Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2017
- in October, the authorities tended to continue the policy of repression against civil society activists and political opponents, with no significant systemic changes in the field of human rights being observed;
- on October 2, Ihar Komlik, accountant and chairman of the Minsk city branch of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union REP, was released from pre-trial prison No. 1 in Minsk. Komlik was taken into custody on August 2 after the authorities charged him under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion). Earlier, the Belarusian human rights organizations said that Komlik was a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release;
- the country’s prisons continued to hold two political prisoners: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International;
- on October 23, Viasna learned that the prison authorities refused to send Mikhail Zhamchuzhny to serve the rest of his sentence in a maximum-security prison;
- despite the fact that the demonstration on October 21 and a picket on October 29 in Minsk, which were organized by representatives of the opposition forces, were not accompanied by police intervention, a number of opposition activists and leaders were subjected to administrative detention. Cases of arbitrary pre-emptive detention of activists were documented ahead of the scheduled events in different cities of the country;
- the widely announced changes in the Law "On Mass Events" and the introduction of the notification-based principle of some static types of events (pickets, meetings, rallies) in a limited number of locations authorized by local executive bodies will not significantly improve the situation with the implementation of the freedom of peaceful assembly;
- the month was marked by several detentions and administrative cases against human rights defenders of the HRC "Viasna" in different regions of the country;
- on October 19-21, Vilnius hosted the 4th Belarusian Human Rights Forum, which included the adoption of a resolution “On the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus.”
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On October 2, Ihar Komlik, accountant and chairman of the Minsk city branch of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union REP, was released from pre-trial prison No. 1 in Minsk, after signing a recognizance not to leave.
During his two-month detention, Komlik refused to give testimony to the investigation.
Ihar Komlik was taken into custody on August 2 after the authorities charged him, together with REP leader Henadz Fiadynich, under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion).
On August 3, the Belarusian human rights organizations issued a joint statement to declare Komlik a political prisoner, stressing the political motive of the criminal case and demanding to put an end to the persecution and to immediately release the activist.
As Viasna learned in early October, after a month of detention in the so-called cell-type premises, which was completed on October 4, political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny received two more disciplinary penalties (10 days each) in the punishment cell. The prison administration raised the question of sending Zhamchuzhny to serve his sentence in a maximum-security prison.
On October 10, Zhamchuzhny was brought to a visiting session of the Horki District Court to learn that his possible transfer to a maximum-security prison was going to be considered. The political prisoner refused to participate in the trial and requested a lawyer. Zhamchuzhny was offered a local lawyer, but he refused and demanded participation of the counsel he earlier contracted for the purpose. After this, he was returned to the cell.
Another hearing in Zhamchuzhny’s case was scheduled for October 24.
After the date of the trial was announced, human rights defenders of Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Pavel Sapelka, wrote to the Horki District Court asking for permit to attend the court hearing.
In September, Ales Bialiatski, head of the HRC "Viasna", petitioned the Interior Ministry’s Department of Corrections, asking to take immediate measures to ensure that Mikhail Zhamchuzhny could enjoy the conditions of serving his sentence, which would guarantee his security and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms.
On October 23, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" was informed that the trial would not take place, after the prison authorities withdrew their claim, since the “necessity for this ceased to exist.”
Harassment of human rights defenders
On October 30, Judge Aksana Kopach of the Baranavičy Сourt fined local human rights activist Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk a total of 920 rubles, finding him guilty of insulting and disobeying a police officer (Art. 23.5 and 23.4 of the Administrative Code).
Vaitseshyk was initially detained on October 11 during a trial of Russian philosopher Pyotr Ryabov. He was taken to the local police department and charged with two administrative violations. The trial, which was scheduled for the following day, was eventually adjourned to October 17, after the activist requested a lawyer. The human rights defender was again detained on October 16 on the eve of trial, when he tried to photograph the deportation of Ryabov at the railway station of Baranavičy. He faced another charge under Art. 23.4 of the Administrative Code. The night before the trial the human rights activist was held in jail.
During the first court hearing, the judge combined all the three charges in one case file. The trial was then twice adjourned. On October 30, witnesses were questioned and the final decision was announced. Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk was penalized for the first two offenses of October 11, and acquitted of the October 16 violation due to the “insignificance of the offense.”
On October 10, during the Week against the Death Penalty, Hrodna human rights activists Uladzimir Khilmanovich, Raman Yurhel, Edward Dmukhouski and Viktar Sazonau appeared in public places to hand out thousands of leaflets “Six Arguments against the Death Penalty.”
On October 18, the four human rights defenders received phone calls from an employee of the Lieninski district police department and told a police probe had been launched into the distribution of leaflets. Khilmanovich and Sazonau were later summoned to the police station to provide clarifications. However, no official charges have yet been brought.
On October 22, border guards detained Anisiya Kazliuk, an activist of the volunteer service of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", as she was returning from the 4th Belarusian Human Rights Forum in Vilnius. The activist’s baggage and personal belongings were searched.
Violations of freedom of association
On October 4, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier decision of the Ministry of Justice to refuse registration of the Social-Christian movement.
The movement’s leader Volha Kavalkova and her deputy Maksim Hatsak filed the documents for registration in the Ministry of Justice in late June. However, the Ministry found two violations in the movement’s charter: a misspelled middle name of one of the participants of the constituent assembly and the fact that seven leaders of the public association were designated as members of the council. The Ministry argued that Kavalkova should have been referred to as the chairperson, instead.
It should be noted that the founders earlier submitted to the Ministry of Justice the same documents and no remarks were voiced by the registering authority. The grounds for refusal to register the association was a failure to specify the number of the office leased by the founders to place a legal address.
These grounds used to deny registration are in no way connected with the permissible restrictions on freedom of association established by art. 22 of the ICCPR. The legislation regulating the procedure for the registration of public associations allows for a selective approach by the registration authorities in deciding on either authorizing or denying registration to a public association.
For the same inadmissible reasons, the Viciebsk city department of justice refused to register a local historical and educational public association "Chajsy". The officials clung to small defects in the registration documents.
Violation of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
The right of citizens to peaceful assembly continued to be arbitrarily limited; violations of the law on mass events entails administrative liability. In practice, the courts began to commonly use administrative detention to punish opposition activists and politicians.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" emphasizes that individuals subjected to administrative detention for exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms become political prisoners for the time of serving the sentence and are subject to immediate release and rehabilitation.
On October 2 and 3, the court of Maskoŭski district of Minsk heard the administrative cases of protesters against the Belarusian-Russian military exercises "Zapad-2017". The rally and the procession took place on September 8 in Minsk.
Dzmitry Kavalhin, Alena Toustaya and Aliaksandr Abramovich were punished by heavy fines. Pavel Seviarynets, Andrei Sharenda and Natallia Papkova were sentenced to administrative detention for up to 15 days.
On October 16 and 17, the courts considered the administrative cases of activists of the BPF’s youth wing, who participated in the distribution of ribbons with national ornaments in Minsk on September 25, as well as participants of the rally on September 1 in Sluck. Dzianis Mandzik, Katsiaryna Shust and Bahdan Sakalou in Minsk, Alina Nahornaya and Anton Lahvinets in Sluck were fined 460-575 rubles. Ales Pushkin was fined 115 rubles, Ales Lahvinets — 1,150 rubles.
On October 19, the Čyhunačny Court of Homieĺ sent several local activist to jail, including Barys Anikeyeu, Viktar Rubtsou and Uladzimir Niapomniashchykh for 5 days, for expressing solidarity with local freelance journalist Larysa Shchyrakova. The journalist herself was fined 575 rubles for wearing a sign around her neck saying, “I am a dishonest journalist.”
In light of the trend towards increased penalties for participating in peaceful assemblies, illustrative is the case of the leader of the movement "Razam" Viachaslau Siuchyk: for taking part in a protest against the military exercise "Zapad-2017", which took place on September 8, he was punished by a fine of 1,035 rubles. The District Prosecutor's Office challenged the sentence, saying that it was too “mild” and requested a retrial. On October 11, the Minsk City Court ruled to send the case for retrial, and on October 16 the activist was punished by administrative detention of 5 days.
Politician Mikalai Statkevich, who received for the same protest 5 days of administrative detention, was only sent to serve his penalty on October 30.
The “March of Angry Belarusians 2.0”, which was held October 21, was preceded by numerous pre-emptive arbitrary detentions of activists in the regions.
On October 30, Judge Aliaksei Krapachou of the Minsk District Court considered the case of activist Dzmitry Silchanka under Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code and for his participation in the "March of Angry Belarusians 2.0" appointed on October 21 a fine, which amounted to 1,150 rubles.
As before, the authorities arbitrarily limited attempts to hold peaceful assemblies and processions in accordance with the national law: the Minsk authorities suggested that the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions moved its demonstration during the World Day for Decent Work, October 7, from the central location outside the Kastryčnik movie theater to more distant places, including the infamous Bangalore Square. Thus, the city executive committee changed the location and format of the event without sufficient reasons; the trade unions refused to hold the event in a truncated form.
Moreover, the authorities targeted indoor meetings: on October 9, a lecture by Russian historian, philosopher and researcher Pyotr Ryabov at the Hrodna-based Center for Urban Life was raided by the police. About twenty people, including the lecturer, were held. The participants were taken to the police station and the premises of the Center was searched.
The following day, the Russian scholar was detained in Baranavičy and punished with administrative detention for disorderly conduct. Ryabov declared a hunger strike to protest the trumped-up charges. After serving his sentence, he was deported from Belarus and banned to enter the country for 10 years.
On October 14, the police broke into the 210 METROV art space, where a rock concert Minsk Edge Day 2017 was underway. Despite the peaceful ideas promoted by the event, the participants were arbitrarily detained; none of the detainees was prosecuted, but several people reported ill-treatment during the arrest.
The Minsk city executive committee did not allow the National Bolsheviks to hold a picket in defense of the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression; the event was scheduled to take place on October 29 in Minsk’s Freedom Square.
The city authorities also banned a picket in front of the Ministry of Defense, which was organized by activists of the Social Christian movement and the Belarusian Christian Democracy.
Aleh Matskevich, a human rights activist from Barysaŭ, applied for holding a picket outside a Defense Ministry building in the city’s central square. The activist was going to demand the resignation of Defense Minister Andrei Raukou and prosecution of all those responsible for the death of conscript Aliaksandr Korzhych in a military unit near the city earlier in October. However, the executive committee banned the picket. Despite this, on October 30 the human rights defender, together with local opposition activist Ales Abramovich appeared in the square displaying a poster. 15 minutes later they were detained and the same day Judge Siarhei Herasimovich punished them by heavy fines.
Pressure on lawyers
The Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk turned down an appeal filed by defense lawyer Hanna Bakhtsina to challenge the Justice Ministry’s decision, which revoked the counsel’s license due to “lack of professional skills.” During the meeting, Bakhtsina learned that on the eve of the appeal hearing the Minsk City Bar disbarred her in absentia and without notice.
The Human Rights Commission of the Polish Bar Council wrote to the Belarusian authorities, expressing “deep concern” over the situation with Belarusian lawyers, who were subjected to recertification by the Ministry of Justice.
Earlier, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" sent an appeal to the international legal community, telling about recent acts of pressure on lawyers in Belarus and calling for solidarity with their Belarusian counterparts.
In mid-September, several human rights organizations issued a statement in which they called on 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 revoke 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 journalists
On October 3, journalists Dzmitry Krauchuk and Liubou Luniova were fined 690 rubles under Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code for their work with the independent TV channel "Belsat".
On October 20, the same penalty and for the same offense was imposed on journalist Valeryia Ulasik.
On October 30, Judge Viktoryia Shabunia sentenced Belsat reporters Volha Chaichyts and Andrei Kozel to a fine of 1,035 rubles each. Aliaksandr Barazenka and Hanna Azemsha were fined 575 rubles each.