Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2018
- as of the beginning of 2018, the country’s prisons continued to hold two political prisoners: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter is a prisoner of conscience, according to Amnesty International;
- the authorities have not dropped the criminal charges against activists of the independent trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik; during the month, around 90 trade union members were interrogated by the Investigative Committee;
- on January 24, the Ministry of Information ordered to restrict access to the information resource Charter-97 (www.charter97.org) citing ‘prohibited content’ allegedly posted on the critical website. The fact caused criticism from the country's independent journalistic community and human rights defenders. Back in December 2017, the Ministry of Information blocked another critical online resource, www.belaruspartisan.org;
- on January 20, the Minsk City Court sentenced two men to death, Viachaslau Sukharka and Aliaksandr Zhylnikau. On January 26, human rights activists learned of yet another death sentence handed down in September 2017 to Viktar Liotau. Thus, as of the beginning of 2018, 7 death convicts were held on death row in prison No. 1 in Minsk, the verdicts against 5 of them have already entered into force;
- human rights defenders continued to observe the elections to local councils. Election Day is scheduled for February 18. Meanwhile, the authorities abandoned the idea of reforming the electoral legislation, a process launched in 2016 to follow the recommendations of the OSCE ODIHR, according to OSCE PA Special Representative Kent Harstedt;
- in January, there were no significant systemic changes in the field of human rights, while some events indicated absence of political will on the part of the country's authorities to undertake any systemic reforms aimed at democratization in society.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The country’s prisons continued to hold two political prisoner: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter is a prisoner of conscience, according to Amnesty International
The HRC "Viasna" received information about the ongoing pressure on political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny on the part of the prison administration, which is manifested by its unwillingness to provide imprisonment conditions that would guarantee the prisoner’s life and health.
These facts were the reason for repeated appeals of human rights defenders to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The HRC "Viasna" became aware that on January 6 Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was placed for one month in so-called cell-type premises.
On January 17, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court dismissed an appeal by Mikhail Zhamchuzhny against the decision of the first instance court that confirmed the penalty imposed on the political prisoner during his stay in the Horki-based penal colony No. 9.
According to the case file, on August 3, the prison administration sent Zhamchuzhny to a punishment cell for refusing to be transferred to Detachment 13, which is holding so-called ‘downcasts’. The political prisoner said he was forced to refuse for the sake of preserving his honor and reputation and noted that from now on his life and health were in danger. He also asked to guarantee his personal safety. Zhamchuzhny also argued that he unquestioningly fulfilled every order of the administration.
On January 23, the REP trade union issued a statement, which was sent to the Prosecutor General's Office of Belarus and the International Labor Organization (ILO), as well as international trade unions. The statement, in particular, indicates the intensification of investigative actions within the criminal case against the union’s leaders Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik. In particular, more than 90 members of the trade union were summoned to the investigative bodies over the past few months. The chairman of the REP trade union, Henadz Fiadynich, regards these facts as an undisguised pressure of the authorities on the members of the independent trade union, which is aimed to further discredit the organization.
On New Year's Eve in Sluck, Yury Miatselski was stopped by a police officer for identification. The guy asked the officer to give his personal number, but was detained and brought to the police station. Miatselski was then subjected to ill-treatment; his procedural rights were also violated. The case of ill-treatment is currently being appealed.
Liudmila Hershankova, mother of death convict Ihar Hershankou, wrote to the Investigative Committee to report violations during the preliminary investigation and the beating of her son in places of detention. Ihar Hershankou continues to assert that he is not guilty of the murders and was forced to write a confession after being subjected to physical violence and psychological pressure. The mother’s complaint was, however, ignored.
The Prosecutor's Office of the Dziaržynsk district for the second time cancelled the decision not to institute criminal proceedings against police officers who inflicted no less than 26 bodily injuries during the arrest of Siarhei Tkachenka. In his complaint filed with the help of lawyers of the HRC "Viasna", the man said that the district office of the Investigative Committee unreasonably issued a decision to refuse to open a criminal case.
On January 15, defendant Pyotr Ivanov said during the hearing of his criminal case by the court of Kastryčnicki district of Viciebsk that he was severely beaten during pre-trial detention. He also said that his legs hurt him and his could not sit. Later he spoke again about violence in the pre-trial detention center: “I was beaten three times, the last time I nearly died.” The court, however, failed to order a probe to investigate the report.
The Prosecutor's Office of the Pieršamajski district of Minsk sided with the Investigative Committee’s district office, which earlier refused to initiate a criminal investigation into the beating of Aliaksei Loika, lawyer of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", during a police raid on the organization’s office on March 25.
Monitoring the situation in the penal facilities, as well as campaigning for legal measures against the use of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are one of the priorities of the Human Rights Center "Viasna". In January, a monitoring report “The Republic of Belarus: Places of Unfreedom” was published and presented in Minsk, which was to sum up the last six years of the organization's work in this sphere. The study concludes that the places of imprisonment retained numerous deficiencies, while many of them cannot be corrected under the current legislative regulation. Therefore, the recommendations addressed to the government and legislators insist on reforming the legislation, so that it could fully meet the interests of respect for human rights. It is the human rights approach that was used by the authors to research the country’s prison system.
Freedom of expression, harassment of journalists
On January 12, a court heard the administrative case of journalist Liubou Luniova, who was eventually fined 980 rubles for working with the independent television channel Belsat. Thus, the pressure on independent journalists continued.
On January 24, the Ministry of Information ordered to restrict access to the information resource Charter-97 (www.charter97.org) citing ‘prohibited content’ allegedly posted on the critical website.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” expressed its concern about the recent developments in the Belarusian media space. The human rights activists believe that the blocking of the Charter-97 website is an unacceptable restriction on the right to freedom of expression. This is a gross violation of international obligations in the field of freedom of speech and human rights, in general, committed by the Belarusian authorities.
The death penalty
On January 20, the Minsk City Court found Viachaslau Sukharka and Aliaksandr Zhylnikau guilty of murdering three people in December 2015, sentencing both to death.
This is the first death sentence pronounced by the Minsk City Court during the timeline of the campaign against the death penalty in Belarus (active since 2009).
On March 6, 2017, Sukharka and Zhylnikau were sentenced to life imprisonment. On July 14, the Supreme Court sent the case for retrial.
All sides in the trial disagreed with the verdict. Appeals were sent to the Supreme Court by the convict, their lawyers and the victims. An appeal against the ‘mild sentence’ was also submitted by the Prosecutor's Office.
The European Union criticized Belarus for the death sentences imposed on the two men on January 20. Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the European External Action Service, said on January 23 that the EU still insisted on the introduction of a moratorium on the death penalty in Belarus.
Amnesty International issued an urgent appeal asking President Lukashenka to ‘spare’ death convicts Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoi, who were sentenced to death on July 21, 2017 by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court.
Meanwhile, on January 26, human rights activists became aware of another person on death row, Viktar Liotau, who was sentenced to death on September 22, 2017 by the Viciebsk Regional Court. The verdict was not appealed and entered into force on October 6.
Thus, as of the beginning of 2018, 7 people were held on death row in prison No. 1 in Minsk, the sentences in respect of five of them have already entered into force (Kiryl Kazachok, Aliaksei Mikhalenia, Ihar Hershankou, Siamion Berazhnoi, and Viktar Liotau), while Viachaslau Sukharka and Aliaksandr Zhylnikau still have the right to appeal the sentences to the Supreme Court’s Board for Criminal Cases.