Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2015
The Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2015
- in December, there were no systemic changes aimed at reforming the country’s human rights record;
- despite the fact that all peaceful assemblies held throughout the month in Minsk and other cities of the country were not prevented or stopped by law enforcement officers, some of the participants in these meetings, however, were brought to administrative responsibility and fined for taking part in the meetings;
- the Ministry of Justice continued the practice of denying state registration to newly established associations. The grounds for refusal to register were in no way based on the permissible restrictions on freedom of association established by the Constitution of Belarus and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, were clearly politically motivated and selective;
- during the month, there were no new politically motivated criminal cases, while a number of earlier politically motivated cases against Ales Mikhalevich, Aliaksandr Alesin, Maksim Piakarski, Vadzim Zharomski, and Viachaslau Kasinerau were not closed. The authorities failed to take any steps aimed at full restoration of the civil rights of political prisoners that were released earlier;
- as a result of a full and comprehensive review of the criminal case of the founder of the private cultural institution "Platform-Innovation" Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, human rights defenders stressed the unjustified and politically motivated nature of the case. The country’s leading human rights organizations view Mikhail Zhamchuzhny as a political prisoner and demand an immediate review of the case in an open trial with observance of his right to a fair trial;
- representatives of the country’s human rights organizations still call on the authorities to take a number of restorative measures aimed at improving the human rights situation in the country and demonstrate their interest in further development of the Belarusian-European relations;
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
On December 7, representatives of the country’s seven leading human rights organizations issued a joint statement saying that the prosecution of Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was groundless and politically motivated, and demanding an immediate revision of the court verdict and observance of the right to a fair trial.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was the founder of the private cultural institution "Platform-Innovation". One of its activities was monitoring places of detention.
A sentence of 7 October 2015 by the judicial board for criminal cases of the Viciebsk Regional Court, in view of the changes made to the verdict by the Supreme Court on 23 October 2015, found Mikhail Zhamchuzhny guilty of committing crimes under Part 5, Art. 16, Part 1, Art. 375, Part 1 and Part 2, Art. 376, Part 1 and Part 2, Art. 431 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to 6.5 years of imprisonment in a penal colony under strict regime with a deprivation of the right to hold positions related to the implementation of organizational and administrative duties.
On December 9, persons involved in the so-called “graffiti case”, Maksim Piakarski, Vadzim Zharomski, Yaraslau Uliyanenkau, and Viachaslau Kasinerau faced final charges.
The initial criminal charges against Maksim Piakarski for drawing political graffiti (Part 2, Article 339 of the Criminal Code, “hooliganism committed by a group of persons”) were replaced by Article 341, “desecration of facilities and damage to property.”
Yaraslau Ulyianenkau was cleared of all the charges.
Viachaslau Kasinerau and Vadzim Zharomski still faced charges under Part 2, Article 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism committed by group of persons), with the latter facing an additional charge under Article 341 of the Criminal Code.
It should be noted that an examination found no signs of extremism in the drawings.
The authorities once again refused to drop the criminal charges brought against ex-presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich for being involved in the riots of 19 December 2010.
According to Ales Mikhalevich, he intends to file another petition, this time to the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk. Meanwhile, the ex-presidential candidate remains in the status of the accused in a criminal case related to the events that took place five years ago.
As it became known to human rights activists, the KGB did not close a criminal case opened in 2014 against journalist and columnist for the weekly "Belarusians and Market" Aliaksandr Alesin.
Aliaksandr Alesin was detained by the KGB in a cafe in Minsk when allegedly transferring information that constituted a state secret to a representative of one of the EU embassies in Belarus. Alesin was arrested on suspicion of committing a crime under Art. 356 of the Criminal Code (high treason) and placed in the KGB detention center in Minsk. On 10 December 2014, he was released from custody on his own recognizance, and the charge against him was changed to Art. 356.1 of the Criminal Code (establishing cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies without signs of treason). The authority in charge of the criminal prosecution forced the journalist, contrary to the rules of criminal procedure legislation, to sign a subscription not to disclose the investigation materials. Thus, under the threat of criminal prosecution, Alesin was afraid to make any comments on the case, including in respect of his procedural status.
On December 9, human rights organizations issued a statement urging the authorities to cease the politically motivated criminal prosecution of Ales Mikhalevich, Aliaksandr Alesin, Maksim Piakarski, Vadzim Zharomski, and Viachaslau Kasinerau, and to review in an open trial the criminal case against Mikhail Zhamchuzhny.
Freedom of association and harassment of human rights defenders
On December 1, the Main Directorate of Justice of the Minsk City Executive Committee denied state registration to the cultural and educational public association "New Alternative". The reason for the decision was a mismatch between the organization’s name and the objectives specified in its charter.
The civil campaign "Tell the Truth" was for the fourth time denied state registration as a public association.
The Ministry of Justice claims that some of the documents provided by the campaign did not comply with legislation. Among them – lack of signature of the association’s head in separate documents. Representatives of "Tell the Truth" believe that the violations were remediable, while the law says that the grounds for refusal of registration can only be an irremediable violation. Moreover, the registration authority refused to grant a reprieve in order to correct these shortcomings in the constituent documents.
On December 3, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint program of FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), issued a statement in connection with the judicial administrative prosecution of Siarhei Kaspiarovich and Natallia Satsunkevich, observers of the joint project of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, who monitored the peaceful demonstration held in Minsk on 24 November 2015.
The statement expressed concern over attempts by the Belarusian government to restrict freedom of association, freedom of assembly and expression on the part of human rights defenders and urged the authorities to cease all proceedings against Siarhei Kaspiarovich and Natallia Satsunkevich.
On December 7, the tax inspection in Homieĺ closed an administrative case against local human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka. The decision referred to the “insignificance” of the offense. The human rights activist was accused of concealing 500 rubles (0.03 Euros) and 387,024 rubles (21 Euros) received on dividends. The tax authorities have repeatedly harassed Leanid Sudalenka, asking him to report on his income on dubious grounds. In particular, he had to report his income and property for the last three years. In 2012, his wife, mother-in-law and son, who at the time served in the army, were ordered to submit a declaration of income and property for five years (2007-2001). Leanid Sudalenka said the harassment was due to his human rights activities.
Right to information. Violation of journalists’ rights
There were more cases of interference in the activities of independent journalists.
In Brest, Vadzim Liaukovich, head of the Chief Directorate of relations with the media, ideology, culture and youth affairs of the Brest Regional Executive Committee, prohibited government employees to give comments to reporters Ales Liauchuk and Milana Kharytonava when shooting a story for the TV channel "Belsat". The official said the journalists had to be accredited for that. According to Ales Liauchuk, it was the first attempt of the authorities to prevent journalists in Brest from performing their professional duties after this year’s presidential election.
On December 22, Homieĺ freelance journalist Kanstantsin Zhukouski and his aide Arkadz Malysh were detained for three hours in the Karma district police department. The police were called by deputy chief of the department of ideology, culture and youth affairs of the Karma district executive committee Tatsiana Viarkeyenka after Zhukouski filmed a story about providing local residents with drinking water.
On February 25, Kanstantsin Zhukouski was summoned to the Kalinkavičy district police department to face administrative charges, which, according to a police officer, were due to fact that the journalist “interviewed people and made a report, which was broadcast on the satellite TV channel “Belsat” via the Internet.” However, the freelance journalist refused to go to Kalinkavičy.
At the same time, the government creates favorable conditions for the functioning of the state media. Independent journalists of the Kryčaŭ-based newspaper Voĺny Horad said they possessed an order by the administration of the Kryčaŭcemientašyfier enterprise, which charged head of one of the divisions to arrange subscription to state-run newspapers. In particular, the order determined that employees should subscribe for the 1st half of 2016 to a number of "state-controlled publications", namely the newspapers Znamya Yunosti, Zviazda, Sovetskaya Belorussia, Narodnaja Hazieta, Respublika, Mahilioŭskija Viedamasci and Krichevskaya Zhizn. The order also mentions specific number of copies for each of the newspaper.
Employees of Salihorsk enterprises, organizations and institutions were forced to subscribe to state-owned newspapers. The order was issued by the ideology department of the Salihorsk district executive committee. This distribution list signed by the deputy chairman of the Salihorsk district executive committee urged heads of local enterprises, their deputies and chairmen of official trade unions and social organizations to subscribe for the first half of 2016 to the state-controlled media: Sovetskaya Belorussia, Minskaja praŭda and the local newspaper Šachcior.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
On November 30, the Navapolatsk court imposed an administrative penalty on Andrei Haidukou, an activist of the organizing committee of the party "Belarusian Christian Democracy", for a picket in memory of the disappeared politicians. As a result, he was fined 8.1 million rubles under Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code.
On December 2, Minsk hosted the "students’ march." The event was not stopped by police, despite the fact that permission to hold it in the established order was never received by the demonstrators. However, at the site three protesters were charged with administrative violations. The personal data of seven more demonstrators and six observers were copied by the police officers.
On December 23, one of the participants in the "students’ march", Pavel Siarhei, was fined 4.5 million rubles under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code. On December 30, another demonstrator, Hleb Vaikul, was fined 3.24 million rubles.
On December 3, the Svičlač District Court fined Viktar Sazonau and Edvard Dmukhouski 1.8 million rubles each under Part 1, Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for participating in unsanctioned rally and march on October 31. A total of 40 persons were charged for being involved in the events.
On December 8, human rights activist Uladzimir Khilmanovich was fined 7.2 million rubles for participation in the same events.
On December 30, the same charges against Vital Huliak were used by the Vaŭkavysk District Court to fine the activist 7.2 million rubles. The court ignored the fact that Vital Huliak has a disability and was brought to the courtroom from the hospital.
Natallia Satsunkevich and Siarhei Kaspiarovich, observers from the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, were charged with administrative offenses for monitoring a public event held in Minsk to mark the anniversary of the 1996 referendum. On December 7, the judge sent both cases for revision. This attempt to prosecute independent observers was sharply condemned by both national and international human rights organizations.
On the same day, the courts of Minsk fined participants of the said event: Anton Zhylko (3.6 mln rubles), and Stanislau Paulinkevich (4.5 mln rubles). The cases of three more protesters, Pavel Seviarynets, Andrei Davidovich and Maksim Viniarski were sent back for revision.
On December 10, the day of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, volunteers and human rights activists of the HRC "Viasna" staged an event in the center of Minsk to congratulate local residents on the Human Rights Day and distribute the text of the Declaration, as well as information leaflets devoted to the issue of the death penalty in Belarus.
On the same day, activists of the European Belarus opposition campaign held a picket in Minsk to demand the abolition of the death penalty. The picketers displayed a poster with an appeal to the community to speak out against the death penalty, which violates the right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the protesters, Leanid Kulakou, later faced administrative charges.
On December 25, a student of the Fortinbras theater studio, Mikhail Kauko, staged a picket at a plaza outside the City Hall in Minsk, which at that time hosted an official Christmas event. He was wearing gloves with chemical fillers, and then set his hands on fire. The aim of the action was drawing attention to the problems of the deaf and hearing impaired. On December 30, Mikhail Kauko stood trial on charges of violation of Part 2, Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code ("organizing an unauthorized event") and was punished by a fine of 3.6 million rubles.
Meanwhile, all attempts by opposition and human rights activists to obtain official permissions were still rejected by local authorities: the Biaroza district executive committee banned a picket near the entrance to the town’s central stadium. The refusal was motivated by the fact that at that time the stadium was expected to host another event. However, at the designated time, the stadium was empty.
The Minsk city executive committee banned a rally that was expected to be staged on December 20 in the Friendship of Nations Park. The picket was expected to protest against a possible increase in the retirement age. The application for holding the mass event was filed in the Minsk city executive committee on behalf of one of the members of the organizing committee for the establishment of the National Bolshevik Party. The reason for the ban was another event that was reportedly scheduled for the same date. At the same time, the response did not contain proposals on the possible alternatives for the time and place of the planned meeting.
The authorities of Minsk did not allow activists of a civil initiative against the lawlessness in the courts and the prosecutor's offices to conduct a picket in the city center. The event was scheduled for December 17 and was expected to bring together 15 people.
Right to life. The death penalty
The United Nations Human Rights Committee published a decision in response to a complaint by Pavel Sialiun, who was sentenced to death on 12 June 2013. The author’s interests were represented by coordinator of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” Andrei Paluda. The Committee noted that the right to life under article 6 of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was violated because the author was sentenced to death as a result of an unfair trial.
The Committee notes in its Views that notes that the State party failed to respect its “request for interim measures by executing the author before the Committee had concluded its consideration of the communication.”
In his complaint, Pavel Sialiun argued that he was “beaten by several police officers and subjected to physical and psychological pressure to force him to confess guilt in a number of crimes.” The Committee said that “due weight must be given to the author’s allegations”, since “those allegations have not been refuted by the State party.” Accordingly, the Committee found that the facts before it disclosed a violation of the author's rights under article 7 of the Covenant.
The Committee further noted the author’s statement that he was tortured and forced to confess his guilt in several crimes. Therefore, information obtained under torture must be excluded from evidence. In the absence of any information from the State party in this regard, the Committee concluded that the facts before it are evidence of a separate violation of the author’s rights under Article 14 (3) (d) of the Covenant.
The Committee also stressed that “the principle of presumption of innocence was not respected in his case.” The Committee said that the facts demonstrate that the right to be presumed innocent (before sentencing), as guaranteed by article 14 (2) of the Covenant, was violated in respect of Pavel Sialiun.
In this context, the Committee noted that “during more than six months of pretrial detention, the author did not have effective and continued access to his lawyers, and that the majority of the investigative actions, such as cross examinations and interrogations, took place in the absence of a lawyer.”
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" received information that Pyotr Ivanik, a Russian national, who had been sentenced to death in the United Arab Emirates, was awaiting extradition in jail No. 1 in Minsk. The First Secretary of the Russian Consulate in Belarus confirmed the fact in a telephone conversation with the coordinator of the campaign Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” Andrei Paluda. The diplomat said the consulate was also contacted by Pyotr Ivanik’s relatives. He assured that the consulate would monitor the case and thanked the human rights defenders for their pro-active attitude. The First Secretary promised to cooperate with the campaign in the Russian national’s case.
The UN Human Rights Committee registered an individual communication submitted by Volha Hrunova, the mother of Aliaksandr Hrunou, who was executed in 2014. The death convict’s mother appeals against a violation of her son’s right not to be subjected to cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment and the right to a fair trial. The communication was sent to the State party for comments on the merits.