Human rights groups insist on retrials and release of four political prisoners
Joint statement of the Belarusian human rights community
September 14, 2021
In response to the passing of a number of verdicts in criminal trials involving protesters and other persons charged with using violence against police officers, violent resistance to police officers, and other officials performing official duties (Articles 363, 364, 366 of the Criminal Code):
Uladzimir Zhuk, on August 27, 2021 sentenced to three years in a penal colony by the Svietlahorsk District Court under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for “group actions that grossly violate public order” and under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code for “violence against a police officer”. Zhuk took part in post-election protests in Žlobin and, according to the indictment, resisted police officers who dispersed the protesters;
Aliaksei Shchytnikau, on September 7, 2021 sentenced to five years in a penal colony by the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk under Part 2 of Art. 218 of the Criminal Code for “damage to property” and under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code for “violence or threat of violence against a police officer”. Shchytnikau accidentally collided with a traffic police car, after which he was attacked by a security officer without identification, left the scene in a panic, after which he surrendered to road patrol;
Aliaksandr Zaikouski, on September 7, 2021 sentenced to two years in a penal colony by the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code for “threat of violence against a police officer”. Zaikouski threw a bottle at a police bus, which resulted in a minor damage;
Artsiom Sakovich, on September 10, 2021 sentenced to four years in a penal colony by the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for “participation in group actions that grossly violate public order”, under Part 1 of Art. 13, Part 2 of Art. 293 for “preparation for participation in riots” and under Part 1 of Art. 13, Part 2 of Art. 295-3 of the Criminal Code for “preparation for illegal manufacture and carrying of substances, the damaging effect of which is based on the use of flammable fluids”. Sakovich was arrested, together with several other persons, on charges of preparing to make Molotov cocktails, while Sakovich’s participation in the actions and intention to transport and use these substances were not proven in court.
Reaffirming our position set out in the joint statement of human rights organizations of January 16, 2021, we note the following:
Peaceful assemblies of citizens should be protected by the state, and the police should not take actions to forcibly stop them, even if they take place in violation of the procedures for their organization and holding. Violent termination of assemblies and the use of physical force, let alone special means and weapons against protesters should be carried out only as an extreme measure, in cases when the behavior of assembly participants is of violent nature, which poses a real threat to national and public security, life and health of citizens.
Disproportionate brutal actions of the police aimed at suppressing peaceful assemblies cannot be considered as a legitimate activity for the protection and preservation of public order, and in cases of violence used by protesters in reverse provoked by the same police officers, these actions should be considered based on the severity of the injury and intent to cause such harm, and as protection from clearly unlawful actions of law enforcement officers, who followed unlawful orders.
According to the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, violence that was provoked by the initial disproportionate use of physical force, means of restraint, and if there was no intent to cause non-symbolic material damage or harm to anyone in the actions of the accused, provides grounds to hold these individuals to be political prisoners.
In addition, monitoring of these trials has shown that the courts impose disproportionately harsh (inadequate) sentences for the offense with which the individuals are charged, compared to sentences imposed in the same categories of cases outside the political context.
The length or conditions of imprisonment imposed on participants in protest assemblies were clearly disproportionate (inadequate) to the offense for which the individuals were found guilty.
In many cases, court hearings were held behind closed doors: members of the public, human rights defenders, and members of the media were not admitted. Court decisions to hold closed sessions were not based on the need to protect state secrets or the personal information of trial participants, which is undesirable for public dissemination.
All of these circumstances give reason to believe that the prosecution of these individuals is politically motivated and that the individuals themselves are political prisoners.
On this basis, and guided by para. 3.2 (a, b, c, d) of the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, we recognize Uladzimir Zhuk, Aliaksei Shchytnikau, Aliaksandr Zaikouski and Artsiom Sakovich as political prisoners:
We deem it necessary to demand the immediate review of the measures taken against them and the court decisions in the execution of the right to a fair trial and elimination of the said factors, as well as their release from custody employing other measures ensuring their appearance in court.
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House