Human Rights Situation in Belarus: August 2018
- Belarusian prisons continued to hold two political prisoners: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. The presidential administration refused to pardon Zhamchuzhny, thus ignoring an appeal by representatives of the country’s human rights community;
- on August 24, Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, activists of the independent trade union REP, were convicted under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion on a large scale). The union leaders were sentenced to 4 years of restricted freedom without imprisonment, without confiscation of property, but with a prohibition to hold managerial positions for 5 years. Both national and international human rights and labor organizations called on the Belarusian authorities to reverse the sentence and to stop the pressure on independent trade unions;
- on August 7, the Investigative Committee of Belarus said that it opened a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 349 of the Criminal Code (illegal access to computer information committed out of other personal interest, which caused substantial harm) against journalists and editors of a number of Internet resources. On the same day, police searched the journalists’ apartments and the newsrooms of the media outlets, including the leading information portal TUT.BY and the independent news agency BelaPAN. At least nine journalists were detained, seven of whom were placed in the detention center for three days as suspects. These clearly repressive and disproportionate actions of the authorities caused great public interest, including outside Belarus;
- during the month, there were numerous facts of pressure on independent journalists and bloggers, cases of arrests and administrative detention of peaceful protestors;
- thus, the month was marked by a significant deterioration of the human rights situation in Belarus.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka continued to serve their sentences in prison.
The presidential administration rejected an appeal by several public associations asking to pardon political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny. The administration argued that the issue of pardoning the convict can only be considered at his personal request. Taking into account numerous instances of political prisoners being released by the President without any personal requests, the response suggests the President’s unwillingness to release Zhamchuzhny.
Meanwhile, the prison authorities intensified pressure on the political prisoner. Earlier penalties were followed by new ones: 10 days in a punishment cell on June 31, 10 days — on August 10; and 10 more days — on August 20. Thus, the political prisoner is almost continuously confined to the punishment cell. In the last 12 months, a total of 35 penalties have been imposed on Mikhail Zhamchuzhny by the prison authorities.
On August 7, the Investigative Committee said that it opened a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 349 of the Criminal Code (illegal access to computer information committed out of lucrative or other personal interest, or committed by a group of persons by prior conspiracy, or by a person in possession of access to a computer system or network). It was also reported about the arrest of journalists Maryna Zolatava, Hanna Kaltyhina, Halina Ulasik, Ulyiana Babayed (Tut.by) and Tatsiana Karaviankova (BelaPAN), TUT.BY finance department editor Dzmitry Bobryk (released on August 7), editor of TUT.BY’s popular science department Hanna Yermachonak, BelaPAN managing editor Andrei Serada (released on August 7), and former editor of BelaPAN Yauhen Beraziuk (released on August 7). On August 8, police detained Pauliuk Bykouski (Deutsche Welle), journalist Aliaksei Zhukau (former employee of the newspaper Belorusy i Rynok and the magazine Belarusian Agriculture) and four employees of the portal Realt.by: Ihar Khmara, Maryia Saroka, Alena Maslouskaya and Uladzislau Kuletski.
A total of 9 journalists from various outlets and information resources were detained in two days, while the offices of the leading independent news portals and the journalists’ residences were raided. Seven journalists were detained for three days as suspects in the criminal case and placed in a detention center.
All the detainees were released within three days. Maryna Zolatava was charged with official inaction. Eight journalists are currently in the status of suspects and are under criminal investigation. On August 27, the suspects were prohibited to leave Belarus.
A court in Minsk rejected Pauliuk Bykouski complaint against his unlawful and unjustified detention. The claim was examined in a closed court session.
The clearly repressive and disproportionate actions of the Belarusian authorities against the independent media and journalists triggered considerable public outcry and protests from both national and international journalists and human rights organizations.
The HRC "Viasna" and the Belarusian Association of Journalists, in particular, issued a joint statement to name the situation “a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and the activities of the media.” A number of leading human rights organizations in Belarus sent an urgent appeal to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression David Kaye and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir.
On August 24, Henadz Fiadynich, chairman of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Radio Electronic Industry Workers, and Ihar Komlik, the union’s chief accountant, were convicted under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code, which provides for liability for tax evasion on a large scale. The union leaders were sentenced to 4 years of restricted freedom without imprisonment, without confiscation of property, but with a prohibition to hold managerial positions for 5 years.
Belarusian human rights organization called on the authorities to review the sentence and to drop the criminal charges against the independent trade union leaders. Similar statements were made by a number of international human rights and trade union organizations.
The death penalty
The UN Human Rights Committee found a violation of the right to life in the case of Belarusian death convict Aliaksandr Hrunou. The refusal of the Belarusian government to give the prisoner’s body to his mother for burial was condemned by the UN experts as inhuman treatment.
It is worth mentioning that this is not the first opinion of the UN HRC, which has established a violation by the Republic of Belarus of the right to life. At the moment, four people are awaiting execution in jail number 1 in Minsk, after their death sentences entered into force.
One of the death row prisoners, Ihar Hershankou, was on a hunger strike after some of his mail did not reach the destination. Complaints and appeals by Hershankou’s mother, as well as a broad media coverage, helped improve the situation with the prisoner’s contacts with his family and communication with the government. At the same time, it was reported that the Mahilioŭ Prosecutor's Office found no violations after checking the death convict’s complaints about beatings and torture during the investigation.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
The authorities still use harsh repression against participants in illegal mass gatherings of a peaceful nature. It should be noted that the Belarusian legislation does not specifically regulate the holding of so-called spontaneous peaceful assemblies, the grounds for which cannot be known in advance.
In particular, opposition activists picketed the House of Justice in Minsk which hosted the trial of the leaders of the trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik. On the day of expected announcement of the verdict, they displayed white-red-white flags, the REP flag, and a European Belarus banner. After about 10 minutes, all the protesters, 11 people, were detained. After three days of detention, the activists were punished by heavy fines.
The month saw an ongoing confrontation between pro-democratic activists and the owners of an entertainment complex, which is located in close proximity to places of mass executions in Kurapaty. The city authorities still demonstrate either favorable or neutral attitude to the business and the visitors, despite openly provocative and illegal behavior of some of them. At the same time, numerous activists protecting the memorial are subjected to detention and fines.
On August 2, Judge Yuahen Sharshniou of the Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ fined Kurapaty defender Barys Anikeyeu for participating in a picket near the notorious restaurant.
On August 3, Judge Ihar Sidarok ruled to fine activist Maya Navumava 20 basic units.
For participating in a press conference at the gates of the restaurant, on August 2 Judge Viktoryia Shabunia fined politician Anatol Liabedzka 50 basic units under Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code for violating the procedure of organizing or holding mass events.
Pavel Seviarynets was sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention by the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk. Earlier, the same penalty was imposed on activist Maksim Viniarski.
The Court of the Saviecki district of Minsk started hearing a claim by businessman Arkadz Izrailevich against the newspaper Novy Čas and Dzianis Ivashyn, the author of a series of articles about the construction in Kurapaty of a restaurant Poedem, Poedim. The entrepreneur argues that the newspaper published several materials alleging that his firm is the real beneficiary of the restaurant and entertainment complex in the memorial area of Kurapaty. The plaintiff demands to publish a refutation of the information about his involvement in the construction of the restaurant and to recover from the newspaper moral damages in the amount of 40 thousand rubles, and an additional 1,000 rubles from the journalist. The unjustified and illegal satisfaction of the claim will endanger the existence of one of the few independent newspapers in Belarus.
Freedom of information. Persecution of journalists
The authorities continue to persecute journalists who cooperate with the media without accreditation.
On August 15, Yauhen Skrabets, a journalist working with Radio Racyja, was fined 20 basic units in Luniniec for alleged “illegal production and (or) distribution of media products,” after he covered a press tour by the Belarusian Association of Journalists.
In Biaroza, Judges Alena Niamkova and Natallia Minchanka imposed heavy fines on journalist Tamara Shchapiotkina for authoring materials published on the website of Radio Racyja. In total, the journalist has been fined 16 times for her professional activities.
In Minsk, Judge Ivan Kastsian fined journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Siarhei Kavaliou for live streaming a picket in Kurapaty.
Siarhei Piatrukhin, a critical blogger in Brest, faces criminal charges for alleged insult against a police officer. On September 30, masked police officers broke into his apartment. As a result, the blogger, who did not resist arrest, received injuries, brestspring.com said.