"Not a single person sentenced to home confinement has been let off the hook." Why is home confinement not a ticket to freedom?
A wave of politically motivated criminal trials is continuing nationwide. Belarusians who try to openly express their civil positions are sentenced to long prison terms. Some of them are "lucky" to be punished by home confinement. But today, under incessant repression, can it be considered a ticket to freedom?
Viasna HRC explains why this type of punishment is far from being mild, how the authorities make it a challenge, and how the "home confined" can be supported.
According to Viasna, since the year 2020, no fewer than 822 people have been sentenced to home confinement, of whom 325 are women. Most often, Belarusians are sentenced to freedom restriction for active participation in gross violations of public order (Part 1 Article 342 of the Criminal Code), insulting Lukashenka (Part 1 Article 368), or insulting an official (Article 369). It is worth noting, however, that there is no direct correlation between the articles mentioned and the type of punishment, and in such politically motivated cases, imprisonment is often imposed.
Political prisoners face increasingly harsh conditions of home confinement
After the freedom restriction verdict becomes effective, the convict must register with the corrective services. An inspector determines curfew periods. If the convicted person is not retired or disabled, they must seek employment. Convicts are also required to visit the inspectorate for weekly check-ins.
Some home detainees reported that inspectors arbitrarily increased their curfew. Convicts are often visited by the officers. These checks are conducted by various agencies: KGB, riot police, local police departments, Security Services Department. The zealousness of some leaves one wondering about the reasoning and necessity of their actions. For example, riot policemen in full gear may come at night to check if an elderly woman is at home. Another time, it's plain-clothed but armed KGB officers that pay a night visit, causing a ruckus and waking up all the neighbors. Such excessive actions are used to intimidate political prisoners.
According to some home detainees, during the registration with the corrections services, their phones are seized and a special Telegram bot is run on them. The bot collects the personal data and subscriptions of the phone owner. The convicts are often insulted and provoked and receive arbitrary write-ups for alleged violations that result in administrative detention.
The confinement conditions of persons dwelling in detached houses are restricted. Previously, they could go out into the garden even in curfew hours. Now, according to the Brest chapter of Viasna, "politicals" are being asked to sign new regulations on home confinement conditions. These stipulate that a convict can only leave their house on special pre-approved passes for work, school, treatment, and so on. That is, going out into the yard is considered a violation of the conditions of confinement.
Changes in criminal legislation are worth noting separately. In 2021, a number of amendments were made to the Criminal Code. As a result, Article 415 (Evasion from serving punishment in the form of freedom restriction) was abolished.
Persons sentenced to home confinement must adhere to a number of rules, and any violation might end with a penalty. Three penalties result in a formal warning issued to the convicted. If, after a warning, the convicted person commits another violation within a year, home confinement is replaced by a harsher punishment in court.
Viasna's lawyer notes that such changes in the law are aimed to simplify the procedure for the imposition of more severe punitive measures:
“Simply put, the main change is that it opening a separate criminal case used to be obligatory. Now the procedure for imposing a more severe penalty has been simplified by ‘eliminating’ the investigation part and simply increasing the penalty through an administrative process.
It cannot be ruled out that previously, investigators and judges could ‘filter out’ some cases for penalty enhancement. Through bypassing the Investigative Committee and a full-fledged trial, the police made it easier for themselves to repress political prisoners.”
The number and timing of police visits to check on home detainees are arbitrary. Day and night a person remains in a state of waiting for the uninvited “guests.” These checks are aggravated by provocations by the police. For example, human rights activists know of cases in which inspectors from various law enforcement agencies knock on the door and immediately leave, registering the convict as absent. People are expected to react instantly to the visit and promptly open the door. Persons under home confinement have to install surveillance cameras to further protect themselves and prevent provocations.
The suddenness of the checks resembles an air alert. However, the checks are not a vital necessity, but a reminder that authorities control even your private life.
Several convicted persons anonymously described their home confinement experience.
"I turned into an old man in two years"
“I’m retired. In order to pay the fine, which was part of my punishment along with the restriction of freedom, a certain percentage is deducted from my allowance. After the sabotage against a warplane in Mačuliščy, the number of visits increased significantly. Policemen would come every day. Before the incident, they paid a visit every second week.
They started checking my phone and computer for channel subscriptions and browser history. That had never happened before. Such extreme control is psychologically demanding. Besides, now I have only one hour a day for recreation.
It’s hard to live under this pressure, especially considering my age. The regime takes a heavy toll on my health. My heart started failing. My memory quickly decreases. I turned into an old man in two years.”
"On Freedom Day, they came to check on me more than five times"
“I was forced to delete almost all my correspondence because the police started checking smartphones on visits. There have been a lot more of them lately. On Freedom Day, they came to check on me more than five times.”
"It's not just me who is confined, but also my child"
“Their visits are not scheduled in any way. They come randomly. One night, they came twice. Sometimes they come every day, other times, there are no visits for days. This lack of consistency puts a lot of pressure and makes home confinement very chancy.
They also began to check my phone billing data to identify my location. On check-in, the inspector mentioned my absence from home. Even though at that time, according to the schedule, I had recreation time.
It’s not just me who is confined, but also my child. He’s a minor. His needs to be accompanied on walks. I only have two hours of free time a day. Sometimes I have to ask my neighbors for help.
Every week I go for a check-in. On one of them, a policeman asked me if I was still planning to visit protests. I said yes. They put me in administrative detention for that. Another officer told me, ‘If you are dreaming about milder conditions, then you should know that not a single person sentenced to home confinement has been let off the hook’.
I tried to enroll in driving school, but they wouldn’t let me. You can’t even study. Everything is forbidden to us.
My curfew starts when I have to pick up my child from daycare. And no one but me can do it. So when I go out, I leave my phone at home, so I won’t be tracked. I pick up my child and run home. My request to prolong or change my curfew hours was denied. They said I should have thought earlier.
During check-ins, police officers hold educational and ideological lectures. At one of them, they demonstrated Lukashenka’s portrait. They picked a person from those present and ask: ‘Who is this? What does he mean to you?’. One of the convicts said that they hadn’t taught him this information at school, so he had no idea.”
"I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is remember what day of the week it is and what I'm allowed to do today"
“There is a document called the Resolution on Establishing Restrictions. It lays down the rules for serving the sentence. But the most interesting thing is that this regulation is not handed out. When you come to the inspectorate, you have to read and sign this document. I asked for a copy so that I could read it in detail, but I was told that it was for official use only. So every time I go to check-ins, I take a paper and a pen and copy all the documents that I am given to sign.”
"I keep counting every minute"
“The hardest part is that the corrections officers don’t explain anything. When I asked to see a doctor, they said the authorizing officer was out of the office and suggested I wait. I have just two hours of free time a day. I don’t know if I can wait any longer. I asked for their permission, and the answer was that I would have to submit a request, which they would review within 15 days. But I can’t anticipate when I’m going to be sick. I ask for permission today so I can go to the doctor tomorrow.
I go to my doctor’s appointment. And I’m running out of time. I don’t know if I need to rush back home right away, or I can stay there longer without getting a penalty for this violation. Given that I’ve got three write-ups for nothing, I’m just afraid to take any uncoordinated step. I keep counting every minute.”
"When I go to check in, I always wear extra clothes, just in case I'm going to be detained"
“I go to check in every week on a certain day. Usually, they give me a register where I put my signature and date. In theory, on that day, convicts can ask the inspector questions. But, of course, no one there explains anything to us. Lately, during check-ins, they started having educational conversations with me. Nothing like that happened before. They pretend to explain some legal aspects. For example, they read out Article 55 of the Penal Enforcement Code. The last time, the inspector told me that ‘employment is an important factor in preventing crimes.’ I asked her to read in Belarusian, and our conversation was over. Check-ins are also occasions to meet and get acquainted with other ‘kindred spirits’ [convicts sentenced to home confinement – Ed. note].
When I go to check in, I always wear extra clothes, just in case I’m going to be detained this time. When in home confinement, a convict never knows what to expect. I always have a bag at home with the things one might need in detention: warm clothes, and medicine.”
"When a car drives by the house, I shudder and rush to the window to check who has arrived"
“I lived through many visits in my first two months. They came day and night. Then visits became less frequent. However, from the end of January 2022, the number of check-ups increased again. Thus, in March they visited me 61 times. One day there would be no visits at all. On another day they would check me five times.
We set up a video surveillance camera to avoid provocations from the officers. After that, their behavior improved considerably. The officers started showing their badges and introducing themselves, saying hello, and wishing good night.
Several times the recording showed an officer standing at the door, supposedly pressing the bell, but there was no sound. I would go out and ask him why he was doing that.
Once a riot squad paid a visit. One of the policemen rushed inside and wanted to storm through the rooms. I told him, ‘This is a house, not a prison. I’m the only one serving my sentence here, and other people live here.’
I still can’t get used to the visits. When a car drives by the house, I shudder and rush to the window to check who has arrived.”
What can be done to help home confinement inmates?
Viasna human rights activist Dziyana Pinchuk calls for support for those placed in home confinement, stressing the importance of solidarity with all people who have suffered repression:
“We need to understand that home confinement is not a softer form of punishment, as the courts and law enforcement agencies are trying to sell it to us. People are being tried for exercising their civil and political rights and given real punishments, which should not happen in the first place. It punishes innocent people who are forced to go through a terrible ordeal, with constant pressure, night watches, isolation, and prohibitions on leaving the country and seeing their families.
Home confinement means a lot of stress, so it’s important to support the people who are left to serve their terms. It’s easier to support them because these people use social media and you can contact them directly. There are many forms of solidarity depending on one’s capacity. Verbal support alone is a great thing. You can arrange for the delivery of food or other things a person might need, such as tools they use at work. You can do this from abroad. You can also pay for their media subscriptions or order books. Many home confinement inmates have children, so helping them buy school-related stuff or get ready for school holidays would be a great form of support. Many convicted persons do crafts – order the items they produce.
Remember: solidarity is stronger than repression, and that’s what unites us.