Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2016
- October was not marked by any significant changes of a systemic nature that could contribute to qualitative changes in the human rights situation;
- on October 24, the Council of Ministers adopted an interagency action plan to implement recommendations made within the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). The country’s human rights community was not properly invited to discuss the development of the plan, but the very fact of its adoption has been welcomed by Viasna;
- on October 12, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk announced its verdict in the case of activist Dzmitry Paliyenka, who was charged with beating a traffic policeman (Art. 364 of the Criminal Code) during the Critical Mass cycling protest on April 29. Later, he also faced "pornography" charges (Part 2, Art. 343 of the Criminal Code). Judge Valery Yesman found Paliyenka guilty and sentenced him to 2 years of suspended imprisonment. Earlier, Viasna repeatedly stressed the disproportionate use of violence against the peaceful protesters and the politically motivated nature of criminal charges brought against Paliyenka;
- on October 28, the Minsk City Court sentenced blogger Eduard Palchys to 21 months of conditional restraint of liberty. Palchys was released in the courtroom. The trial was held behind closed doors. The court found him guilty of committing crimes under Part 1, Art. 130 (“inciting racial, national or religious enmity or discord”), and Part 2, Art. 343 (“distribution of pornographic materials”) of the Criminal Code. On October 5, several human rights organizations issued a joint statement to name Palchys a political prisoner;
- the court sentences against Paliyenka and Palchys did not change Viasna’s evaluation of their criminal cases, but at the same time, we welcome the moderation shown by the Belarusian authorities and the application of penalties not related to deprivation of liberty;
- during the month, the government continued the practice of imposing administrative fines on peaceful protesters, while the assemblies themselves were not, as a rule, dispersed, and the participants were not detained or subjected to administrative detention;
- according to information received by the Human Rights Center "Viasna", Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, who continues to serve a sentence in prison, has been labeled as a ‘malicious violator of the prison rules’, after the penitentiary authorities imposed another disciplinary penalty on the political prisoner. Zhamchuzhny’s 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;
- human rights defenders learned that the criminal case against Uladzimir Kondrus, who is facing charges under Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (“rioting”) associated with the events of 19 December 2010, has finally reached court;
- on October 4, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal by death convict Siarhei Vostrykau and upheld the verdict by the Homieĺ Regional Court.
Politically motivated criminal prosecution
The criminal case against Uladzimir Kondrus, who is currently being held in jail in Minsk, has been forwarded to court.
Kondrus was arrested on June 14, 2016 for his alleged involvement in the riots at the Government House during the presidential elections in 2010. He is charged under Part 2, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code.
The human rights community of Belarus recognized Uladzimir Kondrus a political prisoner and requested that the authorities stopped the criminal prosecution and immediately released him from detention.
On October 12, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk announced its verdict in the case of activist Dzmitry Paliyenka, who was charged with beating a traffic policeman during the Critical Mass cycling protest on April 29.
Judge Valery Yesman found Paliyenka guilty of violating Art. 364 and Part 2, Art. 343 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to 2 years of suspended imprisonment. Paliyenka was released from custody in the courtroom.
Earlier, Viasna stressed the disproportionate use of violence against the peaceful protesters and the politically motivated nature of criminal charges brought against Paliyenka. It also demanded his release from custody for the period of investigation.
On October 28, the Minsk City Court sentenced blogger Eduard Palchys to 21 months of conditional restraint of liberty. Palchys was released in the courtroom. Taking into account the time already spent in jail, he is yet to spend a month under house arrest. The judge also ruled to recover from the defendant court fees of 286 rubles.
Eduard Palchys was found guilty on both charges: hate speech and pornography. Under the first charges, he received a year of restraint of liberty, under the other — 21 months. The final sentence was calculated by absorbing the less severe verdict by the more rigorous punishment.
The trial was held behind closed doors with increased security measures. Access to the courtroom was restricted even for persons with valid IDs. In fact, the police officers who guarded the court premises substituted the judiciary, as the trial can only be held behind closed doors on a judge’s order.
Human rights activists stress that there were no legal grounds for holding the trial behind closed doors, and regarded this as a violation of the principles of a fair trial.
After receiving the results of an independent examination of materials published on Palchys’s website 1863x.com, which, according to the investigators, contained hate speech, human rights organizations issued a joint statement to recognize the prosecution of Palchys as politically motivated and name him a political prisoner.
According to information received by the Human Rights Center "Viasna", Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, who continues to serve a sentence in prison, has been labeled as a ‘malicious violator of the prison rules’, after the penitentiary authorities imposed another disciplinary penalty on the political prisoner. The imposition of the status rules out the applications of parole, as well as release under an amnesty.
Zhamchuzhny’s sentencing is 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.
The death penalty
On October 4, the Supreme Court upheld the death verdict for Siarhei Vostrykau.
On May 19, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Vostrykau, 33, to death on charges of two separate counts of rape and murder. Despite the growing national and international pressure on Belarus to abolish the death penalty, this is the third verdict since the beginning of 2016.
The verdict was announced against the background of a traditional Week against the death penalty, which was held from 5 to 10 October by the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in the framework of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”. This year, the events of the Week included the presentation at a press conference in Minsk of a joint report by the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) entitled "Death penalty in Belarus. Murder on (Un)Lawful Grounds”.
Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland issued a joint statement on the European and World Day against the Death Penalty, which is celebrated on October 10.
According to the EU and the Council of Europe, a moratorium on the death penalty will be a “decisive step in bringing Belarus closer to the pan-European legal standards.”
The United Nations issued a message by the Secretary-General on the occasion of the World Day for the Abolition of the Death Penalty.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On October 24, The Ministry of Internal Affairs refused to reduce the entry ban imposed on known Belarusian human rights defender Alena Tankachova.
The activist was deported as a result of a decision by the Pieršamajski district police department of Minsk. The ban stems from several traffic violations, including speeding, which were described by the police as ‘abusing public order’.
According to the country’s human rights community, the actual reason for the expulsion was Tankachova’s professional activity. Human rights activists urge the Belarusian authorities to lift the entry ban imposed on Tankachova, viewing the restriction as an obstacle to the exercise of her legitimate human rights activities.
On October 29, the court of Mahilioŭ’s Lieninski district dismissed an appeal by former head of the human rights institution Platform Innovation Andrei Bandarenka. The activist, who is serving a sentence in prison, asked to overturn a disciplinary penalty imposed on him by the prison authorities.
In 2014, Bandarenka was found guilty of malicious hooliganism against three people and sentenced to three years in a penal colony. He is expected to be released on March 31, 2017. While serving the sentence, he has repeatedly been subjected to pressure from the prison authorities. As a result, he may face charges under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (“willful disobedience to the correctional institution administration”) and be sentenced to additional punishment. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" believes that the harassment of Bandarenka is linked to his earlier human rights activities.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
October was marked by an ongoing practice of violating the citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
On October 3, the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk considered the administrative case under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code in relation to Artsiom Charniak, activist of the European Belarus opposition movement, who on September 7 displayed a banner with the inscription "For New Free Elections" on a pedestrian bridge over the Minsk Beltway, which, according to the authorities, violated the Law "On Mass Events in Belarus." Charniak pleaded not guilty, saying he only expressed his personal opinion, as enshrined in the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. However, Judge Aliaksandr Petrash found the activist guilty of an administrative offense and fined him 525 rubles.
Several courts in Minsk considered a number of administrative cases against activists who campaigned in various places of the city for the recognition of the white-red-white flag as a historical and cultural value.
The charges against Ales Makayeu and Dzmitry Zakharevich were heard by the court of the Kastryčnicki district of Minsk on October 6. The activists were charged when campaigning in a pedestrian underpass to the metro station "Institut Kultury". Three police officers appeared in court as witnesses. Judge Vital Siamionau found the activists guilty of repeated violation of the order of holding mass events (Part 3 of Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code) and punished them by fines: Makayeu — 50, and Zakharevich — 30 basic units.
On October 21, the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk fined activist Natallia Samatyia 1,050 rubles for participating in a protest held on September 19.
Activist Siarhei Palcheuski was fined twice a week a total of 1,680 rubles: on October 6, for his involvement in unauthorized mass events on 23 and 24 September. The activist was accused of campaigning for the official status of the white-red-white flag. On the basis of the testimony of witnesses, Judge Valery Yesman found Palcheuski guilty of violating Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (“participation in an unauthorized mass event repeatedly within one year after the imposition of an administrative penalty for the same offense”) and ruled to punish him by a fine of 630 rubles. Five days later, on October 11 the court of Maskoŭski district heard the case of the activist’s involvement in the September 12 rally in Independence Square. As a result, Siarhei Palcheuski was fined 1,050 rubles. On October 31, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk ordered the punishment of a fine of 1,050 rubles. The court considered six offenses under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for participating in six episodes of unauthorized campaigning. The judge brought together all the episodes and considered the administrative case, hearing the testimony from police officers, who had brought the charges.
At the same time, in most cases peaceful protesters are still prohibited to hold assemblies under the law, e.g. the administrations of the districts of Homieĺ region banned a series of pickets scheduled for 20 to 23 October in order to attract public attention to the need to protect the independence and sovereignty of Belarus. Similar decisions were taken in Dobruš, Čačersk, Žlobin, Vietka, Lojeŭ, Brahin, Chojniki, Buda-Kašaliova and Karma. The bans referred to the improper venues of the scheduled events. In most cities, mass events are permitted to be held only in remote stadiums, while the applicants were going to stage the pickets in the central squares. The district executive committees of Karma, Chojniki and Buda-Kašaliova referred to the fact that the applicants failed to sign contracts for the protection of public order, health care, and a clean-up of the venue. In addition, officials in Vietka requested that applicant Vasil Paliakou also paid the services provided by the police, ambulance and local public utilities. The human rights activists said they were going to appeal against the bans to the district courts, as the decisions are not based on acceptable arguments from the point of view of the international obligations of Belarus.
The Minsk City Executive Committee and the Regional Executive Committee allowed the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front (CCP BPF) to mark the Dziady Day of Remembrance by staging a demonstration in the Kurapaty forest on October 30. This was one of the few events allowed by the authorities in recent years. However, when granting permission to hold a mass event, the city and regional authorities put forward additional conditions for the applicants and organizers, namely submission of contracts with law enforcement, health care facilities and agencies in charge of cleaning the territory. All the services have to be covered by the organizers. The total amount of expenses on such dubious services usually amount at USD 3,000-5,000. In case the services are not paid, the organizers are subject to administrative penalties, including heavy fines.
There were more cases of confiscation by the customs authorities of human rights literature. In particular, on October 9, customs officers seized books and magazines carried by historian and environmental activist Uladzimir Valodzin, as he was returning from Lithuania. As a result, the books were sent for examination on suspicion of extremism. In particular, the customs officials took the book "The Death Penalty in Belarus", as well as a DVD with a documentary "Dissident" about the life of Mikhail Kukabaka, a Belarusian, who spent 17 years in prisons because of his political beliefs. In March 2016, experts in Hrodna examined the book "The Death Penalty in Belarus" and found no signs of extremism in the edition.
Aliaksandr Mendzel, activist of the Movement "For Freedom", was fined 840 rubles for distributing leaflets exposing election fraud. The court found him guilty of violating the law on mass media. At the court hearing, Mendzel said that he was detained and 1,640 leaflets were seized. The activist admitted the fact of distribution of leaflets, but pleaded not guilty. “I do not admit that my actions fall under the law “On Mass Media,” he stressed. This was also supported by the lawyer. However, the court did not listen to these arguments.
Journalist Larysa Shchyrakova sent a communication to the UN Human Rights Committee about a violation of her right to receive and disseminate information. The freelancer had been repeatedly brought to administrative responsibility for her professional activities; all attempts to appeal against the sentences to national courts and the prosecutor's office brought no results.
Freedom of conscience
A communal prayer of the Spiritual Center "Renaissance" in Minsk ended with mass detentions of believers and administrative charges against them. The incident happened on September 17. More than a hundred people from different cities of Belarus gathered in the assembly hall of one of the enterprises of Minsk. Soon, the room was raided by riot police.
The charges were heard by the Lieninski District Court on October 4. As a result, the believers were fined 420 rubles each under Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code ("violation of the order of organization or holding mass events"). The court ruling emphasized that the Center had not been registered in the state register of religious organizations. Therefore, its meetings are prohibited by the law.
Freedom of association
A month after the filing of application by the founders of the Republican public association "Committee for the Support of Entrepreneurship Solidarity", the Ministry of Justice decided to refuse registration. In its response, the Ministry explains that Solidarity cannot be registered because the protocol on the results of a general assembly specifies a different version of the NGO’s name: "Committee of Entrepreneurs Solidarity", which made the document invalid. Secondly, the list of founders mentioned a wrong birth date of one citizen (February 27 instead of 17), and the place of work of another founder was described as "Taxi Kareta," while the actual name is "Taxi Kareta 163". These and a couple of minor inaccuracies led to the invalidation of the list of founders.
The decision to refuse registration to the public association is a direct violation of the right to association. The minor flaws in a large volume of documents submitted for registration do not fall under the permissible restrictions on the right to association.
Torture and ill-treatment
On October 21, the Court of Maskoŭski district of Minsk sentenced Aliaksandr Krylou, employee of a jail hospital in Minsk, to three years of imprisonment in a penal settlement. The doctor was found guilty of professional misconduct (Part 2, Article 162 of the Criminal Code), which negligently caused the death of a patient, Ihar Ptsichkin, who died on August 4, 2013, a few days after he was sentenced to three months in jail for driving without a valid driver’s license.
The trial that began on September 16 was the last stage of a 3-year-long investigation opened at the request of the victim’s mother, Zhanna Ptsichkina, who received extensive assistance from Viasna’s human rights defenders. The case was heard by Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka.
The Minsk city office of the Investigative Committee refused to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers who brutally detained pediatrician Dzmitry Serada during a raid on his apartment in August this year. With the help of Viasna’s human rights defenders, Serada filed a complaint asking to identify and prosecute the officials who gave the order to storm his apartment and detain him as a suspect in a criminal case, as well as those who beat him during the arrest and transportation to the police department. Two months later, Dzmitry Serada received an order to dismiss the criminal case, saying that the detention was conducted "in accordance with applicable law" and denying the use of violence against him. The riot policemen claimed that "no violence was used against the detainee," while handcuffs and physical force were used to overcome possible resistance.
It looks like no one will be punished for the numerous injuries the doctor suffered during the raid. However, Serada says he is going to appeal against the decision, including to the Prosecutor's Office, asking to properly investigate the case.
On October 5, during a personal reception at the office of the Investigative Committee’s Chairman, Maryna Bahdanava, the mother of Aleh Bahdanau, an inmate of Žodzina jail No. 8, who died on January 29, was told that the death of her son would be investigated as part of a criminal case under Part 2 of Article 162 of the Criminal Code (“improper performance of professional duties by a medical officer, which negligently caused the death of a patient”).
Aleh Bahdanau had a cardiac disease, and in 2014 he underwent heart surgery. After the surgery, he had to take medicines, regularly undergo tests and be under care of a cardiologist. All this could not be provided in detention. Shortly before his death Bahdanau complained about the lack of treatment and harassment by the prison staff, since for health reasons he was forced to break prison rules, namely lay on the bed in the daytime. Aleh Bahdanau was sent to solitary confinement for violations of prison rules, although his sentence had not entered into force (afterwards, the conviction was overturned by a court of appeal), and died on January 29. His body showed injuries typical of a beating. Ms. Bahdanava wrote to the city office of the Investigative Committee asking to investigate the improper performance of professional duties by the medical staff of prison No. 8. However, the authorities refused to open a criminal case, saying that the death occurred as a result of the prisoner’s disease, which was not caused by the actions of third persons.
On August 4, the Prosecutor's Office of Homieĺ overruled the decision of the city department of the Investigative Committee to refuse to initiate a criminal investigation into sexual assault against Vital H., a minor inmate of local jail. However, the resumption of the probe was delayed for more than a month. As a result, the authorities issued a controversial and not fully reasoned decision not to institute criminal proceedings, which was also eventually canceled.
The victim’s foster mother had to complain to the head of the Investigative Committee’s city office Arkadz Tratsiakou, saying that investigator Liudmila Panamaryshkina deliberate delayed the launch of investigation. The woman also reported pressure from the investigator, including threats by the phone and insulting letters sent to her employer. At present, a new complaint against the investigator's decision is being prepared. However, these circumstances did not prevent the court to hear the criminal charges against Vital, which are based on evidence obtained in violation of due process. The 17-year-old teenager has dementia, which developed as a result of a brain injury.
Human rights defenders of Viasna keep monitoring the investigation into the death of Ihar Barbashynski, an inmate of Žodzina prison No. 8, who was held there pending trial. The defenders received information about the circumstances of his death, which casts doubt on the fact that medical care provided to the prisoner was adequate. In addition, there is evidence that the victim’s body had seventeen bruises that were inflicted within 2 to 3 days before his death, and traces of wounds on the head, which may have appeared during Barbashynski’s stay in prison.
The human rights defenders are also following a case of police-related violence against a group of minors, who were detained for committing an administrative offense. The beating was accompanied by threats of sexual violence and insults by the Interior Ministry employees.
According to Uladzimir Krauchanka, leader of the Mahilioŭ Human Rights Center, prisoners held in LTP No. 7 (activity therapy center), do not receive sufficient nutrition. “Due to the fact that in recent months there has been a lot less work to do, people just cannot earn enough money to spend on foodstuffs. Those who receive parcels from their relatives and friends, are doing well more or less. The others are having rather hard times,” the human rights activist said, according to mspring.online.