Human Rights Situation in Belarus: August 2023
- the profound human rights crisis continues to shape the situation in Belarus; the authorities’ repressive policies include arbitrary arrests, convictions, torture and other forms of prohibited treatment of political opponents of the regime and dissidents;
- as of the end of August, there were 1,496 political prisoners held in the detention and penal facilities of Belarus; during the month, the country’s human rights community designated 69 people as political prisoners; about 1,000 political prisoners have been released since 2020 after serving their sentences, being released to await trial or facing a non-custodial sentence or following a pardon.
- members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, are serving their sentences in penal colonies;
- Nasta Loika, a prominent human rights defender, was sentenced to seven years in prison on arbitrary politically motivated charges and is currently awaiting an appeal hearing;
- repression continues against individuals for exercising their civil rights; in August, Viasna became aware of at least 615 cases of political persecution. At least 307 administrative cases were considered, resulting in at least 98 terms of administrative imprisonment and 65 fines;
- Viasna’s human rights defenders continue to regularly identify and document facts of torture and prohibited types of treatment in the course of investigations of politically motivated criminal cases, as well as prohibited types of treatment in administrative proceedings;
- the Belarusian authorities designated Viasna as an “extremist formation”, which carries criminal prosecution, both for the human rights defenders and their clients;
- well-known opposition parties, the BNF Party and the United Civil Party, were dissolved by the Supreme Court without the right to appeal.
Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders
As of August 31, there were 1,496 political prisoners in Belarus. The total number of people listed as political prisoners since May 2020, including those subsequently released, is almost 2,500. In total, since August 2020, according to available data, at least 4,898 people have faced politically motivated criminal prosecution and at least 3,763 people have been convicted in politically motivated criminal trials.
In August, the human rights community designated 69 people as political prisoners.
In early August, Viasna shared the stories of politically imprisoned teenagers who ended up in penal facilities. As of the end of August, there are 11 convicts who were designated as political prisoners while being under age; some of them are still under 18.
In August, the authorities continued to tighten the imprisonment conditions for political prisoners.
Dzmitry Dubouski was transferred a prison, the maximum possible security level, as opposed to a regular penal colony.
The authorities regularly penalize political prisoner Andrei Sacheuka. He was sent to a cell-type facility for two months around the beginning of August. Prior to this, Sacheuka was kept for 23 days in a punishment cell. The prisoner was told that he would be sent to a cell-type room for “wrong views.”
Stsiapan Latypau was reportedly under increased pressure in prison over public attention to his case. Now the political prisoner is being held in solitary confinement. He can only receive letters from his family members.
Some political prisoners sentenced to long terms are being charged with new criminal offenses. For example, political prisoner Aliaksei Kudasau, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison, was convicted in a new criminal case, Part 2 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation of an extremist formation committed repeatedly). The trial was held behind closed doors, so the details of the case are unknown.
Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk is prosecuted under Article 411 of the Criminal Code; for the period of the investigation, she is imprisoned in a pre-trial detention center, where she is forced to seek observance of her rights through a hunger strike.
In total, at least 28 political prisoners were arbitrarily sentenced to additional terms of imprisonment under Article 411 of the Criminal Code.
Viachaslau Maliaichuk was sentenced to 22 years in prison on dubious charges of “organizing acts of terrorism”. He was sent to serve his sentence in the Vaŭkavysk-based colony No. 11. On February 10, Maliaichuk was tried under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code for “malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the colony”, after which he was transferred to correctional colony No. 9 in Horki. It has now become known that on August 23, the political prisoner stood trial while in the new penitentiary on charges under Part 2 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code. The charge was heard by judge Alena Varabyiova.
Lawyers of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” wrote to the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus in connection with the abuse by the authorities of the possibility of conviction under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. The human rights defenders believe that it should be excluded from the Criminal Code, since prosecuting under Article 411 violates a person’s right to personal freedom and the right not to be tried or punished twice.
There is still no exact information about the fate of well-known opposition politicians, whom the authorities are keeping in strict isolation, including by blocking their mail, depriving them of the right to phone calls conversations and family visits and meetings with the lawyers, while their relatives have no information about state of their health: Maryia Kalesnikava, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka and some other political prisoners have been held incommunicado for several months already. Also, almost all political prisoners are significantly limited in correspondence and meetings with relatives and lawyers.
The political persecution of political prisoners continues even after their release. This once again shows the wide scale and continuity of political repression in order to suppress dissent.
Viasna human rights defenders Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Ales Bialiatski, Marfa Rabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chepyuk are still serving their arbitrary sentences of imprisonment.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
The practice of criminal and administrative prosecution of participants in peaceful protests remains widespread. The identification and prosecution of participants in the 2020 protests continues. Viasna has summed up the results of protest-related criminal cases since the summer of 2020.
On August 4, the Žlobin District Court considered the criminal case of Daryia Karablina, accused under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for participating in a protest that took place in the city on August 9, 2020. The case was considered by judge Sviatlana Rubakhava. Karablina was sentenced to 18 months of restricted freedom under home confinement.
In isolated case, arbitrary punishment is imposed only for calling to participate in protests. Aliaksei Mileuski was arrested on May 3, and under Art. 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (distribution of “extremist products”) he was punished with 15 days of administrative imprisonment, after which the man was not released, but faced criminal charges under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order) for the comments he allegedly posted back in 2020. On August 2, Andrei Papraukin, judge of the Saviecki District Court of Homieĺ, sentenced Mileuski to a year of imprisonment in a penal colony.
The courts hand down harsh sentences for statements against government officials. On August 7, a sentence was passed on Aliaksandr Bireta in the court of the Hrodna region. Judge Vital Sinila sentenced him to two years in a colony. Bireta faced a total of six charges, including “insulting Lukashenka”, “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order”. Judge Natallia Kozel sentenced the defendant to two years’ imprisonment in a penal colony.
On August 8 and 9, the Brest District Court considered the criminal case of Mikhail Litvak. The man was charged under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code for allegedly “publicly insulting a representative of the authorities”. Since June 19, Litvak has been held in custody. He was accused of posting a message in a Telegram chat, which was viewed as a “public insult” to riot police commander Valiantsin Pashkevich, namely, he used the word “moron”. Despite the fact that Litvak has two minor children, judge Siarhei Maruchak sentenced him to a year in a penal colony.
On August 14, the Homieĺ Regional Court started hearing in a closed court session the criminal charges against Piotr Staratsitarau, accused of a number of protest-related charges, including “insulting Lukashenka”, “calls for sanctions” and “discrediting the Republic of Belarus”.
On August 16, the Baranavičy District and City Court passed a sentence on Andrei Khalupka, accused of insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code). Khalupka was accused of liking on the Odnoklassniki social media the caricature images of Lukashenka, in which he was shown as a clown, a monkey, and also in a pit together with Vladimir Putin. The defendant was imprisonment for a period of one year in a colony.
Other forms of expression are also being persecuted. On August 1, the Kamianiec District Court sentenced two political prisoners to imprisonment for damaging three flags. 18-year-old Zakhar Siniakou was sentenced to a year and a half in a penal colony, and 19-year-old Yelisei Kuzniatsou – to two and a half years.
The prosecution insists on a disproportionately harsh punishment for expressing opinions. On May 30, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Hleb Viatoshkin (five years of restricted freedom under home confinement), accusing him of “inciting other social hatred or discord” (Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code) and “organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or participation in them” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). On June 8, the prosecutor’s office filed an appeal demanding a stricter sentence. The Supreme Court eventually upheld the claim, appointing a year and a half in a correctional colony.
Politically motivated arrests and convictions are still routinely marred by gross violations of civil rights.
The Minsk City Court considered the case of Ihar Papou. For his comments online, the man was sent for compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital with strict supervision. Judge Valiantsina Ziankevich issued the decision on May 12. This type of treatment is selected for persons who pose a particular danger to society. In Papou’s case, these “socially dangerous acts” are “insulting Lukashenka”, “insulting a representative of authority” and “threat of violence against a police officer.” The convict was also arbitrarily blacklisted as a “person involved in extremist activities.”
Administrative persecution is still actively used in political persecution. In August, Viasna became aware of 615 cases of arrests and other administrative repression, including 114 against women. The known cases are unevenly distributed among the regions: 65 – Brest region; 46 – Hrodna region, 110 – Minsk and Minsk region, 118 - Homieĺ region, 36 - Viciebsk region, and 36 - Mahilioŭ region.
On the anniversary of the events of August 2020, Viasna summed up the cases of administrative persecution. Since the 2020 election, there have been at least 46,700 of known cases.
Administratively, individuals are persecuted mainly for using protest symbols and for reposting “extremist materials”.
Judge Tatsiana Kuklina of the court of the Vierchniadzvinsk district imposed a 10-day jail term for truck driver Aliaksandr Kavalenka, who was charged with “holding a picket”. According to the court, Kavalenka placed on his dashboard a pennant with a white-red-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms. The “offense” was reported by customs officers. At the trial, the driver said that he had never opposed the current government.
By the same principle, 75-year-old Viciebsk activist Barys Khamaida was sentenced to 15 days of administrative imprisonment for presenting a passport with the Pahonia coat of arms on the cover.
Violations of rights and freedoms under the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism
Members of various communities are being prosecuted under the guise of combating extremism. However, the arbitrary nature of the decision-making on the designating of certain entities as “extremist formations” and the classification of an extremely wide range of social and political activity as extremist suggest that in all known cases the persecution is politically motivated.
In August, 5 entities were blacklisted as “extremist formations”. In total, the list now contains 144 entries.
In August, about 90 people were added to the list of persons involved in “extremist activities”, which features those convicted of protest-related offenses. The list now has 3,178 names.
The list of “extremist materials” has been supplemented with more media resources and books, based on more than 70 court decisions.
These lists trigger arbitrary persecution for belonging to extremist groups and their support, including restriction of rights, and administrative prosecution.
On August 17, the Homieĺ Regional Court convicted Yury Tashkinau. He was accused of “inciting other social hatred or hostility” (Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code) and “financing the activities of an extremist group” (Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code). The case was handled by judge Aliaksandr Piskunou. According to investigators, Tashkinau “posted negative comments about state media journalists”, and also allegedly transferred about $100 to the Bysol Solidarity Fund. After the start of the large-scale invasion of Russian troops into Ukraine, the Homieĺ resident spoke out on social media against the war and published reports on humanitarian assistance to residents of Chernihiv region, which was occupied in early spring 2022. The judge sentenced Tashkinau to three years in a penal colony.
After the start the war, Anastasia Petrachenka moved from Belarus to Poland. While in the neighboring country, she tried to donate $16.71 from her Belarusian bank account to the Kalinouski regiment, but the transaction failed. Later, Petrachenka decided to return to Belarus, where she was arrested. As a result, the woman was accused of “attempting to finance an extremist formation” under Part 1 of Art. 14 and Part 1 of Art. 361-2 of the Criminal Code. On June 14, judge Ruslan Tsaruk sentenced the political prisoner to three years in a penal colony.
On August 24, in the Minsk City Court sentenced Artsiom Liabedzka, son of a veteran opposition politician Anatol Liabedzka, to three years and six months in a penal colony. He was accused of “financing the activities of an extremist formation” under Art. 361-2 of the Criminal Code for donations to three solidarity funds in 2020.
Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers
According to the BAJ, as of the end of August, 33 journalists and media workers were being held in detention and penal facilities of Belarus.
Yuliya Dauletava, editor of the Ranak media company, was arrested in Svietlahorsk. A number of Ranak employees were arrested back in June, and later fined under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for subscribing to an Odnoklassniki group labelled as “extremist”. The arrests occurred after the media was the first to report on an explosion and several deaths at the city’s bleached pulp plant.
In late August, pressure was reportedly exerted on the journalists of the Hancavicki Čas newspaper for an article criticizing the cutting down of trees in the city center. Reporter Sviatlana Malyshka was summoned to a conversation at the police department. Another employee, Siarhei Bahrou, was also invited to the Hancavičy police.
Aliaksandr Ihnatsiuk, a freelance journalist, a video blogger and the owner of the site and TikTok account “Pra Stolin”, was arrested in August. He was placed in the Brest SIZO-7 facility. According to unverified information, he is charged with “facilitating extremist activity” (Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code).
As a disciplinary punishment for allegedly violating internal rules, political prisoner and journalist Andrzej Poczobut was transferred to a cell-type facility for the next six months on a far-fetched basis. The journalist’s wife, Aksana Poczobut, shared a letter from her husband, in which he reported poor health, high blood pressure, and heart failure.
On August 31, the Homieĺ Regional Court passed a harsh sentence on journalist and cultural activist Larysa Shchyrakova. She was charged under Art. 369-1 of the Criminal Code (discrediting the Republic of Belarus), and Parts 1 and 2 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (assistance to extremist activity and the same action carried out repeatedly). The trial was held behind closed doors. Judge Mikalai Dolia found the journalist guilty and sentenced her to three and a half years in a penal colony. Part of her property was also ordered to be confiscated. As a result, the political prisoner is separated from her minor son.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
Human rights defenders continue to document torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.
The practice of recording humiliating videos for subscribing to media resources labeled as “extremist” and for any other expression of disagreement with the current authorities continues. In particular, several pro-government Telegram channels published a video of the detention of a man in Hrodna, who reportedly distributed “extremist” content and was registered in the Peramoha chatbot. It is also known that in mid-August, law enforcement officers recorded a video confession featuring a man from Brest who has three minor children and who was convicted of “insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka and officials”.
Often, the forcibly recorded videos are accompanied by violence, as in many videos, the detainees have bruises and other injuries. In particular, Uladzimir Paulavets had a hematoma and bruises on his face.
In August, the notorious propagandist Ryhor Azaronak began to contribute to the recording of videos confessions. Azaronak came to the GUBAZIK department to record a video with the detained 38-year-old Natallia Kruk.
It is reported that a series of violent arrests took place detentions took place at the Neman factory in Biarozaŭka, after a former KGB officer was appointed deputy director for ideology. About 10 employees were arrested by riot police at their workplace and later sent to do unpaid work at a landfill. The workers were reportedly targeted for complaining about low salaries, as well as about being denied vacation.
Political prisoners continue to face ill-treatment while serving their sentences.
Viktoryia Kulsha, who twice faced criminal charges of “disobeying the requirements of the colony administration”, was beaten in penal colony No. 24. One of the guards reportedly strangled the woman with his elbow, dragging her around the cell. In addition, Kulsha was on several hunger strikes to protest the terrible conditions. Because of this, she had two heart attacks.
Violations of freedom of association
The authorities continue to reduce the number of registered non-governmental organizations and political parties.
On August 14, the Supreme Court upheld a claim by the Ministry of Justice and dissolved the opposition BPF Party, registered since 1993.
On August 15, the Supreme Court closed down the United Civil Party, whose chair, political prisoner Mikalai Kazlou, is serving his sentence in a penal colony.
The marginal pro-government Social Democratic Party of People’s Accord and the Republican Party were also de-registered.
At the suit of the Ministry of Justice, the largest Belarusian animal rights group, SaveUs, was closed down on August 23. The organization was the first fundraising platform in Belarus and was engaged in helping homeless animals.
It is also known about the ongoing liquidation and self-dissolution of a number of other associations.
By a decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of August 23, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” was designated as an “extremist formation”. The decision was yet another piece in the ongoing pressure on human rights defenders to force them to abandon their legitimate activities, as well as one of the ways to reduce the possibilities for people to seek Viasna’s assistance. The country’s human rights community issued a statement demanding to cancel the decision and similar decisions targeting other civil society organizations, to bring the legislation on countering extremism in line with international human rights standards, to stop the practice of labelling organizations and initiatives as extremist without reasonable and proportional grounds, as well as the practice of blacklisting human rights content as “extremist materials”.
Persecution of lawyers
The Ministry of Justice ruled to terminate the licenses of lawyers Yauhen Liaukovich and Alena Khalupka, after they were penalized by local bar associations for allegedly committing misconduct incompatible with the title of a lawyer. Lawyers Siarhei Mzidzvedzeu, Larysa Suslikava, and Mikhail Tarasiuka was stripped of their licenses after the Ministry’s qualification commission said that they were unfit to perform their professional duties due to insufficient qualifications.
Support by the Belarusian authorities for Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, war criminals, persecution for supporting Ukraine and anti-war position
At the invitation of Aliaksandr Lukashenka, subdivisions of the Russian private military company Wagner Group are still based in Belarus, after they were allowed to be stationed at the former military unit in the Mahilioŭ region.
The deployment in Belarus of mercenaries accused of committing crimes against humanity is an act of ignoring the opinion of the international community and supporting committed war crimes, confirming the validity of accusations of the official Minsk’s complicity in Russian aggression against Ukraine, and introducing a new element to security threats in Europe. On the other hand, it endangers the security of the citizens of Belarus, creating a threat to national security and sovereignty.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities are ruthlessly cracking down on individuals for their anti-war position, support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people and the army against the aggressor, in particular, for attempts or intentions to join the military units of the defenders of Ukraine.
In particular, on August 15, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court passed a sentence on Uladzimir Tychynski. Judge Pavel Klimau found the man guilty of “assisting extremist activity” (Part 1, Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code). Tychinsky was accused of filming the movement of Russian military convoys and sending the video to a media outlet, which was blacklisted as “extremist”. The court sentenced the man to two and a half years in a penal colony.