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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: August 2022       

2022 2022-09-19T04:06:10+0300 2022-09-28T16:05:58+0300 en https://spring96.org/files/images/sources/vokladka_august_2021.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Executive Summary:

  • The war of aggression unleashed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine has been going on for more than half a year. The aggressor's troops are located on the territory of Belarus and are using the Belarusian infrastructure. 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.
  • It has been two years since the authorities rigged the presidential election of 2020 in favor of Mr. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, which was followed by a dramatic upsurge in political protest activity and an unprecedented wave of repressions aimed to protect authorities that had lost any vestige of legitimacy.
  • The socio-political and human rights crisis in Belarus is deepening. During the month the authorities continued to prosecute citizens on political grounds, including for anti-war protests.
  • On September 1, 1 324 political prisoners were held in places of detention. The number continues to increase steadily: 92 people were recognized as political prisoners by human rights defenders this month.
  • 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; the criminal case of coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer network Ms. Marfa Rabkova and volunteer Mr. Andrei Chapiuk is coming to an end in a closed trial. 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 both are in penal colonies.
  • The police continue to arbitrarily detain citizens for exercising their civil rights. Viasna is aware of at least 387 such instances in August, almost a hundred of those arrested have been already identified by human rights defenders. It is known about 162 proceedings under administrative articles and court rulings on 76 of them.
  • 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 by administrations of pre-trial prisons and other facilities for political detainees as torture.
  • Torture and other ways of ill-treatment continue to be used during investigations of politically motivated criminal cases.
  • On August 17, it became known that the Council of Ministers initiated the draft “On denunciation of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by the Republic of Belarus”. The House of Representatives is currently preparing for the first reading of the bill. In this regard, the human rights community issued a statement and demanded that the Belarusian authorities discontinue plans to denounce the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights; ensure that citizens have access to international human rights protection mechanisms, taking steps to expand such opportunities rather than exclude them; and comply with international human rights obligations by bringing the legislation and legal practice into conformity with them.
  • The UN website has published the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Ms. Anaïs Marin. The focus of the report is on the situation of Belarusian nationals compelled to leave their country and unable to safely return due to human rights violations. “Their migration is directly connected to policies and practices employed by the Government of Belarus, as well as to the purposefully hostile environment that prevents a safe return.” notes Ms. Marin. The special rapporteur makes recommendations to the government of Belarus and also proposes a number of measures for other states, the international community, and international organizations.

Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution

Criminal prosecution of government opponents, protesters, and dissenters remains within the authorities' repression toolkit. The mass and widespread character of arbitrary confinement, the explicit political motivation behind it, and the involvement of investigators, prosecutors, and judges all contribute to an assessment of the events and qualifying them as a crime against humanity.

Ninety-two people were recognized as political prisoners by human rights defenders during the month. By September 1, the number of political prisoners increased by 71 compared with July to 1,324, and it continues 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 hearings of the criminal case against the coordinator of the Viasna volunteer service Ms. Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Mr. Andrei Chapiuk, and eight more political prisoners are coming to an end at Minsk Municipal Court.

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 of imprisonment) remain in penal colonies.

Political prisoners are subjected to further persecution in the detention facilities:

Thus, the administration of pre-trial detention center in Baranavičy has been keeping activist and political prisoner Ms. Alena Hnauk, 65, in a disciplinary cell for more than 40 days. The reasons for this are not disclosed, but it should be taken into account that she has not yet been convicted, and standard practice requires that defendants should be treated as unconvicted individuals. Mr. Uladzimir Hundar, political prisoner in the Autukhovich case, was placed in a disciplinary cell for six days because during checks he refused to declare that he is ‘prone to extremism’. Since July 25, another defendant in the case—Ms. Halina Dzerbysh, who was diagnosed with oncology—has been kept in the disciplinary cell. She was punished for seven days for protesting against forced undressing during inspections before the court hearings, held on the premises of her prison.

Mr. Ales Pushkin, an artist and political prisoner, was placed in a cell-type facility—another type of punishment cell—for five months for his ‘malicious violations of order’ in the colony.

On August 11, Judge Zhanna Pushkina of the Kastryčnicki district Court of Mahilioŭ ruled to transfer political prisoner Mr. Siarhei Tsikhanouskі from the penal colony to prison for three years. This significantly worsens his detention conditions.

Political prisoner Mr. Eduard Palchys will be transferred to prison as well.

Political prisoner Mr. Dzmitryi Sushchyk is regularly placed in a disciplinary cell. He has been in Orša Colony No. 8 since April 2022. In four months he was deprived of parcels, phone calls, correspondence, and visits. Recently, the political prisoner was transferred to a cell-type facility. In August it became known that he was regularly placed in a punishment cell for ‘disorderly conduct’.

At the moment, human rights defenders know the names of 43 political prisoners who are being punished by the colonies’ administration for ‘disorderly conduct’ in penitentiaries. Of these, the custody level was raised for 28 political prisoners and they were transferred to prisons.

On August 15, 2022, the Lieninski District Court of Mahilioŭ convicted political prisoner Mr. Aleh Yafremenka, who was charged under Part 1 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code with ‘malicious disobedience to the demands of the administration of the correctional institution’. Judge Viktoryia Paliakova sentenced Mr. Yafremenka to another 12 months of imprisonment. The political prisoner already had his custody level raised before. In September 2021, he was transferred from the colony to the Mahilioŭ prison. This is yet another example of the arbitrary extension of a political prisoner's sentence.

Violation of freedom of peaceful assembly and suppression of freedom of expression

Over the past two years not a single mass event of the opposition in Belarus has been authorized. In 2021, the law “On Mass Events” excluded the possibility of holding mass events on notice in designated places. Restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression have gone as far as to deprive and restrict the liberty of peaceful protesters and dissenters. The courts are still passing verdicts against the participants of the 2020 protests:

According to the head of the Investigative Committee in Minsk, Siarhei Pasko, more than 280 people have been detained in the capital over the past six months, 238 of whom have already been charged and remanded in custody. The official calls the peaceful protests a ‘street massacre’, while their participants are referred to as ‘the street terror agents’.

The selective approach to the investigation of politically motivated cases is also evident in the fact that the defendants in these cases charged with less serious crimes are taken into custody in 85% of cases, while the same measure of restraint is used only in 25–30% of cases involving grave and especially grave crimes but without political background.

Thus, on July 26, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk found Ms. Ina Shyrokaya guilty of ‘actively participating in actions that grossly violate the public order’ under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. The woman is a single mother of five, including three minors. On the night of August 9, 2020, the riot police arrested and beat her 18-year-old son Mikita. This was the reason she went to the protests. Ms. Shyrokaya was arrested at home with a brief explanation: “For the events of 2020”. Before the trial, she was held for 145 days in pre-trial detention.  On July 26, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk found Ms. Shyrokaya guilty of ‘actively participating in actions that grossly violate the public order’ under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code and sentenced her to three years of restricted freedom under home confinement.

Police officers continue to organize special operations across Belarus to storm houses and apartments in search of disloyalty signs, detain people in their workplaces, conduct searches, and interrogations.

The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and opposition to government policies. Repression can affect anyone. Repression can affect anyone. The arrests and other persecution of two major religions priests became a characteristic feature of the last two years. Before, mainly representatives of Protestant churches and other religious movements, including those "non-traditional" for Belarus were targeted. Yet recently many Orthodox and Catholic priests have come under the attack of security forces.  

Viasna continues to receive 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 exercising freedom of expression, displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories.

On the night of August 3, Ms. Meryem Herasimenka, a professional singer, performed on the terrace of a bar in Minsk’s downtown. Among her songs were the songs of the Ukrainian band Okean Elzy. The crowd gathered for the concert. Many people posted videos on social networks, often adding yellow-and-blue stickers and other signs of support for Ukraine. This outraged propagandists, and as a result, the singer was detained and sentenced to administrative arrest. On August 4, Hrodna rock musician Mr. Ihar Bantser was detained and sentenced to administrative arrest, and on August 22 was re-arrested for 15 days under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code.

Viasna is aware of at least 387 instances of detentions in August; almost a hundred of those detained are already identified by the human rights defenders. It is known about 162 proceedings under administrative articles and court rulings on 76 of them: 43 people were arrested, 33 people were fined. 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 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 arbitrarily deemed by them as ‘extremist’. In August, 64 information resources were declared extremist by twenty-four court decisions. At the same time, the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB recognized eight entities as extremist formations, including the Young Front of Belarus and Charter'97. The list of ‘extremists’ was extended by 21 names with a total of 469 individuals.

On August 2, Judge Vasil Biahun of the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Mr. Pavel Babchonak to two years of imprisonment in a penal colony. Mr. Babchonak was accused of ‘inciting hatred’ under Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code According to official information, in September 2020, he posted a screenshot that contained a photo from 2020 protest in Homieĺ. He accompanied his publication with a text in which he called the security forces ‘subhumans’ and expressed hope that they “will be held accountable for the crimes against their people.” It is clear that in this case depriving liberty was disproportional to the offense and did not meet the legitimate goals of restricting rights and freedoms.

As before, a widespread instrument of repression is persecution for slandering the President, insulting government officials, judges, prosecutors, police officers, and Mr. Lukashenka (Articles 367, 368, 369, 391 of the Criminal Code), and for desecration of state symbols. Courts all over the country convict citizens on such charges.

On July 28, the Biaroza District Court convicted Mr. Viktar Khliabets who was accused of ‘insulting a government official’ under Article 369 of the Criminal Code Judge Natallia Vakulchyk considered the case. The reason for the case was a comment under the video which captured the moment of infamous fatal shootout between Mr. Andrei Zeltser and KGB officers who raided his apartment. The comment said “Good thing one trash bag is done, and it’s KGB branded.” Mr. Khliabets denied the very fact of posting the comment. However, he was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months of imprisonment in a penal colony.

For a comment on the same matter, the Homieĺ Regional Court passed a verdict on Mr. Ivan Yanchanka, who was accused of ‘inciting hatred’ under Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code. Judge Aliaksei Khlyshchankou presided over the court session. In 2021, Mr. Yanchanka commented on a social media about a fatal shooting between IT worker Mr. Andrei Zeltser and a KGB officer Mr. Dzmitry Fedasiuk: “The people has open the score.” These words were deemed as a call to combat law enforcement officers. The court sentenced Mr. Yanchanka to 3.5 years of imprisonment.

Torture. Cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment

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. 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.

Criminal prisoners are also kept in harsh conditions, they are subjected to pressure and torture in the colonies. Thus, the political prisoner Mr. Mikalai Statkevich was placed in solitary confinement for six months. His wife Ms. Maryna Adamovich reported: “Since August 5, he was placed for six months as punishment in a solitary cell about three square meters in size, one meter wide, with bunks strapped to the wall.” It is torture to be held in such conditions for an extended period of time.

Ms. Alena Dziadziulia, 52, was the defendant in the notorious ‘hay bale case’. In this case, seven people were detained near Dziaržynsk for drawing hay bales with protest symbols almost a year ago. People were detained brutally—the police were armed with machine guns, and some of the detainees were beaten. Five months later, six people in this case including Ms. Dziadziulia were sentenced to imprisonment for ‘hooliganism’, and another one, the mother of many children, was given 18 months of restricted freedom in an open-type penal facility. Ms. Dziadziulia served full time and was released from the women's colony on May 10, 2022. Before her arrest, she was in foster care for ten years. In jail, she met some women deprived their parental rights and realized that broken families are a natural result of the way the state system works. The former police prisoner shared with Viasna her persecution story, and told about her arrest in the field, seven months in Žodzina prison and almost two weeks in the Homieĺ women's colony.

Torture and ill-treatment are reported by released political prisoners. Prohibited treatment becomes known from the defendants before and during the trial. Shocking cases of torture, brought to light by political prisoners and widely known, remain uninvestigated.

Persecution for anti-war protest

The war of aggression unleashed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine has been going on for more than half a year. The aggressor's troops are located on the territory of Belarus and are using the Belarusian infrastructure. Viasna 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. In August, Viasna Human Rights Center informed four UN Special Rapporteurs on the administrative and criminal prosecution for anti-war statements. The four UN officials alarmed include Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Ms. Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Ms. Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Mr. Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, and Special Rapporteur on violence against women Ms. Reem Alsalem.

On August 1, Judge Ruslan Tsaruk of the Homieĺ Regional Court convicted Mr. Andrei Utkin. Mr. Utkin was accused of ‘promoting extremist activities’  (Part 1 of Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code) for sharing pictures of the Russian military equipment with Bielaruski hajun Telegram channel which was recognized as an extremist organization. The court sentenced him to 24 months of imprisonment.

Mr. Aliaksandr Kasumau wrote No war! on the garage near the city bathhouse, but soon it was painted over. Almost three weeks later he left three signs on the wall: No war!, Luka, and Killer. The damage amounted to 10 rubles and 72 kopeks. Judge Natallia Budnik from the Liachavičy District Court found Mr. Kasumau guilty of ‘desecrating structures and bringing damage to property’ under Article 341 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to 18 months of restricted freedom under home confinement.

On August 3, the Brest Regional Court sentenced Mr. Dzmitryi Shuvalau from Baranavičy, 28, for ‘promoting extremist activities’ (Part 1 of Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code). The man was accused of leaving comments and sending information and videos about Baranavičy military airfield operations to NEXTA Telegram channel. These include two videos of an unmarked plane flying in the dark and a gas tanker with a Latin-script letter Z, a photo and a video of a missile launch in the direction of Ukraine. Although the information was never published on the Telegram channel, Judge Dzmitryi Kurauski sentenced Mr. Shuvalau to 2.5 years of imprisonment in a penal colony.

On August 11, the Homieĺ Regional Court announced the sentence to Mr. Mikhail Listapadau. Mr. Listapadau was convicted of ‘attempted participation in hostilities on foreign soil’ for joining the defenders of sovereign Ukraine under Part 1 of Article 14 and Part 1 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code and of ‘participation in group actions that grossly violated the public order’ for attending a peaceful protest under Article 342 of the Criminal Code. He was sentenced to three years of imprisonment in a penal colony.

On August 26, the Brest Regional Court sentenced Mr. Andrei Maslau, a student, to 2.5 years for ‘prepairing to participate in hostilities on foreign soil’ (Part 1 of Article 13 and Part 1 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code), reported Viasna Brest. Mr. Maslau said that he had wanted to help Ukraine. He was detained in mid-May on the Ukrainian border. The correspondence with the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment chatbot was discovered on his smartphone.

These and other cases outline the differences in the position of the Belarusian authorities and Belarusian citizens regarding the war and the participation of Belarus in it.

Persecution of journalists and media

The ongoing repression is aimed at destroying independent sources of objective information. Twenty-nine journalists and media workers are imprisoned.

In the Homieĺ Regional Court on August 3, Judge Mikalai Dolia sentenced political prisoner and Polish Public Television journalist Ms. Iryna Slaunikava to five years of imprisonment. Ms. Slaunikava was accused of ‘creating an extremist formation or participation in it’ and ‘organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate the public order, or actively participating in them’ under Part 1 of Article 361-1 and Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code accordingly. Belsat TV Channel, a subsidiary of Polish Public Television and one of the most popular Belarusian media, is implied here. The trial has been held in private.

On August 4, journalist Mr. Ihar Khmara was detained in Minsk.

On August 15, in the Hrodna Regional Court, the trial commenced in the case of police prisoner journalist Mr. Dzianis Ivashyn, who has been behind bars for 17 months. Mr. Ivashyn was convicted of  ‘interference in the activities of a police officer’ (Article 365 of the Criminal Code) and ‘high treason’ (Part 1 of Article 356 of the Criminal Code) The journalist faces up to 15 years of imprisonment. The trial is headed by Judge Valeryi Ramanouski. It will be held behind closed doors.

Mr. Andrzej Poczobut, a politically imprisoned journalist and activist of the Union of Poles, was charged with a new crime. In addition to the previous charge of ‘hatred incitement’ (Article 130 of the Criminal Code), he is now charged with ‘calls for restrictive measures/sanctions aimed at causing harm to national security’ (Article 361 of the Criminal Code), learned BAJ.

The state registration certificate of Gazeta Slonimskaya newspaper was canceled. The Ministry of Information justified its decision by the fact that Gazeta Slonimskaya and the advertising newspaper Otdushina have not been published for six consecutive months. “Printing presses in Hrodna, Brest, Pinsk referring to the high workload and tight printing schedule” explained the situation the editorial team.

Persecution of lawyers

On August 5, the lawyer Mr. Vital Brahinets, a political prisoner, was deprived of his license. The Qualification Commission on Advocacy conducted another attestation of lawyers of Minsk City Bar Association. According to its results, the qualification commission decided to terminate the licenses of lawyers Mr. Atamanchuk, Mr. Brahinets, and Ms. Zalutskaya. The reason is their exclusion from the Minsk Regional Bar Association for ‘committing offenses incompatible with the title of a lawyer’.

Since May 2022, the political prisoner lawyer Mr. Aliaksandr Danilevich has been detained in a pre-trial detention center on charges of ‘calls for restrictive measures/sanctions, and other actions aimed at causing harm to the national security’.

According to preliminary information, lawyer Ms. Yulia Lazarenka has been detained in the pre-trial detention center since June, on the charge of ‘inciting hatred’ by ‘leaking’ information to Telegram channels.

On August 31, Ms. Yuliyu Yurhilevich, a lawyer with 18 years of experience, was detained. She had been defending political prisoners before she was expelled from Hrodna Regional Bar Association for political reasons.

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