Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2018
- Belarusian prisons continued to hold two political prisoners, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. Amnesty International launched a global campaign of solidarity in support of Paliyenka;
- on May 8, Ihar Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the REP trade union, faced final charges under Part 2, Art. 234 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion on a large scale). The human rights community insists on the immediate cessation of politically motivated prosecution against the activists;
- Uladzimir Yaromenak, activist of the Young Front opposition group, has been placed under preventive police supervision. Failure to comply with the restrictions may result in deprivation of liberty;
- during the month, there were cases of arrests and harassment of independent journalists and bloggers, as well as judicial harassment of peaceful protesters;
- on May 25, the Supreme Court of Belarus dismissed an appeal by the organizing committee of the BCD party filed to challenge an earlier decision by the Ministry of Justice to refuse state registration. It is worth noting that this was the seventh attempt to register the party;
- the House of Representatives received a bill drafted by the Council of Ministers to provide for the abolition of Art. 193.1 and replacement of criminal liability for organizing or participating in the activities of nonregistered organizations with an administrative fine of up to 50 basic units (1,225 rubles). While welcoming the move as a positive development, the human rights community, however, insists on the complete abolition of any responsibility for the peaceful exercise of freedom of association;
- on May 29, during an appeal hearing at the Supreme Court in the criminal case of death convicts Aliaksandr Zhylnikau and Viachaslau Sukharko, the latter defendant said that two death row prisoners, Aliaksei Mikhalenia and Viktar Liotau, were executed on the night of May 15 to May 16;
- thus, there were no significant changes aimed at qualitative changes in the field of human rights.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On May 8, Ihar Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the REP trade union, faced final charges under Part 2, Art. 234 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion on a large scale). The activists will have a month to read the case file, after which the criminal case will be sent to court. It is worth recalling that the human rights community demands to put an end to the prosecution of the trade union activists, considering it is clearly politically motivated. The Investigative Committee also said that the criminal charges against other unidentified persons were dropped on May 7.
International human rights organization Amnesty International announced the beginning of a global action in support of prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” joined the campaign.
Young Front activist Uladzimir Yaromenak has been placed under police supervision for six months. The restrictions stem from the activist’s alleged failure to serve three days of administrative detention he was awarded for joining a protest against the construction of a business center in the Kurapaty memorial forest in early 2017, as well as a criminal record of imprisonment for taking part in the ‘mass riots’ on December 19, 2010.
Yaromenak was not able to serve the administrative detention after he was arrested as a suspect in the so-called “White Legion case”. He was later released without any charges. The activist is prohibited to leave home between 10 pm and 6 am. Three violations of the rules within a year may result in criminal charges and imprisonment.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" unequivocally views the case as politically motivated prosecution.
Harassment of human rights defenders
Civil Rights Defenders called on the Belarusian authorities to drop all charges against Tatsiana Mastykina, volunteer of the HRC "Viasna", who was arrested when monitoring a peaceful assembly on March 25 in Minsk. The activist was charged under Art. 23.34 (violation of the order of organizing and holding mass events) and Art. 23.4 (disobedience to lawful demands of police) of the Administrative Code.
Meanwhile, on May 8, the court of Pieršamajski district of Minsk ruled to send the volunteer’s case back to the district police department after it found serious shortcomings in the documents.
Earlier, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee issued a joint statement asking to stop harassment of Tatsiana Mastykina in connection with the legitimate exercise of her human rights activities.
An appeal against the illegal arrest and fingerprinting of Tatsiana Mastykina and several other observers was rejected by the Saviecki District Prosecutor’s Office: the district prosecutor’s argued in his reply that the arrest was legal and there were sufficient grounds for fingerprinting Tatsiana Mastykina.
Freedom of association
The National Legal Internet Portal published draft amendments to the Criminal Code prepared by the Council of Ministers. According to the draft law, it is planned to abolish Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which provides for criminal responsibility for activity on behalf of nonregistered organizations. Meanwhile, the country’s human rights community has repeatedly called on the authorities to decriminalize illegal NGO membership, viewing the step as one of the priority measures of restorative nature. In addition, the draft law envisages the introduction of administrative liability for the same activity.
In this regard, a number of human rights organizations issued a statement to welcome the measures to repeal Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code as an important and necessary step towards improving the state of freedom of association in Belarus. At the same time, the human rights activists stress that the intention to replace criminal liability for the activities as a part of nonregistered organizations with an administrative penalty demonstrates lack of political will to ensure freedom of association in the country and called on the Parliament to exclude Article 193.1 from the Criminal Code, to vote against the introduction of administrative responsibility as a supplementary Article 23.88, and to start public discussion with all stakeholders of further changes in legislation regulating the establishment and activities of civil society organizations.
Meanwhile, pro-democratic organizations still have their requests for state registration rejected by the Ministry of Justice and its local offices: over the month, undue restrictions on freedom of association, as provided by Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, were faced by the historical and educational public association “Chajsy”, the cultural and educational association “Young Revival”, and the Social Christian Movement. On May 25, the Supreme Court rejected the Belarusian Christian Democracy’s appeal against the seventh denial of registration, which, according to human rights activists, is not connected with the permissible restrictions on the activities of associations.
On May 20, the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs published an article with homophobic content entitled “We Are For True Things”, in which the Interior Ministry spoke against LGBTQ+ people and the rainbow flag flown on the British Embassy’s building in Minsk to mark the International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia, May 17. The article called the minority “fake”.
Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich supported the homophobic statement and explained the Ministry's position on the issue in a talk-show on the TV channel Belarus 1.
In response to the article, a group of concerned citizens created a petition “For True Police — For Everyone”, in which they asked the Prosecutor General to check the legality of such statements by the Interior Ministry, to remove the article from the official website and to refrain from similar comments in the future. During three days, the petition was signed by over 1,500 people.
On May 24, Vika Biran, co-founder of the project MAKEOUT.BY, was photographed holding a poster reading “You Yourselves Are Fake” on the background of the Government House, the Interior Ministry and the KGB building.
On May 28, the activist was summoned to the police department to face charges under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of organizing and holding mass events).
Meanwhile, Belarus was ranked 42nd out of 49 European countries in the homophobia ranking by the ILGA-Europe, European branch of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association. The ranking suggests that the country’s population shows a very high level of intolerance for such people, as compared to other European countries.
The rating was based on six parameters: equality and non-discrimination, opportunities to start a family, prohibition of hate speech, legal recognition of the status and the ability to change their gender, opportunities to be part of civil society and the granting of asylum to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgender and intersex people.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly
Belarus continues to violate the right to peaceful assembly and expression. The exercise of these rights without the permission of local authorities entails heavy fines or administrative detention.
Brest police arrested three activists, Siarhei Piatrukhin, Aliaksandr Kabanau and Dzmitry Andrasiuk, during a protest against the construction of a battery factory on May 6. Later, they were fined on charges of illegal protesting (Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code).
The proposed construction of the harmful industrial contaminant was the reason for a protest staged by local anarchists, when masked people holding smoke flares blocked three lanes of the M1 intercity highway near Brest. They were holding a banner saying “No To The Battery Factory”. Following the protest, police carried out unwarranted searches in several apartments and offices in Baranavičy and Minsk, sometimes seizing office equipment.
On May 14, Oršy police arrested Raman Kuzmiankou for staging an illegal picket in the city center. The peaceful protest was punished by a penalty of 490 rubles. The following day, the activist’s apartment was raided in connection with alleged insult of a government official. A week later, on May 21, he again staged a picket. The protester was arrested, but later the same day, he was sent for forensic examination. On May 29, Kuzmiankou was found mentally sane, and the court sentenced him to a fine of 539 rubles.
On May 21, the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk fined activists Leanid Kulakou (980 rubles) and Maya Navumava (857.5 rubles). They were punished for joining a protest on April 26, when several activists staged a picket opposite the place of gathering of participants in Chernobyl Shliakh demonstration. On May 23, for participating in the same picket activist Halina Lahatskaya was punished by a fine of 612.5 rubles. On May 22, a court in Minsk heard a similar case against Natallia Harachka-Basalyha, but the activist was not notified of the hearing. However, she was fined 1,225 rubles.
Meanwhile, the authorities have not yet classified the arrests on March 25 in Yakub Kolas Square in Minsk, when dozens of people were unreasonably detained by riot police, but not a single of them was found guilty of violating any laws of Belarus; some detainees, however, were charged under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of organization or holding mass events), and many were released without charges. A. Kupchenia, head of the law enforcement and prevention section of the Minsk City Executive Committee’s police department, said in a reply to a complaint by one of the detainees that the activist “was not arrested, but simply offered to arrive at the district police department for conversation.”
Violation of freedom of expression. Persecution of journalists
Independent journalist and former political prisoner Pavel Mazheika was fined 857 rubles under Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code for a live interview on the website of the TV channel "Belsat".
On May 7, five Belsat journalists were punished for their professional: Luibou Luniova, Siarhei Krauchuk (two times), Katsiaryna Andreyeva, Iryna Arakhouskaya and Maryna Artsybashava were fined a total amount of 4,655 rubles.
The Kalinkavičy Court sentenced journalist Larysa Shchyrakova to a fine of 980 rubles for covering a protest by prisoners’ mothers.
The UN Committee against Torture issued its Concluding Observations on the fifth periodic report of Belarus to call on the government, as a State party to the Convention against Torture,to eliminate the numerous violations that create the conditions for torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment. The Committee also drew attention to the violation of the rights of specific persons.
Prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka does not receive effective treatment in penal colony No. 2 in Babrujsk, as the prison administration continues to ignores his complains, which that brings additional suffering apart from the fact of imprisonment.
Magdalena Wolinska, wife of British citizen Alan Smith, who is serving a sentence in penal colony No. 3, lodged a complaint with the Public Monitoring Commission, and invited the monitors to inspect the facility. According to Magdalena, the prison authorities have refused to accept several parcels. As a result, the prisoner had to spend months without warm clothing and basic foodstuffs. In addition, Alan Smith is still unable to receive the books and newspapers mailed by the British Embassy in Minsk.
Since February, Alan Smith has been stripped of his phone calls, and the prison administration reportedly seizes his mail. The complaint referred to an incident in the colony, when more than half of the prisoners were hospitalized with poisoning. According to the complainant, this fact is hidden, and the British Embassy has been unable to obtain information about the health of Alan Smith for more than a month.
The death penalty
On May 29, the Supreme Court heard an appeal by death convict Aliaksandr Zhylnikau. The man was first awarded a life sentence, but then sentenced to death, after a re-trial by the Minsk City Court.
During the hearing, another convict in the case, Viachaslau Sukharko, said that two death row prisoners, Aliaksei Mikhalenia and Viktar Liotau, were executed on the night of May 15 to 16.
On May 30, the Supreme Court dismissed Zhylnikau’s appeal. Thus, the death sentence passed against him and Viachaslau Sukharko entered into legal force. It is currently known about four men waiting for execution on death row in the Interior Ministry’s jail No. 1 in Minsk.