Human Rights Situation in Belarus: June 2018
- the prisons continued to hold two political prisoners, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka;
- on June 18, the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk notified Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the REP trade union, that their criminal case had been forwarded to the court of the Saviecki district. The country's human rights community continues to demand an immediate dropping of all politically motivated charges against the independent trade union activists;
- on June 14, the residence of Ales Lipai, director of the independent news agency BelaPAN, was searched by financial police. The authorities later officially confirmed that Lipai was suspected of tax evasion on a large scale (Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code). The human rights and independent media community said the charges were linked to his professional activity;
- on June 14, the HRC "Viasna" learned about the suspension of the death sentences against Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoy while their supervisory appeals were under consideration at the Supreme Court;
- on June 25, Miklós Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, presented his sixth report on the situation of human rights in Belarus at the 38th session of the UN Human Rights Council. Both international and Belarusian human rights organizations supported the renewal of the mandate;
- thus, June was not marked by any significant changes aimed at qualitative changes in the field of human rights.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned that political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, who on April 10 was penalized by two months of confinement in cell-type premises (PKT) in colony number 9 in Horki, was awarded 10 days in a punishment cell while serving the punishment. This is his 28th penalty since August 2017.
The day before, on May 31, during a prosecutor's inspection of the colony, Zhamchuzhny filed in the presence of the prosecutor a written request to deputy head of the colony to access some of the materials of his criminal case, concerning the responses of government bodies to his complaints (previously he was denied such a possibility). On the same day, the prison administration allowed him to view the requested documents. However, the following morning the prison authorities expressed their dissatisfaction at the prisoner’s decision to file the complaint.
On June 18, the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk notified Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the REP trade union, that their criminal case had been forwarded to the court of the Saviecki district. Fiadynich and Komlik finished reading the case file on June 8.
On the morning of June 14, the private apartment of Ales Lipai, director of the BelaPAN news agency, was raided by employees of the State Control Committee’s Department for Financial Investigations. The search was conducted as part of a criminal case and was authorized by the prosecutor's office. After the search, Ales Lipai was brought in for questioning to the financial police, after which he was released.
Later the State Control Committee’s website said that on June 12 Ales Lipai was named a suspect in a criminal case under Part. 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code for allegedly failing to declare his income. Lipai has not yet faced formal charges or pre-trial restrictions.
Belarusian human rights organizations say the prosecution of Ales Lipai is linked to professional work as a journalist.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly
Belarus continues to violate the rights to peaceful assembly and expression. The loose interpretation of the notion of mass events allows to award heavy fines or administrative arrest for virtually all forms of public expression of social activity, unless authorized by the local government.
In early June, representatives of opposition political parties and NGOs started picketing a restaurant located next to the grave of the victims of Soviet repression of 1930s-40s, popularly known as Kurapaty. According to the protesters, the construction of the eating-house was accompanied by legal violations, while the choice of the place itself was inappropriate.
The government’s reluctance to properly investigate the mass executions in Kurapaty, its repeated attempts to distort the evidence of the massacre and infringe on the territory the memorial place, a symbol of sorrow and suffering, brought the situation to the level of confrontation of ideas and beliefs.
As yet, the government bodies have opted to evade finding solutions to the problem, with the General Prosecutor's Office and the Interior Ministry declaring their ‘neutrality’ in the conflict. Meanwhile, it is the representatives of the law enforcement who bear the positive obligation to create conditions for the unimpeded expression of opinions and holding peaceful assemblies. However, in June, the representatives of the Interior failed to create an environment, which would exclude the physical contact and possible bodily harm to the participants in the conflict; the only form of response were numerous (according to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", over 120) charges against activists and several charges against visitors to the restaurant.
On June 18, more than 40 civil society organizations of Belarus issued a joint statement in connection with the situation in Kurapaty. They asked the authorities to suspend the activities of the restaurant and to clarify additional circumstances of the legality of its construction. The signatories included the Human Rights Center "Viasna", Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Center for Legal Transformation, Belarusian Documentation Center, Belarusian Association of Journalists and others.
The HRC "Viasna" wrote to the General Prosecutor's Office and the Presidential Administration asking to investigate the construction of the controversial restaurant.
Meanwhile, on June 29, the car of one of the leaders of the protest, Zmitser Dashkevich, was stopped by traffic police, as it was carrying wooden crosses that the activists wanted to set near the memorial site. Interior Ministry officials then broke into Dashkevich’s workshop, where the crosses were made, and searched the place.
On June 30, the courts considered administrative charges against two Kurapaty protesters, Pavel Seviarynets and Volha Nikalaichyk; both were sentenced to administrative detention of 10 days.
On June 14, the court of the Saviecki district of Minsk considered the administrative case of Pavel Seviarynets, co-chairman of the BCD party, who was accused of calling to join a march to the Astraviec nuclear power plant on April 26. As a result, Judge Vera Halaukova sentenced the activist to a fine of 1,102.5 rubles under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code.
On June 19, employees of the Čyhunačny district police department of Viciebsk detained opposition activist and distributor of independent press Barys Khamaida. According to RFE/RL’s Belarus service, the activist was arrested ahead of the government-organized Slavonic Bazaar music festival and the City Day celebrations scheduled for next weekend.
On June 28, Minsk hosted a presentation of the draft law “On Freedom of Assembly”, which was prepared by Belarusian human rights activists and international experts. The alternative bill remains relevant, since the recent changes to the current law “On Mass Events”, which were adopted by the House of Representatives in the second reading, failed to bring it closer to the international standards in the field of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression; as a result, there are still significant restrictions on citizens' rights.
Students of the theater laboratory Fortinbras, Volha Ramashka, Nadzeya Krapivina and Dzmitry Yafremau, who on June 28 created an ‘LGBT flowerbed’ in front of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs headquarters in Minsk (Minister Ihar Shunevich is notorious for his homophobic views), were arrested and sent to the detention center before trial. BelaPAN freelancer Andrei Shauliuha was detained together with the participants of the performance after he photographed the protest. Their administrative charges were later heard by Minsk courts, and the protesters were fined.
The Russian translation of the Concluding observations of the UN Committee against Torture on the fifth periodic report of Belarus were published on the UN website; the Committee called on Belarus, 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; also, the Committee drew attention to the violation of the rights of specific persons.
The Mahilioŭ regional department of the Investigative Committee completed the investigation of a criminal case against director of local vocational school number 2 and his two deputies. The investigation believes that the defendants exceeded their authority and beat six students. They then locked the boys in a room until the next morning, thereby limiting their freedom. In addition, it was found that one of the students was regularly beaten for violating internal rules. The officials are accused of committing a crime under Part 3, Art. 426 of the Criminal Code (abuse of power committed out of other personal interest, accompanied by violence and insulting the victim).
Maryna Bahdanava, mother of Aleh Bahdanau who died of heart failure in the Žodzina prison in January 2016, filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General Aliaksandr Kaniuk against the actions of former investigator P. Khomich, who conducted the preliminary inquiry into the death of her son. Aleh Bahdanau needed constant skilled care and supervision of a cardiologist. The mother believes that her son did not receive adequate medical care while in prison. She also argues that it were the activities of P. Khomich that against the interests of the service contributed to the loss of important evidence in the case; violations committed by the investigator during the inquiry into the death do not relate to the disciplinary action in which he was punished by material responsibility, but constitute a criminal offense.
The Homieĺ District Court started hearing a criminal case against two former border guards accused of abuse of subordinates. This is one of a number of criminal cases initiated as a result of an all-out inspection of military units after the death of conscript soldier Aliaksandr Korzhych as a result of hazing.
Magdalena Wolinska, wife of British citizen Alan Smith, who is serving a sentence in penal colony number 3, said that her husband was on a hunger strike. Obviously, it was a form of protest against violations of the prisoner’s rights on the part of the prison administration. Since February, Alan Smith has been stripped of his phone calls, and the prison administration withdraws his mail.
Guarantees of a fair trial
On July 29, Belarusian human rights activists and former lawyers presented a new joint report of the Paris Bar Association, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights Center "Viasna"; the authors presented an analysis of the situation of lawyers in Belarus in terms of preserving the basic principles of their independence. The report was prepared on the results of a mission carried out in January 2018 and contains recommendations to the Belarusian authorities to guarantee the autonomy of internal self-government of attorneys, the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to an effective remedy in the disciplinary proceedings against lawyers.
The death penalty
On June 14, the HRC "Viasna" learned that deputy chairman of the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of the execution of death convicts Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoy for the period of consideration of their supervisory appeals.
Hershankou’s mother said that her son declared a hunger strike while on death row in jail number 1 in Minsk, protesting against restrictions on correspondence by the prison administration.