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Eleven ‘Railway guerillas’ recognized as political prisoners

2022 2022-04-21T19:00:00+0300 2024-01-29T12:11:10+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Statement by the human rights community of Belarus

April 21, 2022

We, representatives of the human rights community of Belarus, are committed to the values and principles enshrined in the UN Charter and aimed at the inadmissibility of the use of force and the settlement of international disputes by peaceful means; in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966; in the Covenant on Social, Economic and Cultural Rights, 1966; in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN Declaration on the Right of People to Peace, 1984.

Consequently, we believe that all peoples have to freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development. (Article 1 of both 1966 Covenants). Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without discrimination of any kind and without unreasonable restrictions to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives (Article 25 of the ICCPR). The exercise of these rights is inextricably linked to the ability to freely exercise a range of civil and political rights. The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights emphasizes that human rights should be protected by the rule of law in order to ensure that people are not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression.

The current government of Belarus, which is not supported by the majority of the population, continues to crack down on the non-violent resistance of the Belarusians in order to maintain control over the territory of the country. Belarusians are deprived of legal means of expressing their opinion about the country's policies and participating in the government's political decision-making process.

By providing territory for the deployment and passage of Russian troops and thus participating in Russia's illegal use of force against Ukraine Belarus violates international legal obligations including the Treaty of Friendship, Good Neighborhood, and Cooperation between Ukraine and the Republic of Belarus), as well as its domestic legislation. At the same time the rights of the people of Ukraine, including the right to life, are flagrantly violated. These actions by the current government directly affect the interests of every Belarusian and have been strongly condemned by the international community.

In such circumstances, Belarusian citizens, deprived of the opportunity to influence the decisions of the authorities by conventional means, are forced to seek effective means of influence, including measures of extreme necessity (clause 3.3.a of the Manual on the Definition of Political Prisoners). The legal assessment of these actions should be objective, and proportionate, excluding all assumptions and vague formulations, taking into account both the consequences and the harm prevented.

Since the beginning of the new active phase of the war in Ukraine following the Russian aggression in February 2022, more than ten citizens involved in damaging the railroad infrastructure resulting in disrupting the logistics of Russian military cargo were detained in Belarus. The Belarusian railway workers' association reported that due to the disruption of the railway infrastructure, the movement of military trains transporting the equipment and ammunition of the Russian troops through the territory was stopped in Belarus. Thus, the actions of the detainees proved to be a deterrent to waging an aggressive war.

Stressing our commitment to exclusively peaceful actions in defense of human rights and freedoms, we note that it is the violation by the state of its obligations to maintain peace, security, and proper legal order that puts its citizens to commit formally unlawful actions.

Human rights activists are aware of the following detainees:

Siarhei Hlebka was detained in Stoŭbcy on the night of March 1-2. He admitted that he put two wooden logs on the railroad tracks and set them on fire

On March 4, Dzmitry Ravich, Aleh Malchanau, and Dzianis Dzikun were detained in Svietlahorsk for setting fire to a relay cabinet at the Žerdź-Astankavičy station on February 28, which made the traffic lights and railroad switches on this section inoperable. The Astankavičy-Žerdź section is on the Žlobin-Kalinkavičy line, which then continues on to Ovruch (Zhytomyr Region, Ukraine).

On March 6, officers of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) and riot police (OMON) detained Siarhei Kanavalau, an employee of the Viciebsk branch of Belarusian Railways, for “preparing an act of terrorism”. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the man planned to disable the systems that ensure the safety of railway traffic.

On 10 March, two local residents Siarhei Pliashkun and Yury Selvich were detained in Mazyr for preparing an act of terrorism (Article 13 and Article 289 of the Criminal Code). According to the investigation, the men stored incendiary bottles, as they planned to set fire to Russian military cargo.

On March 30, a special unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained Yauhen Minkevich, Dzmitryi Klimau, and Uladzimir Auramtsau, suspected of destroying two relay cabinets near Asipovičy. The men tried to escape while being arrested. The law enforcers used lethal weapons against them, at least one of the detainees was wounded and is now in a medical facility, while the others “received medical care on the spot”.

The listed citizens were accused under Article 289 of the Criminal Code of committing an act of terrorism and preparation of an act of terrorism; the investigation committee also stated that these acts were committed as part of an organized group. This accusation contradicts the law. According to Article 289 of the Criminal Code, an act of terrorism is “the commission of an explosion, arson, flooding or any other action endangering the lives of people, causing personal injuries or entailing other socially dangerous consequences, if these actions have been committed for the purpose of exerting influence on decisionmaking by governmental bodies, obstructing political or other social activities, intimidating the population, or violating public security. In all these cases the necessary elements of the specified corpus delicti are absent. It is also incorrect to claim that the actions of the detainees were part of an organized group until the investigation is conducted, which emphasizes the biased nature of the investigation that has been launched.

On March 2, Aliaksei Shyshkavets was detained in Asipovičy. The man, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, “joined the extremist formation BYPOL, having authorized a mobilization chat-bot to commit unlawful acts in Belarus”. On March 1, he allegedly received instructions to block the railroad tracks and to prepare and use "Molotov cocktails," while expressing "an active willingness to contribute to sabotaging near Asipovičy in order to prevent transporting military equipment. In this connection, he was accused of participation in an extremist formation with the purpose of committing extremist crimes (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).

According to established practice, imprisonment of political opponents of the regime is used by the authorities in violation of the right to a fair trial, other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and selectively in comparison with other persons. As the UN Human Rights Committee notes, “remand in custody on criminal charges must be reasonable and necessary in all the circumstances”. “Detention in custody of persons awaiting trial shall be the exception rather than the rule. […] release from such custody may be subject to guarantees of appearance, including appearance for trial, appearance at any other stage of the judicial proceedings and (should occasion arise) appearance for execution of the judgment. That sentence applies to persons awaiting trial on criminal charges, that is, after the defendant has been charged, but a similar requirement prior to charging results from the prohibition of arbitrary detention […]. It should not be the general practice to subject defendants to pretrial detention. Detention pending trial must be based on an individualized determination that it is reasonable and necessary taking into account all the circumstances, for such purposes as to prevent flight, interference with evidence or the recurrence of crime. [...] The relevant factors should be specified in law and should not include vague and expansive standards such as “public security”. […] Neither should pretrial detention be ordered for a period based on the potential sentence for the crime charged, rather than on a determination of necessity”.

Assessing all these cases of prosecution, we conclude that all of them are politically motivated.

According to the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, a person deprived of liberty is to be regarded as a political prisoner, if at least one of the following criteria is observed:

  • a) the detention has been imposed in violation of the right to a fair trial, other rights and freedoms guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms;
  • c) the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly disproportionate (incommensurate) to the offense the person is suspected, accused or has been found guilty of;

We, the representatives of the Belarusian human rights community, declare that the further imprisonment of Siarhei Hlebka, Dzmitryi Ravich, Aleh Malchanau, Dzianis Dzikun, Siarhei Kanavalau, Aliaksei Shyshkavets, Siarhei Pleshkun, Yury Selvich, Yauhen Minkevich, Dzmitryi Klimau, and Uladzimir Auramtsau is politically motivated and recognize them as political prisoners.

The actions of all the above-mentioned individuals were not aimed at causing harm to individuals and had (or could lead to) only economic consequences incomparable to the scale of destruction and losses caused by war. In this regard, we call on the Belarusian authorities to:

  • review the sentences passed against the mentioned political prisoners while exercising the right to a fair trial and eliminating the factors that affected final verdicts;
  • release the mentioned political prisoners by taking other measures to ensure their appearance in court;
  • conduct an objective investigation and their consideration in court in compliance with the right to a fair trial and other rights and freedoms;
  • immediately release all political prisoners and stop political repression.

Human Rights Center Viasna

Belarusian Helsinki Committee

Legal initiative


Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House

PEN Belarus

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