Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2021
- in October, the authorities continued to actively prosecute individuals for political reasons. Viasna is aware of at least 95 people convicted in politically motivated criminal trials during the month;
- there are 831 political prisoners, as of late October; their number continues to increase steadily;
- seven members of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" continue to be held in pre-trial detention on arbitrary charges: Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the organization, member of Viasna’s Board, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich; Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign; coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova; member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, and volunteers of Viasna Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk;
- at least 29 journalists and media workers continue to be held in detention centers and penal colonies;
- the Supreme Court liquidated the oldest human rights organizations, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Legal Initiative. A total of 275 NGOs have been closed or are being liquidated;
- law enforcement officers continue to detain peaceful protesters and other individuals for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. Human rights activists have documented at least 152 detentions. In October, judges imposed at least 6 fines totaling 5,360 rubles and at least 59 terms of administrative imprisonment totaling 892 days for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression;
- human rights defenders and journalists continue to document numerous cases of ill-treatment of political prisoners, detainees and persons serving terms of administrative imprisonment for participating in peaceful assemblies. The inhumane conditions of detention for this category of persons are described by Viasna experts as torture.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
The criminal prosecution of protesters and political dissidents in Belarus continues to be the most severe form of repression, spreading to new social groups, while remaining widespread and systemic.
Viasna is aware of at least 95 persons sentenced in October for political reasons to various types of punishment, including imprisonment.
The number of political prisoners as of November 1 was 831 and continues to grow steadily.
Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Valiantsin Stefanovich, member of Viasna’s Board and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Uladzimir Uladzimir, lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, Maryia (Marfa) Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers, Leanid Sudalenka, Viasna member and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation, and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk continue to be held in pre-trial detention.
The trial over Viasna’s human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka and volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa and Maryia Tarasenka continues in the Centraĺny district court of Homieĺ. They are accused of organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and training and preparing individuals to participate in such actions, as well as financing or other material support (Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The judge ruled to hold the trial behind closed doors throughout the proceedings. Some circumstances of the trial have been revealed in the human rights activist’s letters: the defendants are kept in a metal cage, the judge rejected numerous motions aimed at protecting their constitutional rights.
On October 5, the home of Tatsiana Reviaka, a human rights activist, was searched by officers of the Financial Investigations Department. The officers also raided her summer house and office. Reviaka was then taken for questioning to the financial police and the Investigative Committee.
Another criminal case was opened against opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya and Pavel Latushka. According to the investigation, they “created quasi bodies of state power and departments and representations of Belarus abroad. Continuing their criminal actions, they entered into negotiations with representatives of foreign states and international organizations.”
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
Criminal and administrative persecution of peaceful protesters and dissidents continues.
The courts still issue sentences in trials involving participants in the protests of August 2020. On October 1, Judge Dzmitry Karsiuk sentenced 27-year-old political prisoner Pavel Lukayanau, who was accused of participating in “riots”, to four years in a penal colony after a trial in the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk.
Police officers continue to organize special operations, mostly in Minsk, breaking into houses and apartments in search of protest symbols and detaining people at work; they conduct daily searches and interrogations. 140 detentions are known to have taken place in October.
The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and dissatisfaction with government policies. The courts hear administrative cases against people detained for displaying flags, stickers and other symbols on windows and in apartments, reposts and comments on social media, as well as other permissible forms of expression.
In October, judges imposed at least 6 fines totaling 5,360 rubles and at least 59 terms of administrative imprisonment for a total of 892 days for exercising the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Over the last month, judges imposed at least 5 administrative fines and 21 short terms of imprisonment for distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products that “contain calls for extremist activities or that promote such activities” under Art. 19.11 of the Administrative Code; this norm is increasingly used by the Belarusian authorities to repress dissidents.
On October 6, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest convicted six defendants of the eighth group of the “dancing protest trials” under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (participation in actions that grossly violate public order). On September 13, 2002, protesters danced and sang songs during a demonstration staged at an intersection in central Brest. The protesters were dispersed with a water cannon and dozens later faced criminal charges. The case against the eighth group was considered by Judge Maryia Aliferuk, the prosecution was supported by Andrei Manko. This is one of the most massive political cases in the history of Belarus. The investigators have identified 115 people involved in the protest. 108 of them have been charged, and 87 people have already been convicted.
The Saviecki District Court of Minsk ruled in a civil lawsuit by the government-owned public transport operator Minsktrans against 17 political prisoners. The court charged 21,667 rubles and 87 kopecks in damages for “blocking roads” in Minsk on August 10 for 1 hour and 8 minutes. Earlier, these 17 people were convicted over the events of August 10 and 11, which took place in different districts of Minsk. The amount of the claim is based on current statistics, rather than those of last year. This further underscores the questionable character of demanding compensation from the protesters for alleged transport losses.
A daily instrument of repression is prosecution for defamatory criminal offenses, including slandering the president, insulting government officials, judges, prosecutors, police, and the president (Articles 367, 368, 369, 391 of the Criminal Code). Such judicial hearings are held throughout Belarus.
For example, Judge Aleh Kaliada of the Zavodski District Court of Minsk heard a criminal case against Mikhail Bahdan, who was accused of insulting police officers (Article 369 of the Criminal Code), and sentenced him on October 5 to two years of home imprisonment and 2,000 rubles of compensation for moral damage to the victims. On his social media account, the accused wrote a comment “Such heroes and let the whole world wait” under the photo of police officers in uniforms removing balloons off a tree.
Aliaksandr Litvishenka in Mahilioŭ was found guilty of crimes under Art. 369 (insulting a police officer) and under Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting the president). In a Telegram channel, he used the word “scum” to describe a police officer, and in another Telegram channel, he used the word “piece of shit” in relation to Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The sentence is 1.5 years in prison.
On October 7, Judge Viktar Tsimoshka sentenced Siarhei Tsimakhai to three months in prison under Article 341 of the Criminal Code (vandalizing of buildings) in the Klieck District Court for a slogan “Long live Belarus” painted on a bus shelter.
On October 4, Judge Anastasiya Kulik found Ryhor Chahadayeu guilty of committing a crime under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to home imprisonment for “threat of violence” against police officers. The accused threw an egg at a police car, expressing his indignation at the actions of security forces in August 2020.
Siarhei Krupenich and his wife Anastasiya Krupenich-Kandratsiyeva were sentenced to eight consecutive terms of administrative imprisonment each for exchanging news from “extremist” Telegram channels in a private chat. As a result, they have spent more than three months in prison on administrative charges.
A closed trial in the case of Artur Zhvirydouski took place in the Astraviev district police department on October 13. He was charged under two articles of the Criminal Code: Part 1 of Art. 339 (hooliganism) and Art. 370 (insult of state symbols). According to the indictment, Zhvirydouski hung out a white-red-white flag on a school building in Astraviec, and also painted three stripes (resembling a white-red-white flag) on a stone. He also tore down a red-green flag from a government building. The sentence is three years of imprisonment in a general-security penal colony.
These and other cases indicate the continuation of the practice of repression for permissible forms of expression, including on social media, and for other forms of expression.
In October, the authorities labelled numerous social media accounts and websites as “extremist groups”. In particular, in an unprecedented move, the Ministry of Internal Affairs classified dze.chat, a site offering the map of local chats, as an “extremist group”. The site unites more than 100 chats from Belarus and abroad. The blacklist was then joined by several Telegram channels related to the post-election protests, including “Storks are flying”, NEXTA, NEXTA-Live, LUXTA, “People’s Self-Defense Forces”, “Cyber-Guerrillas” and the chat “Club of Viktor Tsoi’s song lovers”. The subscribers of these “formations” are threatened with criminal charges by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Pressure on journalists and the media
At the end of October 2021, at least 29 media representatives were in prisons.
Journalists are still regularly arbitrarily arrested and searched. Their homes are raided and they are imprisoned for their work.
On October 5, security forces searched the editorial office of a local newspaper Hantsavitski Chas. Security officers confiscated computers and phones. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper was briefly detained.
Luniniec police opened a case under Art. 23.5 of the Administrative Code to target media-polesye.by for posting “false information”. It is not reported what specific information is in question. The site has been blocked for six months. The online newspaper was earlier fined 5,771 rubles for reposting from another website about the trial of post-election protesters in Pinsk.
Henadz Mazheika, a journalist of Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi, has been charged with two articles of the Criminal Code: inciting social hatred (Article 130 of the Criminal Code) and insulting a government official (Article 369 of the Criminal Code). Mazheika is in the pre-trial detention center in Žodzina, held in a cell quarantined for coronavirus and thus cannot be visited by lawyers or family. He is also forbidden to receive any parcels. Mazheika was called a political prisoner by the Belarusian human rights community.
In Kryčaŭ, police detained Siarhei Niarouny, a journalist and former editor of the private newspaper Volny Horad. The journalist’s apartment was searched and IT equipment was confiscated. Niarouny faced administrative charges for “distributing extremist content” (Art. 19.11 of the Administrative Code).
On October 28, the authorities blocked access to the website of the Novy Chas newspaper, both to users in Belarus and abroad. One week ago, the police searched the apartments of the editors of Novy Chas, Aksana Kolb and Siarhei Pulsha, and the photojournalist, Dzmitry Dzmitryeu.
The Ministry of Information restricted access to the website currenttime.tv. Similarly, the website of Deutsche Welle is not accessible for Belarusian readers.
After returning to Belarus, Iryna Slaunikava, a representative of Belsat TV channel, and her husband Aliaksandr Loika, were detained, placed in a remand prison and sentenced to short administrative imprisonment for reposting “extremist content”.
There are reports that political prisoner Dzianis Ivashyn is accused of treason. The journalist was earlier charged under Art. 365 of the Criminal Code (interference in the activities of a police officer). Ivashyn is being held in a punishment cell of the Hrodna prison.
Yahor Martsinovich, a political prisoner and editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, is being held in inhumane conditions in a stuffy, overcrowded cell in the basement of pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk.
Violations of freedom of association
The Belarusian authorities continue the practice of total restriction of the right to freedom of association. In October, the Supreme Court liquidated the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Legal Initiative, two of the country’s oldest NGOs involved in the promotion and protection of human rights.
Viasna’s list features 275 NGOs that were liquidated or are being liquidated by courts or government bodies.
Belarusian human rights organizations adopted a joint statement on the inadmissibility of violations of freedom of association, pressure on human rights organizations, in which they emphasized their continued commitment to human rights values and principles and promised to continue their peaceful legitimate human rights activities, and expressed their intention to continue building a society based on respect for the rights of every human being and the rule of law.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
Alena Amelina died as a result of a coronavirus infection after serving a term of administrative imprisonment in a detention facility in Minsk. She was detained on administrative charges in April and September 2021. Nasha Niva journalist Katsiaryna Karpitskaya, who shared the cell with Alena, said that Amelina’s health suddenly deteriorated and she was lying under her bunk. “We forced her to eat something. All this was treated with paracetamol and, when she was too sick, with antibiotics. Alena was then taken away, as she needed ventilation, but never recovered,” the journalist said.
The released political prisoners continue to complain about the deliberate deterioration of conditions of detention for those arrested in politically motivated cases, which in turn border on torture and are cruel, degrading and inhumane. Human rights activists of Viasna continue to receive information about inhumane conditions of detention in Minsk remand prisons. Persons detained and arrested for political reasons are kept in overcrowded cells, receive no medical care, no outdoor time, and no parcels. Prison staff do not respond to complaints about cockroaches in the cells, and COVID-19 patients are often not treated or isolated from healthy people.
Guarantees of a fair trial. Persecution of lawyers
By order of the Ministry of Justice of October 12, lawyer Natallia Matskevich was dismissed from her professional duties in connection with the initiation of disciplinary proceedings against her. It was later reported that on October 25 she was expelled from the bar. Matskevich was defending Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka, as well as a number of other political prisoners. The expulsion from the bar of a highly professional lawyer with an impeccable reputation is yet another clear indication of the deepening crisis of the Belarusian bar, which has long lost the function of an independent self-governing organization designed to protect lawyers from unwarranted attacks by state institutions and protect democratic values and human rights.
On October 28, Yauhen Pylchanka, the last of Viktar Babaryka’s five lawyers, was also expelled from the bar.
The death penalty
The annual Week Against the Death Penalty was held in Belarus for the ninth time on October 5-10. It is arranged by the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus” on the occasion of the World Day against the Death Penalty, which is celebrated worldwide on October 10.
During the Week, the ambassadors of several EU countries, including French Ambassador Nicolas de Lacoste, Czech Ambassador Tomáš Pernický and Swedish Ambassador Christina Johannesson, released video appeals demanding the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. Similar videos were also published by the British Ambassador Jacqueline Perkins and Dirk Schuebel, head of the EU Delegation to Belarus.