Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2018
- Belarusian prisons continued to hold political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. Both prisoners continued to be pressured by the prison authorities;
- the month was marked by intensified investigative actions against a number of journalists of independent online publications TUT.BY and BelaPAN within a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 346 of the Criminal Code (illegal access to computer information committed out of personal interest that caused significant damage). It is worth noting that the criminal case has received considerable international attention. A number of national and international journalistic and human rights organizations called on the Belarusian authorities to stop the pressure on the country’s independent media;
- during the month, there were numerous documented facts of judicial harassment of independent journalists and bloggers, freelancers, arrests and administrative detention of peaceful protesters;
- the first month of the fall saw the resumption of a long-standing practice of sending government employees and students to harvest crops, while these the functions are not stipulated by their employment contracts. This practice is contrary to both national labor legislation and international law in the field of human rights, which prohibits forced labor;
- thus, the human rights situation has not improved significantly, while the negative trends observed in August remained and were further developed.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Belarusian prisons continued to hold political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. Both prisoners continued to be pressured by the prison authorities.
In particular, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny serves multiple penalties while serving his sentence in penal colony No. 9 in Horki.
Earlier confinement to a punishment cell was followed by new penalties: he was sentenced to 10 days on August 30 and 10 more days on September 10. Thus, over the past three months, Zhamchuzhny has served 50 days in a punishment cell. In total, he has spent 100 days in solitary confinement over the past 12 months.
Dzmitry Paliyenka said that the prison administration barred other prisoners from communicating with him under threat of transfer to another unit.
In September, the authorities intensified investigation into so-called “BelTA case.” Journalists of independent news online publications BelaPAN and TUT.by were questioned by the Investigative Committee as witnesses and suspects in the case.
Particular media attention was sparked by a statement of TUT.by journalist Dzmitry Bobryk who said that he was forced to sign a cooperation agreement during an interrogation at the Investigative Committee on August 7. According to Bobryk, the investigators threatened to disclose sensitive information about his personal. Representatives of the Investigative Committee, however, denied the very fact of recruitment.
On August 7, the Investigative Committee said that it opened a criminal case against a number of journalists of independent media outlets under Part 2, Art. 349 of the Criminal Code (illegal access to computer information committed out of personal interest that caused significant damage).
Within three days, on August 7-9, the offices of the independent media, as well as the homes of some journalists and editors, were searched. Police detained TUT.by chief Editor Maryna Zolatava, editors Hanna Kaltyhina, Halina Ulasik and Hanna Yermachonak, BelaPAN chief editor Iryna Leushyna and international news analyst Tatsiana Karaviankova, Deutsche Welle correspondent Pauliuk Bykouski and editor of the website of the newspaper Belarusy I Rynak Aliaksei Zhukau. All of them spent several days in the detention center. On August 27, most of the suspects in the case were banned from leaving the country.
The journalists and editors were supported by the European Union, the Council of Europe, the United States, as well as national and international human rights organizations.
On September 3, Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, leaders of the independent trade union REP filed an appeal against the court ruling of August 24, 2018, which found them guilty under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion on a large scale) and sentenced both to restriction of freedom with the prohibition to hold managerial positions.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On September 15, human rights activist, Viasna member in Svietlahorsk Alena Masliukova was issued a written warning from the public prosecutor. District prosecutor A. Yauseyenka warned her about possible responsibility for violating the law on mass events, alleging that Masliukova was organizer of an unauthorized mass event.
On September 15, activists in Svietlahorsk were expected to hold a rally against the local bleached pulp mill. However, the authorities said another event had been scheduled for the date. Despite lack of authorization, people gathered in the city’s square and staged a flash mob against the emissions from the plant.
On September 20, Alena Masliukova was summoned to the local police station and faced administrative charges under Part 1, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in or organization of an unauthorized mass event).
On September 24, the court of the Svietlahorsk district started hearing the charges against Alena Masliukova and an environmental activist Anatol Zmitrovich. The trial was adjourned until October 3.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
The authorities continued to use judicial harassment against participants in peaceful protests against the opening of a restaurant next to the site of mass executions in Kurapaty. On September 3, Minsk district court judge Aliaksei Krapachou ruled to sentence Pilip Shaurou to a fine of 490 rubles; Dzianis Urbanovich was punished by seven days of administrative detention, Maksim Viniarski — ten days of detention. A few days later, 10 days of detention were assigned to Pavel Seviarynets, and another fine — to Dzianis Urbanovich. Tatisana Kim was also fined for protesting in Kurapaty. In Viciebsk, courts fined Alena Yanushkouskaya, Iryna Zakharava and Tatsiana Seviarynets.
However, the city authorities still refuse to allow peaceful protests; the prohibitions are not substantiated by permissible restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly. In particular, the Minsk city executive committee rejected the bid to hold on September 15 a rally of solidarity with the independent media and trade unions, which was initiated by the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, movement “For Freedom” and the United Civic Party.
Persecution of journalists
There was ongoing harassment of independent journalists for their cooperation with foreign mass media; on false grounds they are punished by large fines for the production and distribution of media stories.
In particular, Iryna Arekhouskaya was fined 490 rubles for publishing a photo report on the Day of Paratroopers on belsat.eu. Judge Ivan Kastsian (Centraĺny District Court of Minsk) convicted the photojournalist under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products).
Braslavy District Court Judge Aliaksandr Viazitski punished freelance journalist Dzmitry Lupach by a fine of 882 rubles for preparing a publication for belsat.eu. This was the journalist’s eighth penalty this year.
In Baranavičy, journalist Tamara Shchapiotkina was fined 980 rubles for cooperation with Radio Racyja.
In Minsk, Judge Siarhei Shatsila ordered a 1,225-ruble fine for journalist Katsiaryna Andreyeva who was accused of livestreaming a press conference of businessman Leanid Zaides involved in the Kurapaty protests scandal.
Belsat journalist Volha Chaichyts received her tenth fine since the beginning of the year. The decision was passed by judge Ina Shaiko of the court of Dziaržynsk district.
On September 27, Viasna Board member Valiantsin Stefanovich sent an appeal to the chairman of the Mahilioŭ regional executive committee to complain about recent facts of forced labor in Horki district.
According to onliner.by, on September 6, the Horki District Executive Committee ordered to send employees of various state enterprises to harvest vegetables between 10 and 29 September.
The order was signed by the District Executive Committee chairman Siarhei Kulahin and a number of other officers: first Vice-Chairman, Head of the Department of Agriculture and Food Siarhei Shatski, chief administrator Natallia Kavaliova and head of the legal sector Alena Kazheka.
It should be noted that this kind of involvement of government employees, as well as school, college and university students in harvesting works, which are not stipulated by their employment contracts, constitute a systematic problem for Belarus, while Belarusian human rights organizations view these facts as forced labor.