Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2023
- the domestic policies of the Belarusian authorities are still largely based on the denial of human rights, suppression of freedoms and nation-wide repression;
- as of the end of April, there were 1,495 political prisoners in Belarus; during the month, the country’s human rights community designated 62 more people as political prisoners; in total, Viasna is aware of more than 3,200 persons convicted in politically motivated criminal trials;
- The Minsk City Court heard the appeals filed the convicted leaders of Viasna, the organization’s chairperson Ales Bialiatski, Viasna’s board member and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, coordinator of “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich, and Dzmitry Salauyou (tried in absentia), leaving the sentences unchanged;
- coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, and head of the organization’s office in Homieĺ Leanid Sudalenka, earlier sentenced to terms of imprisonment, continue to serve their sentences;
- human rights defender Nasta Loika is in pre-trial detention on arbitrary politically motivated charges;
- arbitrary arrests for exercising civil rights continue; in April, Viasna became aware of 342 arrests, and 316 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges appointed at least 70 terms of administrative imprisonment and 32 fines. A quarter of the detainees are women;
- human rights defenders continue to regularly identify and document cases of torture and prohibited treatment in the course of investigations of politically motivated criminal cases, as well as prohibited types of treatment of persons serving criminal and administrative sentences following politically motivated court rulings;
- the authorities continue to widely apply repression for anti-war statements and public support of Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression.
Politically motivated persecution and political prisoners
Criminal prosecution remains the most common form of politically motivated repression. As of April 30, there were 1,495 political prisoners in Belarus. In April, 62 more people were designated as political prisoners.
In April, 28 people were added to the list of political prisoners (statements of April 5 and April 21), after facing defamation charges: insulting or slandering government officials, vandalizing state symbols, etc. This group of political prisoners includes Dzmitry Anchukou, who was sentenced to a term of imprisonment for “vandalizing buildings and damage to property”.
Fifteen new persons on the list were prosecuted for “inciting other social hatred or discord” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code). According to the prosecution, the “social hatred” targeted the institutions of power and civil servants. In order to secure enhanced protection of government officials, police officers, military personnel, etc., they are singled out as a special social group, which has been criticized by the country’s human rights community as unreasonable and inappropriate. In addition, convicts in political cases are deprived of their liberty selectively in comparison with other persons convicted in similar trials, which violates the principles of justice. The courts employ a well-established practice of considering cases under Article 130 of the Criminal Code in closed hearings, which grossly violates the procedural rights of the defendants and makes it impossible to verify the evidence of the prosecution.
Nine people were designated as political prisoners for “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code), i.e. for participating in the protests of 2020. A total of 494 people are currently imprisoned on these charges.
Another common charge against participants in the 2020 protests is the “use or threat of violence against law enforcement officers” (Articles 363, 364, and 366 of the Criminal Code). In April, 3 people who faced such accusations were designated as political prisoners. In these cases, the minor harm that was provoked by the initial disproportionate use of violence and riot equipment by the police is incomparable with excessively harsh sentences, which are much harsher than sentences handed down in the same categories of cases without a political motive. “Threats of violence against law enforcement officers” are usually emotional reactions to socio-political events in the country and are obviously not accomplishable.
The practice of issuing judgments adopted in violation of the basic procedural rights of the defendants continues. Lack of independent, impartial and objective litigation in politically motivated criminal cases makes the trials arbitrary, while the judges impose heavier sentences than in similar cases without a political context. In connection with the violations of the right to a fair trial, human rights organizations demanded the release of six more political prisoners.
Aliaksandr Mantsevich, editor-in-chief of the Rehiyanalnaya Hazeta newspaper, was designated as a political prisoner after being arrested on charges of “discrediting the Republic of Belarus” (Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code). The charge is reportedly linked to some of the content published by the outlet.
Law enforcement agencies continue the inhumane practice of recording and publishing in pro-government media videos of persons arrested on politically motivated charges “confessing” to committing crimes.
Political prisoners continue to face various forms of pressure in pre-trial detention and while serving their prison sentences. The most common form of pressure for political reasons is banning inmates from sending or receiving mail. Similarly, most of those convicted in politically motivated criminal trials face severe and inexplicable censorship of their incoming and outgoing mail.
Together with the widespread bans on telephone calls and visits by lawyers, and, increasingly, solitary confinement, these restrictions amount to prohibited ill-treatment. In particular, for over two months, there have been no updates about political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.
Another common form of pressure is penalizing convicts by time in a punishment cell. For example, in early April, Ihar Losik was again confined to a punishment cell. During his first time in the so-called SHIZO, he cut his wrists and neck, apparently to protest the pressure and conditions of detention. For some political prisoners, several consecutive terms in a punishment cell result in upgrading their security level to maximum (officially called “prison” in Belarus). In April, human rights defenders learned about at least two such cases: Yauhen Rubashka and Uladzimir Harokh. Also, political prisoners face new criminal charges for allegedly breaking prison rules, which in most cases is yet another method of pressure.
Viasna is also aware of the new politically motivated charges against political prisoners that are not related to prison rules. For example, Andrei Stsepankou, who was convicted of “insulting officials”, faced nine more defamatory charges.
In late January, the Lieninski District Court of Hrodna opened the haring of the third criminal case against political prisoner Uladzimir Hundar. He was accused of “insulting an employee of the prosecutor’s office”, Liudmila Herasimenka, who represented the prosecution in the Autukhovich trial, as a result of which Hundar was sentenced to 18 years in prison. On April 17, judge Alena Piatrova found the political prisoner guilty under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to two and a half years in prison. By partial addition of the sentences, Hundar was eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. The hearings in the Autukhovich case were marred by significant violations of the defendants’ rights, including their ill-treatment in front of the court and the prosecution.
The authorities continue to arbitrarily extend the terms of imprisonment of political prisoners under Article 411 of the Criminal Code, “breaking prison rules”.
On April 7, the Rečyca District Court announced another verdict against political prisoner Viktoryia Kulsha under Part 1 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code. Judge Stanislau Ivaniutsenka sentenced the woman to another year in prison in addition to the initial three and a half years. Earlier, Kulsha was tried twice in criminal cases, including for “disobedience” to the administration of the Homieĺ penal colony. During six months in the Rečyca penal colony, Viktoryia served at least 92 days in a punishment cell, and recently she was placed in a PKT (cell-type punishment) for six months.
On April 10, blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich was convicted under Part 2 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code. Judge Tatsiana Kastsiuk sentenced the political prisoner to another year in addition to the initial 15 years. In December 2021, Tsyhanovich was convicted in the Siarhei Tsikhanouski trial. Later, his sentence was increased and he was transferred from a penal colony to a prison.
On April 28, the Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ announced its verdict in the third criminal trial involving Alena Hnauk. The woman was sentenced to one more year in prison under Part 1 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code. The final sentence is two years and 11 months in prison. Hnauk is a Pružany-based activist who has faced political repression since 2020: she was 17 times arrested and imprisoned on administrative charges, fined a total of 173 basic units, her home was searched multiple times, and she was eventually convicted under Art. 342 (protesting), Art. 367 (slander of the president) and Art. 369-1 of the Criminal Code (discrediting the Republic of Belarus).
A striking case of arbitrary restrictions on the right to profess religion or beliefs by political prisoners was the ban on church attendance imposed on political prisoners in the all-women penal colony No. 4 in Homieĺ.
Political prisoners held in the penitentiary also complain of restrictions on family visits. It is reported that family members are forced to spend the night outside the prison in order to wait for their turn.
Six human rights defenders of Viasna remain in prison. On April 21, the Minsk City Court heard the appeals by Uladzimir Labkovich, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Ales Bialiatski. The hearing was public, but the defendants were not brought to courtroom, which deprived them of the opportunity to fully defend themselves. The appeals were eventually turned down.
On April 27, political prisoner Viktar Babaryka, who ran in the 2020 presidential election, was reportedly taken to a hospital in Navapolack, after spending several weeks in the punishment cell of penal colony No. 1.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
After the authorities cracked down on the street protests in 2020 and 2021, most allegations of “unsanctioned protests” involve various individual forms of expression, e.g. displaying a flag in a window or posting on social media, which the authorities arbitrarily regard as picketing.
Viasna learned about a government-organized public church service held in Viciebsk in memory of the tragedy at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant. At the same time, local activist Barys Khaimada was not allowed to picket in the city center to mark the 27th anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster.
As before, the deprivation and restriction of freedom of participants in peaceful protests and dissidents continue to be the most serious violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
Two and a half years after August 2020, the courts still issue daily sentences to punish post-election protesters.
On April 17, Andrei Trezubau was convicted in the court of the Kastryčnicki district of Minsk. He was accused of “participating in group actions that grossly violated public order” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The charges were heard by judge Volha Niaborskaya. Trezubau was found guilty and sentenced to three years of home confinement.
On April 6, the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk considered the criminal case of Andrei Dzmitryeu, co-chair of the Tell the Truth initiative and former presidential candidate. The politician was accused of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or actively participating in them” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Katsiaryna Murashka. For three counts of participation in protests, Dzmitryeu was sentenced to a year and a half in prison.
The authorities continue to persecute individuals for statements on defamatory charges, including for insulting Lukashenka and government officials. Defendants in these trials are sentenced to imprisonment or restriction of liberty, as well as large fines.
Judge Natallia Krashkina of the Kastryčnicki District Court of Mahilioŭ sentenced Aliaksandr Tuchkou to two years in prison, finding him guilty under Part 1 of Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka) and Art. 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities) of the Criminal Code. The man was accused of posting insulting comments in April 2021 targeting Lukashenka and KGB chairperson Ivan Tsertsel.
Other forms of exercising freedom of expression also fall under criminal prosecution. On April 5, the Kobryn District Court convicted Aliaksei Hulin under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code (vandalizing state symbols). Judge Ala Bohnat sentenced the man to one year of restricted freedom in an open penitentiary. The hearing was held on the premises of a local government-owned enterprise. Hulin was accused of breaking the flagpole of a red-green flag that hung at the entrance to a village first aid station in the Kobryn district. The man reportedly threw part of the staff with the flag on the ground. The court argued that Hulin had caused property damage to the institution in the amount of 2 rubles 53 kopecks.
Persecution continues for statements against government officials, which are usually a reaction to various forms of repression. The term “government officials” covers representatives of various social groups: “police officers”, “police officers who support the existing government”, etc., while criticism, public debates on social and political issues or disapproval of violations qualify as “inciting hatred on the basis of belonging to a social group.”
On January 27, Artsiom Zubrakou was sentenced to five years in prison. He was found guilty under Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord) and Part 3 of Art. 203-1 of the Criminal Code (illegal actions regarding information about private life and personal data). The case was considered behind closed doors by judge Alena Bachyshcha of the Minsk Regional Court. Zubrakou was arrested in late September 2022 along with several of his co-workers at the Belagro government-owned enterprise. It was reported that about twenty people were arrested, and four faced criminal charges. Pro-government media alleged that the employees had been actively protesting since 2020. During a search in the fall of 2022, security forces seized white-red-white paraphernalia and furniture. Artsiom Zubrakou said that he was arrested for being subscribed to “forbidden” Telegram channels and sharing “extremist content”. On April 4, the Supreme Court heard the appeal in the case.
On March 31, the Hrodna Regional Court passed a verdict in the case of Aleh Zavadski, accused of publicly insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code), as well as of “inciting other social hatred or discord” (Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Vital Kulesh. According to the prosecution, from June 2020 to April 2022, Zavadski used his mobile phone to post publications in the Telegram messenger application in which he gave a “clearly negative assessment” of Lukashenka. The man also reportedly criticized Russian and Belarusian armies, law enforcement officers, and allegedly incited “national and social hatred and discord”, in particular, by writing “Russian invaders participating in the forcible seizure of foreign state territory by military force.” The court sentenced Zavadski to three years and six months of imprisonment.
The authorities continue to persecute individuals for various forms of anti-war protest: The Mahilioŭ Regional Court convicted Uladzislau Papou under Part 1 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (assistance to extremist activities). Judge Alena Kartavenka sentenced Papou to two years of imprisonment for allegedly taking photos and filming videos of military vehicles, personnel, as well as the military airfield in Babrujsk from February 24 to 25, 2022. After that, Uladzislau sent at least nine videos and photos to a Telegram channel earlier designated as “extremist”.
On April 4, the Viciebsk Regional Court passed a verdict on Yaraslau Kazakevich, accused of “assisting extremist activities” under Part 1 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code. The trial was led by judge Halina Bondal. According to the case file, on December 8, 2022, Kazakevich used his mobile phone to film a train with Russian military equipment at the central railway station in Orša and later shared the video via a Telegram channel, whose content was earlier blacklisted as “extremist”. The man was eventually sentenced to two years in prison.
Multiple arrests follow the regular police raids, when, in the process of searching for those suspected of being involved in protests, the police break into apartments in the settlements adjacent to the location of these protests. In particular, at least 45 people were arrested in three days and dozens of searches were carried out in the Dziaržynsk district, after several white-red-white and Ukrainian flags were hung out in the neighborhood. The detentions were accompanied by acts of ill-treatment, in particular, one of the detainees was taken out into the snow barefoot and half-dressed.
Administrative persecution is still actively used for political persecution. In April, Viasna became aware of 342 arrests and 316 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. Judges appointed at least 70 terms of administrative imprisonment and 32 fines. Among them were several group cases of administrative detentions: 45 people in Dziaržynsk, about 20 people in Pružany, 6 people in Navahrudak, and 9 people in Homieĺ. The grounds for prosecution were the distribution of “extremist content”, violations of the procedure for holding mass events, “breaching public order” or “resisting arrest”. Most known detentions took place in the Brest (74), Viciebsk (85), and Homieĺ (69) regions. A quarter of the detainees are women.
Viktar Sazonau, a human rights defender in Hrodna, was detained for three days and eventually sentenced to a fine.
At the beginning of the month, it also became known about mass layoffs at the Ašmiany Electric Networks government-owned enterprise, reportedly linked with the involvement of employees in the protest of 2020.
Torture and prohibited treatment
Cruel, inhuman and degrading conditions of detention for administrative detainees and persons sentenced to administrative imprisonment on politically motivated charges continue to be widely used in the detention facilities run by the Ministry of the Interior.
KGB officers also resort to torture in search of evidence of the detainees’ involvement in protest activity.
Former political prisoners continue to share evidence of torture, cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment.
Former prisoners and defendants in political trials corroborate earlier reports of the existence in the Minsk-based SIZO-1 pre-trial prison of a so-called “press-khata”, a cell where prisoners collaborating with the prison authorities beat political prisoners to exert pressure on them. Regular checks in SIZO-1 are accompanied by violent cell raids and beatings of prisoners.
In penal colonies, political prisoners are arbitrarily placed in punishment cells, where they can be subjected to beatings and humiliating treatment. One of the popular forms of ill-treatment is forcing inmates to sing the national anthem.
For people from vulnerable groups - the elderly, people with disabilities - imprisonment is fraught with even greater risks. It further worsens their health due to untimely healthcare, the lack of regular medical examinations, and the unavailability of the necessary medical supplies. On World Health Day, Viasna reminded about people from vulnerable groups held in Belarusian prisons. At the end of 2022, there were at least 25 senior political prisoners, as well as at least 74 people with disabilities and serious health conditions. The oldest of them, 75-year-old Natallia Taran, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for insulting officials. She has not been released yet.
Persecution of journalists and media workers
As of the end of April, 33 journalists and media workers were being held in various penitentiaries.
On April 6, the Minsk City Court sentenced Kanstantsin Zalatykh, CEO of the Belorusy i Rynok newspaper, to four years in prison on charges under four articles of the Criminal Code: Part 2 of Art. 130 (inciting racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord), Part 1 of Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka), Art. 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities), and Part 2 of Art. 426 (exceeding power or official powers). The charges were heard by judge Alena Shylko. Zalatykh was arrested on May 18, 2022. The political prisoner was initially held in the Žodzina pre-trial detention center. At the beginning of August 2022, he was transferred to pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk.
Violations of freedoms of assembly, expression and association under the guise of combating extremism
Viasna prepared a report entitled “Restrictions on freedom of expression under the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism”, which was presented in Vilnius on April 11. The new report focuses on freedom of expression, one of the most important rights that supports independent speech, together with social and political activism. The Belarusian authorities have consistently shrunk the boundaries of rights and freedoms, intensifying these processes after the election of 2020, presenting this under the guise of combating extremism and terrorism.
As of the end of April, the list of persons involved in “extremist activities”, most of whom are those convicted of protest activity and dissent, featured 2,755 names. During the month, the list increased by almost 120 people.
The list of extremist formations, which is updated by the decisions of the KGB and the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, contains 122 items. In April, one new formation was added to it - a Telegram group called “Club 70”.
In April, the National list of extremist materials increased by almost 100 entries. Among them are a medal established by the United Transitional Cabinet with the inscriptions “Honor and Dignity” and “Belarus Above All!”, together with the website and social media accounts of the Intex-Press online newspaper based in Baranavičy.
Persecution of lawyers
On April 10, judge Tatsiana Falkouskaya of the Minsk City Court announced her verdict in the trial of political prisoner Aliaksandr Danilevich, sentencing the lawyer to 10 years in prison. Danilevich was accused of “complicity in calls for sanctions” shared by athletes Aliaksandra Herasimenia and Aliaksandr Apeikin, who were sentenced in absentia to 12 years in prison under Part 6 of Art. 16 and Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code. He was also found guilty of “assistance to extremist activities” (Part 1 of Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code). The charges stem from the lawyer’s involvement in the preparation of complaints for several strike committees, as well as his interview with an “extremist Internet media”. Aliaksandr Danilevich pleaded not guilty and insisted that he was fulfilling his professional duties.
The Ministry of Justice also continued repressions against lawyers. The Ministry’s qualification commission ruled to revoke the licenses of lawyers Barodzka, Hurynovich, and Stsiapanau, after they were expelled from local bar associations (in Minsk and Viciebsk) for “committing offenses incompatible with the title of a lawyer”. Lawyers Alenskaya and Sharstniova were also stripped of their licenses due to “insufficient qualifications”, confirmed by a decision of the qualification commission.
As human rights defenders and experts have repeatedly noted, the interference of the executive authorities in the activities of the bar is not in line with the principles of this independent institution and, as a result, has led to the de facto loss of a large part of its functions.