Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2022

2022 2022-03-04T22:34:41+0300 2022-03-04T22:34:55+0300 en https://spring96.org/files/images/sources/vokladka_liuty_2022.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Summary:

  • On February 24, the Russian Federation launched a military attack on Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus.
  • The Human Rights Center "Viasna" condemned the actions of the Belarusian and Russian authorities that undermine the principles of peaceful coexistence of peoples, violate the Constitution and laws of Belarus, and the international treaties.
  • During the month the authorities continued to prosecute citizens on political grounds, including for anti-war protests.
  • As of the end of February, 1,068 political prisoners were held in places of detention. The number continues to increase steadily.
  • 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; and volunteer Andrej Čapiuk. A member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka and a volunteer of Viasna Tatsiana Lasitsa were sentenced to three and two years and six months in prison, respectively, the verdict against them came into force.
  • Arrests of peaceful protesters including those protesting against the war continue, together with arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. At least 952 people were detained in February. Viasna documented 13 fines totaling over 16,000 rubles and 135 terms of administrative detention totaling 1917 days.
  • Human rights defenders and journalists continue to report numerous cases of ill-treatment of politically imprisoned citizens detained and administratively imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies. Inhumane conditions of detention for this category of detainees deliberately created by the administration of pre-trial prisons, detention centers, and other facilities are considered by Viasna experts as torture.
  • Torture and other ways of ill-treatment continue to be used in the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases.
  • On February 27, a referendum was held on amendments to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. Experts of the monitoring campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” documented numerous law violations during the referendum and came to the conclusion that the results of the referendum could not be recognized as reflecting the will of the voters.

The war in Ukraine

On the night of February 24, the Russian armed forces invaded Ukraine, including from the territory of Belarus. Thus, the war, which began in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine in April 2014 with a confrontation between Ukraine and the combined forces of separatists supported by Russian troops, entered a new phase and expanded to almost the entire territory of the country. City streets and residential buildings were hit, as well as military facilities and infrastructure. The number of military and civilian casualties cannot be precisely estimated but is measured in thousands of people. The war has led to a humanitarian crisis with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing to less dangerous regions in the country or abroad.

The Human Rights Center Viasna together with other organizations and human rights defenders issued statements condemning the aggression, demanding sanctions against the aggressor state, calling on the Belarusian authorities to return to the constitutional and treaty framework of relations with states; to stop participating in the escalation of international tensions and refuse to take part in the war; to make all possible efforts to end Russia's military intervention in Ukraine, and also stated that military personnel's refusal to take part in a war of aggression should be regarded exclusively as the exercise of their constitutional civil rights.

Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution

Over the past month, the authorities have been actively prosecuting participants in the post-election protests of 2020, together with dissidents and critics of the government. Criminal prosecution is the most severe form of repression, which remains massive and widespread.

According to First Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court Valeryi Kalinkovich, 1,832 people were convicted in protest criminal cases from August 2020 to February 2022. Of these, 168 people were convicted of organizing or preparing mass riots, or active participation in them, 396 of group activities violating public order, 468 of insulting a government official, 126 of hooliganism, 86 of desecration of state symbols.

The number of political prisoners increased by 46 in the month to 1 022 as of December 1 068, continuing 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 Labkovich, lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, Maryia (Marfa) Rabkova, head of Viasna’s network of volunteers, and volunteer Andrej Čapiuk continue to be held in pre-trial detention. The head of Viasna’s Homieĺ branch Leanid Sudalenka (three years) and volunteer Tatsiana Lasitsa (two and a half years) were sentenced to three and two and a half years in jail respectively.

Political prisoner Uladzimir Matskevich went on a hunger strike in prison. He has been in custody since August 4, 2021, on charges of organizing actions that grossly violate public order. After the first ten days of striking, the philosopher refused to drink water either. The political prisoner demanded to be released under a restriction of travel order, to complete the investigation, and to set a date for his trial.

Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression

Criminal and administrative persecution of peaceful protesters and dissidents continues. The courts are still passing verdicts against the participants of the 2020 protests.

Aleh Ardziuk, a 23-year-old political prisoner, has been tried for a month now in the Lieninski court of Brest in the infamous “Pinsk case” under Part 2 Article 293 of the Criminal Code (Participation in mass riots). He is accused of “throwing a stick and a handful of soil” at police during a protest rally in Pinsk on the night of August 9–10, 2020. Aleh was arrested on September 15, 2021, while serving his conscription in the army. Judge Sviataslau Kalina is considering the case.

On January 26, 2022, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced Siarhei Alsheuski to two years in a general-security penal colony. He was found guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. The case was considered by Judge Maryna Klimchuk. Siarhei Alsheuski was found guilty of taking part in group actions that grossly violate public order involving explicit disobedience to the police. Implied is a rally on August 10–11, 2020.

On February 16, the Zavodski District Court of Minsk announced a verdict in a criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code against a political prisoner and activist from Viliejka Andrei Kudzik. Judge Aleh Kaliada sentenced him to two years in prison.

Police officers continue to organize special operations across Belarus to storm houses and apartments in search of protest symbols, detain people in their workplaces, conduct searches, and interrogations. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and opposing government policies. The courts hear administrative cases against persons arrested for displaying flags and stickers on windows and storing them in their apartments, reposting and commenting on social media, as well as other forms of protest activities or expression of opinion.

Viasna has information about administrative persecution for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression of peaceful protesters including those protesting against the war continue, together with arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. At least 952 people were detained in February. Viasna documented 13 fines totaling over 16,000 rubles and 135 terms of administrative detention totaling 1917 days. This is by no means a complete record of the number of politically motivated administrative cases: in many cases, judges secretly hold closed sessions by videoconference without announcing the date and place of the hearing, which grossly violates the procedural and constitutional rights of those involved in administrative proceedings, and observers are prosecuted for their lawful activities.

Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code, which punishes the dissemination of extremist materials, is increasingly used by the Belarusian authorities to repress dissent. Most of these cases are triggered by reposts of various online publications from resources whose information products were earlier recognized as “extremist”.

As before, a widespread instrument of repression is persecution for slandering the President, insulting government officials, judges, prosecutors, police officers, and A. Lukashenka (Art 367, 368, 369, 391 of the Criminal Code), and for desecration of state symbols. Trials on such charges are held throughout Belarus on a daily basis.

On February 15 and 16, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest considered the case of Igor Novikov, who was charged under Part 1 and Part 2 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (Insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus), as well as under Art. 341 (Desecration of buildings and damage to property). The trial was conducted by Judge Maryna Skalkovich. Igor Novikov was accused of graffiting walls from April to December 2021 and charged under Art. 341 of the Criminal Code. According to the Brest Viasna, two of these graffiti insulted Lukashenka. Igor was accused of committing a crime under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code for his graffiti “Lukashenka is a mental rat”. And for “Long live Belarus. Lukashenko is a lunatic and a murderer. Send him to The Hague” he was charged under Part 2 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code. The man was sentenced to 2 years in a penal colony.

On February 1, the case of Aliaksandr Ledak was considered in the Polack District and City Court. He was accused of committing a crime under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code (Insulting a government official). The man posted a comment “Judas” under the photo of police captain Andrei Komar on a social network. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

On February 7, the Bierastavica and Bierastavica District Court sentenced Halina Mikhalchuk, a 69-year-old pensioner from Vaŭkavysk, to 2.5 years in a general-security penal colony. She was taken into custody in the courtroom. The verdict was handed down by judge Andrei Talochka. Halina Mikhalchuk was found guilty under three articles of the Criminal Code for slandering A. Lukashenka, insulting A. Lukashenka, and insulting a government official and sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

On February 2, the Vietka district court sentenced a 44-year-old resident (his name is unknown) to two years in a general-security penal colony. According to the prosecution, in February–April 2021 he posted insulting comments on the page of one of his friends in a social network Odnoklassniki. “The military commissar of Homieĺ region and former assistant of the president on national security, former minister of internal affairs and minister of foreign affairs, as well as the head of the state received a negative assessment in connection with the performance of their official duties. In order to discredit the president Vietka resident used his personal page as well, posting on it photos of insulting nature.” The actions of the resident of Vietka were qualified under Part 1 of Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka), Art. 369 (Insulting government officials).

On February 7, the Navabielicy District Court of Homieĺ considered a criminal case against Uladzimir Yeustratsenka for insulting A. Lukashenka. The case was considered by Judge Artsiom Manzhos. According to the indictment, on August 21, 2021, Yeustratsenka called the emergency line 102 and “made statements containing profanity against the head of state, thereby publicly insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”. Yeustratsenka was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison.

On February 11, Viasna social networks appeared on the Republican list of extremist materials. Twenty-one Internet resources of the Human Rights Center were declared extremist, the whole list of them takes 2.5 pages in the Republican List of Extremist Materials. In particular, the page about Viasna on the website of Front Line Defenders organization, the Viasna tag on the reform.by website, as well as the Russian-language version of the main page of Spring96.org website were considered “extremist”.

Torture. Cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment

Human rights activists of Viasna continue to receive information about inhumane conditions of detention in Minsk detention facilities. Detainees and those arrested for political reasons are kept in overcrowded cells, receive no medical care, no outdoor time, and no mail or parcels from their families. Detained and arrested for political reasons are kept in overcrowded cells, receive no medical care, walks, or parcels. They have to go on hunger strikes to improve detention conditions. Detainees in criminal cases are also held in brutal conditions; in penal colonies, prisoners are subjected to pressure and torture.

Dzmitryi Abramuk, a political prisoner involved in the so-called “Brest case”, got 13 months and 16 days in jail instead of 3 years of restricted freedom in an open correctional facility for violating the rules of the latter. On February 17 the political prisoner was placed in a penal cell for 10 days for refusing to clean the toilets. Meanwhile, the court toughened his punishment replacing 3 years in an open penitentiary with 13 months and 16 days in a penal colony. Now Dzmitryi is being held in the pre-trial detention center in Viciebsk. At the end of November, the administration of open correctional facility No. 9 in Viciebsk put the political prisoner on a new register as “prone to unauthorized departure from the institution”. In December and January, he was placed in a punishment cell for 40 days on the basis of four reports of violating the rules.

It has become known that political prisoner Mikita Yemialyianau was repeatedly punished by throwing him into a penal cell. Mikita was punished twice for refusing to clean the prison yard. Another time he was punished for not making a report during the inspection. It is known that penitentiary officials do not accept complaints and applications from Mikita, so he went on a 10-day hunger strike on February 3 in protest. Initially, he refused to drink water, as well as take food, but because of his poor health, he then started drinking while continuing the hunger strike. Mikita Yemialyianau has been in the penal cell since January 18. During that time, he spent 34 days in solitary confinement. Mikita's trial began on January 27 in prison No. 4 on charges of malicious disobedience to the demands of the administration of the correctional institution for violating the internal regulations (part 2 of Art 411 of the Criminal Code). The political prisoner faces up to two more years in prison.

170 MEPs from 16 European countries signed a joint letter to be sent to the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus and the heads of 48 Belarusian prisons, where political prisoners are held. The MEPs urge the prison authorities to stop all violations and infringements of the rights of inmates in all Belarusian penitentiaries. The letter was signed by representatives of Austria, France, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Scotland, Slovakia, Spain, Sweden, and Switzerland.

Torture and ill-treatment were alleged by defendants in courts. Shocking cases of torture, brought to light by political prisoners and widely known, remain uninvestigated.

On February 8, two political prisoners and former employees of the national telecommunications company Beltelecom, Aliaksei Bychkouski and Artsiom Parkhamovich, have been sentenced in Minsk City Court. Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka sentenced them to 11 years in a maximum-security penal colony under eight articles of the Criminal Code for leaking information to the protest Telegram channel. The trial has been held in private since November 25. It was closed at the request of prosecutor Natallia Sakalova “for the safety of the victim's family and personal data, as well as for the non-distributing of extremist materials”. Men look beaten in the video published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Aliaksei Bychkouski's wife stated that her husband had been beaten after the detention.

Referendum

The preparation and conduct of the referendum to amend the Constitution did not meet a number of basic international standards for holding democratic and fair elections and was accompanied by numerous violations of these principles and provisions of national legislation. This was due to the atmosphere of fear on the eve and during the referendum, caused by a crackdown on citizens, civil society organizations, and independent media; lack of unbiased election commissions; unequal access to state media for supporters and opponents of constitutional changes; use of administrative resources to support the draft submitted to the referendum on changes to the Constitution; arbitrary deprivation of the right to vote of citizens who are outside the Republic of Belarus; numerous facts of coercion of voters to participate in early voting; inaccessibility of electoral procedures for observers.

Ongoing repression of civil society, preparation, and conduct of the referendum in an atmosphere of total fear, and introduced by CEC restrictions on the number of observers at polling stations led to a lack of independent monitoring of all types of voting (early voting, voting on the main election day and mobile voting) as well as the vote count; these important phases of the election campaign were completely non-transparent. This assessment cannot be changed by the presence of pro-government observers at polling stations and commissions.

Significant violations of the national legislation and fundamental principles of fair and democratic elections during the referendum, including depriving observers of the opportunity to monitor the counting of voting results, do not provide grounds to trust the election results announced by CEC and consider them reflecting the real will of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus.

 

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