Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2017
- in September, the authorities continued the policy of repression against civil society activists and the political opposition;
- on 12 and 25 September, the Ministry of Justice recertified (including in several instances outside schedule) a number of defense lawyers. The country’s human rights community regarded the move as a blatant interference of government bodies in the activities of the Bar. As a result, four lawyers were deprived of their licenses, while the certification of twelve more was suspended for six months. It is essential that many of the lawyers worked on politically motivated criminal cases;
- on September 21, the Investigative Committee extended the investigation of the criminal case opened against sixteen citizens under Art. 287 of the Criminal Code (creating an illegal armed group);
- after one lawyer out of sixteen counsels defending the persons charged with ‘organizing an illegal armed group’ was deprived of her license, and the certification of seven more lawyers was suspended for six months, experts of the HRC "Viasna" ruled out the possibility of witnessing a trial in the case that would meet fair trial standards;
- Ihar Komlik, accountant of the REP trade union, continued to be detained in pre-trial prison, while every effort made to challenge the measure of restraint was unsuccessful;
- the country’s prisons continued to hold political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International;
- the month was marked by numerous cases of bringing people to administrative responsibility, including in the form of detention in jail, in connection with the exercise of their guaranteed rights to peaceful assembly and expression;
- there were more cases of repression against journalists in connection with their professional activities;
- there were other violations of civil rights, which cause concern of the country’s human rights activists, including unlawful interference with the secrecy of telephone conversations, an illegal curfew announced by the executive committee of Hlybokaje during the military exercise “Zapad-2017”, and police raids and seized equipment at the apartments of civil society activists.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On September 15, the court of Minsk’s Partyzanski district heard Ihar Komlik’s appeal against the preventive measure of pre-trial detention. In his appeal, he asked to change the measure of restraint, since he believed it was excessive to place him in custody during the investigation. The complaint was rejected. An appeal against the court’s decision was later dismissed by the Minsk City Court. Thus, Ihar Komlik continued to be detained in jail number 1 in Minsk. On August 3, the human rights organizations of Belarus said that they viewed Komlik as a political prisoner.
On September 21, the Investigative Committee extended the investigation of the criminal case opened against sixteen citizens under Art. 287 of the Criminal Code (creating an illegal armed group). Meanwhile, an extraordinary re-certification initiated by the Ministry of Justice revoked the license of one lawyer working on the case and suspended the activities of seven more counsels. Several more certifications are scheduled for November, which could further worsen the situation of the accused in the case.
Under such circumstances, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" said that the situation greatly undermined the possibility of arranging a trial in accordance with fair trial standards, one of which is the possibility of obtaining professional legal assistance of an independent lawyer.
On September 4, a Viciebsk-based psychiatrist Ihar Pastnou was forcibly taken to mental hospital for an examination following the opening of a criminal case of ‘knowingly false accusation of a crime’.
Pastnou refused to undergo inpatient examination because of distrust of the experts.
The criminal case under part 1 of Article 400 of the Criminal Code was opened on July 4 by the city department of the Investigative Committee at the request of chief of Eduard Kurylenka, head of local pre-trial prison number 2. The charges stemmed from Pastnou’s posts on the social network "VKontakte" alleging beatings and torture in the detention center. The doctor argued that these and other unlawful acts were committed by Kurylenka and his subordinates.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned that on August 30 another criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 400 of the Criminal Code was opened against Pastnou in connection with his his appeal to the Prosecutor General.
On September 1, the City Investigative Committee combined the two criminal cases.
According to Viasna’s activists, the very fact of criminal prosecution may be contrary to the Constitution of Belarus and the country's international obligations concerning the right to freedom of expression.
As it became known to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", after the transfer to prison in Horki political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was four times placed in a punishment cell: for 5, 10 (later the sentence was reduced to 7 days), 10 and 7 days. Thus, since the beginning of August, he spent 29 days in a punishment cell. After leaving the insulator, Zhamchuzhny received another penalty — one month in so-called cell-type premises (PKT).
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny is still suffering from provocations associated with informal relationships among prisoners, which with the acquiescence of the prison administration created the conditions for cruel and degrading treatment of certain prisoners.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On September 18, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk rejected an appeal against the refusal of the Ministry of Interior to examine a public petition for an early lifting of a travel ban on the return to Belarus of prominent human rights defender Alena Tankachova.
On July 4, more than 50 citizens of Belarus and foreign nationals asked the Minister of Internal Affairs to reduce the travel ban.
On November 5, the Pieršamajski district police department ordered Tankachova’s deportation and issued a ban on her return to the country in the next three years.
A Russian citizen, Tankachova has lived in Belarus for about 30 years. She has property and a permanent job in Belarus. For about 20 years, she headed the Legal Transformation Center, which provides professional legal and expert support to non-profit organizations in Belarus, as well as assistance in cases of human rights violations. The decision to oust the activist stemmed from several insignificant speeding violations.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
Obtaining permission from the authorities to hold peaceful assemblies remained a major problem for the country’s civil society and political activists, as the right was still disproportionately limited. Meanwhile, violations of the law on mass events continued to entail administrative liability.
On August 14, Leanid Kulakou held a picket outside the Park Čaliuskincaŭ metro station in Minsk and later posted online a photo of his displaying a banner reading, “Dirty Hands Off the Independent Trade Union of Radio and Electronic Industry REP”. For this, he was subjected to a fine of 645 rubles.
Mikalai Statkevich was sentenced to 5 days of detention for participation in an unsanctioned rally on September 8 in Kastryčnickaja Square in Minsk. The decision was issued on September 26 by the Lieninski District Court; at the moment, the politician was serving 15 days of detention for a peaceful rally on July 3 in protest of the Belarusian-Russian military exercises "Zapad-2017". The meeting was also dedicated to the unofficial Day of Belarusian Military Glory. While serving the sentence, the politician was not allowed to see his lawyer.
Opposition politician Uladzimir Niakliayeu and activist Stanislau Paulinkovich were convicted of involvement in the same protest. Niaklyaeu served a seven-day arrest and was released on September 22. Paulinkovich was punished by a fine of 460 rubles. On September 28, the court of Partyzanski district of Minsk sentenced activist Anton Zhylko to a fine of 1,150 rubles. For participating in the same demonstration, Viachaslau Siuchyk was fined 1,035 rubles.
Activist Mikalai Piashko was fined 460 rubles for picketing against the death penalty in Homieĺ.
On September 13, activists of a civil initiative against lawlessness in the courts and prosecutor's offices, Tamara Siarhei and Liubou Sankovich, were fined 690 and 1,150 rubles respectively for staging a picket demanding the resignation of Chairman of the Supreme Court.
On September 19, an unemployed teacher Andrei Pavuk was fined 230 rubles for displaying a banner reading, “Employ Pavuk” in the central square of the town of Akciabrski.
A disproportionately severely punishment was imposed on Mikalai Miakshyla for attempting to inscribe “Satan” on the monument to Lenin in Lida. He was reportedly beaten during arrest. He was then held without sufficient grounds for more than two months before trial. The court eventually ordered a sentence of one year of restraint of liberty.
The Prosecutor’s Office of Pieršamajski district of Minsk canceled the decision of the Investigative Committee to refuse to open a criminal investigation into the beating by riot police officers of former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok during his arrest on March 25 in Minsk. As a result, the probe will be resumed.
The authorities of the Republic of Belarus submitted their comments on a communication earlier sent to the UN Human Rights Committee by Valiantsina Akulich, whose son died in the Svietlahorsk detention center on May 26, 2012. The appeal was registered on June 12, 2017. The government argues that there was no ill-treatment of the prisoner and objects to the admissibility of the complaint, as the victim’s mother had not allegedly exhausted all domestic remedies before writing to the Committee.
Following an appeal by Dzmitry Serada, who was victim of ill-treatment by the police, the Prosecutor General’s Office tasked the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk to study the file of an earlier probe. The City Prosecutor's Office quashed the investigator's decision to refuse to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers; the probe will be resumed.
Pressure on defense lawyers
In September, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" twice wrote to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers to highlight intervention of the Ministry of Justice in the activities of the Bar. As a result of two series of re-certification by the Ministry’s Qualification Commission held on 12 and 25 September, four lawyers lost their licenses, including Hanna Bakhtsina, known for her role in many politically motivated trials. The certification of 12 more lawyers was suspended for six months. These include lawyers who defended opposition politicians, civil society and trade union activists. The suspended certification will certainly limit the activity and independence of lawyers involved in criminal cases.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" sent an appeal to the international legal community to report about pressure on lawyers in Belarus and calling for solidarity with their counterparts.
Several human rights organizations issued a statement urging the Belarusian authorities to immediately stop the interference of government bodies in the activities of lawyers and to ensure their independence at the legislative level by making appropriate changes to the current legislation; to stop putting pressure on lawyers engaged in the protection of defendants in politically motivated cases and cases related to the promotion of human rights; to cancel the decision of the Qualification Commission of the Ministry of Justice, which is an obstacle in the implementation of professional activities of lawyer Hanna Bakhtsina.
Persecution of independent journalists
On September 7, the Kastryčnicki District Court in Mahilioŭ sentenced Alina Skrebunova to a fine of 640 rubles for shooting a story for the Belsat TV channel.
On September 27, the Pietrykaŭ District Court fined Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Andrei Tolchyn 920 rubles each.