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Belarusians in "covered prisons": how political prisoners continue to be persecuted in penal colonies

2023 2023-11-02T19:09:06+0300 2023-11-02T19:09:35+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Politically motivated sentences with disproportionately high and excessive sentences are not the only method of the authorities' fight against Belarusians. If political prisoners end up in colonies, the pressure on them continues: they are deprived of calls, visits, and care packages; they are placed in a punitive confinement cell (SHIZO) or a punishment cell (PKT). Political prisoners are accused of numerous "violations", for which they are transferred to a prison custody level or have new criminal cases initiated against them under Article 411 of the Criminal Code (malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of a correctional institution). According to human rights activists, as of October 31, 2023, at least 59 political prisoners were transferred to a prison and new criminal cases were initiated against another 29 people under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. Viasna reports how the administration of the colonies punishes political prisoners and which of the political prisoners are recognized as "malicious violators of the order."

Illustration by Eya Mordyakova
Author: Eya Mordyakova

At least 88 political prisoners had their conditions of detention worsened for "violating the internal order of the colony"

At the moment, the human rights defenders of Viasna know the names of 88 political prisoners punished by the administration of the colonies for "violation of the established order" and their fabricated offenses. Of these, the custody level of 59 political prisoners was increased: Mikita Yemialyanau, Ihar Salavei, Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, Aliaksandr Kabanau, Andrei Seviartok, Andrei Tsaronak, Ivan Viarbitski, Ihar Povarau, Siarhei Verashchahin, Mikhail Kalishuk, Andrei Khrenkou, Yauhen Petrachenka, Aleh Yafremenka, Aliaksei Melnikau, Siarhei Rymsh, Hleb Hatouka, Yauhen Afnagel, Yuryi Bialko, Aliaksandr Nurdzinau, Ihar Bukas, Yuryi Chudzinovich, Yauhen Kakhanouski, Yauhen Zashchytau, Aleh RubetsMikalai DziadokUladzimir Kniha, Mikita Zalatarou, Ihar Alinevich, Siarhei Tikhanouski, Dzianis Urad, Yauhen Kharashkevich, Eduard PalchysIhar Pyzhyanau, Dzmitryi SushchykStsiapan LatypauYahor Dudnikau, Dzmitryi PapouAles PushkinArtsiom Sakau, Dzianis Barsukou, Andrei ChudzinauUladzimir Tsyhanovich, Dzmitryi IvashkouViktar Shaur, Aliaksandr Rayentau, Aliaksandr PinchukUladzimir Matskevich, Dzmitryi KubarauUladzislau KaretskiYauhen RubashkaUladzimir Garokh, Siarhei Kapanets, Pavel SeviarynetsAliaksei HamezAliaksandr AranovichAleh Kanavalau, Andrei SacheukaUladzimir Hundar, and Yahor Liankevich. Earlier, former political prisoner Natallia Hershe, who was released on pardon in January 2022, was transferred from the colony to a prison. 

If before the events of 2020 in Belarus only two political prisoners were tried under Article 411 of the Criminal Code: Dzmitryi Dashkevich in 2012 and Mikalai Dziadok in 2015, now political prisoners Mikita Yemialyanau and Viktar Barushka were sentenced to two years of colony under this article, as well as Dzmitryi Karneyeu, who is also serving time for political reasons. Political prisoners Ruslan Akostka, Ivan Zianko, Pavel Piaskou, Alena Hnauk, and Uladzimir Tsyhanovich were sentenced to a year in a penal colony, and political prisoner Tsikhan Osipau was sentenced to seven more months in prison and his custody level was changed from medium to high. Political prisoner from MinskAndrei Navitski was sentenced to four more months in prison and his custody level was changed from medium to high. Recently, Andrei was convicted for the second time in a row under Article 411 of the Criminal Code, but the trial result is still unknown. And political prisoner Yuryi Kavaleu was prescribed compulsory treatment in a psychiatric hospital three days before his release from the colony. Political prisoners Yauhen Prapolski, Pavel Aucharou, and Siarhei Tsikhanouski were sentenced to another year and a half in a penal colony. Political prisoner Siarhei Yarashevich was sentenced to nine more months in addition to 5.5 years in a colony. Siarhei Ramanau was sentenced to 11 months in addition to 20 years in colony. Also, the trials for "malicious disobedience to the requirements of the colony administration" took place regarding Aliaksandr Zaikouski, Andrei Maslau, Yauhen PetrachenkaMaksim Matyrk, and Ivan Viarbitski, but the results are still unknown. Political prisoner Dzmitryi Sushchyk, who was re-detained directly after the expiration of his term under Article 411, was sentenced to one year and 15 days.

In addition, it is known that political prisoner Zmitser Dashkevich, who was supposed to be released after the expiration of his term on July 11, 2023, was immediately re-detained as part of a new criminal case under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. On October 19, the Barysaŭski District Court sentenced him to another year in a penal colony.

Now Uladzimir Kniha, a person involved in the Tikhanouski case, and the owner of the Third Region Belarus YouTube channel Aleh Kanavalau. are being tried for "malicious disobedience to the colony administration".

The first political prisoner in Belarus convicted under this article was Palina Sharenda-PanasiukThe court sentenced her to one more year of imprisonment in addition to two years of imprisonment. But recently a second criminal case was opened against her under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. On October 9, 2023, she was sentenced to another year in a penal colony. In total, during her imprisonment, she was sentenced to four years of incarceration.

Political prisoner Viktoryia Kulsha was convicted twice in a year for "malicious disobedience to the administration of the colony." In total, she was sentenced to two more years of imprisonment.

On August 15, 2022, the Leninski District Court of Mahileu sentenced political prisoner Aleh Yafremenka to another year in a penal colony in addition to four and a half years under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. Recently, a third criminal case was opened against him: again under Part 1 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code. On July 25, a political prisoner was sentenced to another year of imprisonment in Horki.

Political prisoner Viachaslau Maleichuk was also convicted twice in a year for "disobeying the administration of the colony" and received three more years of imprisonment to a total of 22 years in a penal colony.

These political prisoners were put under pressure immediately after the transfer to the colony. Some in the colony could not receive any care packages before being transferred to prison due to the fact that they were placed to a punishment cell (PKT) almost immediately after the transfer. The administration of the colony specifically creates unbearable conditions of detention, and then also worsens their condition by transferring them to a custody level with maximum restrictions, depriving them even of fresh air. At the same time, political prisoner are accused of violations they have never committed. But it is almost impossible for prisoners to appeal against placement in a penal isolation cell or PKT.

Viasna reports what restrictions are applied by the authorities to political prisoners in order to worsen their conditions of detention.

What disciplinary penalties are used in colonies against prisoners?

Almost every day, human rights defenders are informed that the administration of various correctional institutions issues administrative penalties against political prisoners. Administration employees use various fabricated reasons for this: dirty clothes or shoes, an unbuttoned collar, an incorrect greeting of a representative of the administration, unshaven face, and much more. As practice shows, political prisoners are first deprived of calls, visits, and care packages, whose number, according to the Penal Enforcement Code (PEC), is rather limited initially. Then the administration of correctional institutions moves on to tougher punishments: SHIZO and PKT. 

SHIZO in colonies is similar to an ordinary prison cell, where the "shkonka" (bed) is unfastened from a wall only at night from 21:00 to 5:00. One cannot take any personal belongings with them, just toilet paper, soap, a small towel, toothpaste, and a brush. Long-term and short-term visits, telephone conversations, including with the use of video communication systems, purchase of food and basic necessities, receipt of parcels and care packages, sending and receiving letters, use of board games, and smoking are prohibited for prisoners in a punitive confinement cell. Bedding is also not given to them, and they are not taken out for walks (according to Paragraph 1 of Article 114 of PEC). When transferred to a punishment cell, prisoners are given special clothes with SHIZO written on them in huge letters. The maximum term of placement of a prisoner in a punishment cell is 10 days. In order to keep a prisoner there as much as possible, the administration draws up several reports in a row. 

According to the political prisoners, the conditions in SHIZO are very harsh and they can be regarded as torture. Usually the punishment cell is very small and cold. All the time, prisoners are only allowed to either walk around the cell, or sit on a stone "ottoman", as the staff themselves call it. One cannot sit on the floor because a new penalty may be added for this.

In the Homeĺ women's colony No. 4, for example, women's clothes are taken away and a special uniform for the punishment cell is given instead. At the same time, stockings and leggings are taken away, so even in winter prisoners are held there with bare feet. But some found a way out: they wrap their feet with toilet paper. Also, for more than a year and a half, by order of the administration of the colony, political prisoners are not given jackets at night, so they have nothing to cover themselves with. Such conditions are regarded by women as cold torture.

"Five liters of bleach are poured into the punitive confinement cell every morning to poison the convicts. The windows are not closed in any weather, although it can be -30° Celsius outside. Convicts hang a towel over the windows, one of the few things one can keep in SHIZO. Sometimes you have to hang a rag, which you used to wash the bleach off the floor, on the window. For this, they can also draw up a report and add ten days to your punishment. If the toilet or washbasin is poorly cleaned in the cell, then the head of the colony can personally draw up a report, sending the prisoner to SHIZO for another ten days," says a former prisoner of the Navapolatsk colony No. 1.

PKT is a special room in which prisoners sentenced to imprisonment are held, transferred there for malicious violations of the established procedure for serving sentences in correctional colonies. Prisoners are thrown there for up to six months for "systemic violations". There they have the right to shop at the prison store for 37 roubles per month, receive one parcel per six months, and have a daily walk of 30 minutes. Prisoners are also allowed to correspond, but mail is often unreasonably blocked by the censor. These restrictions also apply to prisoners who are placed in solitary confinement. All penalties may be applied to convicted persons transferred to PKT, except for the transfer to PKT (according to Paragraph 8 of Article 113 of the PEC). For example, to transfer from PKT to SHIZO. At the same time, the period of stay in SHIZO is not added to the period of placement in PKT.

"PKT cells, as well as SHIZO ones, can be damp and cold, or just cold. There are only a bench, a table, a washbasin, a toilet, and several metal shelves. In some cells, the bench and table are completely made of metal, and it is simply impossible to sit on such benches for a long time, especially if it is cold in the cell. And it is bearable to be there only in summer and spring. With the onset of cold weather, heating is kept at minimum in order to inflict psychological and physical harm on prisoners. It is impossible to lie or sit in such conditions. You walk in the cell, you squat, you do push-ups or stand for hours near a hot pipe, warming at least your hands. In the evening, your only thought and dream is to get a mattress as soon as possible, which you can lie down on and fall asleep. You are physically and mentally exhausted," a former prisoner of the Babrujsk colony No. 2 recalls.

Who is considered a "malicious violator of the order"?

According to the legislation, a prisoner is recognized as a malicious violator of the order if during the corresponding period they at once committed several violations of the established order of serving a sentence. Namely, if they have at least:

  • four reprimands or four off-duty shifts of cleaning of the premises or territory of the correctional institution;

  • three penalties, one of which is the deprivation of a parcel or care package, as well as the deprivation of a long or short-term visit;

  • two penalties, one of which is the placement of a convicted person in SHIZO.

This imposes additional restrictions on prisoners, the main of which is the reduction of the amount they can spend in a prison shop to 74 rubles per month. With this money, as the prisoners note, it is very difficult to survive in the colony without a salary and with the deprivation of care packages. Recognition as a "malicious violator" brings prisoners closer to a new criminal case under Article 411 of the Criminal Code or to being transferred to a prison custody level. 

According to Paragraph 5 of Article 69 of the Penal Enforcement Code, persons sentenced to imprisonment who maliciously violate the established procedure for serving a sentence may be transferred from a correctional colony for persons imprisoned for the first time and a correctional colony for persons who previously had been imprisoned to a prison for a term not exceeding three years with serving the rest of the sentence in a penal colony with the security level that was chosen in the outcome of the trial.

How are political prisoners punished for "systematic" violations?

Recently, the practice of punishing a prisoner in SHIZO or PKT has been used to further raise the security level and transfer to the so-called "covered prison", or to initiate a new criminal case for malicious disobedience to the requirements of the correctional institution administration under Article 411 of the Criminal Code. These are the two harshest disciplinary punishments provided for by law.

Transfer to prison custody level

The prison custody level is detention in a cell, and, unlike in a penal colony, prisoners are constantly locked in four walls. People can do time in their cells 24/7 for years with the same three to twelve people.

The "covered prison" has two security levels: high and general. Immediately after arriving at the prison, the prisoner is assigned a high security level, and they can be transferred to the general one only after six months (by the decision of the head of the facility). Pregnant women and those who have minor children, as well as convicts with disabilities of group I and II cannot be assigned a high security level.

This security level provides for the maximum number of restrictions for the convicted person. At the same time, its internal regulations describes what prisoners are allowed, that is, everything else is forbidden to them.

The general security level allows to shop for 74 roubles; to have two short-term visits per year; to receive one parcel or care package and two packets or two small packages per year; to walk daily in the inner yard for up to an hour and a half. The high security level allows to shop for one 37 roubles; to have one short-term visit per year; to receive one parcel or one small package per year; to walk daily in the inner yard for up to one hour. 

But the prison administration can deprive of all this for "violations". The pressure on prisoners does not end even after the security level is raised. For example, political prisoner Mikita Yemialyanau was often placed in SHIZO in Mahileu prison No. 4, where he was kept for more than a month, deprived of visits and calls. In addition, for numerous "violations" committed in the "closed prison", a criminal case was opened against the political prisoner for malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the correctional institution.

The decision to raise the security is made by the court. A prisoner can only be sent to a "covered" prison for up to three years, therefore, if the sentence is longer, then after prison the prisoner is returned to the colony and to the security level that was originally appointed by the court. The prison administration collects documents that allegedly confirm the violation of the order by the prisoner, and passes them to the court. After that, the prisoners are transferred from the colony to a "covered" prison. There are three of them in Belarus: Hrodna prison No. 1, Mahileu prison No. 4, and Žodzina Investigative Prison No. 8.

Criminal case for malicious disobedience to the colony administration 

According to the Criminal Code, those prisoners who were given disciplinary punishment in the form of transfer to PKT, solitary confinement, or to a "covered" prison during a year for violating the order of serving a sentence are held liable under article 411 of the Criminal Code. Under this article, prisoners can be sentenced to imprisonment for up to one year, and up to 2 years for a particularly dangerous repeated offense.

Human rights activists have been fighting for many years to exclude article 411 from the Criminal Code. According to it, the authorities punish prisoners who have committed disciplinary violations in correctional institutions, but, at the same time, have already been punished for them by SHIZO or PKT. 

Viasna lawyer Pavel Sapelka has long drawn attention to the fact that the practice of punishing prisoners under Article 411 of the Criminal Code for the same offenses for which they have already been disciplined violates the well-known principle of "non bis in idem", meaning that no one should be punished twice for one act. Therefore, it contradicts both the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

In addition, penalties for violations are imposed out of court by officials of prisons and correctional colonies, i. e. the employees of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Therefore, in relation to prisoners, this is often arbitrary and does not correspond to the severity of the offense.

Political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok was also tried under this article during his last imprisonment in 2015. Then, five days before his release, his sentence was extended for one year in the colony. After that, he handed over an open letter from prison with his thoughts on the verdict:

"The Constitution, the Criminal and Penal Codes of Belarus declare a lot of good principles and rights, but they all remain trampled in the mud while Article 411 of the Criminal Code is in force in Belarus, allowing a person to be sent to a colony for 1 year (or 2 years under the second part of this article) for wearing or not wearing a piece of clothing, for talking to a cellmate." 

It follows from practice that the term of a political prisoner depends not only on the court's decision, but also on the desire of the Interior Ministry staff to worsen the conditions of serving the term as much as possible, including extending it.

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