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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2022

2022 2022-11-02T15:33:26+0300 2022-11-04T12:53:44+0300 en https://spring96.org/files/images/sources/vokladka_kastrychnik_2022.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Summary:

  • the socio-political and human rights crisis in Belarus is deepening. In October, the authorities continued to actively apply criminal and administrative prosecution for political reasons, including for anti-war expression;
  • there are 1,353 political prisoners as of November 1, and their number is growing; during the month, the country’s human rights community called 72 more persons political prisoners;
  • members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” continue to be held in pre-trial detention on new arbitrary charges: chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, a member of Viasna’s Board and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, and lawyer, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich;
  • Ales Bialiatski became one of the three Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Valiantsin Stefanovich was re-elected Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH);
  • coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, earlier sentenced to 15 and 6 years in prison, respectively, are awaiting an appeal review of their criminal sentences; a member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka continues to serve his three-year sentence in a penal colony;
  • the authorities continue to arbitrary arrest people for exercising their civil rights; in October, Viasna received information about 317 people arrested on administrative charges. At least 193 court hearings in administrative cases were documented, with at least 21 fines and at least 95 terms of administrative imprisonment imposed as a result;
  • human rights defenders still receive reports of the use of torture and prohibited types of treatment in the course of the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases;
  • the authorities continue to persecute individuals under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism;
  • 19th World Day Against the Death Penalty was marked on October 10. Belarus is still the only country in Europe that continues to execute people.

Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution

The criminal prosecution of opponents of the authorities, protesters and dissidents is still the most common form of repression pursued by the authorities. Signs of persecution for political reasons make it possible to assess such actions of the authorities as crimes against humanity. As of October 31, 1,353 people were listed as political prisoners in Belarus. The most widespread charges are Article 342 (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them), Article 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities) and Article 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting hatred or discord).

In October, 72 people were added to the list of political prisoners. The charges related to “inciting social hatred and discord” or “calling for sanctions” (statements of October 3 and October 21), “group actions that grossly violate public order” (statements of October 5 and October 31) and defamation (i.e. “insulting representatives of the authorities”).

In cases of “inciting social hatred and discord” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code), representatives of law enforcement agencies are described as a separate “social group” which was allegedly targeted by the acts of “social hatred” or “discord”. This criminal article is intended to protect vulnerable groups. Representatives of the authorities who have a legitimate license to use violence (police, military, etc.) cannot be classified as a vulnerable group, since they are in a privileged position and are protected by the state by virtue of the performance of their functions. Therefore, singling them out as a vulnerable group is an abuse of the law.

The authorities continue to bring criminal charges against participants in the protesters of August 2020, when the police used disproportionate violence against peaceful protesters. During the month, 34 people were convicted of “group actions that grossly violate public order” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The defendants did not commit arson or destroy property, nor did they engage in armed resistance to law enforcement agencies, i.e. their actions do not contain elements of the crimes imputed to them.

Criminal prosecution under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code are accompanied by lawsuits from prosecutors in favor of the Minsktrans public transport operator for allegedly blocking roads and obstructing traffic. In a criminal case against Yaraslau Zbarouski, a “means of blocking roads” – the convict’s car – was confiscated.

A number of criminal cases, in which the defendants were recognized as political prisoners, are associated with “insulting government officials”, including three defendants in the “Zeltser case”, a series of criminal cases targeting negative comments about representatives of law enforcement agencies and other departments as a reaction to the death of a KGB officer.

Several political prisoners were involved in criminal cases, where the severity of the punishment imposed was disproportionately severe, which is apparent evidence of the authorities’ strategy to punish individuals for display of dissent and protest (such as accusations of membership in a “terrorist organization”). Closed court sessions do not allow assessing the essence of the charges or the evidence in such cases, which is probably one of the goals of preventing the public and the press from attending trials.

More than ten people earlier sentenced for political reasons to terms of restricted freedom were re-arrested, and their phones and correspondence in instant messengers were checked.

As before, members of Viasna continue to be held in pre-trial detention on new arbitrary charges: the organization’s chairman Ales Bialiatski, a member of Viasna’s Board Valiantsin Stefanovich, and a lawyer and coordinator of the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” campaign Uladzimir Labkovich. Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, earlier sentenced to 15 and 6 years in prison, respectively, are awaiting an appeal review of their criminal sentences; member of Viasna, head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka continues to serve his three-year sentence in a penal colony.

Ales Bialiatski became one of three Nobel Peace Prize winners. Valiantsin Stefanovich was re-elected Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH).

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement demanding the release of Viasna chairman Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, as well as other imprisoned human rights activists.

On October 13, the Minsk City Court convicted Artsiom Zhernak and Daniil Chaunakou, members of the Free Trade Union of Metal Workers at the Minsk Automobile Plant. The case against political prisoners was considered behind closed doors under Part 3 of Art. 361 (calls for restrictive measures (sanctions), other actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus); Part 1 of Art. 342 (participation in actions grossly violating public order) and Part 1 of Art. 361-1 (creation of an extremist formation or participation in it). Judge Natallia Buhuk sentenced Zhernak to four years, and Chaunakou to five years in a penal colony. The case is an example of persecution for the exercise of rights and freedoms, as well as clear evidence of the persecution of independent trade unions.

Political prisoners face new forms of persecution event after sentencing: Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk will stand new trial for “malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony”. In April, Ms. Sharenda-Panasiuk was convicted under Part 2 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code. The court sentenced her to an additional another year in a colony. Now she again faces up to two years in prison.

Harassment of journalists and media workers

As of the end of October, 32 journalists and media workers were being held in places of detention. In October, consideration of several landmark criminal cases against media representatives ended.

On October 6, the Minsk Regional Court announced its verdict in the BelaPAN case, sentencing journalist and media manager Andrei Aliaksandrau to 14 years, his wife Iryna Zlobina – to 9 years, BelaPAN editor-in-chief and director Iryna Leushyna – to 4 years, and former director of the news agency Dzmitry Navazhylau – to 6 years in prison. In addition, heavy fines were imposed on the four political prisoners. They are also prohibited from holding certain positions for five years. Judge Viachaslau Tuleika heard the charges behind closed doors. The trial lasted four months.

On October 26, the Minsk City Court delivered a verdict in the criminal case of political prisoner Siarhei Satsuk, editor of the Ezhednevnik news portal. The case was considered by Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka. The journalist was charged under three articles of the Criminal Code: Part 2 of Art. 430 (taking a bribe), Part 2 of Art. 130 (incitement of other social enmity and discord), and Part 2 of Art. 426 (abuse of power or official authority). According to Satsuk’s colleagues, the charges stemmed from a series of investigations, primarily related to large-scale corruption in the healthcare sector. Satsuk was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison.

The following day, the Minsk City Court delivered a verdict in a criminal case involving independent journalist, political prisoner Aliaksandr Lubianchuk, who was accused of “joining an extremist formation” (Part 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by Judge Alena Ananich. The journalist was arrested on May 26 after a search in his house. Lubianchuk’s persecution is related to his journalistic work covering the 2020 post-election protests. The reporter was sentenced to three years in prison.

Repression for anti-war activity

The active phase of the full-scale war unleashed by the Russian Federation in Ukraine has been going on for more than eight months. The Russian troops located on the territory of Belarus are involved and the Belarusian infrastructure is used in the aggression. Numerous Belarusians continue to be persecuted for various forms of anti-war protest and expression.

Yury Staneuski and Dzmitry Shabetkin were sentenced to terms of imprisonment for negative statements on the Internet against the Russian military, law enforcement agencies and the authorities of Belarus. Illia Verameyeu was sentenced to imprisonment for negative comments about law enforcement agencies and calls for resistance in response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine using the territory of Belarus.

On October 17, the Minsk District Court passed a sentence in a criminal case against political prisoner Siarhei Hlebko. Judge Anton Kolabau sentenced him to 11 years in prison and a fine of 9,600 rubles. The man was arrested together with his wife on March 1 in Stoŭbcy for setting fire to logs in order to prevent the movement of trains with equipment and ammunition of Russian troops. After the arrest, Hlebko was beaten, which can be seen in a video released by the authorities shortly after his arrest. The political prisoner was charged under Part 1 of Art. 289 (act of terrorism) and Part 4 of Art. 309 (deliberately rendering railways unusable for the purpose of committing an act of terrorism) of the Criminal Code. There was no damage to trains or tracks.

On October 12, the Homieĺ Regional Court convicted Valiantsin Fedarenka under Part 1 of Art. 361-4 and Part 2 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (assistance to extremist activities). The case was considered by judge Aliaksandr Piskunou. Fedarenka allegedly sent 160 text messages to the Polish number of the Belsat TV channel. In the messages, the man wrote about the movement of Russian military equipment in Belarus and the take-offs of Russian aircraft from airfields in the Homieĺ region.

On October 12, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court convicted Aliaksei Shyshkavets accused of “terrorism” (Article 289 of the Criminal Code) and “joining an extremist formation” (Part 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Siarhei Mazurau. A “railway guerilla”, Shyshkavets was arrested in March 2022 and accused of being a member of the “extremist formation ByPol, having logged in to a mobilization chat bot to carry out illegal actions in Belarus”. On March 1, he allegedly received instructions to block railway tracks and to prepare and use Molotov cocktails. As a result, Shyshkavets was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression

Since the presidential elections of August 2020, the authorities have not allowed a single opposition street protest. The Law on Mass Events establishes insurmountable obstacles to peaceful assemblies. Deprivation and restriction of freedom of participants in peaceful protests and dissidents continues to be the most serious violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

It should be emphasized that this is not an initiative of local authorities that are responsible for ensuring the right to peaceful assembly in accordance with the law, but a policy established by the top leadership. On October 20, 2020, Aliaksandr Lukashenka said: “It’s bad that they are wandering around Minsk, it’s bad that they being blatant. But we have changed our tactics. We will find everyone in a calm mode. Modern means allow us to do this, which, by the way, we are doing. And everyone will answer for their deeds. [...] We are working in this direction. And this gives some effect.”

Two years later, arrests of participants in the peaceful rallies in 2020 continue. The courts still routinely issue criminal sentences related to the protests.

On October 3, judge Maryna Klimchuk of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk found Milana Valfovich guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code and imposed a sentence of 2 years and 6 months of restricted freedom (home confinement).

Ms. Valfovich was accused of taking part in a protest “for the purpose of publicly expressing through illegal means of her socio-political views and protest, conducting destructive activities”. Thus, she “took an active part in group actions that grossly violated public order”. The woman was also charged with “disobedience to government officials” and “obstruction of public transport”. The defendant was identified from the photographs, which the security forces found on her phone.

On October 3, Natallia Dulina, a former professor at the Minsk State Linguistic University, was arrested as part of a criminal case of “participating in protests” (Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The arrest involved at least six police officers. Prior to that, during the year, Dulina was arrested four times and each time sentenced to short terms of administrative imprisonment.

On October 6, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna sentenced Andrei Lahun to two and a half years of restricted freedom in a “khimiya” facility. He was found guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for participating in a protest on September 6, 2020. The demonstration was then marked by violent arrests, involving tear gas and other riot-control equipment. Lahun was held in custody for two months before the trial. The case was considered by judge Vital Labotski, the state prosecution was supported by Hanna Karalko.

On October 26, political prisoners Raman Bahryi and Viktoryia Zhdanovich were convicted in Minsk. Zhdanovich was sentenced to 1 year of imprisonment, while Bahryi was sentenced to two and a half years of home confinement. The couple were found guilty under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for participating in the peaceful protests in the second half of 2020. The case was considered by the judge Siarhei Shatsila of the Savecki District Court of Minsk.

On October 31, Ala Skuratovich, judge of the court of the Frunzienski district of Minsk, sentenced members of the United Civil Party Artur Smaliakou and Dziyana Charnushyna to two years in prison each, and Andrei Asmalouski to three years in prison. Smaliakou was arrested on July 27. Asmalouski and Charnushyna were both arrested on July 29. Before the trial, they were held in custody. It is known that Charnushyna is raising a minor child with a disability.

These and other cases of sentencing individuals for exercising their rights testify to the ongoing human rights crisis in Belarus.

Administrative persecution

In October, Viasna received information about 317 people arrested on administrative charges. At least 193 court hearings in administrative cases were documented, with at least 21 fines and at least 95 terms of administrative imprisonment imposed as a result.

On October 6, Nasta Loika, a human rights activist at Human Constanta, was released after serving 15 days of administrative imprisonment. It was her second brief term in a row on charges of “disorderly conduct” (Article 19.1 of the Code of Administrative Offenses). Earlier, a criminal case was initiated against the human rights activist and she was prohibited from leaving the country, but on October 7, the Investigative Committee closed the case. On October 30, the human rights defender was arrested again, and her apartment was searched. A video was soon released in which Loika “confesses” to “receiving funding from foreign organizations”.

Violations of freedom of expression under the guise of fighting extremism

The authorities cynically exploit the theme of the fight against extremism and terrorism to justify repression against protesters and dissenters. This is facilitated by the controversial content of the new pieces of national legislation, which defines extremism in an unjustifiably broad and imprecise manner. Last month was particularly notable in this regard. October 18 marked one year since the authorities used the label of “extremist formation” for the first time. During this month, the authorities set the new record of persons added to the list of “extremist activities”.

The list now features 1,469 people, as compared to 573 people in September. On October 28 alone, 625 people were called “extremists” by the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

Persons involved in “extremism” and “extremist formations” are identified by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB. The basis for inclusion in the list are criminal sentences, which by their very existence limit basic human rights and which the regime actively applies against those who do not meet the arbitrary requirements and restrictions of the new laws.

In October, 437 people were included in the list on the basis of convictions under Article 342 of the Criminal Code, “organization or preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them”. The list was also supplemented by 17 people who were convicted under Article 293 of the Criminal Code, “mass riots”.

Persons involved in “extremism”, according to the authorities, include editor-in-chief of the Novy Chas newspaper Aksana Kolb, former BMZ employee Aliaksandr Babrou, who was pardoned on September 16, former political prisoner Daniil Kalesnikau, who was sentenced to prison at the age of 17, and Darya Liauko, who was confined to a mental institution, and many others.

The state persecutes all people who do not conform to the “state ideology”, even those who belong to vulnerable groups. The examples are a mentally disabled political prisoner Dzmitry Hopta or a homeless former political prisoner Aliaksandr Kutas. Now they too, according to the state, are persons involved in “extremist activities”.

The second largest group of people who will be considered “extremists” since October are those convicted under defamatory articles of the Criminal Code: Art. 369, “insulting a representative of the authorities” (238 people) and Art. 368, “insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus” (110 people).

Examples of such people are political prisoner and neurologist Aliaksandr Tsialeha and founder of the Museum of National Cultures in Iŭje, Rehina Lavor, who is serving a term of restricted freedom.

In addition, the list was supplemented by 4 people recently convicted under Article 289, “act of terrorism”, including Yahor Mikhailau, a political prisoner sentenced to 10 years for setting fire to a T-72 tank at a railway station near Minsk.

Of the 896 persons included in the list in October, only 12 people have the notion of “extremism” in their corresponding charges and verdicts (Art. 361-1, 2, 4, 5, and Art. 423- 1 of the Criminal Code).

People continue to be prosecuted for expressing their opinions under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, “distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products containing calls to extremist activities or promoting such activities”. These are reposts in private messages or in accounts on social media, subscriptions to Telegram channels or public pages that are blacklisted as “extremist materials”, etc.

The list of “extremist materials” is run by the Ministry of Information. The list is regularly expanded and published on the Ministry’s website. In October, this list was supplemented by 52 new entries. Of them, 47 are Telegram channels.

The vast majority of “extremist materials”, which were blacklisted in October, relate to the social, political and cultural life of Belarus.

For example, the new “extremist materials” are: a Belarusian translation of Joseph Brodsky’s children’s book The Ballad of a Little Tugboat and a book by historian Uladzimir Arlou My Fatherland: A Colorful History. Both were published by the Yanushkevich publishing house.

Also on the list is the Telegram channel “Prison for Living”, which currently has almost 6,000 subscribers. The channel publishes quotes of political prisoner Siarhei Tsikhanouski. The list features the Telegram channel “Viasna: Political Prisoners of Belarus”, a group on the Odnoklassniki social media named “Viciebsk Region for Change!”, a video from the YouTube channel “Zhizn-Malina”, a Telegram group called “Volkswagen Club Homieĺ”, numerous local protest channels in Telegram and others.

The rare exceptions are actual extremist materials, e.g. Telegram stickers with Nazi insignia.

In addition to the list of persons involved in “extremist activities” and the list of “extremist materials”, the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs has been running the list of “extremist formations” featuring organizations, groups and individual entrepreneurs allegedly involved in “extremist activities”. At the moment, there are 97 formations on the list.

In October, 6 groups were added to the list, including “SOS-BY - Free Association of Athletes of Belarus”, “Dapamoha”, an organization registered in the Republic of Lithuania, association “Ecohome”, the Belarusian regiment “Pahonia” and “Valery Tsapkala”, a “group of citizens united under the general leadership of Tsapkala, including through a number of Internet resources”.

Torture and ill-treatment

Human rights defenders continue to document cases of torture and ill-treatment that remain unpunished.

Former political prisoner Kanstantsin Yarshou spoke about the torture and ill-treatment he was subjected to in the notorious detention facility in Akrestsin Street and at the SIZO-1 pre-trial prison.

Viasna member Uladzimir Labkovich also reports about the inhumane conditions of detention in SIZO-1.

A student of the Minsk State Linguistic University was arrested and ill-treated after brining a Ukrainian flag to a polling station on the day of the constitutional referendum in February 2022. He was earlier beaten by law enforcement for participating in a peaceful protest in 2020.

The sister of political prisoner Illia Verameyeu shared a story about the harassment of her brother in the Homieĺ pre-trial detention center.

 

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