Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2020
- during the month, 24 political prisoners continued to be held in prisons and pre-trial prisons. Three former political prisoners were released from custody but the criminal charges against them remained in place;
- July was marked by numerous arrests within the framework of the preliminary investigation of the criminal case initiated under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code following the events of May 29 in Hrodna (so-called “Tsikhanouski case”), as well as the arrests of members of the nomination group of Viktar Babaryka, who himself remained in the KGB pre-trial prison;
- on July 14, after the CEC decided not to register Viktar Babaryka and Viktar Tsapkala as presidential candidates, spontaneous peaceful protests took place in Minsk and a number of other cities. Despite the exclusively peaceful nature of the meetings, they were forcibly dispersed by the police, multiple participants were detained, and the police used clearly disproportionate violence and gear (rubber truncheons). In a number of cases, such actions by the police provoked violent reactions by the protesters. Several criminal cases were opened to investigate the events; at least 13 persons arrested in the case are known to date;
- in total, police detained more than 420 people, including more than 330 in Minsk, for participating in peaceful assemblies across the country on July 14 and 15. More than 50 detainees were subsequently sentenced to short terms of detention and at least 70 were fined. At least 50 people were detained on July 28 in the KGB building in Minsk, after they came to submit their petitions asking to release on bail political prisoner Viktar Babaryka;
- on July 30, it became known that criminal proceedings had been instituted against Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Mikalai Statkevich under Art. 13, Part 2, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (preparation for riots) and Part 3, Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement to national, racial, religious or other social hatred or discord), which, according to the Investigative Committee, are linked to the arrest on July 29 in the Minsk district of 33 Wagner Group officers with Russian passports. According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", these detentions can be used by the authorities to put pressure on the presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and to create an atmosphere of fear on the eve of the election and possible peaceful protests in the post-election period;
- during the month, police detained numerous journalists of independent media in the course of their direct journalistic duties;
- of particular concern are cases of inhumane and degrading treatment of detainees by police officers, as well as political prisoners serving long terms of administrative detention in detention centers, and persons detained in pre-trial detention facilities;
- in general, it should be noted that the presidential campaign takes place against the background of continuous repression, in an atmosphere of fear and intimidation of society. July was marked by a continued deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, which can be described as a crisis.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
During the month, 24 political prisoners continued to be held in places of imprisonment and pre-trial prisons, either detained as part of criminal cases or serving a sentence of imprisonment under a court ruling.
Both Belarusian and international human rights communities continued to demand that the Belarusian authorities released them immediately. On July 24, the EU urged Belarus to release all arbitrarily detained political activists.
On July 1, the Belarusian human rights community issued a statement recognizing a well-known blogger Dzmitry Kazlou, who was arrested on June 10 and sent to serve 20 days of administrative detention in a detention center in Minsk, as a political prisoner. He was not released after completing his detention on June 30. Later it became known that on July 1 Kazlou had been transferred to the pre-trial prison and on July 8 he was charged under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or participation in group actions that grossly violate public order) following the events of May 29 in Hrodna (within the "Tsikhanouski case").
On July 2, it became known that Alena Karahachava, a member of Viktar Babaryka’s nomination group the presidential nominee’s personal assistant, had been detained by the financial police. It was later reported known that she had been charged under Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion in a particularly large amount) and placed in custody at the KGB detention center in Minsk.
Dzmitry Karaka, one of the coordinators of Babaryka’s nomination group, was arrested on June 18, together with Eduard Babaryka, on their way to an election commission where they were expected to submit collected signatures. Karaka has been in the KGB pre-trial detention center since his arrest.
On July 6, the Belarusian human rights community issued a statement calling Alena Karahachava and Dzmitry Karaka political prisoners.
On July 7, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” learned that a well-known blogger from Brest, Siarhei Piatrukhin, who was earlier arrested as part of the "Tsikhanouski's case" and charges under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or participation in group actions that grossly violate public order), faced new charges under Art. 369 (public insult of the representative of the authorities in connection with performance by them of official duties) and Art. 391 (insult of a judge or lay judge in connection with the administration of justice by them) of the Criminal Code. According to preliminary information, these accusations concern the events of two years ago.
On July 9, police arrested Siarhei Sparysh, an activist and spokesperson for the Narodnaya Hramada party, in his apartment. He is also one of the defendants in the “Tsikhanouski case”. On July 10, he was called a political prisoner by Belarusian human rights organizations. Also on July 10, charges were brought under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code against the moderator of several social media accounts affiliated with Tsikhanouski’s YouTube channel "A Country for Living", a Russian national Dmitry Popov. He became the 19th defendant in the case and was also called a political prisoner.
On July 14, spontaneous peaceful protests took place in the capital and a number of other cities after the CEC ruled to refuse the registration of presidential candidates Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsapkala. In Minsk, riot police used physical force and police gear against peaceful demonstrators, which in some cases provoked protesters to use violence against the police in response.
Following the events in Minsk, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization of group actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them). Criminal proceedings were also instituted against a number of detained protesters under Art. 363 (resistance to a police officer) and Art. 364 (violence against a police officer) of the Criminal Code. A total of 13 persons arrested in these criminal cases are known to date.
According to the Investigative Committee and state media, on July 29, 33 Wagner PMC officers with Russian passports were detained on the territory of the Belarusachka sanatorium outside Minsk. According to Belarusian officials, they arrived in Belarus to destabilize domestic political situation. On July 30, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued an official statement in which it criticized the Belarusian side for its biased treatment of the arrested Russian nationals and argued that they all flew in transit through Belarus to Istanbul, which was confirmed by valid plane tickets.
On July 30, all candidates running in the election were invited to a meeting at the CEC, where Security Council Secretary Andrei Raukou warned them of possible provocations and increased security during their campaigning activities.
Also on July 30, the Investigative Committee said that Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Mikalai Statkevich, and “other persons” faced additional charges under Art. 13, Part 2, Art. 293 (preparation for mass riots) and Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (committing intentional acts aimed at inciting other social hostility, calls for violent and aggressive actions against law enforcement officers).
According to experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the arrests of members of a private military company with Russian passports in the absence of relevant official requests to the Russian government are aimed at increasing pressure on presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as maintaining an atmosphere of fear in society and preventing peaceful protests in the post-election period.
During the month, three people involved in the Tsikhanouski case were released from pre-trial detention: Vasil Babrouski, Uladzimir Navumik, and Virgiliy Ushak, all residents of Hrodna.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
The Belarusian authorities continued to violate the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression. Both participants in election events, the rules of which are arbitrarily explained and changed towards disproportionate restrictions, and participants in spontaneous peaceful protests were repressed. Detentions are often accompanied by violations on the part of the police. In just one month, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" documented more than 550 incidents involving human rights violations. The courts imposed terms of administrative detention in more than 80 rulings, as well as fines amounting to about 73 thousand Belarusian rubles.
In July, weekly carbon-copy administrative trials convicted participants in election pickets to collect signatures for the nomination of presidential candidates and participants in a series of protests known as “chains of solidarity”.
On July 3, at least 17 people were detained in various cities, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, sometimes marred by with provocations: a member of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s nomination group, Aliaksandr Miliuk from the city of Masty, was returning home with his son when a man approached him and started demanding some money, pushing and swearing at him; Miliuk took out his phone to film the incident, but as a result he was detained by the police and charged with “disorderly conduct”.
On July 10 and 13, a new wave of detentions and trials took place: subscribers to Telegram channels, participants in protests and cycling events were arrested and punished with heavy fines and terms of detention for exercising their rights.
On the evening of July 14, people took to the streets of different cities to protest against the denial of registration of alternative presidential candidates, Viktar Babaryka and Valery Tsapkala. Unwarranted aggression and brutality by police (riot police and plainclothes officers often used violence, beat people with truncheons, legs and fists) provoked resistance from protesters. According to the Interior Ministry, more than 250 people were detained, and according to the Human Rights Center "Viasna" — more than 370 people in different cities.
The following day, the courts began to issue fines and terms of detention to detained protesters.
On July 15, some 2,000 people lined up outside the Central Election Commission’s headquarters in Minsk to file complaints against the CEC’s decision of July 14 to deny registration to presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka. The line reportedly stretched for at least a kilometer. By the evening, riot policemen and police vehicles appeared at the scene. Internal troops were deployed to cordon off adjacent streets. At 7 pm, the CEC closed and the people moved towards the main post office to send complaints by mail, but the post office unexpectedly stopped working. Three central metro stations were closed, too. People went to the central train station, where the post office is open 24 hours a day. However, it turned out to be closed. After that, the police detained some of the petitioners. According to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, 26 people were arrested.
According to Viasna’s human rights activists, at least 420 people were detained in Belarus during peaceful rallies on July 14 and 15.
On July 17, Liz Throssell, a spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, reminded the Belarusian authorities of their duty to “facilitate peaceful assemblies and to uphold the right to freedom of opinion and expression, including by those who may be expressing dissenting views and support for opposition candidates”. In addition, journalists wanting to cover the protests should not be prevented or obstructed in their work, and subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, given the important role they play in imparting information on matters of public interest and thus the right to access such information.
The UN official called for “all those detained simply for exercising their human rights who are still in detention to be released, and for fair trial and due process guarantees to be met in relation to any criminal or administrative proceedings that may be instituted against them”.
She also reminded the authorities that undue restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and of association might undermine the credibility of the upcoming electoral process.
On July 27, relatives of political prisoner Dzmitry Furmanau, mother Volha Furmanava and his girlfriend Volha Karakina, went on an indefinite hunger strike near the pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk. They demanded the release of Dzmitry Furmanau, who was arrested on May 29 at a picket in Hrodna, together with Siarhei Tikhanouski and others. In addition, they demanded the release of people illegally detained in the Center for the Isolation of Offenders in Minsk, as well as the termination of criminal cases under Article 342 of the Criminal Code.
In July, subscribers of the Telegram channel “Armiya S Narodom” (“Army with the People”) were persecuted en masse: about a dozen subscribers complained to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", noting the brutality and disproportionate actions of the Department for Combating Organized Crime.
On July 28, more than 50 people were detained near the KGB headquarters and inside the building in central Minsk. Among them were people who came to file petitions asking the release of political prisoners Viktar Babaryka and his son and campaign manager Eduard. A dozen journalists who came to cover the event were detained, too. Most of the detainees were later released without charges. However, Viasna’s activists are aware of at least 11 cases of trials involving the detainees, who were eventually sentenced to 14 and 15 days of detention under Art. 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
Most attempts to hold peaceful assemblies under the rules provided by law are arbitrarily blocked by the authorities. The Minsk city government did not allow the United Civil Party to hold a meeting to advertise the referendum initiated by Viktar Babaryka’s campaign headquarters. The reason was the refusal of the state-owned utility company "Zelianbud" and the Minsk police department to sign service agreements, which are a prerequisite for organizing events under a notification-based procedure.
A report entitled “Monitoring of the Right to Freedom of Assembly in Belarus in 2019" was published in July. The report is a joint product of the European Center for Non-Profit Law ECNL, the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the human rights organization Human Constanta. It provides an analysis of the legal regulation of peaceful assemblies in Belarus based on collected and analyzed quantitative and qualitative statistics of 21 peaceful assemblies held in Belarus in 2019. The issues of exercising the right to freedom of assembly by children, administrative persecution and the peculiarities of holding peaceful assemblies during election campaigns were also touched upon. According to the authors, the report is intended for a wide range of interested audiences, including representatives of government agencies responsible for ensuring this right.
Persecution of journalists
The Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus has ignored a joint statement of the Belarusian Association of Journalists and editorial offices of more than 50 media outlets demanding an end to the persecution of journalists.
According to BAJ’s press service, the Interior Ministry referred to the fact that the statement failed to feature documents confirming the right to represent the interests of other journalists. It should be noted that the protection of the rights and legitimate interests of its members in state bodies is a statutory goal of the BAJ, and, in accordance with the law, everyone can report violations to the state bodies and make recommendations to improve the activities of organizations, the legal regulation of relations in state and public life, addressing economic, political, social and other spheres of the state and society.
Arrests of journalists accompany almost every case of mass detentions in Minsk.
In early July, a group of researchers published the results of the first measurement of the OSCE Anti-Torture Index, initiated by the Working Group on Fight against Torture of the Civil Solidarity Platform, an association of almost 100 human rights organizations in the OSCE region. The Index contains assessments of the state mechanism for responding to torture, judicial control, the existence of norms in national legislation prohibiting torture, the level of procedural safeguards working for the prevention of torture, the country's mechanisms and means of preventing torture and the degree of international commitment in the area of prohibition of torture.
According to the study, Belarus ranked last in the ranking of post-Soviet OSCE participating States.
Meanwhile, detained participants in peaceful assemblies are still being ill-treated.
Alena Kolikava from Salihorsk complained of police brutality and threats: she was detained twice in the last month, and each time she was arrested by officers of the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime. After the last detention and three days in the remand prison, she was released as a suspect in a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or active participation in actions that grossly violate public order), i.e. the same case, which at the moment involves Siarhei Tsikhanouski and at least 20 other people.
Two detention centers in Minsk continue to hold people who were sentenced to terms of administrative detention, sometimes comparable in duration to the punishment provided by the Criminal Code. For example, Volha Nikalaichyk was placed in a pre-trial detention center for a month, 22 days of which she spent in a punishment cell. Pavel Seviarynets has been detained there since June 7. For a long time, prisoners have not been allowed to receive food parcels and hygiene items.
The detainees are held in the Minsk detention centers prisons in conditions that do not meet the requirements of the law; in this regard, the Interior Ministry received numerous complaints from activists and human rights defenders. The leadership of the Main Department of Internal Affairs has failed to take any effective measures to improve the sanitary condition of these places of detention and to restore other rights of detainees, including the right to legal defense and the right to appeal against court rulings. The controlling bodies evade reacting to the inquiries about the sanitary condition in the detention facilities.
On July 15, Radio Svaboda journalist Anton Trafimovich and BelaPAN freelancer Viyaleta Sauchyts were detained when covering a street event in Minsk. Trafimovich was livestreaming near the building of the Central Election Commission, where hundreds of people had come to file complaints. Later 6-7 people, two in riot police uniform, the rest — in civilian clothes, twisted the reporter’s arms behind his back, put a fist in his mouth and hit him hard on the nose. In a police van, he was forced to stand on his knees, handcuffed behind his back and facing the ground, despite the journalist’s bleeding nose, which the police officers ignored. A few days later, when Trafimovich was going to test for injuries, he was again detained by the police, who advised him to abandon the idea of prosecuting their colleagues for abuse of power.
Political prisoner Siarhei Tsikhanouski continues to be subjected to harassment in the pre-trial prison: on July 10, he was once again placed in solitary confinement for contrived reasons. It also became known that a provocation against Tsikhanouski was organized by the prison staff: rumors were spread about the possibility of classifying him as a low-status prisoner, which seriously threatened him with cruel and degrading treatment. Such a situation should be considered as torture, i.e. an act by which a person is intentionally subjected to suffering, physical or moral, to obtain information or confession from him, to punish for an act committed or suspected by that person, and to intimidate or compel him or a third person, when the suffering is caused by a public official or another person acting in an official capacity, either by their instigation or with their knowledge or tacit consent.