Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2017
- During the month, there were cases of administrative penalties, including in the form of detention, imposed on people for exercising their guaranteed rights to peaceful assembly and expression;
- According to information received by the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the criminal case under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (preparation for mass riots that allegedly took place on the eve of the March 25 demonstration in Minsk) has not been closed. However, the human rights activists are unaware of any people still officially facing charges in the case.
- The criminal charges against 16 people under Art. 287 of the Criminal Code (creation of an illegal armed group) have not been dropped and the investigation is still reportedly underway. All the 16 persons charged in the case were released on recognizance, and, in violation of the Criminal Procedure Code, were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement, which still prevented the public from having access to the case file;
- The authorities either opened or continued to investigate a number of criminal cases, which, according to the experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", are politically motivated and linked to the implementation of the citizens’ guaranteed rights. In particular, a criminal case under Part 1, Art. 400 of the Criminal Code (false accusation) was opened against a Viciebsk-based psychiatrist Ihar Pastnou. Henadz Berdzianiou, entrepreneur, head of the Salidarnasts trade union and an active participant in the social protests in Polack in February and March 2017, is still under investigation facing charges under Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus);
- The Belarusian authorities continued to ignore repeated calls by the international community for a moratorium on the death penalty. During the month, two new death sentences were handed down and one earlier death verdict entered into force;
- These facts indicate that the government of Belarus still adheres to the policy of repression against civil society activists and members of the political opposition, which started in the spring of this year, while assumptions of its mitigation are still premature. The authorities have failed to take any steps aimed at systemic and qualitative changes in the field of human rights;
- At the same time, we should note a number of positive developments that took place in July. In particular, the fourth round of the EU-Belarus Human Rights Dialogue, which took place on July 20 in Brussels, was attended by several representatives of the Belarusian civil society;
- On July 4, on the eve of the 26th Annual Session of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which was held in Minsk, the parallel Civil Society Forum was held, which brought together representatives of numerous international and foreign human rights organizations, including those who had been earlier banned from entering Belarus. The forum adopted a resolution.
- On June 6, a round table was held as part of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, which was attended by representatives of government bodies, the country’s political opposition and civil society, including chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
According to information available to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the criminal case under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (preparation for mass riots that allegedly took place on the eve of the March 25 demonstration in Minsk) has not been closed.
At the same time, the human rights activists of Viasna are unaware of any people still officially facing charges or being suspects in the case. However, the issues remains a cause for concern.
The criminal case under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code was opened by the KGB on the eve of the March 25 demonstration in Minsk. More than 30 people were arrested and confined to the pre-trial prisons of the KGB and the Interior Ministry. Some of them were later released from detention and charges against them were dropped, while 16 persons faced additional charges under Article 287 of the Criminal Code. At the time when 14 persons were still held in custody, the Investigative Committee said that it had taken over the investigation into alleged creating of an illegal armed formation, while the prosecution of the same persons under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code had been stopped by the KGB. The statement was perceived by the public as the termination of the criminal case itself.
After reports of torture in the KGB jail, the country’s key human rights organizations demanded the release from detention of all defendants in the criminal case. On 27-30 June, all the 14 persons who remained in detention on charges of organizing an illegal armed group were released on recognizance. The charges, however, were not dropped.
Ihar Pastnou, a psychiatrist in Viciebsk known for his critical statements against local officials, faced charges of knowingly false denunciation about a crime. A criminal case under Part 1, Art. 400 of the Criminal Code was opened on July 4 by the city office of the Investigative Committee at the request of Eduard Kurylenka, head of local penitentiary No. 2.
The charges stem from the doctor’s post in the social network VKontakte of 3 April 2017, in which he writes about beatings and torture in jail No. 2 reportedly committed against Raphael Gabriel Solomon Smilholdhard (Kirylau), as well as refusals to provide him with medical care. At the same time, Pastnou argues that these and other unlawful acts were allegedly committed by the facility’s head Eduard Kurylenka, as well as his subordinates.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" notes that such procedural decisions may be contrary to the Constitution of Belarus and the country's international obligations in the area of the right to freedom of expression.
The authorities have not dropped criminal charges against Henadz Berdzianiou, entrepreneur, head of the Salidarnasts trade union and an active participant in the social protests in Polack in February and March 2017, who is accused under Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus).
On July 10, the investigators returned the activist’s tablet, which was seized during a search in his apartment on April 24.
According to vitebskspring.org, a linguistic examination of the comments made by Berdzianiou in the Odnoklassniki social network was conducted for two and a half months.
It is worth to remind that the Belarusian human rights community insists on the decriminalization of such actions and the termination of criminal prosecution for defamation offenses, considering it as the first step towards the abolition of Articles 367, 368, 369, 369-1 and 391 of the Criminal Code.
The country’s prisons continued to hold Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka, both earlier declared political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights community.
Harassment of human rights defenders
As part of the parallel civil society forum, which was held in Minsk on 4 July on the eve of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s session, 65 Belarusian and foreign human rights activists signed a petition to the Foreign and Interior Ministers, Uladzimir Makei and Ihar Shunevich, asking to allow Alena Tankachova to return to Belarus and to exclude her from the list of persons barred from entering the country. On July 5, the document was submitted to the Foreign Ministry and the Interior Ministry.
A Russian national, human rights activist Alena Tankachova has been prohibited to enter Belarus until February 2018. The Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs repeatedly and without any explanation refused to reduce the ban period.
On July 4, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk hosted the third hearing of the charges against head of the human rights center "Legal Assistance to Population" (registered in Ukraine) Aleh Volchak. During the trial, the human rights defender complained about poor health, but the complaints were ignored by the judge. An ambulance was called and Volchak was taken to hospital. The court hearing was resumed in his absence. The human rights defender was eventually sentenced to a heavy fine.
Prior to this, on March 21, the same court sentenced Aleh Volchak to 13 days of administrative detention. The human rights activist was tried for taking part in the "March of Angry Belarusians", which was held in Minsk on February 17. The Minsk City Court later quashed the decision and sent the case for retrial.
However, the Frunzienski District Court confirmed the initial sentence, but the decision was soon canceled again.
The death penalty
On June 30, the Supreme Court of Belarus heard the appeal of Aliaksei Mikhalenia, who was earlier sentenced to death, and upheld the verdict. The sentence entered into force.
On March 17, the Homieĺ Regional Court found Mikhalenia guilty of intentional murder of two persons (brother and sister, who shared the same house), which was committed with extreme cruelty (para. 1, 6, 16, Part 2, Art. 139 of the Criminal Code), and sentenced him to capital punishment. It is also known that the man was previously convicted of theft and murder.
On July 21, the Criminal Division of the Mahilioŭ Regional Court issued a death sentence against Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhny. The verdict has not yet entered into force, and may be appealed to the Supreme Court.
18,000 signatures for a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus were passed on July 6 by human rights defenders to President Lukashenka’s Administration. The signatures were collected through the global campaign launched by Amnesty International and were brought to the country by AI’s representative Aisha Jung.
The passing of the signatures to the Administration was joined by the human rights activists of Viasna, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and coordinator of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus" Andrei Paluda.
On July 18, Amnesty International issued a statement calling to reverse the death penalty of Aliaksei Mikhalenia.
Once again, the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus was requested by the CoE’s Parliamentary Assembly special rapporteurs Yves Cruchten and Andrea Rigoni.
Forced labor and other violations of social and economic rights
On July 12, the Maladziečna District Court sentenced two teachers of local secondary school No. 11, Volha Zavadskaya and Iryna Apanasevich, to two years of conditional imprisonment and a fine of 2,300 rubles for improper performance of duties to ensure the safety and health of children, which caused by negligence the death of a student of eighth grade Viktoryia Papchenia. The girl died when harvesting potatoes in the field owned by a local agricultural enterprise.
Valiantsin Stefanovich, lawyer of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", has repeatedly drawn the attention of inspection bodies that the blame for the tragic incident lies with officials of the Maladziečna District Executive Committee A. Yakhnavets and I. Drapeza, who issued an illegal order to send the schoolchildren to harvest potatoes. Following the trial, he once again wrote to the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk region.
In his address, he asked the Prosecutor to launch an additional investigation into the girl’s death. Stefanovich alleges misconduct in the actions of the Chairman of the Maladziečna District Executive Committee Yakhnavets and Head of the Department of Education, Sports and Tourism Drapeza. The activist asks to charge the officials under criminal procedure. The human rights defender view the involvement of underage schoolchildren in harvesting as forced labor.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly
The Court of the Centraĺny district of Minsk considered the administrative charges against several people involved in a picket of solidarity with the defendants in the ‘White Legion case’. The protesters were charged with participating in an unauthorized mass event (Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code). These were the first trials related to the implementation of the citizens’ constitutional right to peaceful assembly, which took place in Minsk after the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s session in early July.
As a result, Maksim Viniarski, Volha Nikalaichyk and Leanid Kulakou were sentenced to administrative detention, with three more people awarded heavy fines.
After the Dziaržynsk office of the Investigative Committee refused to open a criminal case against police officers who reportedly beat Siarhei Tkachenka during his stay at the local police department, he appealed the decision (with assistance from the Human Rights Center "Viasna"), as he believed the probe into the incident was not conducted properly. As a result, the decision was canceled, but on July 3 Tkachenka and his wife were visited at their workplaces by two employees of Internal Affairs in civilian uniforms. The couple were forced into a car and questioned about their contacts with Viasna: the police officers asked Veranika Tkachenka if she had met someone from the organization, who of the human rights defenders had assisted in preparing a complaint and who advised her to seek help from the Human Rights Center "Viasna". Finally, Siarhei Tkachenka was asked if he was ready to reconcile with the offenders.
Numerous protesters detained during the March 25 demonstration in Minsk kept appealing against refusals to open a criminal case against police officers of the Centraĺny district police department, who reportedly ill-treated the detainees.
In early May, the Investigation Committee received a statement from 10 people who witnessed degrading treatment with signs of torture against them and others arrested on March 25 by the staff of the Centraĺny district police station. During the preparation of the complaint with assistance from the HRC "Viasna", evidence was collected that people were held six hours out in the snow and rain, were not allowed to drink, use the toilet or forced to stand with their hands up against the wall; rubber truncheons were also used. In this regard, the claimants asked to open a criminal case under Art. 426 of the Criminal Code (abuse of power or official authority). Almost two months later, Dzianis Sadouski, Secretary of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, received a reply signed by investigator Kandratovich saying that the Investigative Committee found no abuse in the actions of the police officers. The decision has been appealed.
The Investigative Committee’s Pieršamajski district office in Minsk refused to open a criminal investigation into the March 25 beating of Mikalai Dziadok. The former political prisoner was detained and beaten by riot police during the Freedom Day demonstration; an ambulance was called to the police station. According to a medical report, he received a closed head injury and spent four days in hospital. The decision has been appealed.
Activist Siarhei Kulinich, who was arrested on the eve of Freedom Day and charged with preparing riots, sent a complaint to the Prosecutor General with a request to investigate cruel and inhuman treatment by the KGB.
Violation of freedom of expression
Founder and editor in chief of the media project “A Dozen Hits” Siarhei Budkin wrote to the Economic Court to complaint against the main department of ideology, culture and youth affairs of the Minsk City Executive Committee, which banned a concert of Ales Dzianisau.
Liubou Sankovich of Babrujsk was fined 598 rubles for allegedly violating the rules of peaceful assemblies. In reality, the penalty related to her interview with RFE/RL’s Belarus service.
Persecution of journalists
On July 10, Judge Ruslan Tsaruk of the Svietlahorsk District Court found freelance journalist Kanstantsin Zhukouski guilty of the illicit manufacture of media products for the Belsat TV channel and punished him by a fine of 1,150 rubles.