Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2020
- in January, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, earlier called a political prisoner by the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was once again penalized while serving his sentence of imprisonment;
- during the month, there were new trials of participants in the December protests against the so-called “advanced integration”. In total, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, in January, administrative responsibility under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code affected 92 people. Of these, 87 persons were fined and 5 were sentenced to administrative detention. Of particular concern to the country’s human rights community was the sentencing to 120 days in jail of a known blogger from Orša, Dzmitry Kazlou;
- on January 10, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court delivered this year’s first death sentences against the brothers Illia and Stanislau Kostseu. On January 31, the judicial board for criminal cases of the Supreme Court turned down an appeal by death convict Viktar Serhel. Thus, the sentence has entered into legal force;
- in general, the situation with human rights remained poor during the month. The situation continued to deteriorate, as compared to the previous period, which is primarily due to an increase in the number of cases of administrative prosecution of participants in peaceful assemblies.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence of imprisonment in a penal colony in the town of Horki.
According to available information, after serving a penalty of three months in a cell-type room, Zhamchuzhny was again placed in a punishment cell, and on January 20, the political prisoner was again confined to a cell-type room.
On December 23, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was sentenced to 7 days in a punishment cell for refusing to rejoin his detachment, and another 10 days in a punishment cell were appointed immediately after serving the first penalty. On January 10, the political prisoner finished serving 10 more days in a punishment cell. After that, Zhamchuzhny was penalized with three months in a cell-type room for allegedly violating the same rule. The prisoner will stay there until about April 20.
Having exhausted all legal remedies at the national level, four defendants in the so-called “White Legion case” appealed to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. Earlier, Danilau, Dundukou, Maroz, and Strybulski asked for rehabilitation and compensation for moral damage at a number of national courts. But, unexpectedly, and in spite of the Belarusian judicial practice, this was refused.
In the background of the “anti-parasite law protests” in 2017, the government used harsh repressive practices. The toughest of them resulted in the notorious case of the then-extinct White Legion para-military group, which was first run by the KGB and then by the Investigative Committee. The four activists, among many others, were accused of plotting mass riots and creating an illegal armed formation. A dozen defendants, including these four, were detained for about a hundred days each. As a result, their guilt was not proven, and the case was dismissed due to lack of evidence.
The activists asked the Committee to find a violation of their rights and to oblige the government to publicly apologize and pay compensation for moral damage and property losses, which were not granted at the national level. Moreover, Danilau, Dundukou, Maroz, and Strybulski asked to oblige the state to prevent similar violations in the future.
The death penalty
On January 10, at a visiting session of the Mahilioŭ Regional Court in the town of Čerykaŭ, Judge Mikhail Melnikau issued death sentences against two brothers, Stanislau and Illia Kostseu. The sentences were apparently prompted by President Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s public statement insisting on capital punishment in the trial.
On January 31, the judicial board for criminal cases of the Supreme Court considered an appeal by Viktar Serhel and Natallia Kolb. Earlier, the Brest Regional Court sentenced Serhel to death on murder charges. The Supreme Court rejected the convict’s appeal and left the verdict in place. Thus, the death sentence became final. Viktar Serhel is one of the two prisoners awaiting execution on death row in prison No. 1 in Minsk.
In response to the new sentences, the European Union and the Council of Europe once again called on Belarus to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards its complete abolition.
Meanwhile, it became known that the UN Human Rights Committee had considered the case of Siarhei Ivanou who was executed in 2016. The Committee found a violation of the convict’s right to life, a violation of the presumption of his innocence, the right to protection, and the right to a fair trial. Belarus is obliged to take steps to prevent similar violations in the future. The Belarus government is also urged to revise its legislation on the death penalty.
On January 30, it was reported that a working group to study the issue of the abolition of the death penalty was established in the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. A group is chaired by head of the Standing Committee on Human Rights, National Relations and Mass Media of the House of Representatives, Henadz Davydzka, a known advocate of capital punishment. Among other things, Davydzka suggested expanding the application of the death penalty in Belarus.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly
On January 8, courts in Minsk resumed trials of participants in the pro-independence protests, which took place on December 7, 8, 20 and 21. As in December, the court rulings were quick and carbon-copied: the activists received heavy fines, while some were awarded short terms of administrative detention.
In January, 109 court rulings were handed down under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (illegal protesting). 87 persons were with fined and 5 more were sentenced to administrative detention in 9 cases. The size of fines imposed during the month totaled 90,018 rubles. A total of 150 days of detention were ordered by the courts.
Opposition leader Pavel Seviarynets, bloggers Dzmitry Kazlou from Orša and Siarhei Tsikhanouski from Homieĺ were detained repeatedly. For his involvement in peaceful assemblies, Kazlou was sentenced to a total of 120 days in jail, of which 25 he has already served.
In Viciebsk, courts heard administrative charges against participants in a picket held on December 29, when 15 activists demonstrated in support of the country’s independence. The activists were holding a banner reading “Independence” and posters with political slogans. Several heavy fines were ordered, as a result.
The wave of persecution affected the pro-independence protesters in Polack. Pinsk activists were also fined for staging a rally in the city center.
Viasna’s human rights defenders and volunteers prepared and sent 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 messages about the arrest and repeated detention of bloggers Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Dzmitry Kazlou.
Meanwhile, it is still extremely burdensome to hold a peaceful assembly under the rules of the Law “On Mass Events”, which have been repeatedly criticized by human rights activists. The court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk fined the Conservative Christian Party of the BPF 1,350 rubles under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of holding mass events) for failing to pay the costs charged by the police for protecting public order at the Dzyady demonstration in November 2019. The Conservative Christians are the first party to be fined under the amended Article 23.34. Representatives of the party argued that they had not signed an agreement with the police, as the organizers themselves provided the service during the protests.