Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2020
- political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, Ivan Komar and Mikita Yemialyianau continued to serve their sentences in prison;
- on April 16, human rights organizations of Belarus issued a joint statement to call Pilip Shaurou, activist of the youth opposition organization “Young Front”, a political prisoner. The human rights defenders urged the authorities to release the activist from pre-trial detention and drop the criminal charges he is facing. According to the activists, Shaurou’s actions do not constitute “criminal hooliganism”, but are a form of expression of opinions that falls under the protection of article 19 of the ICCPR;
- on April 4, Siarhei Satsuk, journalist and editor of the online newspaper “Ezhednevnik”, was released from custody after his arrest by the Department for Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee on suspicion of committing a crime under Part 2 of Art. 430 of the Criminal Code (bribery). Earlier, Belarusian and international human rights and journalistic organizations called to release Satsuk, linking his detention to his journalistic activity;
- during the month, there were new cases of administrative detention of citizens in connection with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly, as well as other forms of pressure on human rights defenders and bloggers in connection with their public activity;
- on April 3, the Council of Ministers adopted Resolution No. 196 amending Resolution No. 49 of January 24, 2019, according to which organizers of street events are obliged to sign contracts with the police, ambulance and city cleaning services before submitting their application (notification) to hold a scheduled event. Previously, such contracts were concluded after obtaining permission to hold the event from the executive committee or confirming the absence of a ban on its conduct. Human rights organizations consider the imposition of obligations to pay the costs of holding peaceful meetings on their organizers a significant restriction on freedom of assembly;
- the country’s human rights community voiced its particular concern over the government’s current policy to address the coronavirus pandemic crisis. Contrary to the WHO recommendations, the Belarusian authorities continue to conduct mass events, including the nationwide “subbotnik” (unpaid social labor day) and preparations for the May 9 military parade in Minsk, and refuse to introduce a quarantine in educational institutions;
- in general, the human rights situation remained unsatisfactory. There were some negative trends, which indicate a possible worsening of the overall situation on the eve of the presidential elections.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On April 3, the human rights organizations of Belarus issued a joint statement on the arrest of journalist and editor of the online newspaper “Ezhednevnik” Siarhei Satsuk to demand his immediate release.
The journalist was suspected of receiving money more than a year ago for preparing and publishing a story on corruption. These funds are considered by the investigation as a bribe punishable with a sentence of between three and ten years of imprisonment under Part 2 of Art. 430 of the Criminal Code.
Siarhei Satsuk is known as an investigative journalist. One of his recent investigations resulted in a series of publications in “Ezhednevnik” exposing corruption in the health care system of Belarus. Later, a number of high-ranking officials of the Ministry of Health Care were convicted of corruption. Prior to his arrest, Satsuk received threats related to his investigations.
Journalists without Borders and the European Parliament’s Delegation for relations with Belarus also demanded the release of Siarhei Satsuk.
On April 4, the Prosecutor General of Belarus overturned the decision to detain Siarhei Satsuk. The journalist signed an obligation to appear and was released. Satsuk has not yet faced formal charges and remains a suspect in the case. In addition, in violation of the law, he was forced to sign a non-disclosure order.
On April 16, human rights organizations of Belarus issued a joint statement to call Pilip Shaurou, activist of the youth opposition organization “Young Front”, a political prisoner. The human rights defenders urged to release him from custody and drop the charges under Part 1 and Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism).
Shaurou has been charged with committing three crimes constituting criminal vandalism. The case has been sent to court.
According to the prosecution, on January 16-17, the opposition activist spray-painted a white-red-white flag on the granite part of the monument to the fallen Interior Ministry officers, and also painted red the hands of the Alexander Pushkin monument; on January 17-19, he spray-painted “1937” on the fence of a water supply facility on the outskirts of Minsk.
The statement by the human rights groups noted that the “contents of the images and inscriptions in the context of the social and political events and public debates that took place at the end of 2019 (a series of public protests against the so-called "advanced integration" of Russia and Belarus) indicate that Shaurou’s motives were expressing his opinion on these issues of public importance”.
The accused did not encroach on sacred, historical or cultural values, did not destroy them, did not cause permanent damage, did not use obscene language in his inscriptions or language of hostility and hatred on grounds of national, racial, religious or social origin or other grounds. The actions of Pilip Shaurou were exceptionally peaceful and, accordingly, fall under the protection of article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The pre-trial detention selected in the case is groundless and excessive and is regarded as a means of exerting pressure on the accused sanctioning his exercise of universally recognized civil rights. It is also linked to Shaurou’s affiliation with the opposition youth organization “Young Front”, whose members have been routinely persecuted by the Belarusian authorities. It was for this reason that the activist was unjustifiably charged under Part 1 and Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code, since such an accusation allowed the investigators to take him into custody.
On April 3, the deadline for deciding on the date of the trial in Shaurou’s case was extended by one month — until May 3. The decision was made by Aliaksandr Petrash, chairman of the court of the Centraĺny district of Minsk. The lawyer’s request to release the activist from pre-trial detention was rejected.
Persecution of human rights defenders
On April 17, the Baranavičy Court fined Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, Viasna’s human rights defender and a lawyer of the REP trade union, 270 rubles, finding him guilty under Art. 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct).
Vaitseshyk was detained in the Niasviž district on February 22, after he tried to attend a staff meeting of a local agricultural enterprise as a trustee of a former employee Viachaslau Syrytsa. The human rights activist was going to represent Syrytsa at the meeting, where the issue of his expulsion from the enterprise was expected to be heard. However, security guards and police officers prevented the counsel from entering the room. The ensuing conflict ended with the activist’s detention, after which he spent several days in hospital.
After his discharge, Vaitseshyk was charged with “disorderly conduct” (Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code), for allegedly pushing a security guard and preventing citizens from entering the conference hall. The case file had been sent from one court to another, until in late March it was returned to the police department of Niasviž district for revision.
Before the hearing, Vaitseshyk complained to the prosecutor's office of the Niasviž district, describing the violations committed by officers of the district police department. The prosecutor's office conducted an investigation and recommended to take disciplinary action against the police officers.
On April 23, police searched the apartment of Alena Masliukova, Viasna’s human rights defender and an environmental activist in Svietlahorsk, as part of an investigation into alleged insult of a local government official under Article 189 of the Criminal Code. Alena Masliukova refused to testify citing Article 27 of the Constitution. As a result of the search, a smartphone and a laptop were seized. The human rights activist complained about the incident to the district prosecutor's office.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
The Belarusian authorities continued to further restrict rights and fundamental freedoms. In particular, the Council of Ministers’ Resolution of April 3 obliged organizers of mass events to sign contracts with the police, ambulance and city cleaning services before obtaining permission from the executive authorities. Previously, such contracts were concluded after obtaining permission to hold an event from the executive committee or confirming the absence of a ban.
Exercising other rights continued to be sanctioned by the authorities.
Lizaveta Prakopchyk, a fourth-year student at the Minsk State Linguistic University, was expelled for not attending classes (in reality, she was on a two-week quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic). Lizaveta is a member of the executive board of the opposition Union of Belarusian Students. She was among the participants in a protest staged near the university building: from March 20 to March 23, students handed out free medical masks and chanted “Ha-ha, I’ll die here!", thus expressing their attitude to the authorities’ policy to address the coronavirus risks. The university administration does not consider the expulsion a politically motivated decision, but the student herself disagrees.
On April 20 and 22, the court of the Lieninski district of Brest considered the administrative cases of three activists who joined a protest on April 12 to demand to close down an environmentally hazardous car battery plant. Dzmitry Bekaliuk, Aliaksandr Kabanau and Dzmitry Andrasiuk were each sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention.
UN Special Procedures were informed on the judicial harassment of the environmental activists in Brest: Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus.
On April 23, the Čyhunačny District Court in Homieĺ fined Ihar Mazeika 405 rubles for reposting a video entitled “Lukashenka. Criminal Files” in his account on the VKontakte social network.
The authorities opened an investigation involving Brest blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin in connection with allegations of defamation targeting a police officer. Earlier, the blogger was convicted for covering in his vlog the case of Pavel Kaminski, a victim of police violence.
Persecution of journalists
The work of freelance journalists and foreign media journalists forced to work in Belarus without accreditation is still being prosecuted. On April 13, the Homieĺ District Court ruled to fine journalist Larysa Shchyrakova 945 rubles on charges of contributing to a foreign media outlet.
On March 25, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk heard two complaints by Liudmila Kuchura, whose husband Piotr Kuchura was a victim of police abuse while serving his sentence in prison. Both complaints were rejected due to lack of jurisdiction: the court refused to consider the complaints, leaving no opportunity to defend the prisoner’s rights.
For the third consecutive time, the authorities refused to prosecute police officers who allegedly used violence against Yana Chulitskaya during the Freedom Day demonstration in 2017. The decision was made by the Pieršamajski district office of the Investigative Committee.
On March 25, 2017, the then under-aged Yana Chulitskaya (Yatsynovich), together with her friend, was detained by riot police. The girl was grabbed her hair and dragged into a police bus, where a law enforcement officer punched her on the head several times. On the same day, the girl was released and the administrative case against her was later dismissed, but within a week, she had her first seizures of epilepsy.
Despite the complicated situation with the COVID-19 pandemic, on April 25, a nation-wide social work day was held in Belarus. The money raised during the unpaid labor was said to be spent on various purposes.
The Council of Ministers’ Resolution of April 16 mentions the voluntary nature of the Saturday workday, as government employees are encouraged to remain in their workplaces or donate their daily salary to social needs. Alternatively, they can clean memorial sites, plant trees in city parks or help prepare children's recreation and sports camps for the summer. Heads of local governments and state-owned organizations were urged to take part in the clean-ups in person.