Authorities abuse criminal law by convicting dissidents of ‘terrorism’
Statement by the human rights community of Belarus
October 18, 2022
We, representatives of the human rights community of Belarus, note that the authorities are abusing the criminal law and applying excessively harsh penalties to protesters, including long-term imprisonment for acts that did not entail serious consequences. In particular, the qualification of the actions as ‘terrorism’ clearly does not correspond to how this term is interpreted by international standards.
In international law, ‘terrorism’ normally denotes acts of violence against civilians for political or ideological purposes.
In the Declaration on Measures to Eliminate International Terrorism (resolution 49/60), the General Assembly stated that terrorism is “acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes.”
According to Security Council resolution 1566 (2004) 2004, criminal acts that under no circumstances are justifiable by considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious, or other similar nature, have three distinctive features:
- are committed, including against civilians, with the intent to cause death or serious bodily injury, or taking of hostages;
- are committed with the purpose to provoke a state of terror in the general public or in a group of persons or particular persons, intimidate a population or compel a government or an international organization to do or to abstain from doing any act;
- constitute offences within the scope of and as defined in the international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.
Criminal acts that lack these characteristics are not terrorist in nature and must be qualified as crimes against public administration (threat of violence against government officials) or crimes against property (for example, deliberate destruction or damage to property of others), and punished proportionately to the gravity and the public danger of the offense.
We reiterate that closed-door and de facto closed-door trials in which politically motivated criminal cases are heard in the absence of the public, independent observers, and independent journalists grossly violate the right of due process and make it impossible to assess the reliability, sufficiency, and admissibility of any evidence for prosecution.
We are aware of the sentencing in a closed-door trial of:
- Mr. Andrei Budai to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine of 16,000 Belarusian rubles (equivalent to $6,300);
- Mr. Aliaksei Hameza to 14 years of imprisonment and a fine of 16,000 Belarusian rubles (equivalent to $6,300);
- Mr. Aliaksei Ivanisau to 14 years of imprisonment and a fine of 16,000 Belarusian rubles (equivalent to $6,300);
- Mr. Aliaksandr Murauyou to 12 years of imprisonment;
- Mr. Aliaksandr Sidarenka to 8 years of imprisonment; and
- Mr. Mikalai Biblis to 8 1/2 years of imprisonment and a fine of 9,600 Belarusian rubles (equivalent to $3,800).
They were convicted of:
- participating in a terrorist organization (Part 2 of Article 290-4 of the CC);
- terrorism acts against a state official or public figure (Part 1 of Article 359 of the CC);
- calling for restrictive measures/sanctions (Part 3 of Article 361 of the CC);
- taking part in group actions that grossly violate the public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the CC);
- inciting to hatred (Part 3 of Article 130 of the CC);
- destructing or damaging property (Part 1 of Article 218 of the CC)
The charges in various combinations were laid against the defendants for the following acts:
- participating in Supraciŭ (Bel. ‘Resistance’) initiative and its subdivision Busly liaciać (bel. ‘Flying Storks’) that had been recognized as terrorist by the authorities;
- participating in protests;
- damaging the vehicle of a Barysaŭ district judge and an employee of a pro-government media outlet;
- throwing stones through the windows of a prosecutor's office employee and a pro-government activist; and
- damaging parts of the street video surveillance system.
Mr. Hameza and Mr. Ivanisau were recognized as political prisoners after being placed in custody on the original charge of participation in group activities. Closed-trial conviction under the current indictment does not affect their political prisoner status.
In addition, we know about the sentencing of Mr. Yuryi Ziankovich, Mr. Ryhor Kastusiou, Mr. Aliaksandr Fiaduta, Ms. Volha Halubovich, and Mr. Dzianis Krauchuk.
Ms. Halubovich and Mr. Krauchuk received two years and six months of imprisonment for participating in peaceful protests and were previously recognized as political prisoners by the human rights community. Mr. Kastusiou and Mr. Fiaduta were convicted of ‘conspiracy to seize state power by unconstitutional means’ and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment.
Previously, human rights defenders recognized them as political prisoners and demanded a fair trial and a change in preventive measures. We consider it necessary to reaffirm our assessments and demands given that:
- the plans of the ‘coup plotters’ were often utopian and unfeasible;
- the crime was provoked by the authorities; and
- the offense itself was committed in the absence of a legitimate, constitutionally and democratically elected government recognized by the people of Belarus and the international community.
We also take into account the numerous violations of the defendants' right to a fair trial such as:
- violation of the presumption of innocence;
- failure to provide adequate medical care;
- cruel and inhumane treatment; and
- lack of independent objective review of the defendants' defense arguments
which clearly resulted in overly harsh charges and selectively excessive punishments.
For the same reasons, we consider it necessary to demand a review of Mr. Ziankovich’s sentence.
On October 17, 2022, the following individuals were convicted and sentenced:
Mr. Mikalai Autukhovich who received 25 years of imprisonment and a fine of 32,000 Belarusian rubles ($12,600) under 10 articles of the Criminal code:
- Creating a criminal organization and taking part in it (Part 3 of Article 285);
- Attempted seizure of state power by unconstitutional means’ (Part 1 of Article 14 and Part 2 of Article 357);
- High treason (Part 1 of Article 356);
- Incitement to hatred (Part 3 of Article 130);
- Calls for actions/sanctions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus (Part 3 of Article 361);
- Attempt to engage in terrorist activities (Part 1 of Article 290-2);
- An act of terrorism and preparation for it (Part 3 of Article 289);
- Unlawful acts in relation to firearms, ammunition, and explosives (Part 4 of Article 295);
- Illegal transportation of firearms, ammunition, explosives, explosive devices across the customs border of the EEU and the State Border of the Republic of Belarus’ (Part 3 of Article 333-1); and
- Illegal actions in relation to objects which action is based on the use of combustible substances (Part 1 of Article 295-3).
Mr. Pavel Sava who received 20 years of imprisonment and a fine of 22,400 Belarusian rubles ($8,800) under two articles of the Criminal Code:
- Taking part in a criminal organization (Part 2 of Article 285 of the CC); and
- An act of terrorism committed by a group of persons (Part 3 of Article 289 of the CC).
Mr. Viktar Snehur who received 19 years of imprisonment in a high-security penal colony and a fine of 25,600 Belarusian rubles ($10,100) under four articles of the Criminal Code:
- Taking any other part in a criminal organization (Part 2 of Article 285 of the CC);
- Attempted seizure of state power by unconstitutional means; (Part 1 of Article 14 and Part 2 of Article 357),
- Unlawful acts in relation to firearms, ammunition, and explosives committed by an organized group (Part 4 of Article 295); and
- Illegal transportation of firearms, ammunition, explosives, explosive devices across the customs border of the EEU and the State Border of the Republic of Belarus’ (Part 3 of Article 333-1).
Ms. Iryna Harachkina who received six years and one month of imprisonment and a fine of 9,600 Belarusian rubles ($3,800) under two articles of the Criminal Code:
- Illegal actions in relation to objects which action is based on the use of combustible substances (Article 295-3); and
- Misprision of felony (Part 1 of Article 405 of the CC).
The same verdict sentenced Ms. Volha Mayorava, Mr. Uladzimir Hundar, Mr. Siarhei Rezanovich, Ms. Liubou Rezanovich, Mr. Pavel Rezanovich, Ms. Halina Dzerbysh, and Ms. Iryna Melkher to imprisonment. Previously, human rights defenders had recognized them as political prisoners demanding a fair trial and demanded a change in preventive measures.
These demands have not been responded to. Court proceedings were held with gross violations of the principles of the fair trial and the procedural rights of the defendants:
- the court failed to ensure impartiality and independence;
- the trial was closed or inaccessible to the public;
- the court ignored the defendants' allegations of torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment; and
- the court failed to ensure the adversarial proceedings and impartial assessment of the evidence.
This resulted in or was used to obfuscate the actual reasons for unlawfully overly harsh charges and excessive punishments to all the mentioned individuals.
Thus, we have no grounds to change our assessments and demands on the verdict of the defendants already recognized as political prisoners. At the same time, given the circumstances described above, there are grounds to demand a review of the verdict of the remaining defendants.
In assessing all these cases of criminal prosecution, we do not justify the use of violent and dangerous methods by the accused. At the same time, the circumstances listed above allow us to conclude that there is a political motive for the persecution of these individuals.
We emphasize once again that the nature of the acts of the accused in these cases was the result of:
- numerous and widespread human rights violations by the authorities;
- the lack of freedom of expression;
- refusal to investigate crimes against peaceful protesters and other victims of cruel treatment and torture;
- the authorities’ reluctance to use the force of law to protect the violated rights of citizens in the absence of a fair trial; and
- the inability to democratically and constitutionally change the government in fair elections.
According to the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners, a person deprived of liberty is to be regarded as a political prisoner, if, along with the political motivation of their case, 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;
- d) the person has been detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.
We, the representatives of the Belarusian human rights community, recognize Mr. Andrei Budai, Mr. Aliaksandr Murauyou, Mr. Aliaksandr Sidarenka, Mr. Mikalai Biblis, Mr. Yuryi Ziankovich, Mr. Mikalai Autukhovich, Mr. Pavel Sava, Mr. Viktar Snehur, and Ms. Iryna Harachkina as political prisoners. We demand that the Belarusian authorities:
- review the sentences passed against the stated political prisoners while exercising the right to a fair trial and eliminating the factors that affected the qualification of their actions, the type, and severity of punishment;
- release the stated political prisoners; and
- immediately release all political prisoners, review politically motivated sentences, and end political repression against citizens.
Human Rights Center Viasna
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Association of Journalists