Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2017
- December was not marked by any significant systemic changes in the field of human rights;
- the country’s prisons continued to hold two political prisoners, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. Amnesty International earlier said that Paliyenka is a prisoner of conscience. According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", both political prisoners are subjected to various forms of pressure on the part of the prison administration;
- the authorities have not dropped the criminal charges against activists of the independent trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik;
- Andrei Bialiauski, earlier involved in the criminal case of organizing an illegal armed group (‘White Legion case’, closed due to the ‘insignificance of the offense’), faced fresh criminal charges under Part 2, Art. 295 of the Criminal Code (illegal possession of munition). Human rights activists called on the authorities to drop the charge over its insignificance;
- a court in Minsk refused to meet a claim for the compensation of moral damages inflicted to a Young Front activist Zmitser Kremianetski during his detention in the Interior Ministry’s jail, where he was held on charges of ‘preparing riots’ (Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code). It should be noted that the Investigative Committee earlier cleared Kremianetski of all charges;
- during the month, there were documented cases of brining participants and organizers of peaceful assemblies to administrative responsibility in the form of fines;
- the number of short-prison terms imposed on political activists in December significantly decreased compared to the previous periods, but so far it is premature to view the development as a trend;
- on December 20, the Judicial Division for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court of Belarus rejected the appeal of two death convicts, Siamion Berazhny and Ihar Hershankou. The death sentences have entered into legal force;
- independent journalists continued to be subjected to judicial and administrative harassment for their professional activities. On December 14, the Ministry of Information ordered to restrict access to the belaruspartisan.org news website citing ‘numerous instances of posting prohibited content’ on the resource. The fact has triggered criticism from the country’s independent journalistic community and human rights defenders.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On November 27, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case against Andrei Bialiauski, former defendant in the case of creating an illegal armed group (the case was dismissed on November 27). Bialiauski was charged under Part 2, Art. 295 of the Criminal Code (illegal manufacture, purchase, transfer, possession, sale, storage, transportation or carrying of firearms, ammunition, explosives, etc.). During a search at his apartment, the investigators found a bullet. On December 12, Bialiauski was formally charged.
During an interrogation, Bialiauski filed a written request to close the case due to the insignificance of the offense, as it does not pose a public danger.
Given these circumstances and possible consequences, human rights activist Valiantsin Stefanovich called on the Investigative Committee to be consistent and to demonstrate legal logic.
On December 15, Bialiauski’s request was rejected and the charges remained in place.
On December 8, the Horki District Court heard an appeal by political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny against a penalty (five days in a punishment cell) imposed on him by the administration of penal colony No. 9 in August of this year. As a result, the Court dismissed the appeal.
In his clarifications provided after the imposition of the penalty, Zhamchuzhny pointed to the true causes of his refusals to be transferred to other units of the Horki colony and demanded his transfer to a safe place. It is known that the requests have been repeatedly ignored by the prison administration.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny says he feels a real threat to his life.
In view of this situation, human rights activist Nasta Loika wrote to the Prosecutor of Horki district asking to take measures against officials of the penal colony in order to ensure the political prisoner’s personal safety.
On December 14, court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district dismissed the claim for the compensation of moral damages in connection with the unlawful detention of a Young Front activist Zmitser Kremianetski. The activist intended to recover from the authorities 10,000 rubles in moral damages for his unlawful arrest and 10 days of detention in jail, which caused him mental suffering.
The claim was filed after in June the KGB dropped the criminal charges against Kremianetski. The activist was taken into custody on suspicion of organizing riots in March 2017.
The Prosecutor General's Office refused to consider on the merits a request filed by Valiantsin Stefanovich, lawyer of the HRC "Viasna", who asked to open a criminal case against several officials of the Maladziečna district executive committee.
The human rights defender urged the authorities to prosecute the officials over the death of Viktoryia Papchenia, a schoolchild who died under the wheels of a truck when harvesting potatoes on September 29, 2016. The Maladziečna District Court later convicted the truck driver Pavel Tsybina and sentenced him to three years of imprisonment.
On July 12, the same court sentenced two schoolteachers, Volha Zavadskaya and Iryna Apanasevich, to two years of conditional imprisonment and a heavy fine for the improper performance of responsibilities for the security, life and health of children.
Valiantsin Stefanovich has repeatedly appealed to the Prosecutor's Office and the Investigative Committee asking to investigate the case and to prosecute officials of the Maladziečna district executive committee, Chairman Yakhnavets and Head of the Department of Education, Sports and Tourism Drapeza, who issued the illegal order of sending the pupils to harvest potatoes. However, the officials were only reprimanded for the offense.
The Prosecutor's Office of Homieĺ region considered another complaint by human rights activist Valiantsin Stefanovich, who complained about instances of forced labor when harvesting flax in the fields of agricultural enterprises in Karma, Buda-Kašaliova and Čačersk districts. As a result, the authorities saw no reason to take any measures. At the same time, a number of officials of the Homieĺ regional executive committee were dismissed from their posts, as earlier reported by Minister of Agriculture Leanid Zayats.
During the month, there were more documented cases of sending employees of government-owned enterprises to harvest crops in various state-run farms across the country.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On December 21, the Minsk City Court considered an appeal by a number of Belarusian human rights defenders against the refusal of the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk to meet their complaint about the actions of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and upheld the District Court’s decision.
In July 2017, the human rights activists wrote to the Ministry of Internal Affairs asking to reduce the period of prohibition of entry to Belarus for human rights defender Alena Tankachova and exclude her from the list of persons who are denied entry into the country. However, the Interior Ministry left the request without consideration on the merits, citing the fact that the applicants failed to provide a power of attorney on behalf of Tankachova. The activists disagreed with the decision and filed an appeal in the Centraĺny District Court. They said the decision was illegal and asked to reverse it and to oblige the Interior Ministry to consider their joint appeal and to reduce the entry ban for Tankachova. As a result, the court took the side of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and dismissed the complaint on the grounds that the applicants did not provide a power of attorney.
The media reported on the use of prohibited ill-treatment of inmates of several closed-type educational institutions. Such cases are due to the absence of public control of these quasi-penitentiary facilities.
The Prosecutor's Office of Minsk region reversed an earlier decision to discontinue the criminal investigation into the death of Aleh Bahdanau in the Žodzina-based jail number 8 in January 2016.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
According to gomelspring.org, on December 7 two district courts in Homieĺ convicted in absentia activists Vadzim Vasilieu and Yauhen Markavets for their participation in the October 21 protest “March of Angry Belarusians 2.0”.
The same day, a businessman from Polack, Henadz Berdzianiou, received by mail a court ruling saying he was found guilty of illegal protesting and convicted under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for participating in the same protest. Judge Tatsiana Motyl sentenced the activist to a fine of 575 rubles.
Anton Vusovich of Minsk was sentenced to a fine of 92 rubles for involvement in a protest “Candle of Memory”, which was held in Minsk on the steps of the KGB building on October 29.
On December 18, the Minsk City Court opened the hearing of the charges brought against three Belarusian authors of a number of Russian websites, BSUIR Associate Professor Yury Paulavets, a security guard from Brest Dzmitry Alimkin and chief editor of the New Economy magazine Siarhei Shyptsenka. All of them are accused under Part 3, Art. 130 of the Criminal Code, ‘inciting racial, national or religious hatred, committed by a group of persons.’ Furthermore, Paulavets and Shyptsenka were charged with illegal business activities (Part 1, Art. 233 of the Criminal Code). If found guilty, the defendants face up to 12 years in prison. The defense soundly criticized the quality of the evidence provided by the prosecution and referred to the exercise of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution and the international commitments of Belarus in the field of human rights.
Earlier, on November 1, 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 which they 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.
Persecution of journalists and the media
On December 1, the District Court of Barysaŭ considered the case of an administrative offense under Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the rules of organization or holding of mass events) in respect of Anatol Bukas, chief editor of a local private newspaper Barysaŭskija Naviny. The charges stemmed from an article “Angry people will come to the square”. On November 20, the Ministry of Information issued a written warning to the newspaper for its alleged violation of the Law "On Mass Media".
Anatol Bukas rejected the charges, saying that he was not the subject of the offense in accordance with Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (its sanctions are provided for the participants of mass events). Nevertheless, the court found the editor guilty and sentenced him to a fine of 345 rubles.
On December 14, the Ministry of Information ordered to restrict access to the website belaruspartisan.org. The decision was made following a monitoring of the resource, which found ‘repeated violations of the law on mass media.’
Freelance journalists continued to be subjected to judicial harassment. Liubou Luniova and Dzmitry Krauchuk were sentenced to a fine of 920 rubles each for shooting a story for the TV channel "Belsat". Judge Dzmitry Yeliseyenka of Hlybokaje fined Dzmitry Lupach and Tatsiana Smotkina for reports that were aired by Radio Racyja and the TV channel "Belsat".
The death penalty
On December 20, the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court of Belarus upheld the death sentences earlier handed down to Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoi, two of the four people involved in the so-called ‘black realtors’ case’. The death convicts may still seek the President’s pardon.
After the Supreme Court upheld the verdicts, the European External Action Service called on the Belarusian authorities to ‘commute these two sentences to a non-capital sentence and to adopt a moratorium on all executions.’
Human rights defenders continued to observe the elections to local councils. Election Day is scheduled for February 18, 2018.
On December 4, the authorities completed the formation of district election commissions. As few as 22 of the 361 district commission have representatives of opposition parties.
The registered nomination groups began collecting signatures for the nomination of their candidates.