Pavel Sapelka: “Era of arbitrary rule will end, and those responsible will inevitably face the consequences”
June 26 is recognized as the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. On this day in 1987, the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment came into effect. In Belarus, citizens who dissent from the government have been widely tortured for almost three years. Today, as the world’s attention has shifted to the war in Ukraine, it’s crucial to discuss the incidents of cruel and inhumane treatment of those held captive.
In the latest interview, Viasna lawyer Pavel Sapelka, speaks about new forms of torture in Belarus, the importance of documenting instances of torture, and how this can impact the situation. He also shares what specifically Viasna is doing to combat the cruel treatment by authorities and why it is crucial to publicly expose cases of pressure on political prisoners in places of detention.
What types of torture are Belarusians predominantly facing in places of incarceration currently? Have any new forms of torture emerged in Belarus over the past year?
PS: Today, we are learning about increasingly cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment, bordering on and often amounting to torture, associated with being in places of incarceration. This applies to everything from detention centers where individuals are held for administrative offenses to prisons, investigative isolators, and colonies with their own “internal prisons,” — such as disciplinary isolation cells and penal cell-type facilities. There, inmates are subjected to beatings, uncomfortable temperatures, being kept in awkward positions, solitary confinement without the ability to occupy themselves, or on the contrary, being harassed by the staff of the penal institutions, being subjected to provocations and forced labor.
What was new was the placement of convicts in complete isolation conditions, where even close relatives do not know about their fate for several months.
What is the difference between torture and cruel treatment?
PS: According to the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the term “torture” means “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
In addition, each State Party “shall undertake to prevent in any territory under its jurisdiction other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture as defined in article I, when such acts are committed by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
Thus, torture always has specific purposes, as indicated in the definition, whereas other prohibited treatments might not; torture inflicts severe pain or suffering, while other prohibited treatments may inflict less suffering but are also prohibited.
The rule of law has collapsed in Belarus, and there’s a general sentiment of ‘no regard for laws.’ Repression isn’t decreasing, and Belarusians continue to be detained for political reasons and subjected to torture. Is there any sense in documenting these instances of torture now, and what can it affect?
PS: Every era of arbitrary rule will end, and those responsible will inevitably face the consequences. Impunity breeds new acts of torture and cruel treatment. We must create a new reality where there’s no room for forgetfulness and irresponsibility. The guilty will not escape punishment, even if the Belarusian authorities destroy the archives; their crimes are documented according to the standards of criminal proceedings and securely stored. It’s only a matter of time before Belarus’s isolation will no longer provide salvation for those suspected of crimes against humanity. The political landscape can sometimes change rapidly, and the outcomes of these changes might come as an unwelcome surprise to those relying on the patronage of the Belarusian or Russian regimes.
Another critical factor is this: we need to know all the victims of torture and cruel treatment so that we can provide help and support. This is the duty of the state, a duty that it’s not fulfilling, so we are stepping in to carry out this function on its behalf, as is the case with investigations.
How long has Viasna been dealing with the issue of torture in Belarus? How central is this issue to the organization’s activities? What exactly do members of Viasna do to combat torture?
PS: The human rights defenders of Viasna align with the thesis embedded in the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which states that all human rights and fundamental freedoms are universal, indivisible, interdependent, and interconnected and should be promoted and implemented on a fair and equal basis without detriment to the realization of each of these rights and freedoms. Our organization has always paid great attention to combating torture and ill-treatment. The rights defenders have explained to the public the relevant concepts, thus conveying to everyone the norms in the field of human rights, including the absolute inadmissibility of violating the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment. We have spoken out against torture and illegal treatment in places of detention and against those who exercise their rights and freedoms. We have also supported individual strategic cases, pushing for accountability for the guilty. We’ve warned that laws not providing adequate guarantees and the absence of national mechanisms to prevent torture will lay the groundwork for such tactics. As torture and impunity have become integral and evident elements of state policy, we are directing significant parts of our organization to combat torture in its various forms.
In your opinion, should incidents of torture and pressure in places of imprisonment be made public when a person is detained there? Why is it important to publicize the arbitrary actions of law enforcement and staff at institutions where political prisoners are serving their sentences?
PS: We must make information about human rights situations, including the right not to be subjected to torture, as accessible and transparent as possible. This ensures that all political and international actors are aware of the reality in Belarus and that all appropriate political and economic actions consider this situation. Threats and attacks will not deter us; we know our mission well and will fulfill it. Meanwhile, we handle information confidentially, as conveyed to us by victims, their relatives, and friends, and preserve our trust. We only use this knowledge to analyze and assess the situation. We also urge those not yet ready to entrust us with information about torture to document and preserve it independently, with the same objectives as ours – to ensure inevitable justice for the guilty.
The Human Rights Center Viasna has been cooperating with the Danish organization Dignity -Institute against Torture in documenting torture since 2020. In 2021, the International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB) was established. There is already ample evidence of gross human rights violations that constitute crimes under international law. Since April 1, 2021, Viasna and the International Committee have collected information and testimonials from 1030 victims. What will happen next with this data?
PS: The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report notes that the OHCHR is aware of efforts to initiate criminal proceedings in at least six national jurisdictions outside Belarus based on principles of universal or extraterritorial jurisdiction. The efforts to gather, document, and preserve evidence of violations must continue contributing to future legal prosecutions. The High Commissioner also called on member states to work towards accountability through trials in national courts based on universally accepted principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, depending on circumstances and in accordance with international law, and concurrently explore further targeted measures against alleged culprits of severe violations and humiliations of human rights.
Another crucial recommendation in this context is to provide, where necessary, additional measures to protect victims, witnesses, and others who have been forced to leave the country or have been deported, as well as those cooperating with investigative authorities.
What international organizations can Belarusians who have been subjected to torture or cruel treatment now turn to?
PS: Generally, after the denunciation of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the UN Human Rights Committee can no longer consider new reports of Covenant violations by the Belarusian authorities. Also, Belarus has not granted individuals within its jurisdiction the ability to submit individual complaints about Belarus’s breaches of the Convention Against Torture. As such, the only remaining available avenues are the UN’s special procedures and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, where one can submit reports of violations of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. We at Viasna are always ready to provide remote consultation on the available options and assist in preparing documents for submission to international bodies.