Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2019
- in February, political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his imprisonment in a penal colony in Horki;
- on February 12, the court of Zavodski district of Minsk continued to hear the criminal charges against the chief editor of the independent news portal tut.by Maryna Zolatava;
- on February 1, the Brest interdistrict department of the Investigative Committee ordered the prosecution of local blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin under Part 2, Art. 188 (“libel”) and Part 2, Art. 189 (“insult”) of the Criminal Code. The charges stem a series of videos which exposed the involvement of a number of police officers of the Leninski district police department of Brest in the beating of local resident P. Kaminski in 2016;
- during the month, the authorities continued persecution of journalists working with foreign media without accreditation;
- there were ongoing repressions against environmental protesters in Brest, who were subjected to administrative penalties;
- in February, there were cases of administrative charges for dissemination of so-called “extremist materials”, including on the Internet. In most cases, the charges constituted illegal and disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression;
- in February, there were no significant improvements in the human rights situation.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On February 1, the Brest interdistrict department of the Investigative Committee issued a decree to charge Brest blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin under Part 2, Art. 188 (“libel”) and Part 2, Art. 189 (“insult”) of the Criminal Code.
The charges stem from several videos filmed last March and April in the Leninski District Court of Brest building, as well as at Piatrukhin’s apartment, and broadcast on the video sharing site YouTube. The videos alleged the involvement of a number of employees of the Leninski district police department of Brest in the beating of P. Kaminski in the police station in 2016.
It should be noted that the alleged victim filed a statement with the Investigative Committee asking to prosecute the police officers identified in Piatrukhin’s videos. Despite the fact that the beating was confirmed by a medical examination, the Investigative Committee ruled to dismiss the criminal case. During the period from 2016 to 2019, it issued eight decisions to refuse the opening of a criminal case, seven of which were reversed by the Investigative Committee’s higher authorities and the prosecutor’s office after they found flaws in the investigation.
Blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin is the constant participant of the protests against the construction of an environmentally harmful battery factory. He has been repeatedly detained during protests. Piatrukhin is also known for making numerous videos that criticize the activities of local authorities, including law-enforcement bodies.
On February 12, the Zavodski District Court continued to hear the criminal charges of “official inaction” (Part 2, Art. 425 of the Criminal Code) against the chief editor of the independent news portal tut.by Maryna Zolatava. Zolatava is the last defendant in the “BelTA case”, after the remaining 14 employees of various media were exempted from criminal liability and prosecuted under administrative procedures, instead. In addition to fines, the journalists were required to compensate for damages ranging between 3 and 17 thousand rubles. The Investigative Committee twice rejected Zolatava’a request to stop the criminal prosecution under Article 86 of the Criminal Code.
Political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his imprisonment in a penal colony in Horki.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On February 16, Brest police detained Viasna activist Uladzimir Vialichkin. It is known police officers came to his apartment on February 15, but the activist was not at home. Then he was invited by phone to appear at the police station at 15:00 on Saturday, where he was detained. The human rights defender was charged under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (organization of or participation in an unauthorized mass event) for his alleged involvement in a protest on February 10 against the construction of an environmentally hazardous factory. Until Monday, Vialichkin was held in the detention center.
The Court of Leninski district of Brest later found him guilty of the offense and sentenced the activist to a fine of 382.5 rubles.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” made a special statement in connection with the persecution of its member Uladzimir Vialichkin.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT), also called to urgently intervene in the situation in Belarus.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”, represented by the chairman Ales Bialiatski and lawyer Valiantsin Stefanovich, sent a complaint to the Prosecutor General and the Investigative Committee asking to investigate hate speech statements by Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich.
Speaking on an ONT TV show, Minister Shunevich referred to gay people as “dyryavyye” (“those with a hole”).
The Investigative Committee did not deem it necessary to consider this statement: according to the authorities, the statement had “no objective evidence pointing to the existence of signs of a crime,” while the media publications lacked “wording, phrases, and (or) expressions aimed at inciting social discord.”
Earlier, the Prosecutor General’s Office also refused to investigate the controversial statements by the Interior Minister.
The Council of Ministers, which was also urged to punish Shunevich with a disciplinary action, in turn, forwarded the statement back to the General Prosecutor.
Dzmitry Palieynka complained to the Zavodski district department of the Investigative Committee of Minsk asking to open a criminal investigation into the facts of cruel and inhuman treatment during his three-day detention in a criminal case. During the arrest, Paliyenka was insulted, humiliated, transported in the car standing on his knees; he was also deprived of medical care and food.
Under pressure from human rights activists, the Central Office of the Investigative Committee reversed the decision of the Zavodski district department, which earlier refused to open a criminal investigation into the police-related beating of actress Sviatlana Sakalova.
Viasna’s multimedia project #BezPravaNaRaspravu, aims to expose cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment on the part of authorities and other government agencies, continued to publish stories of abuse.
Violation of freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of peaceful assembly
On February 16, police arrested and placed in pre-trial detention another protester against the construction of a battery factory in Brest, Vital Kazak. On February 18, a judge found him guilty under Art. 23.34 and sentenced to a fine of 1,020 rubles.
On February 17, Biaroza police detained activist and blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau for alleged involvement in an environmental protest in Brest on February 10.
Activist Zmitser Kazakevich was fined 765 rubles for covering the laying of flowers at the Taras Shevchenko monument in Minsk, after the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk said that filming a video was involvement in an unsanctioned rally. For the same event, Volha Nikalaichyk and Dzianis Urbanovich were fined 1,275 and 1,020 rubles respectively.
A peaceful demonstration of democratic activists “Freedom to Political Prisoners!” was held in Minsk on February 26. Several activists were detained before the rally and after the protest.
Viasna volunteers analyzed the locations allocated by the city authorities of Minsk for holding public events under the notification principle, coming to the conclusion that they are not suitable for this purpose.
Violations of freedom of association
The founders of the NGO “Dzieja” appealed to the Supreme Court against the refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register the association. In late January, the Ministry of Justice refused to register the group for formal reasons (the registration documents had several spelling errors and discrepancies), failing to substantiate the ban by permissible restrictions on freedom of association.
Harassment of journalists
On February 1, freelance journalists Ales Kirkevich and Aliaksandr Dzianisau were convicted in Hrodna. As reported by the Hrodna Viasna office, both were fined 765 rubles.
Belsat reporter Dzmitry Lupach was fined for cooperation with the Poland-based TV channel.