Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2022
- the profound human rights crisis has spanned across all spheres of public and political life; during the month, the authorities continued to actively apply criminal and administrative prosecution for political reasons;
- there were 1,447 political prisoners as of December 1, and their number is growing; in November, the human rights community added 139 new names to the list;
- 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 Council 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. 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 case; Viasna member and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka is serving his three-year term in a penal colony;
- numerous people continue to be arbitrarily arrested for exercising their civil rights; in November, Viasna became aware of 206 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. 31 people were sentenced to fines, and 95 - to short terms of administrative imprisonment;
- torture and prohibited types of treatment are still regularly reported in the course of the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases;
- the authorities continue to use criminal charges under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism;
- on November 8, the UN Secretary General registered a note on the denunciation by Belarus of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Belarusian nationals will not be able to report violations of the Covenant to the Human Rights Committee after February 8, 2023.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The criminal prosecution of opponents of the authorities and dissidents still remains the most severe form of repression. A significant part of the convicts are participants in the protests of 2020. The political motives underlying these widespread cases suggest that the government-perpetrated repression amounts to a crime against humanity. As of November 30, 1,447 people were recognized as political prisoners in Belarus. In addition, more than 440 political prisoners have been released after completing their sentences or as a result of pardon procedures.
In November, the country’s human rights community recognized 139 more people as political prisoners. The charges they faced mainly concerned “incitement of social hatred” against government officials, participation in peaceful meetings, “insulting government officials”, including Aliaksandr Lukashenka, ties with initiatives labelled as “extremist formations”, intentions to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine, etc.
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 Council 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. At the end of the month, their criminal case, where another Viasna member Dzmitry Salauyou is among the defendants, was reportedly forwarded to court. The date of the trial has not been set yet. The charges against Salauyou will be heard in absentia.
Viasna Volunteer Service coordinator Marfa Rabkova and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, earlier sentenced to 15 and 6 years in prison, respectively, are awaiting an appeal hearing of their criminal convictions; member of Viasna and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka is serving his three-year sentence in a penal colony.
On November 29, the court of the Pieršamajski district of Minsk ordered the third consecutive detention of human rights activist Nasta Loika, sentencing her to 15 days of imprisonment on a trumped-up charge of “disorderly conduct”. At an earlier court hearing, Loika said that she was tortured by an officer of the GUBAZIK department who reportedly used an electroshock weapon against the activist, while an employee of the Center for the Confinement of Offenders forced her stay outside without outerwear for eight hours.
Political prisoner Maryia Kalesnikava, who is serving her sentence in a penal colony in Homieĺ, was taken to the intensive care unit of the city’s hospital after suffering a serious medical condition. According to available information, Kalesnikava’s lawyer was not allowed to visit her in hospital. Prior to hospitalization, Kalesnikava was held in a punishment cell.
On November 18, the court of the Čyhunačny district of Viciebsk ordered to send blogger Dzmitry Tsimafeyeu to a penal colony, replacing the initial sentence of restricted freedom in an open facility. Since June, the political prisoner has spent over 70 days in a punishment cell for far-fetched reasons. At the trial, Tsimafeyeu said that his detention conditions were “unbearable”.
The Vaŭkavysk District Court considered the issue of applying medical measures against political prisoner Yury Kavaliou, who was supposed to be released soon, but was instead charged with violating prison rules (Article 411 of the Criminal Code). The hearing was solicited by the administration of penal colony No. 11, where the political prisoner was serving a term for “insulting Lukashenka”. As a result, Kavaliou was declared insane and the court prescribed him compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital. The political prisoner is now being kept in hospital against his will. He is involuntarily treated with medication and severely limited in communication with his family and friends.
On November 9, the Škloŭ District Court convicted 40-year-old political prisoner Ivan Zianko under Part 1 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (violating prison rules). Judge Aliaksandr Tarakanau sentenced Zianko to an additional year in a penal colony. This is the prisoner’s third trial in two years. The political prisoner is being held in the Mahilioŭ-based prison No. 4, awaiting the consideration of his appeal.
On November 4, the police arrested Volha Anishchuk, the wife of Artsim Anishchuk, a political prisoner who earlier reported being tortured in a Mahilioŭ penal colony and was convicted on two criminal charges. Prior to that, the woman was arrested three times for sharing posts from “extremist” Telegram channels in her private chats. Before Volha’s second arrest, a video with her appeared on pro-government Telegram channels, which alleged that she “fueled the situation around the penitentiary system with sleaze and fakes” and “bombarded government agencies with far-fetched complaints”. The complaints dealt with Volha Anishchuk’s repeated attempts to stop the ill-treatment and torture of her imprisoned husband. Human rights defenders learned that the woman declared a hunger strike to protest against the abuses she has faced, while her husband Artsiom was placed in a punishment cell in the Babrujsk colony.
On November 15, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced Aliaksandr Mishuk, a political prisoner representing the Independent Trade Union at Belaruskali, to two and a half years under Part 1 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for restrictive measures (sanctions), or other actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus). The case was considered by judge Viktoryia Paliashchuk.
On November 16, the Hrodna Regional Court, sentenced trade union activist Andrei Khanevich to five years in prison under Art. 369-1 (discrediting the Republic of Belarus) and Art. 361-4 (assistance to extremist activity) of the Criminal Code. The case was considered by judge Vital Kulesh.
The Homieĺ Regional Court continues hearing charges against ten political prisoners affiliated with the Rabochy Rukh initiative. Siarhei Shelest, Uladzimir Zhurauka, Andrei Paheryla, Hanna Ablab, Aliaksandr Hashnikau, Siarhei Dziuba, Ihar Mints, Valiantsin Tseranevich, Siarhei Shametska, and Aliaksandr Kapshul are all accused of “high treason”, also facing a number of other minor charges. They all pleaded not guilty.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Since August 2020, the opposition forces have not been allowed to hold legal protest. The Law “On Mass Events” establishes insurmountable obstacles to the holding of peaceful assemblies; changes made to the Law in 2021 further reduced opportunities for peaceful assemblies in the manner prescribed by law. Imprisonment 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.
Two years later, the courts still hand down sentences on the 2020 protesters.
On November 3, judge Tatsiana Shotsik of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk found Mikalai Butski guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 (organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order, or active participation in them) of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to two years of home confinement. Butski was accused of participating in a protest in 2020, when he, together with a group of people, was “walking along Pieramožcaŭ Avenue, stepping onto the roadway and interfering with public transport, thereby grossly violating public order”. The defendant argued that he mostly moved along the sidewalk, and walked on the road only to cross the street. He did not interfere with public transport, as the road was blocked by law enforcement officers.
On November 4, the court of the Partyzanski district of Minsk passed a sentence on Catholic and social activist Mikalai Artsiukhou. He was accused of “calling for protests” on social media and “preparing actions that grossly violated public order”, and “active participation” in them (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Natallia Dziadkova.
On November 11, the court of the Partyzanski district of Minsk sentenced Natallia Zoryna to three years of home confinement on charges of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order or actively participating in them” (Part 1, Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Mikhail Makarevich. According to the case file, Zoryna took part in a protest in 2020 and her actions allegedly caused disruption of public transport.
On November 16, judge Tatsiana Shotsik of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk found Aliaksandr Kukharenka guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order, or active participation in them) and sentenced him to two years of restricted freedom in an open facility.
As before, a large number of sentences are passed under defamatory articles, e.g. for “insulting” Lukashenka or government officials. The defendants in such cases are sentenced to imprisonment or restricted freedom, as well as to heavy fines.
On November 2, judge Volha Babuk of the Puchavičy District Court passed a sentence on political prisoner Aliaksandr Tsialeha, finding him guilty under Art. 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities) and Part 1 of Art. 366 (threat of violence against an official). Earlier, he was sentenced to four years in prison over online comments about judges, officials, and security officials. The political prisoner was sent to serve his term in the Babrujsk-based colony No. 2, but then faced new criminal charges for commenting on a soldier who killed protester Henadz Shutau in August 2020.
On November 25, judge Alena Kastsiukevich of the Minsk City Court delivered a sentence to political prisoner, father of seven children Maksim Latsuntsevich. He was found guilty under Art. 130 (inciting social hatred or discord), as well as under Art. 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities) of the Criminal Code and sentenced to a year and ten months in a penal colony. He was also ordered to pay a fine of 3,200 rubles. Latsuntsevich was arrested on September 29, 2021 as part of the “Zeltser case”.
On November 17, 2022, the court of the Miory district announced the verdict to Ema Stsepulionak, a 69-year-old former teacher of the Belarusian language and literature from Miory. The woman spent nearly 12 months in pre-trial detention, before being placed under house arrest in mid-September. The ex-schoolteacher was charged under two articles of the Criminal Code: Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka) and Art. 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities). Judge Iryna Yaskevich eventually sentenced the political prisoner to two years in prison. She was taken into custody in the courtroom, but will serve about 4 months of actual prison time.
In November, Viasna became aware of 206 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. 31 people were sentenced to fines, and 95 - to short terms of administrative imprisonment.
Torture and inhumane treatment
Political prisoners are routinely penalized while serving their sentences in prison. In particular, they are placed in punishment cells, sometimes several times in a row. Uladzimir Kniha, a former volunteer of Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya’s team, has been held in a punishment cell for more than 4 months, according to another political prisoner, Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Tsikhanouski himself spent two months in a punishment cell and was only released in late October. Probably, the imprisoned opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich has once again been placed in a punishment cell, too.
Former police prisoners of the Babrujsk-based penal colony No. 2 report numerous cases of harassment. In particular, police prisoners are placed in punishment cells and face new criminal charges over alleged violations of prison rules. They are also deprived of their law-stipulated rights to see their family members or receive parcels and mail. Convicts in politically motivated cases are marked with yellow badges, which means registration as “prone to extremism and other destructive activities”. Some prisoners are also marked with red badges, i.e. they are under enhanced observation as “prone to escape”.
Political prisoner Aliaksandr Patapau is denied medical assistance. At the trial, he complained about his poor health and concerns for his life, but instead of a medical examination, he was placed in a punishment cell.
Belarusian security forces continue the flagrant trend of publishing videos featuring arrested persons admitting to committing acts groundlessly viewed by the authorities as criminal offenses. In these videos, people regularly repent of their views and abandon their convictions. In particular, they admit to participating in peaceful meetings and subscribing to Telegram channels labelled as “extremist”. Pavel Hushcha was forced to apologize for showing the middle finger to Russian soldiers. Andrei Kirpichenka, who was arrested for supporting Ukraine on Tik-Tok, was forced to say that he now supports the Russian army and to sing along to the Soviet-time Victory Day song.
A video of a man being arrested for a sticker on his car appeared in pro-government Telegram channels. The man is violently pulled out of the car and thrown onto the road. The whole process was recorded on video. The video further shows that his forehead has been injured.
A former cellmate of the political prisoner Mikalai Bredzeleu said that the man and his friend Aliaksei were badly beaten while in the detention center. Mikalai was sentenced to 15 days of administrative imprisonment and then transferred to a pre-trial detention center. He was not taken to hospital.
Dzmitry Sasnouski, a defendant in the “OGSB case”, said in court that after his arrest he was subjected to violence and torture. As a result, he was forced to sign a confession.
Political prisoner Illia Yahorau reported physical violence by an employee of a detention center in Brest.
A former political prisoner told about the conditions of detention at a police station, at the Akrestsina detention facility and in the pre-trial detention centers in Žodzina and Minsk, as well as about the inhumane conditions during her transfer to Minsk. A former inmate of the Akrestsina detention facility told about the horrible conditions of detention of anti-war protesters in May 2022.
Priest Uladzislau Bahamolnikau has been at the Akrestsina detention center for over two month, after being sentenced to 6 consecutive terms of administrative imprisonment. It is reported that he was on hunger strike behind bars.
Nasta Loika, a human rights defender with Human Constanta, was sentenced to 15 days in jail, her fifth term of administrative imprisonment this fall, on charges of “disorderly conduct”. The previous time, she was arrested on September 6 and released only on October 6, and on October 28 Loika was arrested again. At an earlier trial, Nasta said that during her previous stay at a detention facility, she was twice taken to be questioned by officers of the Interior Ministry’s GUBAZIK department, who reportedly tortured her with an electroshock weapon, and on November 11, a detention facility staff member took the woman outside and left her without outerwear for 8 hours, after which she caught a cold. For a long time, Loika was kept without additional food, clothes, legal or medical assistance.
Darya Losik and Volha Anishchuk, the wives of political prisoners, who publicly sought an end to the torture and ill-treatment of their spouses, ended up in prison themselves. Darya faced criminal charges for “aiding and abetting an extremist activity” (Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code). Volha is serving her fourth consecutive term of administrative imprisonment, and reportedly declared a hunger strike to protest harassment on the part of the Mahilioŭ detention facility staff.
Freedom of association
November saw numerous police raids, arrests and interrogations targeting activists of the opposition group “For Freedom”. The exact number of persons affected by the raids is not known. An activist Valiantsina Bolbat was sentenced to 10 days in jail, presumably under Art. 19.11 of the Administrative Code (dissemination of extremist content).
Two opposition groups, A Country for Living and Paspalitaje Rušennie, were blacklisted as “extremist formations”.
A court in Minsk started hearing the criminal case of political prisoners Henadz Fiadynych, Vasil Berasneu, and Vatslau Areshka, activists of an independent trade union.
Members of the United Transitional Cabinet will be tried in absentia, the authorities said.
The case against Viasna members Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich and Dzmitry Salauyou has been forwarded to the prosecutor’s office for referral to court. They are accused of “financing group actions that grossly violate public order” (Part 2 of Article 342) and “smuggling” (Article 228 of the Criminal Code).
Persecution of journalists and media workers
As of late November, the prisons of Belarus held 32 journalists and media workers.
On November 28, the Hrodna Regional Court was expected to begin considering the criminal case of political prisoner Andrzej Poczobut. The trial was postponed for unknown reasons, and the new date has not yet been announced. Poczobut is accused of “inciting other social enmity and discord” (Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code) and “calls for restrictive measures (sanctions)” (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code). The case will be heard by judge Dzmitry Bubenchyk. Andrzej Poczobut is a member of the Council of the Union of Poles in Belarus, journalist, poet, and leader of the punk band Deviation.
The journalist has been continuously detained for 20 months. Andrzej was arrested on March 25, 2021. On October 4, 2022, the KGB added the journalist to the list of persons “involved in terrorist activities”.
According to the prosecution, Poczobut wrote in the media that the Soviet war against Poland in 1939 was an “aggression”. In addition, he is charged with statements in defense of the Polish minority in Belarus, publishing articles in Gazeta Wyborcza about Belarusian protests in 2020, and a text in Magazyn Polski written in 2006 and dedicated to Anatoly Radzivonik, a commanders of the Polish anti-communist post-war underground in the Hrodna region. It is also known that in the fall of 2021, Poczobut refused to sign a request for pardon.
The Investigative Committee reportedly completed the investigation of the criminal case against TUT.BY employees Maryna Zolatava and Liudmila Chekina. In the near future, it will be transferred to the prosecutor’s office to be later sent to court.
Zhanna Zhalevich, a journalist based in Viciebsk, was arrested and fined 3,200 rubles over posts on social media.
Violations and suppression of freedom of expression under the guise of combating extremism
The law on extremism has created grounds for the arbitrary classification of the actions of almost all those convicted for political reasons as “extremism”. At the end of November, head of the Investigative Committee, Dzmitry Hora, said that “the activity of extremists has dropped significantly.” At the same time, over the past month, the list of persons allegedly involved in extremism has increased by more than 600 names, and the list of “extremist content” has been replenished by almost 80 entries of media products. The list of “extremist formations” also continues to grow.
Persons “involved in extremism”
At the end of the month, 2,059 people were on the list of persons “involved in extremist activities.”
The list features both Belarusians and citizens of other states convicted of “extremist crimes” after the presidential election of 2020.
Both for current and former political prisoners, the status of an “extremist” imposes certain restrictions, including a ban on engaging in activities related to weapons and ammunition, explosives, teaching, publishing activities, holding government posts and performing military service. Also, blacklisted persons are subject to enhanced financial control.
In practice, convicts do not always know that they are on the list, since neither the Ministry of Internal Affairs nor the KGB have legal obligations to inform about it. In particular, the political prisoner and human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka learned about being blacklisted as an “extremist” from a letter from his wife.
The list of “extremist formations” has been expanded to 104 entries. 7 new organizations were included in the list based on decisions by the Ministry of the Interior.
The decisions are arbitrary and do not require any public reasoning. The practice of applying this label is clearly unreasonable, as any feature common to a group of people can be arbitrarily selected as the defining ground for blacklisting “formations”.
Of the 79 units of media products added to the list in November, most are still content found in the Telegram messenger: 21 channels, 7 chats, and 6 groups. Also in November, more attention was paid to the Instagram social network: nine pages were blacklisted as “extremist”, including the repeated labelling of Viasna’s account. Apart from this, the new entries include three YouTube channels, two music videos, a Ukrainian track, and several websites.
Only one Telegram group called “Germanische ᚢ Tradition” and the sticker packs “Adolf Hitler” and “AdolfHitlerColoredStickers” can actually be viewed as extremist content. Also, the blacklisting of another Telegram channel legitimately restricted the sale of Nazi and neo-Nazi literature and insignia.
All other channels, groups and chats of the Telegram messenger from the November entries to the list of “extremist content” can be characterized as protest, “guerilla”, cultural, national, and grassroots, collecting personal data of law enforcement officers, etc., but failing to meet the definition of extremism.
A special approach was applied to the initiative “Pramen – Anarchism in Belarus”, as it was labelled as “extremist” on several platforms at once: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Mastodon, LiveJournal, Telegram, and YouTube.
The death penalty
The Eighth World Congress Against the Death Penalty took place in Berlin from November 15 to 18, bringing together about 1,000 participants from various countries. Belarus was represented by members of the “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” campaign.