Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2023
- human rights defenders still describe the human rights situation in Belarus as critical; the authorities continue to implement repressive policies, including arbitrary arrests, convictions, torture and other forms of prohibited treatment against protesters, political opponents of the regime and dissidents;
- as of late September, there were 1,490 political prisoners in Belarus; during the month, the country’s human rights community designated 36 more people as political prisoners; about 1,200 political prisoners have been released since 2020 after serving their terms, or having been sentenced to non-custodial criminal penalties; others were released pending trial or pardoned;
- political prisoners are subjected to particularly harsh treatment; their sentences are often extended during or after imprisonment;
- 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, continue to serve their sentences;
- human rights defender Nasta Loika was sentenced to seven years in prison on arbitrary politically motivated charges and is in pre-trial detention awaiting an appeal hearing;
- arbitrary repressions for exercising civil rights continue; in September, Viasna became aware of no less than 386 cases of persecution, including 339 trials. 46 fines were imposed, and 79 terms of administrative imprisonment were issued totaling 945 days;
- Viasna human rights defenders continue to regularly identify and document facts of torture and prohibited types of treatment during the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases, as well as prohibited types of treatment in administrative proceedings;
- The Supreme Court ordered to dissolve without the right to appeal several key opposition parties, including the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada) and the Belarusian Party of the Left Just World; thus, there are currently no registered opposition parties left in Belarus, and out of a total of 15 parties that existed at the beginning of 2023, only 3 remained, with one new party, Belay Rus, having been launched since.
Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders
As of September 30, there are 1,490 political prisoners in Belarus. 164 of them are women. In total, since May 2020, almost 2,700 people have been designated as political prisoners, including those who were subsequently released pending trial or sentenced to a non-custodial penalty, together with those serving the entire term, or being pardoned. About 470 of them are women.
In September, the country’s human rights community designated 36 new people as political prisoners. It is known that 22 political prisoners in custody were sentenced in politically motivated trials. 30 political prisoners completed serving their sentences last month and were released.
To mark the Day of Sports Solidarity on September 30, The Human Rights Center Viasna prepared an overview of the cases of athletes, coaches and other people linked to sports who are now behind bars for their political beliefs.
The most cynical instrument of pressure on political prisoners continues to be the arbitrary extension of imprisonment. For this purpose, Art. 411 of the Criminal Code is used, as it provides for the possibility of punishing with imprisonment for committing several disciplinary offenses. The article inherently violates human rights and is routinely used for political reasons. In particular, political prisoner Dzmitry Sushchyk was convicted in a second criminal trial. 8 days before the end of his one-and-a-half-year sentence for insulting Lukashenka and “vandalizing state symbols,” Sushchyk stood a new trial for breaking prison rules. As a result, he was sentenced to another 1 year and 15 days in prison.
A number of political prisoners belong to vulnerable groups, and deprivation of liberty puts their lives and health at risk. For example, in September, The Brest Regional Court announced its verdict in the trial of Alesia Liantsevich, a therapist and psychology professor accused of “insulting a government official,” “insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka” and “financing the activities of an extremist group.” The woman has several serious health conditions. She also has a suspected terminal disease, which cannot be diagnosed or treated properly while in prison. However, Liantsevich’s health did not in any way affect the verdict. A disabled woman from Orša, Volha Stabrouskaya, was found guilty of “insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka” and sentenced to one year and three months in prison. According to the prosecution, Stabrouskaya liked and posted a brief comment on social media, which was viewed as an insult by a court-commissioned examination.
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 penitentiaries.
On September 19, the Polish Złoty Laur (Golden Laurels) prize for public, cultural and social activities was awarded to Ales Bialiatski. On September 26, Bialiatski became the first laureate of the newly established award by the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
On Ales Bialiatski’s birthday, September 25, an event was held at the Simonas Daukantas secondary school in Vilnius. A mural depicting Bialiatski was earlier painted on the school building. The event was organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Lithuania with the support of The Human Rights Center Viasna.
There is still no accurate information about the condition of several well-known opposition politicians, whom the authorities keep in strict isolation, and therefore they cannot send or receive mail. They are also deprived of the right to telephone calls and visits, including meetings with lawyers; their family members have no information about state of their health. Maryia Kalesnikava, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka and some other political prisoners have been kept incommunicado for many months. Also, almost all political prisoners are significantly limited in correspondence and meetings with relatives and lawyers.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Three years after the peaceful protests following the 2020 presidential election, Belarusian authorities continue to criminally prosecute protesters. In September, ten people were designated as political prisoners, after they were convicted or accused under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (“group actions grossly violating public order”) for their involvement in the peaceful protests of 2020.
On September 11, six people were convicted of participating in a protest in the fall of 2020. On September 19, Minsk geography teacher Iryna Mazharskaya was sentenced to three years of restricted freedom on protest-related charges. On September 15, The Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced Stanislau Sialitski to two years and six months of restricted freedom under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. The sentence was imposed by judge Maryna Klimchuk for the man’s participation in the Peace and Independence March held on August 30, 2020. Sialitski was kept in custody before the trial.
On September 18, the human rights community of Belarus issued a joint statement in which they demanded the full rehabilitation of 150 people convicted of participating in the 2020 post-election peaceful protests under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. For various reasons, these people were not designated as political prisoners at the time of their imprisonment, despite meeting the criteria. Therefore, the statement demands their rehabilitation as former political prisoners and compensation for the damage caused.
Administrative prosecution continues on charges of “unauthorized picketing,” essentially for forms of expression that are not a peaceful assembly, but are equated to such by the authorities. For example, there is a known case of administrative prosecution under Art. 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (“violation of the procedure for organizing or holding mass events”) for publishing on social media a photograph of a peaceful protest in 2020.
The routine suppression of freedom of expression continues through criminal prosecution of various forms of dissent, including criticism of law enforcement agencies. Arrests continue for online comments targeting law enforcement officers, subscriptions to media blacklisted as “extremist”, etc. For example, Ina Tsarova was arrested for wearing white-red-white nail polish. In a report by the state TV channel Belarus 4, the design was described as “prohibited symbols”; later the detainee was charged with participating in a protest in 2020. Aliaksandr Nikanau was sentenced to two years in prison under Art. 368 (“insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus”) and Art. 367 (“defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus”) of the Criminal Code for liking a social media post about Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Violations of rights and freedoms under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism
In September, seven new entries were added to the list of “extremist groups,” including the Svietlahorsk-based TV channel Ranak, the Union of Belarusian Students, and Belarusian Research Center. Earlier, the authorities arrested and imprisoned several people linked to these entities.
The list of persons involved in “extremist activities” has increased by 183 names. There are 3,358 people on the list as of late September.
In September, Viasna documented more than 300 arrests for subscriptions to “extremist accounts”. Many of these arrests were accompanied by the recording of video confessions in which people are forced to admit to being subscribed to “destructive” Telegram channels, participating in the protests of 2020 and other activities that are persecuted by the authorities as disloyalty. Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses is widely used in cases where suspects for political reasons have already been detained, but a criminal case against them has not yet been prepared. Also, this article often serves as a pretext for depriving a person of freedom for a longer period than is provided for by administrative legislation. The practice of being sentenced to several consecutive terms of administrative imprisonment is actively used by the Belarusian authorities for the purpose of politically motivated persecution.
For example, Mikhail Lapunou, the father of political prisoner Mikita Zalatarou, has already spent more than 45 days behind bars. He was sentenced to three consecutive terms under Part 1 of Article 19.11, and on September 8, a court in Homieĺ sentenced him to his fourth term of administrative imprisonment. Mikhail’s son, Mikita, is one of the youngest persons arrested over the 2020 protests. At that time, the 16-year-old teenager with epilepsy was charged with three criminal offenses and eventually sentenced to five years in a juvenile prison. Later, another criminal case was opened against him for allegedly attacking a prison staff member and verbally threatening his family. The total sentence for Mikita was 4 years and 6 months in a penal colony.
Among those arrested under Art. 11.19 are Siarhei Matsiuk, a mechanic from the Miory district, a university student Herman Lebiadzeu; Yauhen Kuhukau and Aleh Lesnikau, ice hockey fans in Mahilioŭ, Pavel Klimasheuski in Lida, and an employee of a microbiological laboratory in Navapolack Henadz Vazmitsel.
A fine under Art. 19.11 was imposed on an 80-year-old local historian and a Nazi concentration camp survivor Anton Bubola based in Vierchniadzvinsk. He was earlier fined 740 rubles under the same article for publishing “extremist content” on Facebook.
In September, the KGB updated the list of organizations and individuals involved in “terrorist activities”, adding ten more people to it, including one citizen of Ukraine. The list features three persons accused of a “terrorist attack” (Article 289 of the Criminal Code). Barys Pukhalski, Ivan Barodzich and a Ukrainian national Ivan Likholat were mentioned in a propaganda report ABC of a Terrorist aired by state television. In addition to them, the list includes those convicted of “inciting hatred” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code) and a man found guilty of “calls for actions against national security” (Article 361 of the Criminal Code).
On September 12, The Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk convicted political prisoner Mikalai Vasilevich in his second trial in three months. In early June, Vasilevich was sentenced to six years in prison for “financing an extremist formation” (Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code) and “financing extremist activities” (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The new trial saw him accused of “financing terrorist activities.” In total, for his donations, he was sentenced to nine and a half years in a penal colony.
Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers
According to the BAJ, at the end of September there were 35 journalists and media workers in prison.
Judge Yauhen Burunou of The Viciebsk Regional Court sentenced videographer Viachaslau Lazarau in a closed session to five and a half years, and his wife Tatsiana Pytko to three years in prison. Lazarau was arrested in February after a search. Later he was charged under Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (promoting extremist activities). Viachaslau’s wife Tatsiana was arrested on June 6. She was accused of participating in the activities of an “extremist group” (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The man was found guilty of collaborating with the Belsat TV channel. The Belarusian Association of Journalists learned that Tatsiana Pytko was also accused of collaborating with the TV channel. The Investigative Committee obtained the videographer’s video archive, which was stored on his computers and phone. The couple’s one-year-old daughter was sent to a children’s hospital for care, but was later handed over to her grandmother.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
Human rights defenders continue to document torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment is systematically violated during arrest, in detention, and in penitentiaries. Former prisoners attest to routine torture and other types of prohibited treatment perpetrated by prison staff and law enforcement officers.
In September, former political prisoner Dzianis Kniazeu told about his imprisonment at a temporary detention center in the spring of 2023: “On the night of May 9, they decided to subject us to cold torture. At night, they opened all the hatches in the doors to the cells, turned on the ventilation to maximum and opened all the doors in the corridor. It was very cold outside. We all thought we were just going to be numb from the cold. Additionally, every half hour a police officer on guard would run down the corridor and hit the door with all his might with his baton and kick it. Because of this, we all shuddered and woke up. After a third time, some people just decided not to go to bed or sleep at all.”
After his release, journalist Yahor Martsinovich recalled in detail the day of his arrest: “On the bedside table, the GUBAZIK officers noticed a bust of Nasha Niva founder, Ivan Lutskevich. A colleague of mine earlier put a boxing helmet on his head for fun. And just when we were about to leave after the search, the most aggressive of the officers came up with a joke. He tried this helmet on me and hit me hard on the head. Well, what is your answer in such a situation? Something like “What are you doing?” or “For what?” I didn’t fall after the first blow, so he did it again. Here I chose to collapse, which caused his genuine joy.”
On September 22, The UN Human Rights Council heard a report of the High Commissioner on the situation of human rights in Belarus. It was announced that in the three years since the 2020 elections, the human rights situation has not improved. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment continue to be used. “In light of the prevailing impunity in the country, Member States should actively support other forms of accountability, notably through national proceedings based on established principles of extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction, consistent with international law,” Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Nada Al-Nashif, said.
The illegal practice of recording public apologies (video confessions) continues.
On September 19, a man was arrested after he used his phone to film a person wearing a PMC Wagner chevron.
In another video, the detainee says that he participated in protests and also texted to the chatbot of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment. The man was later arrested by the police.
Violations of freedom of association
The authorities continue to reduce the number of registered non-governmental organizations and political parties.
On September 15, The Minsk City Executive Committee filed a lawsuit to close down the New Life Church. The government argues that the church was involved in “extremist activities” and, accordingly, violated the law “On Freedom of Religion and Religious Organizations.” The New Life Church is a religious community of Full Gospel Christians that has come under repeated government attacks. The church building, which was rebuilt at the expense of believers, was demolished in June 2023.
On September 20, The Supreme Court, at the request of the Ministry of Justice, ordered to dissolve the opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada).
On September 26, The Supreme Court turned down an appeal by the Belarusian Party of the Left Just World challenging the decision of the Ministry of Justice to re-register the opposition party. Three days later, on September 29, Just World’s leader, Siarhei Kaliakin, announced that The Supreme Court had decided to dissolve the party.
Thus, out of 15 political parties registered in Belarus as of January 1, 2023, only three pro-government parties remained. One more pro-government party, Belaya Rus, was registered in May 2023. All opposition parties have now been legally dissolved.
Support by the Belarusian authorities for Russian aggression, war criminals, persecution for supporting Ukraine and anti-war position
There are still units of the Russian private military company Wagner Group based in Belarus at the invitation of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The Wagner mercenaries were offered the territory and facilities of a former military unit in the Mahilioŭ region.
The deployment of mercenaries accused of committing crimes against humanity defies the opinion of the international community and supporting the war crimes committed. It confirms the validity of accusations of complicity in Russian aggression against Ukraine, and introduces a new element to security threats in Europe. On the other hand, this jeopardizes the safety of citizens of Belarus and creates a threat to national security and sovereignty.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities are purposefully ruthlessly cracking down on people for their anti-war position, support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people and army against the aggressor, in particular for attempts or intentions to join the Ukrainian army.
The KGB reported the arrest of the members of three “combat cells” that allegedly worked for the Security Service of Ukraine under the leadership of a Ukrainian national and planned an explosion at a railway facility in Belarus. A report aired by a state-owned TV channel alleged that a total of six people were arrested on charges of cooperation with the Ukrainian SBU and preparing terrorist attacks. Later, the KGB designate three of the detainees as “terrorists”: Ukrainian citizen Ivan Likholat and two Belarusian nationals, Barys Pukhalski and Ivan Barodzich.
Also in September, human rights defenders became aware of a man arrested after writing to a fake chat bot of the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment created by law enforcement agencies, as well as a man who reportedly verbally insulted a man with a PMC Wagner chevron.
The Belarusian authorities continue to persecute individuals for sharing information about Russia’s military presence in the country. In particular, on September 4, a sentence was passed on political prisoner Andrei Ramanovich under Part 1 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (“promoting extremist activities”) for sending videos of military vehicles to a Telegram channel designated by the authorities as “extremist”. On September 11, Dzmitry Hulin, a retired military officer, stood trial on charges of acting in favor of the Security Service of Ukraine, including leaking information about the movements and deployment of Russian troops.
Repression continues against people who actively express their position in relation to the war started by the Russian armed forces on the territory of Ukraine. It became known that a man was arrested for a tattoo with the Ukrainian coat of arms and the famous Ukrainian resistance slogan “Russian warship, go f… yourself!”