Human Rights Situation in Belarus: August 2021
- during the month, the authorities continued to actively prosecute individuals for political reasons. Viasna knows the names of at least 136 people convicted in August in politically motivated criminal trials. The monitoring of trials conducted by Viasna volunteers and lawyers revealed numerous violations of the principles of fair trial and procedural rights and guarantees of the accused;
- there are 653 political prisoners in Belarus; their number continues to increase;
- seven members of Viasna continue to be held in pre-trial prisons: chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, member of the Board and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, Viasna lawyer and coordinator of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich; Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers; Viasna member in Homieĺ and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka; Viasna volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk;
- 26 journalists and media workers continue to be held in pre-trial prisons and penal colonies;
- the Investigative Committee refused to investigate torture and acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in the detention facilities of Minsk on August 9-13, 2020;
- as of the end of August, about 200 non-profit organizations had either been liquidated by the authorities or were undergoing the process of liquidation, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian PEN Center and Ecohome, which were deregistered by the Supreme Court; the process of deregistration of a number of other civil society organizations is still underway;
- security forces continue to detain peaceful protesters, together with other persons, for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. In August, according to Viasna, the courts imposed at least 29 fines totaling about 52,500 Belarusian rubles and at least 81 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 1,248 days. There are reports of detentions of at least 395 people;
- human rights defenders and journalists continue to document numerous cases of ill-treatment of persons imprisoned on political grounds and those detained and sentenced to administrative imprisonment for participating in peaceful assemblies. The inhumane conditions of detention for this category of persons, deliberately created by the authorities of detention facilities and prisons, are condemned by Viasna experts as torture;
- on August 8, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell issued a declaration on the first anniversary of the rigged presidential election of August 9, 2020.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
Political persecution in Belarus continues to be the most severe form of repression, remaining widespread and routine.
Viasna is aware of at least 136 persons convicted in politically motivated criminal trials that were completed during the month.
As of September 1, the number of political prisoners was 653 and continued to grow.
Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna, member of Viasna’s Board, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, Viasna’s lawyer and coordinator of the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” campaign Uladzimir Labkovich, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, Viasna member in Homieĺ and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, Viasna volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk are still being held in pre-trial detention.
On August 4, a closed trial in the case of Maryia Kalesnikava and Maksim Znak opened at the Minsk Regional Court. Representatives of Viktar Babaryka’s presidential campaign and members of the presidium of the Coordination Council, Kalesnikava and Znak are charged under three articles of the Criminal Code: Part 3 of Art. 361 (calls for action against national security), Part 1 of Art. 357 (conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner) and Part 1 of Art. 361-1 (creation of an extremist formation and its administration). The charges are heard by judge Siarhei Yepikhau. The numerous violations of the principle of transparency and other procedural guarantees of the accused preclude sentencing in accordance with the principles of a fair trial.
On August 12, the Lieninski District Court of Brest convicted the third group of people accused of “riots” that allegedly took place on August 9-10, 2020. Judge Sviatslau Kalina sentenced them to three to four and a half years in prison. On August 20, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest announced another verdict for yet another group of defendants in the collective case of “mass riots” linked to the events of August 10, 2020. Judge Ina Klyshpach sentenced the accused to three to four years in prison.
On August 30, judge Dzmitry Kurouski of the Lieninski District Court of Brest handed down its verdict to a new group of defendants in the “dancing protest trials”. Of the fourteen defendants, four political prisoners were held in custody pending trial. The court also heard criminal charges against three people for damaging two street surveillance cameras and painting “cynical inscriptions” under Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (malicious hooliganism). 83 people have already been convicted in the “dancing protest trials”.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
The authorities continue to use criminal and administrative charges against peaceful protesters and critical voices.
In Minsk and across Belarus, police officers break into private houses and apartments searching for protest symbols and detaining individuals. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and dissatisfaction with government actions. The courts hear administrative cases against persons detained for displaying flags, stickers and other symbols on their windows and inside their apartments, as well as for other forms of protest or expression of opinion.
In August, judges imposed at least 29 fines totaling about 52.5 thousand Belarusian rubles and at least 81 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 1,248 days. There are reports of the detention of at least 395 people.
Over the past three months, the courts have imposed more than 20 administrative fines and short terms of administrative imprisonment for “distributing, manufacturing, storing and transporting information products that contain calls for or promote extremist activities” under Art. 19.11 of the Administrative Code. This charge is regularly used by the Belarusian authorities to repress dissidents. In August, Art. 19.11 was used to impose at least four fines and imprison at least six people.
According to human rights activists, at the moment, the most common means of repression is prosecution on defamatory criminal charges: slandering the president, insulting government officials, judges, police and the president (Articles 367, 368, 369, 391 of the Criminal Code). Court hearings involving these charges are held throughout Belarus on a daily basis.
Judge Dzmitry Karsiuk sentenced Vasil Lohvinau to two years of restricted freedom in an open penitentiary for spraying a protest painting on the wall of a parking lot in Minsk “on the grounds of political and ideological hostility,” thus allegedly committing “hooliganism combined with a gross violation of order and obvious disrespect for citizens.” Dziyana Karankevich was sentenced in the same trial to two years of home confinement.
On August 25, the Smarhoń District Court ruled in a criminal case of “slandering the president” under Part 1 of Art. 367 of the Criminal Code against Andrei Piatrouski, a teacher of history and social studies at a local high school. He was accused of playing a video entitled “Constitution Gone into Prostitution” to 11th graders during a social studies class. The video bore a logo labelled as “extremist” by the Belarusian authorities. According to the indictment, the video contained “deliberately false information that insults the president.” As a result, judge Liudmila Mikhnevich sentenced the former schoolteacher to one and a half years in a penal colony.
These and other cases indicate the continued practice of repression for expressions, including on social media, as well as for other forms of expression.
Pressure on journalists and the media
At least 26 media representatives were in prisons as of the end of August.
Journalists continue to be detained arbitrarily, their offices and homes are searched. Some are imprisoned for their work.
On August 2, the Ivanava District Court announced a verdict in a criminal case against Siarhei Hardziyevich, a correspondent of the Pieršy Rehijon newspaper. He was found guilty of insulting government officials in connection with their performance of official duties (Article 369 of the Criminal Code), as well as of disseminating knowingly false information and information that discredits another person (slander). The journalist was accused of committing a serious crime (Article 188 of the Criminal Code), as well as public insult to the president (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). As a result, Hardziyevich was sentenced to 1 year and 6 months of imprisonment in a penal colony. The convict was taken into custody in the courtroom.
On August 5, Dzmitry Dzmitryeu, a photographer for the Novy Chas newspaper, was detained in Minsk. His wife later said that the journalist was taken to the Investigative Committee for questioning. Dzmitryeu was eventually sentenced to 15 days of administrative imprisonment for allegedly resisting police officers during arrest.
On August 18, security officers searched the homes of several key employees of the BelaPAN news agency. The raid affected journalist Iryna Turchyna, editor Aliaksandr Zaitsau and accountant Katsiaryna Boyeva, among others. Journalist Zakhar Shcharbakou was taken for questioning after the search. The apartment of BelaPAN CEO Iryna Leushyna was also searched, after which she was detained and eventually placed in a pre-trial detention center. BelaPAN accountant Katsiaryna Boyeva was remanded in a detention center as a suspect under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them). Former director of BelaPAN Dzmitry Navazhylau was remanded in a detention facility, and later in a pre-trial detention center.
The authorities are continuing an unprecedented crackdown on the Belarusian independent media. A decision of the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk of August 13 found all content created by TUT.BY and Zerkalo.io to be “extremist”. The ruling covers the websites, all social media accounts, as well as logos and digital signs, including the “Z” logo used by Zerkalo.io. Earlier, the labels of “extremism” were applied to Belsat TV and the sports news site tribuna.com. In addition, in August alone, more than twenty Telegram channels and social media groups were labelled as “extremist”. This implies a ban on quoting any content from these sources under threat of a fine and administrative imprisonment. These restrictions on freedom of expression cannot be justified by opinions and arguments that are permissible in view of Belarus’s international human rights obligations.
Violations of freedom of association
The Belarusian authorities continue to practice wide-scale restrictions on the right to freedom of association.
On August 3, the press service of the Prosecutor General’s Office said that the Main Department of Justice of the Minsk City Executive Committee had liquidated four institutions: Human Constanta, Center for the Promotion of Women’s Rights Her Rights, Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Center for Legal Transformation. The official reason for the liquidation of these organizations was that their activities allegedly failed to meet the goals and themes specified in their charters. In addition, their websites “contained inaccurate information aimed at spreading destructive sentiments in society, published calls for economic and political pressure on the country and other actions to the detriment of national security.”
On August 9, the Supreme Court ruled to liquidate the Belarusian PEN Center, a nation-wide non-governmental organization headed by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich.
On August 27, the Supreme Court liquidated the Belarusian Association of Journalists. The organization was founded in 1995 and brought together more than 1,300 members.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
According to human rights activists in Mahilioŭ, representatives of a public monitoring commission were not allowed to penal colony No. 15 to meet prisoner Artsiom Anishchuk, who was earlier convicted of damaging the car of a police officer’s wife. Anishchuk’s wife, Volha, told Viasna that his lawyer had not been allowed to see the prisoner for three weeks. There have been no letters from him for as many weeks. She suspects that the prison authorities are hiding the convict and is therefore seriously concerned about his condition. Earlier, Anishchuk repeatedly told his lawyer about torture and beatings he suffered while in prison.
Torture allegations are voiced by other people arrested and convicted in politically motivated criminal cases.
These and other facts were not investigated; the perpetrators of torture are still unpunished.
On August 26, the Investigative Committee said that it would not investigate reports of torture and acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment committed in the detention facilities of Minsk on August 9-15, 2020. Earlier, prosecution for the perpetrators was demanded by 680 of the 2,000 people detained in the facilities. Ignoring the obvious facts, the investigators exonerate the criminal encroachments of the Interior Ministry on the right of people not to be subjected to torture and other prohibited forms of treatment.
Released political prisoners continue to note the deliberate deterioration of prison conditions for those arrested in politically motivated cases, which effectively border on torture and constitute cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment. Viasna activists continue to receive information about inhuman conditions in the detention facilities of Minsk. Political inmates receive no medical care, no outdoor time and no parcels. Prison staff continue to beat detainees, do not respond to complaints about cockroaches in the cells, and those who contract COVID-19 are often not treated or isolated from healthy people.
Prisoners arrested in criminal cases are also held in harsh conditions. Similarly, those convicted in political trials are subjected to pressure and torture after being confined to prisons.
Guarantees of a fair trial
The authorities continue to persecute lawyers, including those who have defended and are defending those involved in politically motivated criminal cases or who have otherwise expressed their views on developments in the country and in the legal system. In particular, the Ministry of Justice revoked the lawyer’s licenses of Volha Karpushonak, Yauhen Maslau and Yuliya Kniaz. Deprivation of the licenses of these and other lawyers is an inadmissible arbitrary interference in the activities of the bar, which has become possible due to the broadest powers of the Ministry of Justice under the legislation governing the activities of lawyers and bar associations.
More than 50 leading organizations uniting lawyers promoting the rule of law and human rights have signed an open statement in connection with the intensification of repressions against lawyers in Belarus and the disbarment of lawyer Dzmitry Layeuski. The statement was prepared by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights, the World Organization Against Torture, and Article 19 in partnership with the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe (CCBE). It was also supported by various organizations and communities uniting Belarusians abroad.