Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2017
- in November, the government continued to use repressive practices against political opponents and civil society activists; there were no significant systemic changes in the field of human rights;
- the prisons continued to hold two political prisoners: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter was declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", both political prisoners are subjected to various forms of pressure on the part of the prison authorities;
- the authorities have not dropped the criminal charges against activists of the independent trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik;
- the Investigative Committee closed the criminal case against sixteen people accused of creating an illegal armed group (so-called ‘White Legion case’);
- during the month, there were numerous cases of administrative prosecution (heavy fines and short jail terms) of the participants and organizers of peaceful assemblies. The protests themselves, however, were not dispersed by the law enforcement;
- following an order by the Homieĺ regional and city executive committees, thousands of employees of local government-owned businesses, as well as students of the city schools were sent to harvest flax in the fields of three districts of the Homieĺ region. This was viewed by human rights activists as forced labor;
- On November 14, the campaign of elections to local councils was officially launched in Belarus. The vote is scheduled for February 18, 2018.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On November 14, it became known that all the defendants in the case of ‘creating an illegal armed group’ had been questioned by the Investigative Committee. On November 30, Ivan Naskevich, Chairman of the Investigative Committee, announced the termination of the criminal prosecution of all the defendants in the ‘White Legion case’.
It is worth recalling that the human rights community of Belarus earlier demanded the termination of criminal proceedings against all the defendants in the case.
Prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka continued to experience pressure from the administration of penal colony No. 2. According to Paliyenka’s relatives, the prisoner has served numerous penalties in solitary confinement, which were imposed on various trivial grounds. The family members fear that this may result in additional criminally charges under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (willful disobedience to the correctional institution administration).
The administration of the Horki penal colony continued harassing Mikhail Zhamchuzhny: using informal relations among the prisoners, the political prisoner is provoked to commit actions that will attribute him to the lowest caste of prisoners and create a threat to his life, health and human dignity.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On November 2, Belarusian border guards detained a Vilnius-based Ukrainian human rights activist Nazarii Boiarskyi. He was forced to get off his train and told that he was under a ban on entry into the territory of Belarus.
Boiarskyi co-leads an anti-discrimination coalition in Ukraine. He is also education coordinator of the Center for Civil Liberties and activist of the Euromaidan-SOS initiative.
Violation of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
The Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and a number of other organizations issued a joint statement in connection with the announced trial of Belarusian authors of a number of Russian information resources Yury Paulavets, Dzmitry Alimkin and Siarhei Shyptsenka. The human rights activists called on the Belarusian authorities to ensure a public hearing of the criminal case in accordance with the principles of a fair trial, as well as international standards for the protection of freedom of speech and expression.
On November 1, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk considered the administrative case of Uladzimir Niakliayeu. He was accused of violating the ban on calls for participation in unsanctioned protests, referring to an article on the website charter97.org, where he allegedly called to join a demonstration entitled “March of Angry Belarusians 2.0”. Despite the fact that Niakliayeu was neither a participant nor the organizer of the protest, judge Sveiatlana Miatlionak punished the opposition leader by 10 days of administrative detention.
A similar interview with activist Siarhei Faleichyk resulted in a fine of 230 rubles.
The authorities continued repression of citizens for their involvement in peaceful meetings.
On October 30, the Krupki District Court considered the administrative case against artist Ales Pushkin under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code for his involvement in a protest on September 1 in Sluck. Judge Natallia Vusik found Pushkin guilty and fined him 115 rubles. On November 1, Pushkin was fined 23 rubles for hanging the images of participants of the 1920 anti-Soviet uprising on the fence of a local museum, which, according to the city police, violated para. 17 of the Rules of City Maintenance. In addition, the artist was accused of neglect of his 13-year-old son, after he took the teenager with him to the unauthorized protest on September 1.
Opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich was sentenced to another 10 days of administrative detention; this decision was taken by Judge Tatsiana Motyl of the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk on October 26, while his wife Maryna Adamovich learned about it from a court decision, which she received by registered mail on November 3. The decision suggests that Statkevich was sentenced for a picket held on October 7 outside the Center for the Isolation of Delinquents in Minsk. That day Statkevich was released from detention after 15 days in jail for participation in an unsanctioned rally on July 3. The politician was met by his wife, activists and journalists, with whom he talked.
On November 4, Brest activist Natallia Papkova was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention for participation in the protest “March of Angry Belarusians 2.0” against the socio-economic policy of the authorities, which was held on October 21 in Minsk. Papkova was brought to the courtroom from a temporary detention center, where she was serving seven days for participation in an earlier protest against the Belarusian-Russian military exercises “Zapad-2017”.
Involvement in the “March of Angry Belarusians 2.0” resulted in heavy fines to opposition activists Siarhei Martsaleu, Raman Pratasevich, Uladzimir Neumiarzhytski and Alena Lutskovich (460 rubles each); as well as Siarhei Falechyk (230 rubles). Leanid Kulakou was fined 920 rubles. Judge Tatsiana Linnik of the court of Pieršamajski district of Minsk considered the administrative case of activist Nina Bahinskaya and on November 21 ruled to fine the woman 1,150 rubles.
In Viciebsk, the police detained several participants of a prayer at the cross erected in memory of the victims of Stalinism; the detention was arbitrary, as it was not related to any legal violations. All the detainees were released from the police station an hour later.
Attempts to obtain government permission to hold peaceful assemblies continued to be unsuccessful: the Minsk city executive committee did not allow the initiative group “Movement of Mothers 328” to hold a rally on November 20 in Friendship of Peoples Park. The grounds for the refusal was the fact that at the same time other activities were scheduled in the park. However, as it turned out, no other event was held there.
The Svietlahorsk district executive committee did not allow local environmental activists to hold a picket on November 23 in front of a bleached pulp factory. Activist of the United Civil Party were banned to picket in MIory against hazing in the army. The executive committee referred to lack of agreements with the police, medics and public utilities.
The Investigative Committee’s Pieršamajski department of Minsk for the second time refused to open a criminal investigation into the beating of Mikalai Dziadok by riot policemen on March 25.
Dziadok earlier complained about the beating. However, the complaint was rejected. After that, he complained to the Pieršamajski District Prosecutor's Office, which in turn overturned the decision of the Investigative Committee, noting that ‘no measures for full and comprehensive investigation of the circumstances have been taken, in connection with which the decision not to institute criminal proceedings was premature’.
Persecution of journalists
Tamara Shchapiotkina, a freelance journalist in Biaroza, was brought to responsibility under Part 2, Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code for alleged ‘illegal production and distribution of media products’. Judge Alena Niamkova ruled to punish Shchapiotkina by a fine of 575 rubles.
On November 14, Judge Tatsiana Kastsiuk of the Lieninski District Court of Mahilioŭ heard the administrative case of journalist Alina Skrebunova, who was accused of shooting three stories for the Belsat TV channel. The journalist was fined 690 rubles.
Valiantsin Stefanovich, lawyer of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", wrote to the Prosecutor's Office of the Homieĺ region asking to investigate facts of forced labor when harvesting flax in Karma, Buda-Kašaliova and Čačersk districts.
The complaint is based on a publication by the BelaPAN news agency entitled “Teachers, students and employees of Homieĺ enterprises sent ‘to save flax’”. The article featured a comment by a representative of the Homieĺ regional executive committee who said that the decision was authorized by the executive authorities.
Sending employees of government-run enterprises, as well as students and military conscripts to harvest crops is one of the most common forms of forced labor in Belarus.
On November 23, Valiantsin Stefanovich received an answer from the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk region to his complaint requesting an additional probe against the chairman and the chief of the department of education, sports and tourism of the Maladziečna district executive committee in the case of a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl Viktoryia Papchenia, who died after being hit by a truck while harvesting potatoes in September 2016. The Prosecutor's Office once again evaded investigating the case.
Earlier, Valiantsin Stefanovich repeatedly wrote to the Prosecutor's Office and the Investigative Committee asking to conduct inspections and to prosecute officials of the Maladziečna district executive committee, who issued an illegal order to send the students to harvest potatoes.
The victim’s father submitted to the Minsk Regional Court a private complaint requesting a new hearing of the case. The consideration of the appeal is scheduled for December 4. The parents, who lost their only daughter, earlier asked the District Court to found the executive committee, the department of education, the school administration, as well as the Ministry of Education guilty of taking the life of their daughter. The family also asked the court to oblige the state agencies to adopt legislative and other measures to avoid such tragedies in the future.
On November 14, the campaign of elections to the local councils was launched in Belarus. The vote is scheduled for 18 February 2018. Simultaneously, human rights defenders announced the launch of a campaign to monitor the elections.
On November 24, the authorities completed the formation of territorial election commissions; only 7 of the 1,309 commissions have representatives of opposition parties.