Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2023
- the socio-political and economic situation in Belarus is the result of a profound human rights crisis; during the month, the authorities continued persecuting individuals for political reasons;
- as of February 28, there were 1,463 political prisoners in Belarus; in February, the country’s human rights community added 69 more names to the list; in total, Viasna is aware of at least 2,900 persons convicted in politically motivated criminal cases;
- in February, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk continued to hear the criminal case of four members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”: 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, a lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign Uladzimir Labkovich, and Dzmitry Salauyou (tried in absentia);
- appeals of the coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Andrei Chapiuk and other defendants in their case were considered by the Supreme Court; the verdict was largely left unchanged; Viasna member and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka continues to serve his three-year sentence;
- human rights activist Nasta Loika is in pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges;
- arbitrary arrests of individuals for exercising their civil rights continue; in February, Viasna became aware of 258 cases of arrests and 195 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges ordered at least 31 terms of administrative imprisonment and 11 fines;
- human rights defenders continue to document cases of torture and prohibited types of treatment during the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases, as well as the ill-treatment of convicts serving criminal and administrative sentences following politically motivated court rulings;
- the persecution of individuals continues under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism;
- on February 1, the Council of Europe launched an action plan to support democratic forces and civil society in Belarus. Secretary General Marija Pejčinović Burić published a 15-point action plan to support civil society and democracy representatives striving for a future free and democratic Belarus. The list of points was developed jointly with the Council of Europe Contact Group on Belarus.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
As before, criminal prosecution remains the most brutal form of repression against opponents of the authorities and dissidents in Belarus. As of February 28, 1,463 people were listed as political prisoners in Belarus. In addition, more than 660 former political have been released since 2020.
In February, the human rights community recognized 69 people as political prisoners. The accusations against them are related to participation in peaceful protests, insulting government officials and Lukashenka, inciting social hatred against government officials, participating in activities and supporting entities recognized as extremist formations.
Viasna is aware of at least 72 individuals convicted in February in criminal proceedings, 43 of whom were sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
The Lieninski District Court of Minsk continued to hear the criminal case of four members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”: 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, a lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign Uladzimir Labkovich, and Dzmitry Salauyou (tried in absentia). By the beginning of February, the court had examined the witnesses and 284 volumes of the criminal case files. On February 2, the imprisoned human rights defenders spoke in court. The prosecution argues that their guilt under Part 4 of Art. 228 ("smuggling by an organized group") and Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code ("financing of group actions that grossly violate public order") was fully proven. Prosecutor Aliaksandr Karol insisted that the human rights activists be sentenced to 9 to 12 years in prison and a fine of 185 thousand Belarusian rubles each. On February 13, the human rights defenders were allowed to make their last statement. Viasna’s lawyers informed the UN Special Rapporteurs about the numerous violations of the rights and freedoms that marred the trial.
The head of the Center for Strategic Litigation and a member of Viasna Leanid Sudalenka, earlier sentenced to three years, is still serving his sentence in a penal colony.
On February 28, the Supreme Court held a closed hearing of the appeals by human rights activist, coordinator of Viasna’s Volunteer Service Marfa Rabkova and Viasna volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, together with eight other political prisoners in the Revolutionary Action case. The ten political prisoners were convicted on September 6. Judge Siarhei Khrypach sentenced them to terms ranging between 5 and 17 years in prison. The Supreme Court chaired by Judge Aliaksei Rybakou dismissed the appeals of six defendants, while the sentences of Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk, as well as of anarchists Akikhiro Hayeuski-Hanada and Aliaksandr Frantskevich, were reduced by three months each. The verdict became final and the political prisoners will soon be transferred to a penal colony.
Since December 24, human rights activist Nasta Loika has been in pre-trial detention on politically motivated charges. She was charged under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them), as well as under Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting hatred or discord), reportedly for co-authoring a report on the persecution of the anarchist community in Belarus in 2018. The report provides a critical assessment of the activities of police officers.
On February 8, the Hrodna Regional Court convicted Andrzej Poczobut, a journalist and member of the Union of Poles in Belarus. Judge Dzmitry Bubenchyk heard the charges in a closed session. The political prisoner was accused of “calling for restrictive actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus” (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code), as well as of “inciting other social hatred or discord” (Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code). Poczobut was sentenced to 8 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony.
On February 2, the Minsk City Court announced the verdict to political prisoner, lawyer Vital Brahinets. He was found guilty under four articles of the Criminal Code: Part 3 of Art. 130 (incitement of other social enmity or discord), Part 3 of Art. 361 (calls for sanctions), Part 1 of Art. 361-1 (creation of an extremist formation or participation in it) and Part 1 of Art. 342 (active participation in actions grossly violating public order) and sentenced to eight years in prison. The case was considered behind closed doors by Judge Alena Ananich.
On February 8, the Homieĺ Regional Court convicted two “railway partisans” from Mazyr, Siarhei Pliashkun and Yury Selvich. The charges were heard by judge Aleh Kharoshka. The anti-war activists were charged under seven articles of the Criminal Code: an act of terrorism; organization and preparation of actions grossly violating public order, or active participation in them; intentionally rendering a vehicle or means of communication unusable; vandalizing buildings and damage to property; inciting other social hostility or discord; promotion of extremist activities. Pliashkun was sentenced to 16 years, and Selvich to 14 years in prison.
On February 10, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court convicted two “railway partisans” from Babrujsk, Dzmitry Klimau and Uladzimir Auramtsau. They were sentenced to 22 years in prison each. According to the prosecution, the activists were involved in the destruction of railway infrastructure near Asipovičy. During arrest, Klimau was wounded by security forces. The two men faced multiple charges, including “an act of terrorism”, “treason against the state” and “participation in a terrorist organization”. The case was considered behind closed doors by judge Ihar Shvedau.
When in prisons, political prisoners are subjected to additional repression: they are held in conditions prohibited by the international obligations of Belarus, subjected to disciplinary penalties for far-fetched reasons and placed in punishment cells. In some cases, their security level is upgraded and the term of imprisonment is arbitrarily extended. The right to correspondence is violated, and political prisoners are deprived of family visits under far-fetched pretexts.
In particular, political prisoner Uladzimir Matskevich was transferred to the Mahilioŭ prison. Prior to this, the administration of the Škloŭ-based colony No. 17 placed Matskevich in a cell-type room for three months. At the same time, in early January, it was reported that the prison authorities completely blocked the political prisoner’s correspondence, and he was deprived of telephone conversations. On February 13, the Škloŭ District Court ordered to upgrade the prison conditions for Matskevich and to transfer him to prison.
On February 14, a court in Žodzina began to consider a new criminal case against one of the leaders of the 2020 protests, the author of the YouTube channel “A Country for Living”, and a political prisoner Siarhei Tsikhanouski. He was charged under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the correctional institution). On February 27, judge Ivan Hrynkevich found the political prisoner guilty and sentenced him to another year and a half in prison in addition to 18 years ordered earlier. Tsikhanouski plead not guilty. It is known that while in the Žodzina prison, Siarhei was continuously kept in a punishment cell for two months in inhuman conditions.
According to human rights defenders, at least 16 political prisoners have already been convicted of “malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the correctional facility”, i.e. violating prison rules.
Persecution continues for expressing anti-war sentiments and other protest activity. On the anniversary of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Viasna summed up cases of persecution of Belarusians for anti-war protests and comments.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Legal Initiative, Viasna, the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture and Lawtrend prepared a report on criminal liability for serious violations of the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The report was submitted as part of a call by the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association to address the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council.
Meanwhile, the deprivation and restriction of freedom of participants in peaceful protests and dissidents continues to constitute the majority of most serious violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
Two and a half years after the 2020 protests, the courts still pass daily sentences on post-election protesters.
On February 10, the Saviecki District Court of Minsk passed a sentence on political prisoner Aliaksei Kireyeu, accusing him of “organizing and preparing actions grossly violating public order, or actively participating in them” (Part 1, Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Aliaksandr Volk. The court found Kireyeu guilty and sentenced the activist to two years in prison.
As before, a large number of sentences are passed under defamatory articles, in particular, for insulting Lukashenka and government officials. Defendants in these trials are sentenced to imprisonment or restriction of liberty, as well as large fines.
In particular, on January 27, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk passed a sentence on Aleh Yushkevich, who was charged with “publicly insulting” Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Part 1 of Article 368), a judge (Article 391) and government officials (Article 369 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Dzmitry Karsiuk. According to the investigation, from November 2020 to March 2022, Yushkevich published 17 offensive comments with obscene language addressed to a judge, employees of the internal affairs bodies and other government officials, and also Lukashenka in several Telegram chats labelled as “extremist”. The defendants was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 7.4 thousand rubles.
On February 2, the Lieninski District Court of Mahilioŭ found Mikhail Karpeshka guilty of insulting Lukashenka (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Viktoryia Paliakova. According to the prosecution, after the start of a full-scale military invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine in March 2022, Karpeshka posted a comment in a Telegram chat to express his concern about the possible outbreak of war on the territory of Belarus. It was a closed chat for three people, involving the defendant and his two friends. Karpeshka was sentenced to one and a half years in prison.
Other forms of exercising freedom of expression fall under criminal prosecution. On February 1, the Drybin District Court convicted Uladzislau Mazurau and Illia Kavaliou under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code (desecration of state symbols). Judge Liudmila Novikava sentenced the defendants to three months in prison each. They were accused of removing the official red-green flag from a village community center. Then, they arranged a photo session with the flag.
On February 9, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest completed consideration of the criminal case against Artur Dzhamburyeu, who was accused of “vandalizing buildings” and “damaging property” under Art. 341 of the Criminal Code. The case was considered by judge Tatsiana Laureniuk. On December 4, Artur spray-painted the acronym ACAB and twice “Long Live Belarus” on the walls of a bus shelter; the damage amounted to 18 Belarusian rubles. The punishment was two months in jail.
On February 9, the Brest Regional Court sentenced Aliaksandr Sumar to nine years in prison. The case was considered behind closed doors by judge Vera Filonik. Sumar was convicted under five articles of the Criminal Code: Part 1 of Art. 361-1 (leadership of an extremist formation); Part 1 Art. 342 (training of persons to participate in group activities that grossly violate public order); Part 2 Art. 367 (slander against Lukashenka); Art. 369 (insulting a representative of authority); Part 3 Art. 361 (calls for sanctions and other actions aimed at causing harm to the Republic of Belarus), including for running a Telegram chat called “Long Live Luniniec!”, which was labelled as an “extremist group” four months after Alexander’s arrest.
On February 13, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced researcher Uladzimir Butskavets to three years in prison. He was accused of administering a VKontakte community called “For the only state language in Belarus!” and convicted under Part 1 of Art. 361-1 (creation of an extremist formation). The verdict was handed down by judge Ruslan Tsaruk. On August 5, 2022, the community was labelled as “extremist content”, and on August 18 it was added to the list of “extremist formations”.
On February 16, the Baranavičy Court convicted Viktar Makaranka, owner of an auto parts store, for refusing to sell goods to Russian soldiers and calling them “occupiers”. The man was charged under Art. 190 of the Criminal Code ("violation of the equality of citizens"). Judge Artsiom Padalyanets imposed a fine of 11,100 Belarusian rubles. Makaranka’s business license was terminated by decision of a local court following a lawsuit filed by the local prosecutor.
Persecution continues for statements against government officials, which are usually a reaction to various forms of repression, while government officials are viewed as representatives of various social groups, “police officers”, “police officers who support the existing government”, etc., and criticisms of and debates on the issues and condemning the violations qualify as “inciting hatred on the basis of belonging to a social group”.
On February 13, the Hrodna Regional Court sentenced Yauhen Buzhynski, a politically imprisoned doctor from Smarhoń, to six years in prison and a fine of 1,850 rubles. He was charged under six articles of the Criminal Code: Art. 369 (insulting a representative of authority); Part 2 Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka); Part 1 Art. 130 (inciting other social enmity and discord); Part 3 Art. 361 (calls for sanctions); Part 2 Art. 366 (threat against an official performing official duties); Part 2 Art. 367 (slander against Lukashenka). Judge Illia Sobaleu considered the case behind closed doors. Buzhynski has been in custody for eight months. Before the trial started, the KGB put him on the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities.”
Viasna’s website summed up the results of the numerous trials in the so-called “Zeltser case”, a massive criminal investigation involving about 200 suspects. At least half of them have already been convicted on various charges and sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
Administrative persecution. In February, Viasna became aware of 258 arrests and 195 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges appointed at least 31 terms of administrative imprisonment and 11 fines.
The death penalty
The campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” reported the date of the execution of death row prisoner Viktar Skrundzik. The verdict entered into force on May 4, 2021. According to the documents accessed by the campaigners, Skrundzik was executed on July 16, 2022, i.e. 13 months after the man was convicted. Viktar Skrundzik was sentenced to death by the Minsk Regional Court on March 6, 2020. However, a few months later, the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence and returned it to the Minsk Regional Court for a new hearing.
Torture and prohibited treatment
Cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions of detention for administrative detainees and those arrested in politically motivated cases are still widespread in the detention facilities of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Former prisoners continue to report cases of prohibited treatment. Political prisoner Dzmitry Kubarau has already been convicted twice on politically motivated charges. The total term of imprisonment for him is eight years in prison. The political prisoner is serving his sentence in the Navapolack-based penal colony No. 1, which is infamous for frequent cases of ill-treatment. The prison authorities have persistently harassed Kubarau: he is regularly placed in a penalty cell, recently sent to a cell-type room, and now they are going to transfer him to prison. Due to the terrible conditions of detention, the 27-year-old political prisoner began to have serious health problems, but he is not provided with the necessary medical care in the colony.
The International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB) has released its third progress report for February-September 2022.
The report notes that despite the repression and other difficulties that Belarusians are currently facing, they are still ready to provide evidence of gross violations of human rights in Belarus. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” and the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus continue to collect information and testimonies from victims/witnesses, which the Platform consolidates, stores and analyzes together with information from open sources to facilitate prosecution processes.
Freedom of association
As of the end of February, more than 1,200 CSOs have been closed down or are in the process of dissolution in Belarus.
The criminal prosecution of participants in various protest initiatives continues.
On February 17, the Homieĺ Regional Court delivered a verdict in the case of the Rabochy Rukh initiative. Ten political prisoners were sentenced to terms of 11 to 15 years in prison. They were all accused of treason against the state and a number of other criminal charges. The defendants plead not guilty. The trial was administered by judge Aliaksandr Piskunou. According to the case file, the activists carried out illegal activities to collect and subsequently transfer to a foreign state and organization (including through the US and Lithuanian special services) restricted official information in relation to Belarusian business entities on ways to circumvent restrictive measures (sanctions), as well as mechanisms to counter such methods. It is reported that some of the defendants were planning options for blocking production at the Hrodna Azot and BMZ enterprises.
Harassment of journalists and media workers
As of the end of February, 32 journalists and media workers were being held in Belarusian prisons.
The prosecutor of the Barysaŭ district filed a lawsuit with the local court asking to label the online newspaper ex-press.by as “extremist content”. According to the prosecutor, “the said resource regularly posts materials aimed at inciting social enmity and discord. They contain deliberately false information about the political, economic, social, military and international situation of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of its citizens, discrediting the country.” The Barysaŭ District Court granted the prosecutor’s claim in full and ordered the immediate execution of the decision.
Violations of freedoms of assembly, expression and association under the guise of combating extremism
At the end of February, the list of persons “involved in extremist activities” featured 2,487 people, and 117 people were added to the list during the month.
The list of “extremist groups”, which is run by the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, contains 116 entries. In February, several new groups were added to the list, including Malanka Media.