalty will not be executed while his communication is considered by the UN Human Rights Committee.
On November 20, Hrodna Regional Court chaired by Judge Anatol Zayats sentenced to death a resident of Lida District Ivan Kulesh. He was accused of committing three murders, theft and robbery. Ivan Kulesh, 28, was raised in an orphanage and had only 9 grades of school education. At age 18, he was convicted for the first time for theft. In 2014, he was accused of theft and false denunciation. The defender asked the court to sentence the defendant to 25 years’ imprisonment, taking into account that Kulesh signed a confession and cooperated with the investigation.
In this regard, the Council of Europe said that deeply regretted the verdict and urged the Belarusian authorities to impose a moratorium on the death penalty without delay. The EU External Action Service published a statement by the press secretary of the death penalty in Belarus, which expressed concern about the imposition of another death sentence in Belarus and reminded the authorities about the inhumanity of capital punishment. Amnesty International announced an urgent action against the death penalty handed down to Ivan Kulesh, calling to seek the abolition of the death sentence.