Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2022
- The war in Ukraine and its consequences have dramatically changed the current agenda in Europe and the rest of the world.
- The Human Rights Center Viasna (Viasna - hereinafter) strongly condemns the actions of Belarusian and Russian authorities that undermine the principles of peaceful coexistence of peoples, violate the Constitution and laws of Belarus, and international treaties.
- Reckless actions of the Belarusian authorities that contradict public and state interests have put the country side-by-side with the aggressor. As before, such a policy is causing backlash and resistance from those citizens who abide by democratic values.
- During April 2022, the Belarusian authorities kept actively prosecuting citizens on political grounds, including for anti-war protests as detentions of peaceful protesters continue together with arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and areas. In April, Viasna documented six fines and 17 instances of administrative detention sentenced by courts against protesters.
- 1,166 political prisoners were held in places of detention as of late April, the number continues to grow steadily.
- Members of Viasna continue to be held in pre-trial detention on arbitrary charges: Chairman Mr. Ales Bialiatski; Member of the Board, and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich; lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign Mr. Uladzimir Labkovich; coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer network Ms. Marfa Rabkova and volunteer Mr. Andrei Chapiuk whose trial has commenced. A Viasna member and the head of Center for Strategic Litigation Mr. Leanid Sudalenka who was sentenced to three years of imprisonment, and a volunteer at Viasna Ms. Tatsiana Lasitsa who was sentenced to two years and six months - are in penal colonies.
- Human rights defenders and journalists continue to report numerous cases of ill-treatment of politically imprisoned citizens, and those detained and administratively arrested for participating in peaceful assemblies. Viasna experts consider the inhumane conditions that have been deliberately created for political detainees by administrations of pre-trial prisons and other facilities as torture.
- Torture and other ways of ill-treatment continue to be used during investigations of politically motivated criminal cases.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
As during previous months, authorities continue to persecute those who had participated in protests against the rigged results of the 2020 presidential election and subsequent demonstrations, dissidents, and critics of the government. Criminal prosecutions remain widespread and pervasive, affecting more and more people and new social groups. Courts and judges are actively engaged in suppressing any political or social activism and dissent as they create a semblance of legitimacy while depriving of and restricting liberty, and civil rights.
By late April, the number of political prisoners increased by 56 to 1,166; and continued to grow steadily.
The Chairman of Viasna Mr. Ales Bialiatski, a Member of Viasna Board and the Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich, and lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign Mr. Uladzimir Labkovich remain in custody on trumped-up charges.
The Minsk Municipal Court has commenced hearings of the criminal case against Viasna volunteer service coordinator Ms. Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Mr. Andrei Chapiuk, political prisoners and activists of the anarchist movement Mr. Akikhiro Hayeuski-Hanada, Mr. Aliaksandr Frantskevich, Mr. Aliaksei Halauko, Mr. Aliaksandr Kazlianka, Mr. Pavel Shpetny, Mr. Mikita Dranets, Mr. Andrei Marach, and Mr. Danila Chul. Judge Siarhei Khrypach is presiding over the case. Despite the objections of the defendants, the court has granted a request of Prosecutor Mr. Andrei Buhuk to hold the hearing in closed session, since “there are materials of extremist nature in the criminal case files”. This significantly violates the procedural rights of all defendants and attests to non-compliance with fair trial standards.
Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint project of the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH, has received an update on the condition of political prisoner Ms. Marfa Rabkova – and requests urgent intervention. The Observatory expresses its utmost concern over the deterioration of Ms. Rabkova’s health while in detention, and urges the Belarus authorities to immediately grant her access to adequate and comprehensive medical treatment, and to immediately and unconditionally release her, as her detention is arbitrary and is only putting her life at risk.
The head of Viasna Homieĺ branch Mr. Leanid Sudalenka (sentenced to three years of imprisonment) and volunteer Ms. Tatsiana Lasitsa (sentenced to 2.5 years) remain in penal colonies.
Correspondence is being intentionally and arbitrarily restricted for all imprisoned human rights defenders. Authorities have made it impossible for Leanid Sudalenka’s lawyer to see his client.
Authorities are prolonging jail terms for political prisoners. For instance, Mr. Ruslan Akostka, a former paratrooper from Salihorsk who had been sentenced to three years in jail (for allegedly resisting arrest during an in memoriam rally for Mr. Raman Bandarenka) has seen new charges brought against him under Article 411 of the Criminal Code (malicious disobedience to demands of administration of correctional institution). The trial was held on March 18 on penal colony premises. Even the prisoner's relatives were not informed about the trial, as they had not heard from Mr. Akostka for three months. A District Court of Viciebsk Judge Mikhail Zubenia sentenced Mr. Akostka to an extra year in jail.
On April 7, political prisoner Ms. Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk received a sentence under Part 2 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code following a virtually closed off hearing in the confines of Homieĺ Women's Colony. A Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ Judge Mikalai Krupadziorau considered the case and sentenced the political prisoner to an extra year in penal colony in addition to her earlier two-year sentence. Palina is the first female political prisoner in Belarus convicted under this article.
Violation of freedom of peaceful assembly, and 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:
Thus, on March 30, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk convicted spouses Ms. Darya Arbuzava and Mr. Aliaksei Arbuzau for participation in the August 2020 protests. Judge Anastasiya Achalava pronounced a verdict under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (participation in actions grossly violating public order) and sentenced political prisoner Mr. Arbuzau to 18 months in a general-security prison for participation in two rallies, and Ms. Arbuzava to 24 months of house arrest for participation in one rally.
On April 5, a 28-year-old political prisoner Mr. Dzyanis Haponenka was sentenced in the Saviecki District Court of Homieĺ. Judge Alina Koshkina found him guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code and sentenced Mr. Haponenka to 12 months in a penal colony. According to the prosecution, on August 12, 2020, in a Homieĺ public Telegram group (that Belarus authorities have deemed extremist) Mr. Haponenka urged people to take to the streets to peacefully protest election fraud, block roads, and to go on strike. In particular, he suggested blocking roads on the morning of August 13, 2020, to subsequently carry out the strike.
On April 5, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced feminist blogger Ms. Darya Tsikhanava (Afanasyeva) to 2.5 years in prison. Judge Anastasiya Achalava found her guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (active participation in actions grossly violating public order) for participation in post-election protests in August 2020 in Minsk. Darya’s photos taken at the rallies were used as evidence against her in the case.
On April 12, four people were convicted in the District Court of Maladziečna for participation in a protest on August 9, 2020. Political prisoners Mr. Anton Drazdovich, Mr. Aliaksandr Novash, Ms. Volha Charniak and Mr. Ruslan Shapunou were charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions grossly violating public order) for protesting with a white-red-white flag. The three men were sentenced to 18 months in a penal colony, and Ms. Charniak was sentenced to 12 months in prison. All four remained in custody before trial. The case was heard by Judge Volha Dubovik.
On April 25, the Minsk Municipal Court sentenced a 24-year-old political prisoner Mr. Aliaksei Kudasau to 11 years of imprisonment. He had been charged under four articles of the Criminal Code: Part 1 of Article 293 (organization of mass riots); Part 1 of Article 361-1 (establishment of extremist formation); Part 3 of Article 130 (incitement to social discord and animosity); and Article 369 (insult against government official). Judge Anastasiya Papko handed down the verdict. The political prisoner has been in jail for nine months. It is unknown what Mr. Kudasau had been accused of exactly, as the trial was held in closed court. What is known is that Mr. Kudasau was incriminated with foundation and administration of a Telegram channel Kaskad (named after a residential complex in Minsk and deemed an ‘extremist formation’ by the authorities on December 28, 2021), inciting social hatred, insulting a government official, and organizing mass unrest specifically via his Telegram channel: “[Kudasau] organized and carried out the burning of tires in October 2020 on Kaĺvaryjskaja street in Minsk.”
Police officers continue to organize special operations in cities and Minsk districts and suburbs to ransack houses and apartments in search of protest symbols, detain people at their workplaces, and conduct searches and interrogations. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and opposition to government policies. The courts are hearing administrative cases against persons arrested for displaying flags and stickers on their windows and storing them in their homes, sharing posts and commenting on social media, as well as other forms of protest activities or expression of opinion.
Viasna continues to accumulate information on administrative persecution for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression of peaceful protesters (including at anti-war rallies), as well as on arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and areas. Viasna has been providing coverage of how Belarusians are expressing their protest against the war and being persecuted for it. According to Viasna, at least six fines for protest activity were imposed, and at least 17 administrative arrest sentences were handed down in April. This is by no means a complete record of the number of politically motivated administrative cases. In many cases, judges secretly hold closed hearings by videoconference without announcing date and place. This grossly violates the procedural and constitutional rights of defendants in administrative proceedings, and observers of fair justice standards are persecuted for their lawful activities.
On April 1, the head of Navabielica Ambulance Service, Mr. Siarhei Savich, was arrested. His friends are convinced that Mr. Siarhei Savich was arrested following an anonymous message from a “well-meaning” colleague to the authorities concerning a ‘No to War’ handout in Mr. Savich's car, as well as Siarhei’s negative attitude towards Russian military vehicles obstructing the passage of ambulances in the medical transport parking lot in defiance to his requests to park at a different area. Prior to Mr. Savich’s arrest, his colleagues had tried to raise money for wounded Russian servicemen, but Mr. Savich did not support the drive.
A Navapolack activist Ms. Volha Brytsikava was arrested at a polling station on 27 February. She was sentenced to 15 days of administrative imprisonment for taking photos of the ballot. A few days later Volha was tried for the second time. She was sentenced to another 15 days in jail for wearing clothes with the ‘No to War’ slogan. On March 10, it became known that Volha had been convicted again. According to the available information, she was sentenced to additional 15 days for displaying ‘No to War’ on her windows. On April 28, she was convicted for the fifth time. Volha is currently being held in Ušačy Temporary Detention Center where she will have spent at least 75 days in total.
Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code that punishes dissemination of extremist materials, is constantly being used by the Belarus authorities to repress dissent. As a rule, the authorities punish social media sharing of various political content produced by media outlets deemed by them as ‘extremist’.
During April, the State List of Extremist Materials was updated with 33 new court rulings. A popular YouTube channel Zhizn'-malina, its Telegram channel and a chat group with the same name, as well as its logo were ruled to be ‘extremist content’ by a court decision. Additionally, several socially- and politically-minded regional Telegram channels, including Media-Polesye.by content, were deemed extremist by the courts.
Viasna human rights defenders continue to monitor criminal cases related to the intolerance of the Belarus authorities to any form of expression. Criminal prosecutions under defamation articles continue. Individuals are being charged with defamation and insult of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, government officials, and judges; as well as for desecration of state symbols (Articles 367, 368, 369, 370, and 391 of the Criminal Code). Such trials are being held all over Belarus.
On March 28, the District Court of Salihorsk sentenced a 46-year-old film director Mr. Dzmitryi Pantsialeika to 12 months in prison. He had been charged under Article 370 of the Criminal Code (desecration of state symbols) for posting a picture of a swastika superimposed over the Belarus state flag on VK, a social network. Judge Alesia Seradzenka considered the case and qualified Mr. Pantsialeika’s actions as desecration of state symbols. According to the verdict, Mr. Pantsialeika was sentenced to one year in a penal colony.
On April 1, the District Court of Bychaŭ heard a criminal case against a local resident Mr. Aliaksandr Audzeyuk. He was charged under two articles of the Criminal Code: Part 1 of Article 367 (slander against Aliaksandr Lukashenka), and Part 1 of Article 368 (insults against Aliaksandr Lukashenka). The case was considered by Judge Aliaksandr Marozau. Until trial, Mr. Audzeyuk was being kept in Mahilioŭ Pre-Trial Detention Center. According to the case records, no later than August 2021 Mr. Avdeyuk ‘liked’ a social media post in one of Odnoklassniki social media platform public groups. The publication contained a picture of Mr. Lukashenka and an offensive caption accusing him of fascism. It must be noted that the defendant did not post anything himself but only responded to the social media post with a ‘like’. Despite this, a forensic-linguistic examination pointed at a “negative assessment of Lukashenka”, and the state prosecutor even claimed there had been instances of “class intolerance towards representatives of the authorities”. Moreover, the prosecutor emphasized that Audzeyuk had ‘liked’ the publication out of revenge (to Mr. Lukashenka) – according to mspring.media.
On April 4, the Regional Court of Brest convicted political prisoner Mr. Dzianis Karaban who had been detained over Internet comments following the death of Mr. Andrei Zeltser. The man was sentenced to 2.5 years of imprisonment in a penal colony under Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code. The verdict was handed down by Judge Katsiaryna Hruda. The political prisoner was accused of posting on September 28, 2021, a brief approving comment to a social media post in Bad News Belarus VK group about the shooting at Mr. Zeltser’s home that resulted in the death of a KGB officer.
On April 7, Mr. Pavel Pernikau, aged 30, was convicted in the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest. He was accused of discrediting Belarus under Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code by editing Wikipedia articles about the murder of journalist Ms. Veranika Charkasava and Mr. Henadz Shutau, as well as authoring an article on a German human rights organization website about torture and murder of Belarusians during the protests. Pavel pleaded not guilty in court. Judge Yauhen Brehan sentenced him to 24 months in a general-security penal colony.
On April 1, the Luniniec Municipal and District Court heard a case at the local police department of Mr. Yuryi Tserashkevich, aged 33. Judge Sviatlana Bratanava found him guilty under Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to two years in a general-security penal colony. According to the prosecution, traffic police officers detained Mr. Tserashkevich on the evening of January 9, 2022, on a road. In the police car, at the hospital, and on the way to the police station, Mr. Tserashkevich allegedly insulted Mr. Lukashenka using obscene language.
On April 14, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna handed down a verdict in the criminal case of Mr. Andrei Stsepanenka who had been accused of insulting Mr. Lukashenka. The case was considered by Judge Uladzimir Pazniak. The prosecution argued that Mr. Stsepanenka, with an intent to publicly insult Mr. Lukashenka, placed a deliberate and obscene comment about Mr. Lukashenka in Lyceum 2002-2004 P/T Telegram chat group on August 11, 2020. The comment went as follows: “There is some logical grain to it. But I don't want to move to Poland. I'm a Belarusian and I want to live in Belarus without Lukashenko. In Belarus, where the law is above some mustached man...” The sentence amounted to imprisonment in a penal colony for 18 months.
Freedom of association
On April 19, the authorities unleashed a major crackdown on the independent trade union movement of Belarus. A ransacking of the Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (FTUM) took place in Minsk that morning. Homes of Mr. Aliaksandr Yarashuk, the Chairperson of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU), and his deputy Mr. Siarhei Antusevich were raided. There was also a search and seizure at a BCDTU employee’s apartment after which she was taken for interrogation. Raids were also conducted in the apartment of Mr. Mikalai Sharakh, the Chairperson of the Free Trade Union of Belarus in Polack. Representatives of the Belarusian Radio-Electrical Manufacturing Workers' Trade Union (REM) were detained.
Belarusian human rights organizations have published a joint statement on the cessation of persecution of Belarusian independent trade unions.
Earlier, the KGB recognized the Belarusian Independent Trade Union REM as an extremist group because “a group of citizens including a consultant, an acting chairman, trade union members, as well as other persons of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union REM are carrying out extremist activities”. The name of an ‘extremist group’ is almost identical to the name of the existing Belarusian Trade Union of Radio-electronics Industry Workers currently registered by the authorities. Furthermore, a description of its logo is reminiscent of the symbols of the registered trade union.
Additionally, Belarus' Golovnogo Mozga, Belarusian Sport Solidarity Foundation, and Flagshtok have been deemed extremist.
Furthermore, repressive ‘anti-extremist’ amendments to the Criminal Code that had been adopted in Summer 2021 have been actively put in motion.
In particular, Mr. Maksim Belianovich, a 38-year-old Babrujsk local, was charged under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (participation in an extremist formation) for his alleged registration in Telegram-based Plan Pieramoha chatbot – according to a pro-government Telegram channel.
An IT specialist Mr. Andrei Utkin was detained in the Homieĺ Voblast for transmitting a photo of a Russian military convoy to Bielaruski Hajun, a popular Telegram project aimed at monitoring military activity in Belarus. According to pro-government Telegram channels, the man sent the picture to Bielaruski Hajun that had been a deemed extremist formation on March 16. Mr. Utkin has been charged under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (participation in extremist formation) and Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code (promotion of extremist activities).
The Belarus Investigative Committee has reported the detention of Mr. Viktar Kulinka, a 31-year-old digital artist who had “sent photos and videos of military vehicle movement to anti-war channels”. According to Viasna, Mr. Kulinka was arrested on March 30. A video appeared on pro-government Telegram channels where he admits having photographed a Russian military convoy heading toward Homieĺ. According to Mr. Kulinka, he had passed the photo to Bielaruski Hajun Telegram channel. Viktar was charged under Articles 361-4 and 361-1 of the Criminal Code (participation in extremist formation) for allegedly registering in Plan Pieramoha as the police authorities claimed to have had detected the registration on his smartphone.
The Investigative Committee has also reported that a 28-year-old mother of a minor from Mazyr has been charged with facilitating extremist activities. According to the prosecution, she “took a video of helicopter movements for a biased destructive [media] resource”. Now the woman is being held in the Homieĺ Pre-Trial Detention Center. According to human rights activists, Ms. Hanna Pyshnik (maiden surname: Chympayesh) fits the description. She was detained for sending a video to Telegram channel Nexta.
Ms. Iryna Abdukeryna, a 49-year-old ex-teacher from Chojniki, was arrested at her summer house on the morning of April 5 for allegedly recording movements of a Russian military convoy and forwarding the video to Telegram channel Bielaruski Hajun – as stated in her ‘repentant’ video published on a pro-government propaganda media channel. Moreover, the same video suggested that Iryna had been fired from her job at school in 2020, although she had left her workplace on her own initiative back in 2016. On April 10, the woman was charged under two articles of the Criminal Code: Article 361-1 (participation in extremist formation) and Article 361-4 (promotion of extremist activities). The woman is currently being held in the Homieĺ Pre-Trial Detention Center.
On April 1, Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) officers arrested a 43-year-old Homieĺ resident Mr. Aleh Baradzin. Presumably, the Investigative Committee is also reporting on his case. The man was arrested for shooting a video of military equipment at the railway station before sending it to an ‘extremist Telegram channel’. His ‘repentant’ video appeared on pro-government telegram channels in which Mr. Baradzin said: “I made a video at the Homieĺ railway station with Russian Federation soldiers and shared the video to a ‘Belarus' Golovnogo Mozga’ Telegram channel chatbot”. Mr. Baradzin is being held in the Homieĺ Pre-Trial Detention Center.
Representatives of the Belarusian human rights community have made a statement and demanded the release of the abovementioned citizens.
On April 22, 2022, the Minsk Regional Court issued sentences to anarchist political prisoners Mr. Aliaksandr Bialou, Mr. Yauhen Rubashka, Mr. Artsiom Salavei (born in 1996), and Mr. Artsiom Salavei (born in 1995). Judge Alena Misnik found the men guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code and Part 3 of Article 361-1 and sentenced Mr. Aliaksandr Bialou, Mr. Yauhen Rubashka, and Mr. Artsiom Salavei (born in 1996) to five years of imprisonment in a general-security penal colony; and Mr. Artsiom Salavei (born in 1995) to 4.5 years of imprisonment in a general regime colony. The trial was held in closed court. It is understood that the charge under Article 361-1 was brought in connection to activities of a non-existent extremist formation Pramen, apparently named after an anarchist media resource.
Persecution of journalists and media
Freedom of speech in Belarus continues to be violated in various forms. Media outlets are being deprived of registration and accreditation, and their journalists are being criminally prosecuted for performing their professional duties. 24 media representatives remain imprisoned.
On 20 April, the editor-in-chief of Novy Chas newspaper Ms. Aksana Kolb was detained. A police squad armed with shields and sledgehammers raided the apartment where she lived. They said they were taking Ms. Kolb to the Investigative Committee for interrogation. On April 22, it became known that Ms. was being charged under part 342 of Article 1 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order or active participation in them).
The House of Representatives has passed amendments to the Criminal Code presented by Maryna Lencheuskaya MP, a member of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on National Security. Amendments were adopted in two readings at once. According to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly Press Service, the bill draft “is aimed at restraining ‘destructive elements’, as well as demonstrating the state's determination to fight terrorism. The bill proposes amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, establishing the possibility of exceptional punishment for attempted acts of terrorism”.
The bill proposes to amend Part 1 of Article 59 and Part 2 of Article 67 of the Criminal Code, establishing the possibility of exceptional punishment for attempted acts of terrorism.
Previously, the death penalty could only be imposed for a completed offence that resulted in the death of a person.
Expanding the scope of the death penalty is a backwards step on the way to the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus.
Torture. Cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment
On February 1, 2022, political prisoner Mr. Mikita Starazhenka, a former investigator who had resigned in protest after the 2020 elections, was detained at a Minsk mall. He is being kept in Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 1 for the third month in a row on allegations of inciting hatred for ‘leaking’ GUBOPiK employee data to a ‘protest Telegram channel’. His cellmate, who had been kept with Mikita in a disciplinary cell at the Akrescina Detention Center in Minsk, has told Viasna that the former investigator had been taken there severely beaten.
A political prisoner, IT specialist and street artist Mr. Dzmitry Padrez (also known as Dzima Dream) was sentenced to seven years in prison 1.5 months ago. He had been charged under three articles of the Criminal Code: Part 3 of Article 130 (incitement to hatred), Article 364 (threat of violence against police officer), and Article 365 (interference in activities of police officer). Dzmitry was detained on July 15 last year. Special forces officers roped down from the roof to his windows and broke into his apartment. Viasna human rights defenders have learned from his former cellmate that the political prisoner had been beaten and abused by police officers during his arrest.
Released political prisoners continue to note the intentional worsening of conditions for political detainees that have consequently become borderline torturous and remain harsh, degrading, and inhumane.
The widely known shocking cases of torture that political prisoners have brought to light remain uninvestigated.