Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2019
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in prison;
- December was marked by a significant increase in repression against participants of peaceful assemblies that took place during the parliamentary elections, as well as participants in a series of peaceful protests against the signing of the so-called “advanced integration” agreement between Belarus and the Russian Federation. In total, administrative penalties were imposed in at least 70 cases involving peaceful protesters, 12 of which were subjected to administrative detention for a period of 5 to 15 days; hearings in multiple cases were unexpectedly postponed until January 8, 2020.
- it should be noted that the police did not disperse the unauthorized meetings in support of independence, the participants were not arrested either during the protests or immediately after their completion;
- during the month, there were new cases of persecution of independent journalists, freelancers contributing to foreign media, the TV channel “Belsat” in particular;
- on December 17, human rights activists learned about the enforcement of the death penalty against Aliaksandr Asipovich. The death row prisoner did not have time to complete his appeal process pending before the Supreme Court as part of a supervisory review procedure or to submit his individual communication to the UN Human Rights Committee to report the violation of his rights by the Republic of Belarus;
- in general, the situation with human rights remained poor during the month. There was an overall deterioration of the situation in comparison to previous periods, which is primarily due to an increase in the number of cases of administrative responsibility targeting participants of peaceful assemblies.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his politically motivated sentence in a penal colony in Horki. The Belarusian human rights community earlier named him a political prisoner.
According to Aliaksandr Kabanau, who earlier faced criminal charges, the case was closed “due to lack of evidence”.
The critical vlogger was suspected of embezzlement of more than 400 rubles (Art. 1, Art. 211 of the Criminal Code), which he received from the residents of the house in which he lives to formalize the state registration of a condominium and commission project documentation for the construction of basements.
At the beginning of July 2019, the Biaroza district office of the Investigative Committee dismissed the case against the blogger for lack of evidence, and in late October it reopened the case. Noteworthy is that the case was opened almost immediately after President Lukashenka’s public statement targeting opponents of the battery factory in Brest as “longing for power”.
On November 21, the case was once again suspended.
Blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau, together with his associate Siarheu Piatrukhin, have been repeatedly brought to administrative responsibility, including through fines for videos shared on their co-run YouTube channel called “People’s Reporter”, in which they cover the situation around the building of a battery factory outside Brest; for collecting signatures for the resignation of officials, which the police and the courts viewed as unauthorized mass events, etc. The human rights community earlier demanded the cessation of persecution and pressure on bloggers Siarhei Piatrukhin, Aliaksandr Kabanau, and Andrei Pavuk.
Violations of freedom of association
On December 12, the Supreme Court of Belarus rejected the appeal filed by the founders of the Brest-based regional environmental human rights public association “EcoBrest”.
The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Brest Regional Court of September 25, which in turn dismissed the founders’ appeal against an earlier refusal to register the association.
The NGO was formed on May 26 by 12 local activists aiming at a “wide public involvement in environmental issues, protection of human rights and freedoms enshrined in the Constitution of Belarus and its international treaties”.
The death penalty
On December 17, media reported the execution of death row prisoner Aliaksandr Asipovich.
The news were broken by senior prosecutor of the Prosecutor's Office of the Mahilioŭ region Volha Ivanova, who was earlier involved in the trial as the public prosecutor.
On January 9, 2019, Aliaksandr Asipovich, 36, was sentenced to death by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court. On May 14, the Supreme Court rejected his appeal and left the death sentence in place.
According to Ms. Ivanova, after the Supreme Court’s decision, Asipovich wrote a personal appeal for clemency to President Lukashenka, but the head of state dismissed the request.
It should be noted that the death sentence against Asipovich was carried out despite the fact that he intended to file a supervisory appeal and was actively communicating with his lawyer on the matter, insisting on his innocence.
This fact underlines the ineffectiveness of appeals against sentences under a supervision procedure as a mechanism of legal protection at the national level.
In addition, human rights defenders are aware that Asipovich was intending to file an individual communication to the UN Human Rights Committee about the violation of his rights by the state.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
The month saw numerous administrative trials targeting activists involved in street protests during the election period. On December 2, the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk ordered four fines for a total of 4.5 thousand rubles, convicting Dzianis Krasachka, Nina Bahinskaya, Volha Nikalaichyk, and Leanid Kulakou.
In Orša, Dzmitry Kazlou was fined 510 rubles for his involvement an electoral event in Minsk.
Dzianis Urbanovich, leader of the Young Front opposition group, and his brother Maksim were fined by the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk. During a protest on November 8, they allegedly tried to open the door of Town Hall, after riot police took activist Andrei Sharenda into the building.
On December 5, the same court fined Anastasiya Huseva, Andrew Kudzik, Artsiom Charniak, Pavel Seviarynets and other activists for participating in the “Meeting of Free People”, the first in a series of protests held in Minsk’s Freedom Square on November 16. The total amount of fines for the day amounted to 7,650 rubles.
The following day, the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk imposed heavy fines on protesters Yauhen Afnahel, Natallia Samatyya, Anastasiya Huseva and others.
Repressions also affected those involved in ongoing environmental protests held during the elections in Brest.
In this regard, representatives of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” issued a statement, noting that persecution of citizens for the peaceful exercise of their basic political and civil rights during the election period is nothing but a violation of human rights and undisguised political repression in the post-election period, which further underlines the undemocratic nature of this year’s elections. The human rights activists urged the authorities to immediately put an end to repression against members of opposition parties and movements.
In addition, lawyers and experts of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” prepared and sent an appeal to the UN human rights bodies. The urgent document was submitted to the Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.
Against the backdrop of the announced signing of a road map for the integration of Belarus and Russia, as well as a meeting of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Vladimir Putin in Sochi scheduled for December 7, pro-democratic forces announced street protests to defend the independence and statehood of the Republic of Belarus. The events were scheduled for December 7, 8 and 20. The rallies were held in regional centers and other cities of Belarus.
On the eve of the protest on December 20, the police exerted pressure on the potential participants. Pavel Seviarynets, who played a prominent role in the protests of December 7 and 8, was sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention, but was not detained. On December 19, the police detained Yauhen Afnahel, Maksim Viniarski, and Dzianis Urbanovich. On December 26, Pavel Seviarynets was arrested and sent to serve his sentence to a detention center in Minsk.
On the same day, Minsk courts held trials of participants in the protests against the “advanced integration”: more than 15 trials were held, activists were sentenced to heavy fines and short prison terms. More trials were held on December 27, in the anticipation of another protest scheduled for December 29.
On January 30, the court hearings were unexpectedly postponed to January 9, 2020.
The aftermath of repression in December was about 70 convictions for the exercise of human rights: at least 12 people were sentenced to short jail terms, courts imposed fines amounting to more than 56,000 rubles (USD 26,500). Some protesters were punished repeatedly. As of December 31, there were 10 imprisoned activists.
Activist Piotr Markelau, who was earlier sentenced to 15 days in jail for demanding a recount of the ballots at a polling station in Minsk, reported degrading unsanitary conditions in the detention center. In addition, he was not permitted to see his lawyer.
Peaceful protester Stanislau Shahsok also argued that his lawyer was not allowed to visit him in prison.
Persecution of journalists
On December 12, the court of Viciebsk district fined freelance journalist Alena Shabunia and Dzmitry Lupach almost 2 thousand rubles for cooperation with Belsat, a Poland-based TV channel which has no Belarusian accreditation.