Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2020
- during the month, the authorities continued to actively apply criminal prosecution for political reasons. There are 169 political prisoners held in prisons and pre-trial detention facilities, and their number continues to grow. The total number of people targeted by criminal cases opened in the electoral and post-electoral periods amounted to more than 900 people, while the Human Rights Center “Viasna” knows the names of 634 persons involved;
- the authorities continued the practice of forcible dispersal of peaceful demonstrations and using violence against protesters;
- the total number of people detained for participating in protests during the month is at least 750 persons. According to Viasna, at least 700 administrative cases were considered in December; of these, it is known about the fines imposed on 200 people in the amount of about 150 thousand Belarusian rubles; 481 people were subjected to administrative arrest in 486 cases for a total of 6,918 days.
- the prosecutor's offices and the Investigative Committee have not initiated a single criminal case to investigate reports of systemic and widespread torture of detained protesters from August 9 to 12, 2020. Human rights defenders continue to document numerous facts of torture and ill-treatment against detained participants in peaceful assemblies;
- persecution of independent journalists and bloggers continues, including on charges of defamation of officials, including the president;
- no criminal cases were opened and no investigation was conducted into the deaths of three protesters - Henadz Shutau, Aliaksandr Taraikouski and Raman Bandarenka, as well as the death of Aliaksandr Vikhor;
- repressions targeted journalists, bloggers and journalistic communities;
- in general, Viasna experts note the continuation of the intensification of repressions and the further aggravation of the human rights crisis in the country. During the month, the country's authorities did not demonstrate their readiness to resolve the crisis and to engage in real dialogue with society.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Criminal prosecution remained one of the main types of repression used by the Belarusian authorities during the elections and in the post-electoral period.
During the month, there was a further increase in repression and an intensification of politically motivated criminal prosecutions. This circumstance testifies to the further aggravation of the human rights crisis in the country.
During December, there was a large number of trials of participants in the protests that took place not only in Minsk, but also in many other cities throughout the country.
A large category of cases considered by the courts consisted of cases related to allegations of violence or violent resistance to police officers (Articles 363, 364, 366 of the Criminal Code).
Based on judicial monitoring, we can conclude that the courts failed to properly assess the legality of the actions of police officers and, when passing their sentences, they proceeded from the fact that the officers carried out their legitimate activities to protect public order when policing unauthorized mass gatherings. Detention of participants in such assemblies and the use of physical force against them, including riot gear and non-lethal weapons, are also lawful in the opinion of the judges. Accordingly, any kind of disobedience, resistance, and even more the use of violence against representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, in their opinion, is criminal.
The position of Viasna experts on these cases is that peaceful assemblies should be protected by the state, and all kinds of acts aimed at their forcible termination, detention of participants and the use of violence against them are disproportionate restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly, going beyond the scope of acceptable limits. Accordingly, such actions of the police cannot be considered as legitimate activities to protect public order, and in cases of responsive violent acts by protesters against representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs provoked by police-related violence or causing harm to police officers through negligence, these actions must be considered based on severity of the damage. In most of the observed cases, no health detriment was caused by the actions of the defendants, or the damage was insignificant and symbolic, or violence as such was not used at all. In these circumstances, however, the courts imposed harsh prison sentences, which are not proportional to the punishment of others convicted of violence against police officers in other circumstances, without political motivation.
Indicative in this regard was the trial against the citizen of Belarus and Switzerland Natallia Hersche, who was convicted by the court of the Saviecki district of Minsk under Art. 363 of the Criminal Code (resistance to a police officer) and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Hersche was recognized by the Belarusian human rights community as a political prisoner.
A number of defendants were sentenced to real terms of imprisonment under Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) for drawing graffiti on social and political topics. The sentences were passed by the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk under Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code in relation to a group of citizens accused of writing “We Will Not Forget” at the scene of the murder of protester Aliaksandr Taraikouski by officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. In total, five people were convicted for writing the phrase, two of whom, Uladzislau Hulis and Maksim Pauliushchyk, were imprisoned for two years, and Dzianis Hrakhanau and Ihar Samusenka were sentenced to one and a half years of restriction of liberty and will be sent to an open-type penal facility. Another defendant in the case, Maryia Babovich was sentenced to 18 months of home-based restrictions.
Another category is made up of criminal cases initiated under the defamatory articles of the Criminal Code – Art. 368 (insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus), Art. 369 (insulting an official), as well as cases related to the desecration of state symbols (Art. 370).
Most of those convicted under these articles were sentenced to restraint of liberty in open-type penal facilities. On December 29, the Brahin District Court sentenced in a closed court session local resident Aliaksandr Kulaha to two years in prison for insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The sentence is not final and the convict remains free.
On December 4, police arrested and took into custody under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code a former police officer Dzmitry Kulakouski, who had earlier served several terms of arbitrary administrative detention in the detention center in Minsk, where he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment.
On December 25, riot police detained Siarhei Hardziyevich, a journalist of the online media outlet “Pieršy Rehijon”. The reporter was detained as a suspect in a criminal case under Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus). Both accused were recognized as political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights community.
Yet, the largest number of criminal cases was initiated under Art. 293 (riots) and Art 342 (organization or participation in group actions that grossly violate public order).
In total, the HRC “Viasna” is aware of 634 persons involved in criminal cases initiated during the election and in the post-election period.
169 people are currently recognized as political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights community. The figure is inconclusive and is constantly increasing.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly
Numerous peaceful protests were held during the month. Most were dispersed by the special forces of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
On December 6, dozens of decentralized protests were held under the general name "March of Freedom" in different districts of Minsk. About 350 people were detained. Police dogs were seen for the first time since the outbreak of post-election protests.
On December 14, the March of Pensioners ended with mass arrests: more than 90 elderly people were detained by riot police and taken to different police departments.
On December 20, the “March of the People's Tribunal” was held in Minsk as a series decentralized processions. About 150 people were detained.
In December, protests of various formats were held in other cities of Belarus.
According to Viasna, at least 700 administrative cases were considered in December; of these, it is known about the fines imposed on 200 people in the amount of about 150 thousand Belarusian rubles; 481 people were subjected to administrative detention in 486 cases for a total of 6,918 days.
Thus, December was marked by continued widespread gross violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly, the participants in which were subjected to violence and subsequently to illegal penalties for violating unreasonable prohibitions.
Freedom of expression, dissemination of information. Harassment of journalists
The authorities found a way to fight protest symbols - white-red-white flags on balconies and in windows of houses. These were viewed by police officers and judges as signs of pickets, which resulted in a series of carbon-copy court rulings ordering fines and terms of administrative detention. Curtains of the corresponding colors were also banned.
Bodies of self-government in the legal profession focused on censoring freedom of expression: Chairman of the Belarusian Republican Bar Association Viktar Chaichyts suggested that “the councils of local bar associations should constantly follow online publications by counsels, including on their social media accounts, for their compliance with the current legislation, and, if necessary, provide assistance in the correct and professional presentation of materials on the issues of the legal profession”. Human rights defenders of Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee appealed to the UN Special Rapporteurs on the independence of judges and lawyers and on the human rights situation in Belarus and called for intervention in the situation.
On December 3, the Economic Court of Minsk ruled to deprive the TUT.by Internet portal of its media status. The lawsuit was filed by the Ministry of Information after four warnings, claiming that the publications for which the outlet was warned contained false information and harmed the state interests. Human rights activists are confident that the reasons for the decision were politically motivated, while the penalties imposed for minor violations go beyond the limits of permissible restrictions on freedom of opinion.
On December 22, financial police searched the Minsk office of Press Club Belarus. The head of the project, Yulia Slutskaya, program director Ala Sharko, financial director Siarhei Alsheuski, head of the Press Club Academy Siarhei Yakupau, videographer Piotr Slutski, and Kseniya Lutskina, former journalist of the government-owned TV channel Belarus 1, were detained. They are suspected of large-scale tax evasion.
Torture, cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment
During attacks on participants in peaceful assemblies, police officers continued to use disproportionate violence and riot control equipment.
The allegations of victims of torture and ill-treatment are considered superficially, while no criminal cases or proper investigations follow. Investigators refuse to initiate criminal cases, failing to provide information on suspected police officers or interview them, citing “measures to protect honor, dignity and business reputation” and to “ensure the safety of police officers.” Moreover, the authorities fail to take adequate actions to document traces of crimes and search for evidence of torture and ill-treatment. Several victims chose to appeal against these decisions to courts and to prosecutor's offices.
In one of such cases, a ruling of December 29 by the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk reversed a decision earlier taken by the investigators and ordered an additional probe into allegations of torture.
People who served terms of administrative detention for the exercise of fundamental rights continue to report the inhuman conditions of their detention, which were deliberately organized by the staff of the detention facilities.
Violations of fair trial standards
On December 9, the report “Belarus, August 2020: “Justice” for protesters” was presented online to highlights violations of fair trial standards for peaceful demonstrators after the 2020 presidential election. The report was prepared by the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and experts from the Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House with the support of the International Federation for Human Rights and the World Organization Against Torture.