Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2019
- as of early 2019, Belarus is still holding one political prisoner, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny;
- the criminal case against Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the independent news portal TUT.BY, opened under Part 2 of Art. 425 of the Criminal Code (failure to act as an official) was transferred to the court of the Zavodski district of Minsk, which is expected to open the hearing on February 12;
- on January 26, the recent amendments to the Law “On Mass Events” came into legal force, introducing a notification-based procedure for organizing some static types of events in specifically defined locations. According to the country’s human rights community, these changes did not substantially change the situation with the implementation of freedom of peaceful assembly;
- the law enforcement and courts continued to harass journalists working with foreign media without accreditation;
- in January, there were more documented cases of administrative prosecution for the spread of so-called ‘extremist materials’, including on the Internet. In most cases, the charges constituted illegal and disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression;
- on January 9, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court sentenced Aliaksandr Asipovich of Babrujsk to capital punishment. This is the first death sentence handed down in Belarus in 2019;
- there were no significant improvements in the human rights situation in January.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The General Prosecutor sent the criminal case of Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the independent news portal TUT.BY, to the court of the Zavodski district of Minsk. The trial in the case will open on February 12.
Maryna Zolatava is the only defendant in the “BelTA case”, after the other persons involved — 14 employees of various media outlets — were exempted from criminal liability and prosecuted under administrative procedures, instead. In addition to heavy fines, the journalists were required to compensate for the alleged damage ranging between 3 and 17 thousand rubles.
TUT.BY editor is accused under Part 2, Art. 425 of the Criminal Code (failure to act as an official) and may be sentenced to a fine or up to 5 years in prison.
Initially Maryna Zolatava was also suspected under Part 2, Art. 349 (illegal access to computer information) of the Criminal Code. The same charges were brought against the remaining journalists involved in the case. Of all the suspects, Zolatava is only who, according to the investigators, did not illegally access the paid content owned by BelTA. As a result, Maryna Zolatava was cleared of the charge.
The Investigative Committee twice rejected Zolatava’s requests to stop her criminal prosecution.
Political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continues to serve disciplinary penalties in colony number 9 in Horki, either in a punishment cell or in the so-called ‘cell-type room’ (premises organized like cells). According to Viasna’s human rights defenders, in the period from mid-October last year to January 2019, Zhamchuzhny spent 35 days in a punishment cell 1 month in the cell-type room.
According to the political prisoner’s earlier estimates, in 12 months from October 1, 2017 to October 2018, he served 270 days in solitary confinement. As can be seen, this practice continues today.
Most of the penalties were imposed on Mikhail Zhamchuzhny for refusing to return to the unit. By doing this, the political prisoner protects himself from provocations, which could lower his status among prisoners. As a result, he is now completely isolated from the rest of the inmates.
The death penalty
On January 9, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court handed down this year’s first death sentence to a 36-year-old resident of Babrujsk Aliaksandr Asipovich.
He was convicted of double murder committed under aggravating circumstances. The death sentence has not come into legal force and can be appealed to the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court.
The European Union and the Council of Europe once again called on the authorities of Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty as the first step towards its complete abolition.
Today, jail number 1 in Minsk is holding two death row prisoners awaiting execution: Aliaksandr Zhylnikau and Viachaslau Sukharka.
On December 24, the UN Human Rights Committee registered Zhylnikau’s complaint reporting a violation of his rights by the government of Belarus.
Violation of freedom of opinion and expression
On January 25, police arrested activists Maryna and Viachaslau Kasineraus. The activists were again charged under Art. 17.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for disseminating extremist materials and sentenced to a fine totaling 2,295 rubles. The charges stem from a photograph depicting the couple wearing caps with the words ‘class war’ on them. Meanwhile, the phrase is on the national list of banned extremist materials. For a similar photo, they were fined more than 1,800 rubles in November 2018.
Another ‘class war’ victim is Dzmitry Paliyenka who was punished by a fine of 1,275 rubles on January 31. The sentence was pronounced by Judge Alena Kaptsevich.
Violations of freedom of religion
Polish Franciscan priest Sobieslaw Tomala, which has led a parish in Sluck for over 20 years, was forbidden to serve in Belarus by the Office of the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs. On January 23, however, the priest’s permit was extended by six months.
Pawel Knurek, a Polish national and rector of a Catholic parish in Viciebsk, was also be banned from serving in Belarus after more than 17 years. He was forced to leave the country in November 2018, after he failed to receive permission. On January 13, it became known that from the Commissioner for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Leanid Huliaka issued his final refusal to extend the priest’s permit for serving in Belarus. The decision failed to specify any formal reasons.
In early January, the government of Minsk announced plans to develop territories in the Sucharava district. The construction infringes on the building of the New Life church. This is not the first attempt to demolish the religious building; all previous attempts encountered stubborn resistance by believers.
The authorities did not allow the holding of the International Festival of Hope by the Evangelical Christians-Baptists. The event was scheduled for May 3-5.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly
On January 22, a dozen activists laid flowers and lit candles near the Ukrainian Embassy in Minsk to honor the Belarus-born Hero of Ukraine Mikhail Zhyzneuski. After the event, police forcibly detained Dzianis Urbanovich and Volha Nikalaichyk and took them to the district police department. On January 23, the Centraĺny District Court fined Volha Nikalaichyk 1,020 rubles, while Dzianis Urbanovich was awarded the maximum possible penalty of 1,275 rubles. Both rulings were handed down by Judge Viktoryia Shabunia.
On January 30, the Brest District Court found Yulia Nichyparuk guilty of illegal protesting against the construction of an environmentally hazardous factory, namely placing a poster on a snowmen made by her kids. Judge Siarhei Maruchak sentenced her to a fine of 25.5 rubles.
Meanwhile, the authorities continued to ban peaceful assemblies across the country, including demanding respect for the right to a healthy environment. To date, the opportunities of holding mass events are severely limited by existing legislation.
The Justice Department of the Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee defied the statement made by human rights defender Barys Bukhel who complained about ill-treatment of political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny after visiting the prison as a member of the Regional Public Supervisory Commission.
Barys Bukhel visited the Horki-based colony number 9 in March 2018. He was accompanied by the Commission chairperson Tatsiana Kazlouskaya. Apart from these, the colony was also visited by representatives of the National Public Supervisory Commission, including its chairperson Tatsiana Krauchanka. Later, Krauchanka said that there were no irregularities found in the penal facility. On December 6, Tatsiana Krauchanka tried to discredit the political prisoner at a seminar held at the Ministry of Justice. The official said in the presence of representatives of the Council of Europe and several EU ambassadors that she personally talked to Mikhail Zhamchuzhny. In turn, Barys Bukhel argued that none of the members of either commission were allowed to see the prisoner, despite his personal request for a meeting.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” is still concerned about the situation with the violation of the rights of actress Sviatlana Sakalouskaya, who was beaten by riot police on December 31, 2017. In an attempt to attract international attention, the human rights defenders wrote to the UN Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment types, Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers and the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences.
The human rights activists believe that the Belarusian authorities violated Sakalouskaya’s rights, as well as the rights of her counsel, who was not allowed to access the results of investigation.
Piotr Kuchura, a victim of ill-treatment in penal colony number 15 in Mahilioŭ back in 2013, once again reports harassment by the prison authorities. In particular, the prisoner was illegally deprived of visits and parcels. He was also threatened with a transfer to harsher detention conditions. The prisoner and his wife attribute this to their active position in protecting Kuchura, first in a criminal case and later the prisoner’s civil rights.
Anastasiya Huseva was arrested, together with Dzmitry Paliyenka and Yuahen Chulitski, on January 21 by officers of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Zavodski district of Minsk on suspicion of committing a crime under Art. 341 of the Criminal Code (desecration of buildings and damage to property). During the arrest, she was subjected to cruel, degrading treatment, and therefore complained after her release to the Investigative Committee demanding an investigation into the incident. Dzmitry Paliyenka was also subjected to ill-treatment and is going to file a complaint with the Prosecutor’s Office.
The Investigative Committee continues to investigate the case of Aleh Bahdanau who died in prison number 8 in Žodzina.
Persecution of journalists
The authorities continued to routinely prosecute journalists on trumped-up charges, accusing them of the illicit manufacture and distribution of media products and imposing heavy fines. In particular, journalists Ales Liauchuk and Milana Kharytonava were found guilty under Article 22.9, Part 2 of the Administrative Code and fined a total of 2,550 rubles for covering a protest against the construction of a battery plant in Brest.
Henadz Barbarych of Radio Racyja was fined 892.5 rubles under the same article of the Administrative Code.