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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: January 2023

2023 2023-02-03T13:30:19+0300 2023-02-03T13:30:19+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”


  • the socio-political and economic situation in Belarus is the result of a profound human rights crisis; in January, the authorities continued persecuting individuals for political reasons;
  • as of the end of January, 1,436 political prisoners were held in Belarusian penitentiaries; during the month, the country’s human rights community designated 30 more people as political prisoners;
  • The Lieninski District Court of Minsk started hearing the criminal case of members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”: the organization’s chairman Ales Bialiatski, a member of Viasna’s board and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, a lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich, all held in pre-trial detention on arbitrary charges. Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, sentenced to 15 and 6 years in prison, respectively, are awaiting an appeal hearing of their sentences; member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka was sentenced to three years and is serving his sentence in a penal colony;
  • human rights activist Nasta Loika is in pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges;
  • arbitrary arrests for exercising civil rights continued; in January, Viasna became aware of 141 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges ordered at least 44 terms of administrative imprisonment, 10 fines and one sentence involving community service. Human rights defenders continue to document numerous facts of torture and prohibited types of treatment reported by those targeted in politically motivated criminal investigations and by persons serving criminal and administrative sentences following politically motivated court rulings;
  • the authorities continue persecution under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism.

Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution

At a meeting of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on January 18, a number of European Union member states made a statement on the human rights situation in Belarus. The document was supported by representatives of many other countries. The statement underscores grave concern about the dire and deteriorating human rights situation in Belarus under the Lukashenka regime: “We urge the authorities in Minsk to immediately release all more than 1440 political prisoners. The list of illegally and unjustly imprisoned persons includes the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, detained since July 2021, and other leaders of the VIASNA movement, whose trial has started on 5 January, with defendants facing 7 to 12 years imprisonment sentences,” the document said. The statement expresses concern about the trial in absentia of the leaders of the democratic opposition: Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushka, who are accused of “high treason”, the creation of an “extremist group” and a “conspiracy to overthrow the government”. These far-fetched accusations prove the regime’s disrespect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

Indeed, criminal charges are still the cruelest form of persecution of opponents of the authorities and dissidents in Belarus. As of January 31, 1,436 people were on the list of Belarusian political prisoners. 616 former political prisoners have been released since 2020.

In January, the human rights community recognized 30 people as political prisoners. The accusations mainly concerned “incitement of social hatred” against government officials, participation in peaceful meetings, “insulting government officials”, including Aliaksandr Lukashenka, and links to entities labelled as “extremist formations”.

On January 5, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk began considering a criminal case against members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”: the chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, a member of Viasna’s board and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, and a lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich, all being held in a pre-trial detention center. Another defendant in the trial is a member of Viasna Dzmitry Salauyou, who left Belarus and is being tried in absentia. The consideration of the case has been marred by gross violations of the defendants’ rights.

The authorities took measures to prevent international observers from attending the trial. A representative of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and a member of the Russian human rights organization Memorial Yekaterina Yanshina was arrested on the very first day of the trial and later sentenced to 15 days in prison on trumped-up charges of allegedly “using foul language” while at the police department. After serving her sentence, the observer was deported and banned from entering Belarus for 10 years.

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 hearing of their sentences; a member of Viasna and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka is serving his three- year term in a penal colony.

Since December 24, human rights activist Nasta Loika has been in pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges.

Persecution continues for expressing anti-war opinions and other protest activity.

Vadzim Baranau was accused of “assisting extremist activities” for filming a video of Russian military vehicles stationed in Belarus and intending to share the video with several Telegram channels. For this, he was sentenced by judge Ruslan Tsaruk of the Homieĺ Regional Court to three years in prison.

On January 13, the Brest Regional Court sentenced political prisoner Yury Kastsiuk, who was secretly taken from Russia to Belarus in the fall of 2022, to four years in prison. For five months, he was kept in a Russian pre-trial detention center, and for another three months in a number of Belarusian pre-trial prisons. The political prisoner was convicted under Part 1 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (assistance to extremist activities) for helping other political prisoners receive assistance from support foundations.

While in prisons, political prisoners are subjected to further repression. In addition to being held in conditions prohibited by Belarus’s international obligations, they face more penalties, including by upgrading their detention restrictions or extending the terms of imprisonment. In particular, in May 2021, Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya’s campaign activist Antanina Kanavalava, together with her husband Siarhei, was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in the case known as “Army Together with the People”. They were accused of “preparing to participate in riots” and “plotting riots.” Antanina and Siarhei have two minor children. It is known that in August the administration of the Vaŭkavysk colony placed Siarhei in a punishment cell, and then he was transferred to a high-security cell known as PKT. Later, the political prisoner faced new charges under Part 1 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (violating prison rules). Judge Mikalai Siarheika found the political prisoner guilty and sentenced him to another nine months in prison.

The same charge was brought against political prisoner Siarhei Tsikhanouski, one of the leaders of the 202 protests.

On January 17, the in absentia trial of opposition leaders Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Pavel Latushka, Volha Kavalkova, Maryia Maroz (head of Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign team), and Siarhei Dyleuski opened at the Minsk City Court. The charges are being heard by judge Piotr Arlou. The defendants, who are now based outside Belarus, are charged with several offenses (Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya – 10 crimes), including “preparation to seize and hold buildings and structures”, “participation in riots”, “conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means”, “treason”, and others. The investigation was started on October 20, 2022. On November 30, the case was forwarded to the Prosecutor General’s Office and soon reached the court.

On January 18, the same court announced the verdict in the first trial in absentia – the case of the Black Book of Belarus. Judge Natallia Buhuk sentenced Yanina Sazanovich, Dzmitry Navosha, Daniil Bahdanovich, Valeryia Zaniamonskaya and Volha Vysotskaya to 12 years in prison each. The five defendants were charged under Part 3 of Art. 130 (incitement of other social enmity and discord) and Part 3 of Art. 203-1 of the Criminal Code (illegal actions in relation to personal data) for administering the Black Book of Belarus Telegram channel. The KGB included the defendants in its “list of terrorists”. The trial was held behind closed doors and lasted a little over a month. According to the prosecution, no later than August 2020, the defendants and other persons formed a “criminal group”, which created and administered the Black Book of Belarus Telegram channel and other similar resources. “The criminal group illegally collected and made publicly available information about the private life and personal data of hundreds of citizens in connection with their professional activities. Among them are police officers, investigators, prosecutors, judges, and journalists. After the publications, crimes were committed against some of them, including the destruction and damage of property, and threats of violence,” the prosecution said.

Human rights defenders assess such sentences as being in violation of the principles of a fair trial and guarantees enshrined in international documents.

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

Imprisonment and restricted freedom sentences handed down to participants in peaceful protests and dissidents continue to be the most serious types of violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

Two and a half years after the 2020 protests, the courts still issue sentences to demonstrators.

On December 27, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk delivered a verdict in the criminal case of Dzmitry and Natallia Haro, who were accused of “organizing and preparing actions grossly violating public order” (Part 1, Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Anastasiya Achalava. The Haro spouses were arrested in late October 2022 and placed in detention until the trial. According to the prosecution, Dzmitry Haro and his wife Natallia took part in a protest in Minsk in September 2020. They allegedly disobeyed the police officers and blocked the street. As a result, the work of public transport was reportedly disrupted. The court sentenced Dzmitry and Natallia to terms of restricted freedom under home confinement.

On January 19, the court of the Centraĺny District of Minsk sentenced political prisoner Meryem Herasimenka to three years of home confinement, finding her 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). The woman was arrested on August 4, 2022 after a concert in a Minsk bar, where the singer performed a song by the Ukrainian rock band Okean Elzy. The fact that the song was performed in Ukrainian angered the authorities. After the arrest, the performer was twice sentenced to 15 days in prison. Then the woman was re-arrested as part of a criminal case and placed in a pre-trial detention center.

As before, Belarusian courts issue numerous sentences on defamatory charges, in particular for insulting Lukashenka and government officials. Defendants in these trials are sentenced to imprisonment or restricted freedom, as well as to heavy fines.

On November 24, 2022, Aliaksandr Trush was convicted by the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting Lukashenka). Judge Tatsiana Laureniuk sentenced Trush to one and a half years in a penal colony. On August 16, 2022, Aliaksandr Trush, in the presence of other people, said that Aliaksandr Lukashenka was a traitor and a fascist. The conversation was overheard by a neighbor who called the police.

The Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna sentenced Anatol Liavonik to two and a half years in prison, finding him guilty under Part 2 of Art. 367 and Part 2 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code. Liavonik was convicted of posting messages containing “humiliating information” about Lukashenka in his Odnoklassniki account. According to the prosecution, the messages aimed to “publicly harm the authority of the government” and disseminate “knowingly false information”. During the trial, the defendant said that he liked several posts in Odnoklassniki from his mobile phone. After that, they appeared on his page. Screenshots of publications were attached to the case file. Among them, an image with an “indecent gesture” towards Lukashenka, and several statements that “the form of government in the Republic of Belarus is a Nazi dictatorship based on blood.” It is also alleged that in some of the posts, Liavonik called Lukashenka a “terrorist” and a “fascist”, since the investigation demanded a linguistic examination to confirm insult and slander.

Other forms of exercising freedom of expression are also targeted by criminal prosecution.

In the Brest Regional Court on January 19, judge Mikalai Hryharovich sentenced Darya Losik to two years in prison over “assisting extremist activity” (Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code) for an interview about her husband Ihar Losik to the Belsat TV channel in the spring of 2022. Ihar is serving a sentence in the Navapolack colony, and their four-year-old daughter Paulina is now in the custody of her grandparents. The prosecution claimed that in the interview, Darya “positioned herself as the wife of a political prisoner,” and also gave a “negative assessment” of the state bodies whose competence included the implementation of criminal prosecution and justice. She also said that her husband did not commit criminal acts and was convicted illegally.

On November 19, the Lieninski District Court of Hrodna convicted Dzmitry Anchukou of “vandalizing buildings” and “damaging property” (Article 341 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Natallia Horbach. According to the prosecution, Anchukou, having the intent to vandalize buildings and other structures with cynical inscriptions and drawings, spray-painted several inscriptions on the houses and public transport shelters in different parts of the city, which discredited the state power. Damage to municipal property amounted to 253 rubles, i.e. less than 100 euros. The defendant was sentenced to one year of restricted freedom in an open-type penitentiary.

Persecution continues for statements against government officials, which are usually triggered by various forms of repression, while government officials include police officers, and criticism, public debate and condemning violations qualifies as “inciting hatred on the basis of belonging to a social group”.

In particular, the Minsk City Court considered a criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting other social hatred and discord) and Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (active participation in actions that grossly violate public order) in relation to Vital Yenarovich. Judge Vera Halaukova sentenced him to two years in prison. The man was arrested in March and held for almost three months without a change of clothes and hygiene products in the notorious detention facility in Akrestsin Street. It is important to note that the time he spent as an administrative penalty will not be counted as part of the term of the criminal sentence.

Administrative persecution

In January, Viasna became aware of at least 350 arrests and 141 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges ordered at least 44 terms of administrative imprisonment, 10 fines and one sentence of community service. Two cases were dismissed after the expiration of the two-month period and due to lack of evidence.

Torture and prohibited treatment

Cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions of detention of persons arrested on administrative charges and serving short terms of imprisonment have become the widespread routine of detention facilities. Released prisoners regularly provide human rights defenders with concrete examples of ill-treatment.

Former prisoner Hanna Vishniak said that she was tortured during her detention and the investigation of her case. Other political prisoners were ill-treated too, she said.

Former political prisoner Vital Zhuk told Viasna about the conditions in which political prisoners are kept in penal colony No. 2, in particular the penalty cell and other facilities.

Viasna collected evidence of cruel conditions in which women political prisoners are kept at the Homieĺ colony.

Freedom of association

In late December, the government submitted to the parliament a bill on amending the laws “On Civil Society Associations” and “On Political Parties”. The bill significantly complicates the conditions for the existence of political parties (including their compulsory re-registration). For NGOs, the project introduces both some positive technical innovations and several negative rules (the general re-registration of CSOs is not announced, though).

At the same time, the persecution of trade union leaders and activists continues. On January 5, the Minsk City Court convicted trade union activists Henadz Fiadynich, Vasil Berasneu and Vatslau Areshka. The three were accused of calling for sanctions aimed at “causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus” (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code), “inciting other social hatred” (Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code), and creating an “extremist group” or participating in it (Parts 1 and 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The trial was held behind closed doors. The court found the independent trade union leaders guilty and sentenced them to 8 to 9 years in prison.

Persecution of journalists and media workers

As of the end of January, 32 journalists and media workers were being held in prisons.

On January 9, the Minsk City Court began considering a criminal case against Maryna Zolatava and Liudmila Chekina, leaders of the largest Belarusian independent portal TUT.BY, which was closed down by the authorities. The trial has been held behind closed doors. The case is considered by judge Valiantsina Ziankevich. Three more defendants, Volha Loika, Alena Talkachova and Katsiaryna Tkachenka, were earlier released and left Belarus, and are being tried in absentia.

Violations of freedom of expression under the guise of combating extremism

In late January, the list of persons allegedly involved in extremist activities included 2,370 people; during the month, the list increased by more than a hundred entries.

The list of “extremist formations” (run by the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs) has increased to 115 entries (by 8 new formations), among which for the first time is a music band, Tor Band.

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