Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2016
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2016
- in January, there were no changes that would have demonstrated the Belarusian authorities’ will to reform the country’s human rights situation;
- the month was marked by certain negative trends, indicating the deterioration of the human rights situation in comparison with the last three months of 2015. In particular, the authorities resumed the practice of administrative harassment of freelance journalists working with foreign media;
- on January 29, the court of Minsk’s Frunzienski district pronounced its verdict in the so-called ‘graffiti case’ trial. The court sentenced Vadzim Zharomski to a fine of 10.5 mln rubles, Maksim Piakarski to a fine of 8.40 mln rubles, and Viachaslau Kasinerau to a fine of 6.3 mln rubles, finding them guilty of damaging facilities. It should be noted that the Belarusian human rights community from the very beginning did not agree with the actions of young people being qualified under Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (“hooliganism”), considering the criminal case to be politically motivated and demanded its termination;
- the authorities failed to close a politically motivated criminal case against the presidential candidate in the 2010 election, Ales Mikhalevich; the criminal case against journalist Aliaksandr Alesin was only suspended, despite the exclusion from the Criminal Code of the article, which was used to charge the journalist. The prison in Barysaŭ district continued to hold Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, whose sentencing was viewed by the country’s human rights community as politically motivated harassment;
- great public attention was triggered by police-related violence against youth activists Pavel Siarhei and Maksim Shytsik, who were beaten by riot policemen after staging a protest against the prosecution of defendants in the ‘graffiti case’ in the Court of Minsk’s Frunzienski district on January 25; Pavel Dabravolski, a journalist of the information Internet portal tut.by, was also beaten during the incident;
- during the month, there were documented facts of brining administrative charges against participants in peaceful assemblies;
- on January 5, the Minsk Regional Court handed down this year's first death sentence to Vilejka resident Henadz Yakavitski. The sentence has not yet entered into force and can be appealed to the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
On January 25, it became known that the criminal case against Aliaksandr Alesin, a columnist of the Belorusy I Rynok weekly, was suspended on the basis of para. 5, Part 1, Art. 246 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (“impossibility to carry out investigative actions, without which a decision to terminate the preliminary investigation can be taken”). In this regard, a preventive measure of his own recognizance was lifted from the journalist.
The journalist was detained by the KGB in a cafe in Minsk on November 25 while allegedly transferring classified materials to a representative of one of the EU embassies in Belarus. Aliaksandr Alesin was detained on suspicion of committing a crime under Art. 356 of the Criminal Code (“high treason”) and placed in the KGB detention center in Minsk. Aliaksandr Alesin was released from custody on December 10 and the charge against him was changed to Art. 356.1 (“establishment of cooperation with foreign intelligence agencies without signs of treason”).
The probable reason for the suspension of the criminal case was the removal from the Criminal Code of Art. 356.1 (removed by Law of the Republic of Belarus No. 356-1 of January 5, 2016), under which Alesin was charged. Over the entire period of this article’s existence (November 2011 to January 2016), human rights defenders know only case of its application – the sentencing on July 1, 2013 of Andrei Haidukou, young activist in Navapolack, to 1.5 years’ imprisonment.
On January 25, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk opened the trial in the criminal case against youth activists Viachaslau Kasinerau, Maksim Piakarski, and Vadzim Zharomski, who in August 2015 draw on a number of buildings and a fence in the city several political graffiti, and also defaced a billboard with the image of a police officer. At the stage of preliminary investigation, an individual entrepreneur Maslennikau, who was found the injured person in the case, filed a request to dismiss the case due to the full compensation of material damage. In addition, a minor material damage was fully compensated to the businesses which owned the facilities where the graffiti were painted. Thus, the investigating authority had the opportunity to stop the prosecution of the young people back at the stage of preliminary investigation.
During the hearings, prosecutor Stsiapurka, who supported charges, read the written materials of the case, including materials of operational actions, which were carried out against the accused. These materials, in particular, suggest that the investigators started tapping the defendants’ mobile phones on May 8, 2015 (before the graffiti were drawn) and finished in August, shortly before their arrest. Such attention by special services to young people may be due to enhanced monitoring of informal youth groups in the run-up to the presidential elections in October 2015, as the authorities might view them as ‘potentially dangerous’ for the government in this period.
In his speech, the prosecutor argued that the defendants’ guilt of the alleged acts was fully proved, and asked to sentence Maksim Piakarski to a fine of 105 mln rubles (Art. 341 of the Criminal Code, “damage to property”), Viachaslau Kasinerau – to 1.5 years of suspended imprisonment (Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code), and Vadzim Zharomski – to 2 years of suspended ‘correctional labor’ (Art. 341 of the Criminal Code and Part. 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code “hooliganism”). The Court reclassified the charges to Art. 341 of the Criminal Code (“property damage”), noting that the nature of the actions does not manifest an overt disrespect for society committed with cynicism that would breach public order.
On January 29, the court of Minsk’s Frunzienski district pronounced its verdict in the so-called ‘graffiti case’ trial. The court sentenced Vadzim Zharomski to a fine of 10.5 mln rubles, Maksim Piakarski to a fine of 8.40 mln rubles, and Viachaslau Kasinerau to a fine of 6.3 mln rubles, finding them guilty of damaging facilities. It should be noted that the Belarusian human rights community from the very beginning did not agree with the actions of young people being qualified under Part 2, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (“hooliganism”), considering the criminal case to be politically motivated and demanded its termination;
In addition, the country’s human rights organizations continued to insist on the cessation of other politically motivated criminal cases.
On the eve of New Year, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) wrote to the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei urging the government to respect the country’s international obligations within the framework of the United Nations and to take steps to implement key requirements of the Human Rights Committee in the case of Ales Bialiatski, including the registration of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and cancellation of his criminal record.
The Committee’s Views were adopted on 24 October 2014, while the human rights defender was still in prison.
“According to the Committee's Views, the refusal of the Belarusian authorities to register the Viasna Association unreasonably restricted the association's members’ right to freedom of association. Sentencing of Aliaksandr Bialiatski to four and a half years of imprisonment for conducting activities on behalf of an unregistered association was a direct consequence of the violation of the right to free association. In his trial the court did not take into account evidence that the funds were received and spent for the legitimate purposes of the association; that the funds did not constitute A. Bialiatski's personal income and the court did not consider the case in the right to freedom of association. Consequently, the Committee found that prosecution of Aliaksandr Bialiatski constituted a violation of his right to freedom of association.
The Committee also established that the pretrial detention of Aliaksandr Bialiatski was arbitrary since the decision regarding his remand in custody was taken by a prosecutor rather than by a judge. Moreover, the decision was based solely on the grounds of the seriousness of the offence and did not contain any reasoning as to the necessity, reasonableness and proportionality of the custodial measure.
The Committee confirmed that throughout the court proceedings, the presumption of innocence was violated with regards to Aliaksandr Bialiatski, because the State-owned media proclaimed his guilt before the verdict was handed down and because the President of Belarus made a public statement, clearly indicating his position regarding the guilt of Aliaksandr Bialiatski. Moreover, the Committee agreed that bringing Aliaksandr Bialiatski to court and back to the detention facility in handcuffs violated his rights.”
The Committee pointed to the violation of Art. 9 (arbitrary detention), Art. 14 (2) (presumption of innocence), Art. 22 (1) (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The petition also stressed that the Committee urged the State party “within 180 days from the date of the adoption of its views, undertake steps that would result in an effective and enforceable remedy to Aliaksandr Bialiatski, including (a) the reconsideration of the application for registration of the Viasna Association, based on criteria compliant with the requirements of Article 22 of the Covenant; (b) annulment of the criminal conviction from his criminal record; and (c) adequate compensation, including reimbursement of the legal costs incurred. The State of Belarus is also under the obligation to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future. In this connection, the State should review its internal legislation to ensure its compliance with the requirements of Article 22 of the Covenant.”
The requirements were completely ignored by the Belarusian authorities.
Violations of freedom of association and harassment of human rights defenders
The Ministry of Justice ruled to suspend for one month the registration of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy” due to the need to provide additional documents by the founders.
This is the sixth attempt to register the party over the past few years. Last time the Ministry of Justice refused to register the BCD on August 14, 2015.
According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the bans are in no way linked to the permissible restrictions on freedom of association referred to in Art. 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and violate the founders’ rights to freedom of association. It is worth recalling that since 2000 Belarusian authorities have not registered a single new political party.
Human rights defender Alena Tankachova, who was deported from Belarus in February 2015, wrote to the Minsk city police department asking to reduce the period of entry ban and remove her from the blacklist.
The activist faced the ban as a result of a decision by the Pieršamajski district police department of Minsk. She can’t enter the country in the next three years. After she appealed against the decision, her stay in Belarus was extended until February 21. On that day, Alena Tankachova left the country for Lithuania. The decision to deport the human rights defender stemmed from a number of minor speeding violations. Russian-born human rights defender Alena Tankachova has lived in Belarus for 30 years. She has an apartment and work in Belarus.
The human rights community in Belarus condemns the expulsion of Alena Tankachova as linked to her human rights activities, as well as the activities of the human rights organization Center for Legal Transformation Lawtrend, which she heads, and insists on lifting the entry ban.
On January 18, chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski, received a ruling from the department of enforcement of judgments of Minsk’s Partyzanski district saying that part of his Minsk apartment (in which he lives with his family) falls under arrest.
The ruling, dated January 4, 2016 and signed by M. Hastela, says that the department has at its disposal writ of execution No. 1-978/2011 of November 24, 2011 of the Pieršamajski district court of Minsk. According to the writ of execution, 18% of Ales Bialiatski’s apartment, in which he lives permanently with his family, shall be arrested as part of the property to be confiscated within his criminal case of 2011.
It is noteworthy that the writ was sent to the Court of Pieršamajski district by the department of enforcement only on December 14, 2015.
According to the verdict of the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk of November 24, 2011, chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski was sentenced to 4 years and 6 months’ imprisonment with confiscation of property which belonged to him by right of ownership – including an apartment, which was home to the central office of the Human Rights Centre "Viasna". Ahead of the trial, the organization's office was seized. On November 26, 2012, the premises were sealed by bailiffs of the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk. All property of the organization was seized. Due to the inability to use the office, members of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" were forced to leave it.
As a result of a series of appeals against the decisions to confiscate the property, the Court of Minsk’s Partyzanski district cancelled the arrest of Ales Bialiatski’s share in the apartment where he lived with his family.
Thus, four years after the sentencing of Ales Bialiatski, the authorities tried to confiscate not only the apartment, which housed the office of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", but in fact to deprive the human rights defender of his residence.
Ales Bialiatski did not rule out that the reason for the sudden activity of bailiffs could be the recent appeal of the International Federation for Human Rights to the Belarusian authorities over the government’s failure to implement a decision by the United Nations Human Rights Committee in the his case, as well as his human rights activities.
The human rights defender appealed against the confiscation order. As a result, on January 25 Ms. Liudmila Kabychkina, head of the department of enforcement of sentences of Minsk’s Partyzanski district, wrote that Ales Bialiatski’s appeal could not be granted, as “grounds for granting or refusing to meet the demands contained in A. Bialiatski’s complaint became irrelevant.” The official explained that the Court of Pieršamajski district (which sentenced Ales Bialiatski on 24 November 2011 to imprisonment with confiscation of property) withdrew an earlier writ of execution in connection with a “mistake”. On this basis, the department withdrew its decision to freeze Ales Bialiatski’s assets and on January 22 ordered to close the execution procedures.
Harassment of journalists
In January, the authorities resumed the practice of persecution of journalists working for foreign media that do not have accreditation in Belarus. On January 12, journalist Larysa Shchyrakova was punished by a fine of 4,620,000 rubles under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (“Illicit manufacture of media products, working without accreditation for foreign media”).
Kanstantsin Zhukouski, a freelance journalist in Homieĺ, received a ruling by the Kalinkavičy District Court, which tried him in absentia and sentenced to a fine of 7.35 million rubles.
In addition, local authorities in Homieĺ region charged three more journalists with working for foreign media.
Pavel Dabravolski, a journalist of the Internet portal tut.by, was brutally beaten by police officers in the premises of the Minsk Frunzienski District Court while covering the ‘graffiti case’ trial on January 25.
Restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
In January, there were new administrative charges against opposition activists for their involvement in street protests and pickets, which were conducted without obtaining permission from the authorities.
On January 5, Maksim Viniarski was punished by a heavy fine for taking part in the Students’ March, which took place December 2. On the same day, Leanid Kulakou was fined 6.3 million rubles for staging a picket on the Human Rights International Day.
On January 19, Aliaksandr Makayeu was punished by a fine of 9,450,000 rubles under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code for participating in the march held on November 24 in Minsk to mark the anniversary of the 1996 referendum and honor the memory of the disappeared politicians. Maksim Viniarski was punished for the same actions by a fine of 10.5 million rubles.
Co-chairman of the BCD party Pavel Seviarynets was sentenced in absentia to a fine of 5,250,000 rubles for involvement in a procession on November 24.
Viachaslau Siuchyk was sentenced in absentia to a fine of 6.3 million rubles for participation in the protests of 10 and 11 October (in Freedom Square and Kastryčnickaja Square on the day of the October presidential election).
One of the organizers of the Students’ March, Hleb Vaikul, was expelled from the Belarusian State University. The activist says the harassment is linked to his civil activities.
Activist Ivan Shyla from Salihorsk wrote to the local Council of Deputies to highlight non-compliance with the country’s international obligations and the human rights standards in the local authorities’ restrictions on public events, which significantly limit the rights of citizens to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. A decision of the Salihorsk district executive committee only allows holding pickets, rallies or meetings at the Budaŭnik stadium on the outskirts of the city and at the Sluč stadium in the town of Starobin. The only authorized location for holding demonstrations and marches in the city is a small pedestrian Lienina Street.
On January 18, Minsk hosted was an unauthorized rally of solidarity with individual entrepreneurs, which brought together 30 people, mostly representatives of the United Civil Party. All the protesters faced charges of administrative offenses.
Businessmen staged rallies across Belarus to protests against the imposition of new trading restrictions: on January 22 in Baranavičy, where about 300 people gathered outside the city executive committee; in Viciebsk, where about 200 people gathered near the regional executive committee on January 22, and about 500 people on January 28; in Homieĺ, where about 500 people protested near the regional executive committee on January 19; on January 22 about a hundred people gathered near the district executive committee in Polack.
Torture and ill-treatment
In January, there were a few documented facts of abuse committed by employees of the Interior Ministry.
On January 9, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" received information from Larysa Zhyhar, representative of the public initiative “Mothers’ Movement 328”, who said that Yahor Pratasenia, 20, had committed a suicide attempt in the Žodzina jail to protest torture and abuse during the investigation and detention. Yahor Pratasenia was arrested by the General Directorate for Drug Control and Human Trafficking in April 2015. During his detention he was brutally tortured by employees of the Directorate. Since April, he has hatched a plan of suicide, telling his mother in every letter that by his death he was going to punish the employees. The prison censors did not stop these letters, paying no attention to his words. On December 28, Pratasenia was sentenced to 14 years in prison. At the trial, he told his mother not to file an appeal, since he did not want to live. On January 5, the guy tried to hang himself. His condition is very serious, he is in a coma, according to Ms. Zhyhar.
In late December 2015, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" received a complaint from Pavel Rasliakou, a student of the Viciebsk Veterinary Academy, who was beaten by investigators of the department of the Interior of the Kastryčnicki district administration in the process of questioning about a case of theft. Police officers reportedly hit him several times “on the left ear, on the chest, on the cheeks and ears, with the purpose to extort confession”. An official inquiry into his complaint failed to establish the facts he outlined and dismissed his demand to open a criminal case. The violence report is backed by conclusions of a medical examination: the expert ruled that “the bodily harm – the bruises on the ear and on the chest – appeared through at least two traumatic acts inflicted within 24 hours before the medical check-up”. The follow-up examination revealed that the bruises could be classified as light bodily harm; the expert thinks that such harm could not result from falling from one’s own height on a flat surface.
One of the defendants in the ‘graffiti case’, Viachaslau Kasinerau, who suffered a jaw fracture as a result of his brutal arrest by police officers, still sought prosecution for the employees involved in the incident. The criminal case is run by the Minsk Maskoŭski district department of the Investigative Committee. After a series of identifications and confrontations, investigator Melnikava told the activist that she planned to terminate the criminal case. However, on January 27 there were further investigative steps – a number of new identifications.
On January 25, several activists displayed a banner reading “No To Political Persecution” at the beginning of a hearing in the ‘graffiti case’ trial. They also chanted, “Art Is No Crime”. Then they were forcibly taken out of the courtroom. Pavel Siarhei and Maksim Shytsik were taken to the adjacent room and beaten by police officers. Pavel Dabravolski, a reporter for the tut.by portal, who was covering the trial, was also detained and beaten along with the activists. He was charged with disorderly conduct and disobeying demands by police officers. After that the two activists and the journalist were taken to the police station and charged under Articles 24.1 of the Administrative Code (“contempt of court”) and Article 23.4 (“disobeying legitimate demands of officials”). Then they were brought back to the court of the Frunzienski district to stand trial, while their personal belongings were left in the police department. The detainees showed signs of beatings. As a result, Maksim Shytsik and Pavel Dabravolski were sentenced to a fine of 9,450,000 rubles each, while Pavel Siarhei was fined 10.5 mln rubles. The charges were based on testimony from a police officer, who, according to the convicts, had beaten them.
On January 26, a spokesperson for the Minsk city police department commented on the fact of beating the two activists and the journalists. He said that violence was used by police officers in order to stop the illegal actions, in accordance with the Law “On Bodies of Internal Affairs”. A probe was launched to investigate the report.
The death penalty
Belarusian courts continued sentencing people to death. On January 5, the Minsk Regional Court handed down a death sentence to a resident of Vilejka, Henadz Yakavitski, the first death verdict in 2016.
In connection with the issuance of the new death penalty, the EU again urged the government of Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.
According to information received by representatives of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus", an appeal against the death sentence handed down to Ivan Kulesh, who was convicted of three murders, was scheduled for February 2.