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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2023

2023 2023-06-02T14:01:35+0300 2023-06-02T14:02:14+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”


  • the negation of human rights, suppression of freedoms and large-scale repressions are still characteristic of the domestic policy of the Belarusian authorities;
  • as of the end of May, there were 1,496 political prisoners in Belarusian penitentiaries; during the month, the human rights community added 54 more people to the list; altogether, Viasna is aware of almost 3,300 persons convicted in politically motivated criminal cases; at the end of February, Prosecutor General Shved announced that the prosecuting authorities had filed charges in courts nearly 3,000 “extremist” cases involving 3,645 people.
  • six members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” continue to be arbitrarily detained: the organization’s chairman, Nobel Peace Prize laurate Ales Bialiatski, member of Viasna’s Board, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” Uladzimir Labkovich, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, and head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka;
  • human rights defender Nasta Loika is in pre-trial detention on arbitrary politically motivated charges;
  • arbitrary arrests are still used to persecute individuals for exercising their civil rights; in May, Viasna became aware of 395 cases of arrest, including about 243 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges ordered at least 82 terms of administrative imprisonment and 48 fines; the rest of the charges are unknown. More than a third of the detainees are women;
  • human rights defenders continue to regularly identify and document use of torture and prohibited treatment in the course of investigating politically motivated criminal cases, as well as prohibited types of treatment of convicts serving criminal and administrative sentences based on politically motivated court decisions;
  • on May 5, political prisoner Mikalai Klimovich died while serving a sentence in penal colony No. 3 near Viciebsk. Klimovich was earlier sentenced to 12 months in prison for reacting on a social media to a caricature of Lukashenka (Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The man had a registered disability of group II due to a heart disease, and about a year ago, he underwent complex heart surgery after suffering a stroke.
  • on May 21, events were held around the world to mark the Day of Political Prisoners of Belarus.
  • on May 11, the OSCE presented its “Report on the serious threat to the OSCE human dimension in Belarus since 5 November 2020” prepared as part of the Moscow Mechanism.

Political prisoners

As of the end of May, there were 1,496 political prisoners held in the penitentiaries of Belarus. Almost three years after the launch of the unprecedented political persecution, the number is still increasing monthly, while some political prisoners have already served their entire sentences and were released. In May, 54 more people were designated as political prisoners by the country’s human rights community (see Statement of May 4; Statement of May 17; and Statement of May 19).

Political prisoners are persons deprived of their liberty as a result of being targeted in cases of criminal persecution for political reasons. The designation of political prisoners is based on the Guidelines on the definition of political prisoners.

In three of the recent known cases, the defendants were convicted in closed court sessions lacking stipulated grounds. Thus, it can be concluded that the rights of these people to a fair and public trial by a competent, independent and impartial court have been violate. The rights are guaranteed to them by both international standards and the Constitution of Belarus.

Courts of appeals fail to fulfill their functions and leave oppressive illegal decisions in force. For example, journalist Andrzej Poczobut’s sentence was left unchanged (8 years in prison).

Political persecution continues after the release of political prisoners. This once again shows the large-scale and incessant political repression aimed at suppressing dissent. Besides this, new terms of imprisonment are still assigned to political prisoners under Article 411 of the Criminal Code for allegedly violating prison rules. Other forms of pressure are widely practiced in prisons.

On March 10, critical vlogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich was sentenced to one more year (in addition to the initial 15 years) for “maliciously disobeying the requirements of a correctional institution” (Article 411 of the Criminal Code).

At the end of May, human rights defenders learned that on April 28, political prisoner Uladzimir Harokh stood trial to see his imprisonment upgraded to maximum-security prison. According to MAYDAY TEAM, the political prisoner was immediately sent to a punishment cell upon arrival at the Mahilioŭ prison.

The three Viasna human rights defenders convicted earlier this year were finally sent to serve their sentences. Valiantsin Stefanovic was sent to correctional colony No. 15 in Mahilioŭ, Uladzimir Labkovich to correctional colony No. 17 in Škloŭ, and Ales Bialiatski to correctional colony No. 9 in Horki. The three penitentiaries are known for acts of torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners.

The trial of human rights defender Nasta Loika will open on June 13. Loika was arrested on October 28, 2022. She is accused under Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting other social enmity). The charge stems from her alleged contribution to a 2018 report on the persecution of the anarchist community in Belarus. The report gives a human rights-based assessment of the activities of police officers.

Political prisoners continue to be held in pre-trial detention for many months, while Belarusian legislation provides for alternative measures of ensuring appearance in court. For example, on May 22, the Minsk regional Court finally opened the trial of Eduard Babaryka, who has been in custody for almost three years.

The Belarusian National Youth Council RADA has calculated the number of young political prisoners (up to 35 years old): 659 young people are behind bars, which is more than a third of all political prisoners in Belarus.

For 110 days, there is no information about Mikalai Statkevich, who is being held in a penal colony in Hlybokaje. Similarly, there is no confirmation about the exact whereabouts of Viktar Babaryka.

On May 5, political prisoner Mikalai Klimovich died while in penal colony No. 3. He was earlier sentenced to a year of imprisonment for his reaction on a social media to a caricature of Lukashenka (Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The man had a registered disability of group II due to a heart disease, and about a year ago, he underwent complex heart surgery after suffering a stroke. Despite this and in the presence of alternative types of punishment not related to deprivation of liberty, judge Andrei Bychyla of the Pinsk District and City Court sentenced him to 12 months in prison, and the Brest Regional Court later upheld the verdict. Mikalai himself, his family and lawyer have repeatedly expressed concern about his health. Before the sentencing, Klimovich said that he might die in prison, as he needed to take a large amount of medication. He was supposed to be under the supervision of a cardiologist, however, in the conditions of a colony, this is obviously impossible.

This case is an example of a violation of the right to life. Political prisoners are often people with disabilities, elderly people and people suffering from serious diseases. Despite this, they continue to be held in the penitentiaries of Belarus. For example, 73-year-old Barys Kuchynsky was sent to a colony for two years after an appeal hearing. Kuchynsky was initially sentenced to three years of restricted freedom (home confinement). However, the prosecutor’s office filed an appeal against the verdict, which was upheld by a regional court.

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

On May 11, one of the most famous Belarusian cultural figures, Pavel Belavus, was sentenced to 13 years in prison and a fine of 18,500 rubles (about $7,300) on four criminal charges, including treason. According to the prosecution, Belavus “spread the ideas of Belarusian nationalism”, conducted “anti-state activities”, and “stimulated the enmity of compatriots against the Motherland”. Pavel was also accused of “leading an extremist formation”, the Belarusian Council of Culture, which was blacklisted seven months after his arrest.

In May, nineteen people were convicted of being involved in the peaceful assemblies of 2020 (under Article 342 of the Criminal Code). A striking case was the conviction of five members of one family for attending a demonstration in 2020.

A woman was arrested after arriving at the Minsk airport on May 18. She was arrested after security officers searched her phone and found photos from the 2020 all-women’s march. Aleh Zayats, a transgender man who had previously been detained many times for expressing his political position, was once again arrested for participating in the peaceful protests of 2020.

The trial of Artur Khlus, which was previously suspended for unknown reasons, was resumed in Hrodna. The paramedic was accused of participating in “mass riots” (Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code), the phrase used by the authorities to describe the peaceful assemblies of 2020, and signing up to the chatbot of the “Victory Plan”, an anonymous association that opposes the de facto authorities of Belarus.

In May, several college students in Žabinka were taken into custody for vandalizing the state flag (Article 370 of the Criminal Code). In reality, the youths removed several flags from local buildings.

A number of arrests and court sentences violated freedom of expression and stemmed from statements against law enforcement officers and insulting officials.

Viasna is aware of four new sentences (Viktar Yaromenka, Dzmitry Bahachenka, Hanna Vavilava, and Hleb Viatoshkin) on charges of “inciting social hatred or discord” (Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code) against law enforcement officers. In the case of Hanna Vavilava, the verdict also concerned “illegal actions regarding information about private life and personal data” (Part 3 of Article 203-1 of the Criminal Code), i.e. the transfer of data of government officials to a protest Telegram channel, and in the case of Hleb Viatoshkin, the court ruling cited both “inciting hatred or discord” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code), and “participation in disturbances” (Article 342 of the Criminal Code).

It is known about four verdicts (Vasil Dzemidovich, Aliaksandr Zanouski, Yury Bubnou, and Alesia Zheliaznouskaya) for “insulting government officials”, three of which concern insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Dzmitry Lazar, who was sentenced to imprisonment in March 2023 for “insulting officials” (Articles 368, 369 and 391 of the Criminal Code), faced new charges of “insulting a judge” (Article 369 of the Criminal Code).

Patrytsyia Svitsina was arrested for attending a peaceful meeting, criticism of law enforcement agencies and anti-war statements. Back in 2020, the woman publicly declined a presidential scholarship. Shortly after her arrest, several pro-government social media accounts published Svitsina’s video confession.

The authorities continue to practice particularly violent arrests violating the law and human rights to exert political pressure on Belarusians. Among those arrested in May, was a school principal in Hrodna Aliaksandr Batsko.

At least five people were arrested in Homieĺ, including a woman. In a video confession posted on Telegram channel affiliated with the security forces, the detainees admit to being subscribed to “extremist” channels. Similarly, at least six people were detained in Hrodna.

Political arrests are almost always marred by cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.

In a video published by propaganda media on May 3, security forces are filming a man lying on the ground and telling him using obscene language that he was arrested for “extremism”, for “carrying flags”, and for “lacking a certificate of vehicle technical inspection”.

On May 26, government-controlled social media accounts reported the arrest of eight people in Lida. They were reportedly forced to burn a white-red-white and faced charges of “distributing extremist content” (Art. 19.11 of Code of Administrative Offenses). Two of them faced criminal charges over their involvement in the 2020 protests.

On May 22, Artur and Marharyta Bartashevich were arrested near Hrodna. They were detained in front of their young children.

Among the systematically violated rights of persons detained for political reasons, of particular concern is the right to inform one’s family about the arrests and report one’s whereabouts, which entails the impossibility of exercising a number of other procedural rights, including the fundamental right to defense. For example, Artur Bashko was arrested on the eve of a serious surgery, and his family did not know where he was; they were only told that he was detained over “politics”.

Former member of the House of Representatives and chairperson of the Belarusian language society, Alena Anisim, was arrested on May 17. Her whereabouts were unknown for many days; later it turned out that she was serving a term of administrative imprisonment.

Administrative persecution is still actively used for political repression. In May, Viasna became aware of 395 cases of detention, including 243 cases of politically motivated administrative persecution. The judges appointed at least 82 terms of administrative imprisonment and 48 fines; the rest of the charges are unknown. The grounds for prosecution were the “distribution of extremist content”, “violating the procedure for holding mass events”, “breaching public order” and “resisting arrest”. Most known detentions took place in Minsk (99), together with the Brest (53), Viciebsk (82), and Homieĺ regions (59). More than a third of the detainees are women.

Violations of rights and freedoms under the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism

In May, the authorities blacklisted as “extremist” several Telegram channels and groups run by local communities in Belarus and abroad. The channels allegedly “posted information on anti-state and extremist topics, including reposts from Internet resources designated as extremist in accordance with the established law.” Similarly, books and other printed products continue to be outlawed for featuring “extremist content”, e.g. a book on the history of Poland and a collection of patriotic Polish songs.

In May, the Ministry of Internal Affairs extrajudicially added 112 people to its list of individuals involved in “extremist activities”. There are currently 2,868 names on the list. Among new entries are Viasna’s Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk, together with other political prisoners, including Yanina Sazanovich, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, and Dzmitry Navosha.

A similar list featuring “extremist organizations” has also been regularly expanded.

For example, Rudabelskaya pakazukha, a local initiative run by blogger Andrei Pavuk, was blacklisted for “public calls for sanctions, discrediting and insulting officials, organization of activities for the preparation of attacks on the sovereignty and public security of the Republic of Belarus.” This decision by the Interior Ministry imposes restrictions on the people who wish to provide the group with information, as they can be viewed as members of an extremist formation and prosecuted under Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (up to 7 years of imprisonment).

A freelance journalist Yauhen Merkis was sentenced to four years in. The political prisoner was accused of creating an “extremist formation” or participating in it (Part 3 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code), as well as of “facilitating extremist activities” (Parts 1 and 2 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code). The trial was held behind closed doors, but according to pro-government media, Merkis was found guilty of sharing information on the movement of military vehicles via Telegram channels and working for the Belsat TV channel, which the authorities earlier designated as “extremist”.

The State Security Committee (KGB) updated the list of persons involved in “terrorist activities”, adding seven new names to the registry. Among them are former presidential candidate Valery Tsapkala, paramedic Artur Khlus, and other political prisoners and convicts in politically motivated trials. As of the end of May, there are 1,051 people on the list. 308 of them are Belarusians.

Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers

As of the end of May, 33 journalists and media workers were imprisoned in Belarus. Viasna continues to monitor the persecution of independent media, journalists and bloggers.

In early May, Andrei Filipchyk, the administrator of a Telegram chat promoting the Belarusian language, stood trial in Minsk. He is accused of participating in peaceful assemblies in 2020 (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code).

Sentences were passed in a criminal trial involving the team of the opposition media Nexta, which consists of a network of Telegram channels. According to the state media, the defendants were charged with committing no less than 1,586 counts of criminal acts, and a claim was filed to cover property damage in the total amount of more than 30 million rubles (about $1,189,000). The defendants were sentenced to 8 to 20 years of imprisonment. Stsiapan Putsila and Yan Rudzik were convicted in absentia.

Aliaksandr Hurnik, the author of the TikTok blog “Belarus in the Window”, where he published humorous comments about Belarusian news, was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in peaceful assemblies in 2020 (Article 342 of the Criminal Code), calls for sanctions against Belarus (Article 361 of the Criminal Code) and insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Article 368 of the Criminal Code).

Yauhen Merkis, a freelance journalist and local historian who covered the 2020 peaceful gatherings, was sentenced in a closed court session to four years in prison.

Violations of freedom of association

The government continues to reduce the number of registered civil society organizations. According to Lawtrend, as of March 31, at least 809 non-profit organizations were in the process of compulsory dissolution or were forcibly excluded from the State Register of Legal Entities and Individual Entrepreneurs. As of the end of March, the number of organizations that chose to self-dissolve was 440. Thus, starting from the post-election period of 2020, the civil society of Belarus has lost least 1,249 institutionalized forms of non-profit organizations (public associations, trade unions, foundations, non-state institutions and associations).

The government launched the process of dissolution of the association “Motorclub NOSOROG”, presumably, for refusing to support pro-government motorcycle events.

It is also known about the beginning of the process of dissolution of a local Roma community in Ašmiany. It is not yet known what is behind the government’s decision to close down the association bringing together more than 200 representatives of the Roma community. Discrimination against Roma in Belarus is still a widespread phenomenon both at the state level and at the household level.

A number of online resources affiliated with Viasna were designated as “extremist”. By doing this, the de facto authorities of Belarus are trying to prevent human rights defenders from disseminating information about the human rights situation in the country.

Torture and other cruel, inhuman or humiliating treatment and punishment

The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is systematically violated during arrest and administrative imprisonment, as well as in a variety of penitentiaries.

On May 7, human rights defenders learned that the staff of all-women’s colony No. 24 in Zarečča, Homieĺ region, used psychological and physical violence against political prisoner Viktoryia Kulsha. It is reported that one of the guards tried to strangle Kulsha with his elbow, and also dragged her around the cell. In addition, she was often insulted and humiliated in front of other guards. Viktoryia declared a hunger strike on several occasions to protest the terrible conditions. Because of this, she has suffered two heart attacks.

On May 24, the official Instagram account of the Department of Law of the Belarusian State University published a video of a public apology by a student, who “confessed” to disseminating “defamatory information regarding the Department”, as well as information “discrediting the Belarusian National Youth Union”, a pro-government association with a branch at the Department of Law. “I fully admit my guilt, I repent,” says the student in the video.

This is the first example of the infamous practice of “video confessions” being used and disseminated by a university.

In her report A/HRC/50/58 of May 4, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus called for an immediate “end to this harmful practice, which may constitute a violation of the right to freedom from degrading treatment, guaranteed by article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

On May 31, human rights defenders issued a statement expressing particular concern about the release of the video by the Belarusian State University.

The Association of Belarusian Students, the RADA association and the Public Bologna Committee also strongly condemned the incident at the Department of Law. This act is not only a violation of the rights and freedoms of students, but also an outrage against academic freedoms.

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