Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2016
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2016
- April was not marked by any systemic changes demonstrating the authorities’ commitment to improving the country’s human rights situation;
- a ruling of the Court of the Frunzienski district of Minsk found that Aliaksandr Lapitski committed socially dangerous acts provided for in Article 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”), Article 369 (“insulting the authorities”), Article 391 (“insulting a judge or a lay judge”) of the Criminal Code of Belarus, and these acts were committed in a state of unconsciousness. As a result, Aliaksandr Lapitski was subjected to compulsory security measures and treatment. In this regard, the HRC "Viasna" made a statement to once again call on the authorities to decriminalize such actions and to cease criminal prosecution for defamation offenses;
- 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. Human rights activists demand an immediate reconsideration of Zhamchuzhny’s criminal case in an open trial in compliance with the guarantees of a fair trial, which includes a wide range of legal measures, such as a pardon, amnesty, and parole;
- despite the fact that none of the unauthorized peaceful assemblies held during the month was intervened by the law enforcement authorities or forcibly stopped, the participants and organizers of these gatherings continued to be brought to administrative responsibility in the form of fines. A total of 40 cases of administrative prosecution for participation in or organization of unsanctioned public events were documented in March;
- the authorities continued to apply the practice of selective and politically motivated approach to the registration of public associations and political parties;
- on April 8, the Criminal Board of the Supreme Court considered an appeal by death convict Henadz Yakavitski. The appeal was dismissed, and the sentence handed won by the Minsk Regional Court handed was left in place. The sentence came into force.
Politically motivated criminal prosecution
On April 11, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned about the criminal prosecution of an 80-year-old citizen of Minsk Aliaksandr Lapitski.
On April 12, a ruling of the Court of the Frunzienski district of Minsk found that Aliaksandr Lapitski committed socially dangerous acts provided for in Article 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”), Article 369 (“insulting the authorities”), Article 391 (“insulting a judge or a lay judge”) of the Criminal Code of Belarus, and these acts were committed in a state of unconsciousness. As a result, Aliaksandr Lapitski was subjected to compulsory security measures and treatment. This means that after the judgment becomes final he will be deprived of liberty for a period of compulsory psychiatric treatment.
In this regard, the HRC "Viasna" made a statement in which it once again called on the authorities to decriminalize such actions, as well as to put an end to criminal prosecution for defamation offenses, considering as a first step the abolition of Articles 367, 368, 369, 369-1 and 391 of the Criminal Code.
The statement also notes that the decision on the involuntary hospitalization of Aliaksandr Lapitski should have been taken based solely on the security of citizens and Aliaksandr Lapitski himself, and in the absence of such threats – not to infringe on his personal freedom.
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. Human rights activists demand an immediate reconsideration of Zhamchuzhny’s criminal case in an open trial in compliance with the guarantees of a fair trial, which includes a wide range of legal measures, such as a pardon, amnesty, and parole.
Violations of freedom of association, pressure on human rights defenders
On April 18, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal against the refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register the party "Belarusian Christian Democracy" (BCD).
It was the sixths time that the BCD’s organizing committee was not allowed to register the party. The first constitutive congress took place in 2009, with two more in 2010. The fourth attempt to register the party was made in December 2011, and the fifth founding congress was held on 13 June 2015. We should stress that the Christian Democrats have repeatedly tried to register as various forms of regional and national associations.
The Hrodna Regional Court rejected an appeal against a refusal to register a public association "Mothers’ Movement 328". The initiative brought together the relatives of convicts in order to provide material and psychological assistance to prisoners and their families, as well as information and legal support.
On April 29, it became known that the Ministry of Justice for the fifth time in six years refused to register the campaign “Tell the Truth”. The decision referred to the vaguely formulated goals of the association's activities and a failure to divide the functions of the campaign’s two leaders.
The experts of the HRC "Viasna" have repeatedly noted that these denials of registration are selective, politically motivated and in no way affiliated with the permissible restrictions on freedom of association contained in Art. 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and para. 2 art. 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The authorities continued a campaign of pressure and discrediting against Leanid Sudalenka, a human rights activist from Homieĺ. The newspaper Belorusskaya Voyennaya Gazeta, which is run by the Ministry of Defense, published an article by journalist Uladzimir Kazheunikau, "Who benefits from defaming the Belarusian army?". This article creates a negative image of both human rights activist Sudalenka and the country’s human rights community as a whole. In addition, the journalist accuses Sudalenka of denigrating his country by filing complaints to the United Nations Human Rights Committee.
Leanid Sudalenka is suing the newspaper to protect his honor, dignity and business reputation. The case will be considered by the court of the Minsk’s Centraĺny district.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly and expression
In April, the authorities still unreasonably restricted the right to peaceful assembly, although the protests that were carried out without a permit were not dispersed by police officers. The organizers and active participants were brought to administrative responsibility in the form of heavy fines. Several activists who had failed to pay earlier fines faced forced measures associated with their payment.
On April 6, the Court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district heard the administrative charges brought against the participants of an unauthorized rally of entrepreneurs held outside the building of the Ministry of Taxes on March 14. Anatol Shumchanka, chairman of the public association "Perspective", was fined 3,150,000 rubles for taking part in the unauthorized mass event. One of the founders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Pavel Seviarynets was sentenced to a fine of 9,450,000 rubles.
Fines were imposed on the participants of an unauthorized picket of solidarity with Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko staged outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk on March 21.
On April 28, Minsk courts tried the participants of Freedom Day celebrations. As part of the permitted march did not follow the scheduled route, many participants faced administrative charges and were eventually fined.
Opposition activist Ryhor Hryk was sentenced by a court in Baranavičy to a fine of 8.4 mln rubles for repeated involvement in an unauthorized mass event. The trial was accompanied by gross violations of procedural law.
Police officers grossly violated the right to peaceful assembly in an incident of Natalia Samatyya: on April 26 she was stopped by metro security guards and detained after the examination of her things. She was travelling to the allowed Čarnobyĺski Šliach assembly and carrying a self-made poster. The poster was seized and the woman who has a serious medical condition was taken to the police station, where she was held in a cell until the following morning. In the morning, she faced administrative charges.
Bailiffs arrested the car of activist Leanid Kulakou who had allegedly failed to pay a fine. By doing this, they violated the law, since the activist works as a taxi driver and arrest should not be imposed on equipment needed for the continuation of professional duties and whose value does not exceed 1,000 base units. The activist appealed against these actions.
Bailiffs arrested and confiscated the goods owned by opposition activist and businessman Aliaksander Makayeu. The products were taken to cover the fines for participating in peaceful assemblies.
Meanwhile, all attempts to obtain permission to hold street protests in accordance with the law are rejected by the authorities.
An activist of the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers, Aliaksandr Serdziukou, received permission to hold a picket in Mahilioŭ, but was later told that since the applicant had not signed the necessary contracts, the permission to hold the picket had been withdrawn.
The Baranavičy authorities banned a marathon against the decline in living standards. The initiator of the event, Mikalai Charnavus, said that local officials had found the formal reason not to allow the protest.
Another event, which was scheduled for March 21, and was expected to be held at a location authorized by the city authorities, was banned, since Mikalai Charnavus had not provided contracts with local services in charge of maintaining public order, providing medical care during the event and a clean-up of the territory after its completion.
The Baranavičy banned a protest against raising the retirement age, where the participants were expected to plant a symbolic number of 58 willows and 63 oaks, although it was expected to be carried out in a place authorized for such purposes.
An activist of the BCD’s organizing committee in Orša, Yauhen Anishchanka was not allowed to protest against the suspended construction of local hospital’s new building. The executive officials explained that he lacked the necessary contracts signed by the municipal services.
Having analyzed the situation, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" issued on April 4 a statement to note as a positive development the fact that starting from August 2015, peaceful assemblies taking place in Minsk and other Belarusian cities without the permission of local authorities were not dispersed by law enforcement agencies, their participants were not detained or subjected to administrative arrests. At the same time it pointed out that the administrative prosecution of citizens taking part in peaceful assemblies, including through imposing heavy fines, is a violation of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. In a number of cases, the imposition of excessive, obviously disproportionate fines entails the violation of other constitutional rights of citizens, freedom of movement in particular. The statement noted that the practice of recent meetings proved their absolute peaceful nature. Neither the participants nor the organizers violated public order or committed any illegal actions that would pose a threat to national security, the rights of other citizens and their morals. The statement emphasizes the fact that the current legislation on public events makes it virtually impossible to obtain permission for holding a peaceful assembly from the local executive authorities, imposing on the organizers financial obligations (protection of public order, healthcare measures and a cleanup of the territory); it also provides for other restrictive and repressive rules. To summarize, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" urged the authorities to stop the persecution of citizens in connection with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.
Persecution of journalists
In April, there were new instances of obstructing the activities and administrative prosecution of independent journalists.
A fine of 5.25 mln rubles was imposed on a freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova. She was accused of violating Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal manufacturing media products and working without accreditation for foreign media). The charges stemmed from a video Larysa Shchyrakova made to cover the problems of the inhabitants of a small village of Baĺšavik in the Homieĺ region.
On April 13, Svietlahorsk police brutally detained freelance journalist Kanstantsin Zhukouski.
On April 15, the Court of Homieĺ’s Centraĺny district sentenced journalists Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Larysa Shchyrakova to a fine of 7,350,000 rubles each on charges of illegal manufacturing media products.
Journalist Ales Zaleuski and his crew were detained by police for several hours in the town of Naroŭlia, Homieĺ region, and were forced to give explanations about their activities, including the alleged content of a report they were making.
Following a three-month’s probe, the Investigative Committee decided not to initiate a criminal investigation into the beating of TUT.BY journalist Pavel Dabravolski in the building of the Frunzienski District Court on January 25. The investigator agreed with the version of the police saying that Dabravolski’s actions gave reason to view him as the offender and therefore the use of force was justified.
Violation of the right to information
On April 20, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest met a lawsuit by the regional customs office and found two books, A Good Photograph and Defense of Kurapaty. People's Memorial, to be extremist literature. Ales Chakholski, who owned the seized books, announced his intention to appeal against the decision.
A Good Photograph is a collection of essays on photography. The other book, co-written by Zianon Pazniak and Valery Buival, is a collection of articles, memoirs and photographs on the protection of mass graves of victims of Stalin's repressions.
On April 25, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk confirmed a warning issued to Yauhen Zhurauski who was suspected of ‘disseminating extremist insignia’. The warning was issued on 12 January 2015 by the deputy head of the district police department.
Torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment
Human rights defenders of "Viasna" expressed their outrage over the President’s instructions to tighten the conditions for convicts serving sentences for drug-related crimes: at a meeting on the problem of drug trafficking and drug addiction, Aliaksandr Lukashenka urged to toughen the prison conditions for persons convicted of drug trafficking. Following the meeting, Siarhei Daroshka, head of the Interior Ministry’s Department of Corrections, told reporters that the Ministry of Interior would surely follow the President’s instructions. “The moral and living conditions for these people will be much worse than for other convicts,” he said. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" said this approach posed a risk of creating concentration camps for specific categories of prisoners.
Back in March, the HRC "Viasna" received a complaint from Maryna Bahdanava, who told about the death of her son in jail No. 8 in Žodzina, where he was held in custody. Ms. Bahdanava said that the doctors and prison staff improperly performed their professional duties, which resulted in his death of a cardiac arrest. Without waiting for the conclusions of an expert examination about the cause of his death, the investigators ruled not to institute criminal proceedings. In reply to her complaint sent to the Investigative Committee, Maryna Bahdanava received promises to cancel the decision, but her request to open a criminal case was not met. The decision has been appealed to the Prosecutor's Office.
The death penalty
On April 8, The Supreme Court’s criminal board upheld the death sentence handed down to Henadz Yakavitski for the murder of his partner. On January 5, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced him to death for the murder of his partner.
On April 12, a statement released by the European Union's External Action Service condemned the use of the death penalty in Belarus and called to respect for the right to life of each citizen and to join a global moratorium on the death penalty as a first step towards its complete abolition. The European Union called on Belarus to continue constructive cooperation with the Belarusian society on this issue.
Two death sentences have been handed down in Belarus since the beginning of 2016: Henadz Yakavitski and Siarhei Khmialeuski were sentenced to death in January and February, respectively. The verdict against Khmialeuski will enter into force after his appeal is considered by the Supreme Court’s Criminal Board. The two death sentences that were earlier handed down to Ivan Kulesh and Siarhei Ivanou have already entered into force.