Volha Mayorava and Dzianis Urad are political prisoners
Joint statement of the Belarusian human rights community
Minsk – April 29, 2021
On January 4, a well-known activist, Volha Mayorava, was detained and charged under Art. 289 of the Criminal Code (act of terrorism). According to information spread by state television, she administered the social media accounts of Mikalai Autukhovich, who is also accused of committing an act of terrorism, and ran a Telegram channel. Mayorava allegedly commented on the events on behalf of Autukhovich, not being aware of his specific plans and actions.
Human rights activists also learned that in March 2021, Captain Dzianis Urad was detained on charges of treason, after photographing a secret letter from the Minister of Internal Affairs to the Minister of Defense, while on duty as a special liaison officer of the Armed Forces’ General Staff. Urad sent a copy of the letter, which authorized the involvement of the Armed Forces in law enforcement activities, to a Telegram channel.
Under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers.
The enjoyment of the rights set forth in article 19, paragraph 2, of the Covenant imposes special duties and responsibilities. They may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, which, however, must be established by law and be necessary:
a) to respect the rights and reputation of others;
b) for the protection of public security, public order, public health or morals.
The UN Human Rights Committee notes that a free, uncensored and unhindered press or other media is essential in any society to ensure freedom of opinion and expression and the enjoyment of other Covenant rights. It constitutes one of the cornerstones of a democratic society. The free communication of information and ideas about public and political issues between citizens, candidates and elected representatives is essential. This implies a free press and other media able to comment on public issues without censorship or restraint and to inform public opinion. The Committee also calls for consideration to be given to the extent to which developments in information and communication technologies have substantially changed communication practices around the world, which resulted in a global network for exchanging ideas and opinions.
To give effect to the right of access to information, States parties should proactively put in the public domain Government information of public interest, with only two limitative areas of restrictions on the right, which may relate either to respect of the rights or reputations of others or to the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public) or of public health or morals. However, when a State party imposes restrictions on the exercise of freedom of expression, these may not put in jeopardy the right itself. Restrictions must conform to the strict tests of necessity and proportionality.
Assessing the information about the act of Captain Urad and the repressive measures taken against him, we proceeded from the position of the Human Rights Committee based on the Covenant, according to which it would be a violation of paragraph 3 of Art. 19 of the Covenant to refer to treason laws and similar acts concerning national security, professional secrecy or the fight against subversion, in order to withhold or conceal from the general public information of legitimate public interest and does not threaten national security, but also to prosecute journalists, researchers, environmentalists, human rights defenders or others for disseminating such information.
According to the law, in peacetime the main tasks of the Armed Forces, with the exception of specific servicemen, are to participate in resolving internal armed conflicts and to ensure, in cooperation with other troops, military formations and paramilitary organizations, martial law and state of emergency. Accordingly, the involvement of the Armed Forces to perform tasks not related to the military security and armed defense of the Republic of Belarus, its sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and constitutional order is not permitted, except in cases of need to protect the public and provide assistance in emergencies, in accordance with the legislation of the Republic of Belarus. Martial law or a state of emergency is imposed in the country in the prescribed manner if there are appropriate grounds. The Armed Forces can be involved in strengthening the protection of critical facilities. The law also allows for the involvement of the army in other cases established by legal acts, however, such acts should not undermine the statutory principles of non-participation of the Armed Forces in internal political conflicts. Violations of this principle will contribute to the escalation of socio-political confrontation, weaken the unity and combat readiness of the Armed Forces in the face of external threats, and may have other serious consequences, as happened in August 2020 in Brest, where servicemen of the Special Operations Forces, which do not possess the skills to interact with civilians in law enforcement, were used to disperse peaceful protests with weapons, as a result of which one of them, Henadz Shutau, was shot dead.
According to the Law on Information, Informatization and Protection of Information, access to information, dissemination and (or) provision of information on violations of the law and information reflecting the state of public safety may not be restricted.
Thus, there is no doubt that Dzianis Urad acted in the public interest, while the justification by the Minister of the Interior of involving the military in police functions by the alleged purpose of “protecting critical facilities”, including those “posing an increased danger to human life and health” is nothing but a manipulation of the law, since, for example, the villages of Baraŭliany and Kopišča in the Minsk district, where it was planned to send 50 soldiers, have no such facilities, while these localities were the flashpoints of peaceful protest activity.
Assessing the information about Volha Mayorava’s activities and the nature of the measures taken against her, we refer to the position of the UN Human Rights Committee, which called on states to ensure the compatibility of counter-terrorism measures with paragraph 3 of Art. 19 of the Covenant. In the Committee’s view, Such offences as “encouragement of terrorism” and “extremist activity” as well as offences of “praising”, “glorifying”, or “justifying” terrorism, should be clearly defined to ensure that they do not lead to unnecessary or disproportionate interference with freedom of expression.
In addition, given the personal qualities of both defendants, any investigation against them could be conducted in conditions when they are at large, with guarantees of appearance at the authorities conducting the investigation and the court. Therefore, their pre-trial detention should be regarded as arbitrary imprisonment.
We believe that the arrest and detention of Volha Mayorava and Dzianis Urad were administered in violation of the state’s obligations under Art. 19 of the Covenant and are aimed at achieving unacceptable goals in a democratic society: strengthening or retaining power by the subjects of power and involuntary cessation or change in the nature of anyone’s public activity.
According to paragraph 3.1 of the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, approved by the Belarusian human rights community at the 3rd Human Rights Forum, imprisonment of a person in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedoms guaranteed by international human rights law is grounds for recognizing such a person as a political person and demanding their immediate release.
Noting with concern that both Volha Mayorava and Dzianis Urad are facing one of the most serious criminal charges, we declare that these charges are politically motivated, and the detainees are therefore political prisoners.
In this regard, we, representatives of Belarusian human rights organizations, call on the Belarusian authorities to:
- immediately release Volha Mayorava and Dzianis Urad and drop the criminal charges they are facing.
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Center for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend)
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Belarusian Documentation Center