Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2023
- human rights defenders continue to document arbitrary arrests, convictions, torture and other types of prohibited treatment against protesters, political opponents of the regime and dissidents; all these types of persecution are the key components of the repressive policies of the authorities; thus, the human rights situation in Belarus remains critical;
- as of late October, 1,473 political prisoners were deprived of their liberty in Belarus; during the month, the country’s human rights community designated 30 more people as political prisoners; about 1,300 political prisoners have been released since 2020, after serving their prison terms, being released pending trial, sentenced to a non-custodial sentence, or pardoned;
- political prisoners are subjected to particularly harsh treatment while in detention, as they face arbitrarily selected disciplinary penalties resulting in inhumane conditions, and their terms of imprisonment are often extended;
- 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 terms of imprisonment;
- human rights defenders Nasta Loika, who was earlier sentenced to seven years in prison on arbitrary and politically motivated charges, lost her appeal after a hearing held at the Supreme Court on October 3. Following the ruling, the activist was transferred to penal colony No. 4;
- the government continues to widely apply arbitrary repression for exercising civil rights; in October, Viasna became aware of no less than 394 administrative trials, which imposed 87 fines and 105 terms of administrative imprisonment. The largest number of known cases are in Minsk and the Homieĺ region;
- human rights defenders of Viasna and other human rights organizations 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 of detainees in administrative proceedings;
- Belarus continues to persecute individuals for political reasons under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism;
- another death sentence has been passed in Belarus.
Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders
As of October 31, there were 1,473 political prisoners in Belarus. 163 of them are women. In total, since May 2020, almost 2,800 people have been designated as political prisoners, including those who were subsequently released pending trial, sentenced to a non-custodial sentence, completing their sentences, or pardoned. About 490 of them are women.
In October, the country’s human rights community added 30 people to the list of political prisoners. The human rights defenders also demanded the rehabilitation of 39 former political prisoners, i.e. those who, during the period of imprisonment, met the criteria of political prisoners, but were not listed since information about them was not available to human rights activists.
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.
Human rights defender Nasta Loika was transferred to penal colony No. 4 in Homieĺ, an all-women penitentiary holding dozens of female political prisoners, after the Supreme Court rejected her appeal on October 3. On October 12, the KGB added Loika to the “list of terrorists.”
There is still no accurate information about the whereabouts and wellbeing of several well-known opposition politicians held incommunicado in penitentiaries across the country, including Maryia Kalesnikava, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and Viktar Babaryka. They are deprived of the right to telephone conversations and visits, including the right to see their lawyers. Meanwhile, nearly all political prisoners are significantly limited in correspondence and meetings with relatives and lawyers.
Human rights activists have collected known facts of persecution of political prisoners after their sentencing, as a result of which they were transferred to prison, i.e. the maximum tightening of the detention conditions, or were sentenced to an additional term of imprisonment.
One of the most cruel and cynical instruments of pressure on political prisoners is the arbitrary extension of their terms of imprisonment on the fabricated charges of “malicious disobedience” under Art. 411 of the Criminal Code, which provides for the possibility to extending imprisonment for up to two years for committing repeated disciplinary offenses. The charge inherently violates human rights and is actively used for political reasons. On October 9, judge Stanislau Ivaniutsenka found political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, who was earlier sentenced to three years in prison, guilty of “malicious disobedience to the colony administration” and sentenced her to another year in prison. At the very first court hearing, the political prisoner reported being beaten while in penal colony No. 24, as her face was bruised and her internal organs were reportedly severely damaged. Sharenda-Panasiuk was transferred to the penitentiary after in 2022 she was convicted of the same charge, i.e. “malicious disobedience”, while serving her initial sentence at penal colony No. 4 in Homieĺ. But for the new charges, the activists should have been released in early August 2022.
On October 18, the Barysaŭ District Court repeatedly convicted political prisoner activist Dzmitry Dashkevich, who was supposed to be released on July 11. Instead, Dashkevich was charged under Art. 411. Judge Tatsiana Dzeravianka sentenced the political prisoner to another year in prison under enhanced security conditions.
Human rights defenders publish weekly reviews of the situation with political prisoners. The latest update reported that political prisoner Dzmitry Rezanovich, earlier sentenced to 19 years in prison, was transferred to a cell-type facility until next March. It was previously reported that Rezanovich was repeatedly placed in a punishment cell, and was also deprived of family visits and food and medical packages and was threatened with being transferred to a maximum-security prison. Yahor Liankevich and Uladzimir Hundar were transferred to maximum-security prisons. Viktoryia Kulsha was again placed in a punishment cell. The same penalty was imposed on Ihar Alinevich, Mikita Yemialyianau, and Mikalai Statkevich.
A number of political prisoners belong to vulnerable groups, and deprivation of liberty puts their lives and health at risk.
In particular, the prison authorities still refuse to inform Ryhor Kastusiou of the results of his oncology tests. According to his son-in law, the political prisoner was finally allowed to call his family after spending 10 days in a punishment cell. The 66-year-old former leader of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front Party was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in prison, Kastusiou’s health significantly deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with cancer.
On October 2, the Babrujsk City and District Court convicted 62-year-old Ala Zuyeva. Judge Volha Serakova found her guilty under Art. 369 (insulting a government official) and Part 1 of Art. 368 (insulting Lukashenka) and sentenced the woman to two and a half years in prison, despite the fact that Zuyeva has a blood cancer.
Vasil Berasneu, a political prisoner convicted in a trial involving several independent trade union activists, was urgently taken to a hospital in Mahilioŭ, after his health sharply deteriorated while in detention at penal colony No. 15. Berasneu suffers from pains in his only kidney, and he may soon need a kidney transplant.
Pressure continues on those sentenced to restriction of freedom. Among the latest cases is the trial of Artsiom Zakrzheuski, who was initially convicted of participating in a protest in 2020. In October, a court ordered to send the prisoner to a penal colony.
Viasna publishes monthly updates on political prisoners who have been released after serving their sentences or pending trial. According to the latest digest, 52 political prisoners were released in September, including 45 serving full sentences.
It is important to note that the persecution of political prisoners does not stop after they are released. The security forces continue to target them even after their release. A dozen former political prisoners are once again in pre-trial detention in new criminal cases. In addition, most former political prisoners face re-socialization and employment obstacles, which often forces them into exile. Viasna described how the Lukashenka regime persecutes former political prisoners and what tools it uses for this.
Europe’s largest annual event on human rights and democracy, the OSCE Human Dimension Conference, took place in Warsaw from October 2 to 13. Viasna organized a side event on October 10 dealing with the situation of political prisoners in Belarus. The event was attended by Volha Harbunova, representative for social issues of the United Transitional Cabinet, Tatsiana Khomich, co-founder of the Association of Relatives of Political Prisoners and Former Political Prisoners, and Viasna human rights activist Pavel Sapelka. They discussed the general situation with political prisoners and repressions in Belarus, which have been going on for more than three years, as well as steps to help release them and methods of their support.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Political persecution of people for participating in the 2002 post-election protests continues.
On October 30, the Žlobin District Court convicted political prisoner Aliaksei Audzeyeu on charges of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them” (Part 1, Article 342 of the Criminal Code).
Individuals are also targeted for expressing opinions and donations online. For this purpose, the authorities routinely use criminal and administrative charges, unwarranted arrests, and intrusion into privacy. Those arrested are forced to appear in video confessions.
Freedom of speech in Belarus is pervasively suppressed: the persecution is nationwide and involves a variety of methods of varying severity. Opinions are under constant supervision and when dissent is identified, it is immediately punished.
On October 27, the human rights community issued a joint statement to list 15 more persons as political prisoners. The statement called to stop the persecution of legitimate forms of expression of opinions, and once again demanded the decriminalization of defamation and the inadmissibility of the deprivation of liberty for insulting officials, the state, government bodies and symbols.
Those convicted under Article 342, together with Article 293, “participation in mass riots”, are released after serving their sentences. On October 4, Ihar Povarau was released after serving a 3-year prison sentence. Siarhei Kryuchenia fully served a sentence of 3 years and 6 months; Ihar Petran served a sentence of 2 years of imprisonment. The following were also released: Uladzimir Hanusevich, Aliaksandr Konanau, Albert Harbuz, Siarhei Hlinski, and Maksim Stashulionak.
Some political prisoners are detained again after their release, e.g. Andrei Ivaniushyn, who was re-arrested in October after completing his initial prison term in June 2.
Various forms of expression are targeted by the authorities.
On October 31, the Homieĺ Regional Court ordered long prison terms for the three members of Tor Band, whose songs became symbols of the 2020 protests. Yauhen Burlo was sentenced to eight years in prison, Dzmitry Halavach – nine years in prison, and Andrei Yaremchyk – seven and a half years in prison. The convicts were also fined 3,700 rubles each. Judge Siarhei Salouski heard the charges behind closed doors. While the musicians were in pre-trial detention, the band’s social media accounts and songs were blacklisted as “extremist content”, and the band itself was labelled as an “extremist formation”, which in turn became the basis for the guilty verdict.
Another form of expression of opinion is monetary support for the repressed in Belarus or the Ukrainian army in its war against Russia. Donations through Facebook are still routinely targeted by the authorities. Individuals are called en masse for questioning, where they are forced to confess and “reimburse the damage” by donating to a government-owned or controlled enterprises or organizations, while the amounts many times exceed the original donation. The practice was launched in late February 2023, but continues to be widely used to this day. Those who do not give in to blackmail, do not admit their guilt and refuse to donate, are arrested and face criminal charges of “financing extremist activities” or “extremist formations”. As of the end of October, Viasna knows the names of 43 political prisoners accused or sentenced to imprisonment under the charges.
Along with criminal prosecution, administrative charges are used to persecute individuals for expressing their opinions. Dzmitry Tarbeyeu was arrested on October 11. He was then charged under Art. 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses (distribution and storage of extremist materials) for being subscribed to Radio Svaboda, Belsat and Country for Life, and under Art. 24.23 (unauthorized mass event) over a photo featuring a white-red-white flag the police found on his smartphone. The man was eventually sentenced to 30 days of imprisonment. On October 16, a court in Maladziečna ordered 12 days of imprisonment for Yury Haradzinski accused under Art. 24.23.
In October, Viasna received information about at least 394 administrative trials. It is known about 87 fines and 105 terms of administrative imprisonment. The outcomes of the remaining trials are unknown. Across the country, cases of administrative and criminal prosecution known to human rights defenders were distributed as follows: 66 — Brest region; 97 — Hrodna region, 120 — Minsk and Minsk region, 83 — Homieĺ region, 36 — Viciebsk region, and 29 — Mahilioŭ region.
Violations of rights and freedoms under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism
Belarusian authorities abuse anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation and continue to purge civil society, suppress freedom of expression, and eradicate political opposition. This was stated by Anais Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation with human rights in Belarus, in her report to the UN General Assembly.
The list of persons involved in “extremist activities” increased by 183 people. The directory now features 3,445 people convicted of protest activity and dissent.
In October, Viasna learned about at least 320 cases of arrests for subscriptions to “extremist” accounts. Many of these arrests were followed by the forced recording of video confessions, in which people had to admit to participating in the protests of 2020 and other activities.
Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers
According to BAJ, as of the end of October, 33 journalists and media workers were being held in prisons.
For the authorities, the fight against independent media is part of the fight against freedom of speech. Repressive actions are aimed at limiting access to independent information by canceling the registration of media outlets and designating them as “extremist”, which entails criminal liability for running or quoting such resources. The owners and editors of such media outlets are prosecuted separately. In October, the Maladziečna Court continued to hear the criminal charges brought against Aliaksandr Mantsevich, editor-in-chief of Rehiyanalnaya Gazeta, the leading independent media of the region. The online newspaper itself was stripped of its license, and also designated as “extremist” a month after Mantsevich’s arrest.
Former journalist Andrei Tolchyn was not released after spending three days in a detention facility. Instead, he was transferred to pre-trial detention center No. 3 in Homieĺ. Tolchyn has been repeatedly detained and tried for his journalistic activities since 2017. After the protests of 2020, the journalist decided to leave the profession. Later it became known that he was charged under Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code, “calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus.”
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment
Torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment are almost universally accompanied by politically motivated persecution and are often a self-sufficient political repression, a goal in itself. In October, the Viasna continued to collect relevant facts, document crimes committed by representatives of the authorities, conduct interviews with former political prisoners, distribute and analyze information, and contact international authorities. Freedom from torture is an absolute right: no one can encroach on it under any circumstances. Respect for human rights and freedoms, according to the Constitution, is the highest goal of the state.
The use of torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment still continues in Belarusian penitentiaries targeting political prisoners. Confinement to penal cells (SHIZO) has become a specific form of cruel, inhumane treatment bordering on, or even reaching, the level of torture. A former political prisoner told about the conditions of detention and the inhumane treatment of political prisoners in colony No. 17 in Škloŭ. He noted the constant low temperature in the cell, provocations and humiliating personal attitude by the prison staff, lack of bedding, inhumane conditions in SHIZO, lack of opportunity to take a shower, lack of food, psychological pressure, etc.
Particularly violent is the politically motivated criminal prosecution in the case of the Black Book of Belarus, an initiative whose Telegram channels collected and published the personal data of individuals allegedly involved in human rights violations. It is known that some of the defendants were and are still going through beatings and torture during their arrest. At least 32 people were sentenced to imprisonment, with an average of six years in prison. Among them are bank employees, former prosecutors, police officers and investigators, government officials, a lawyer, a former lieutenant colonel of justice, a forensic expert, a musician and an artist. On October 25, it became known that GUBAZIK officers arrested a woman who allegedly shared personal information about law enforcement officers Following established practice, the woman was filmed in a video confession, in which she, however, covers her face and does not admit her guilt. Such videos are regularly published by the pro-government Telegram channels.
The country’s human rights community issued a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender Nasta Loika. As the epigraph of the statement, lines from Nasta’s letter were used, in which she talks about torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading acts against her using a stun gun, etc. The statement calls on the Belarusian authorities for the immediate and unconditional release of the human rights activist, and on the international community to keep the issue of Belarusian human rights defenders high on the agenda and take measures to encourage the Belarusian authorities to fulfill their obligations, as well as use and explore existing mechanisms to hold the Belarusian authorities accountable for human rights violations against human rights defenders, including through extraterritorial and universal jurisdiction and interstate complaints under relevant treaties and by strengthening existing accountability mechanisms.
Support by the Belarusian authorities for Russian aggression and war criminals, persecution for supporting Ukraine and anti-war position
Units of the Russian private military company Wagner Group are still based in Belarus at the invitation of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. The PMC was provided with the territory and facilities of a former military unit in the Mahilioŭ region in order to create a military base. The deployment of mercenaries accused of committing crimes against humanity is an act of ignoring the opinion of the international community and supporting the war crimes committed, confirming 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 mercilessly cracking down on representatives of their own people for their anti-war position and support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people and army against the aggressor. This refutes the erroneous opinion about the decisive role and merits of A. Lukashenko in preventing the participation of Belarus in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine: the real reason is the prevailing position of non-acceptance of aggression by the Belarusian people and the determination of many of its representatives to join the active struggle on the side and in support of Ukraine.
Human rights defenders have summed up the cases of prosecution for anti-war activities: as of October 18, there were 13 people convicted in Belarus for measures to prevent the movement of trains carrying Russian military equipment towards Ukraine. At least 35 people have been convicted of sharing the photos and videos of Russian troops to the media, and 13 people have been convicted of intending to fight on the side of Ukraine. At least 26 people were persecuted for publicly condemning Russian aggression, donating to Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian army. During the first six weeks of the war, more than 1,500 people were detained for anti-war protests held in Belarus. In total, at least 1,630 Belarusians were arrested for expressing an anti-war position. Of these, 79 people were convicted in criminal trials, resulting in prison terms ranging between 1 and 23 years.
A recent example is the case of Katsiaryna Brukhanava, a Ukrainian citizen living in Belarus, sentenced on October 13 to two and a half years in prison. Judge Andrei Siz of the Brest Regional Court found the woman guilty of “facilitating extremist activities” under Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code. On March 30, 2022, Brukhanava sent two videos to the chatbot of the online media Zerkalo, which was arbitrarily designated by the Belarusian authorities as an “extremist formation”. The video featured the movement of Russian military vehicles near Minsk.
On October 17, judge Vera Filonik of the Brest Regional Court sentenced programmer Leanid Raichonak to six years in prison, finding him guilty of donating to Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine (Part 2 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code).
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. In particular, a criminal case was opened in Svietlahorsk under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code (insulting state symbols). An undisclosed person reportedly removed the state flag and threw it into a trash container in the village of Sasnovy Bor. A Ukrainian flag was flown, instead.
Details were revealed of the verdict against Illia Dvoiryn, who on July 1 poured paint on a car with Crimean license plates and the letter Z on the windshield. The man was accused under Part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). Dvoiryn was sentenced to one year of restricted freedom (home confinement).
The fight for the abolition of the death penalty
On October 19, in Sluck, the Minsk Regional Court, in a visiting session, considered a criminal case against Aliaksandr and Anastasiya Taratuta on charges of the murder of their three-year-old child. The defendants were eventually found guilty, and Aliaksandr Taratuta was sentenced to death by shooting. This is the first death sentence in Belarus after a long hiatus. The last death sentence was handed down in January 2021 to Viktar Skrundzik, who was executed in July 2022.
In Bialystok, on October 7, a meeting was held with the participation of the coordinator of Viasna’s campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” Andrei Paluda and the designer of the collection of poems by poets executed on October 29-30, 1937, Anastasiya Charnova. The awareness-raising event was held to mark the World Day Against the Death Penalty.
A discussion on the occasion of the World Day Against the Death Penalty with a presentation of the collection of poems was also held at the European Humanities University in Vilnius. Andrei Paluda stressed that Belarus is the last country in the post-Soviet region and in Europe where the death penalty exists not only in law, but is also used in practice.
On October 10, the anti-death penalty campaign was supported by the famous musician, public figure and leader of the rock band Mashina Vremeni Andrei Makarevich.
Persecution of lawyers
On September 28, the qualification commission of the Ministry of Justice ruled to allow the revocation of licenses of lawyers Maksim Aheyeu, Ihar Krot, Volha Nazarava, and Stanislau Shostsik. The lawyers were earlier disbarred for “committing actions that discredit the title of lawyer and the legal profession”. A similar decision for committing actions discrediting the title of lawyer and the legal profession was also made against Liudmila Palachkina. On October 25, the qualification commission allowed to terminate the licenses of two more layers, Aliaksandr Danilevich, earlier convicted in a politically motivated criminal trial, and Vadzim Piatrou, citing his “inability to fulfill his professional duties”.
These measures are arbitrary and constitute excessive interference in the activities of the legal profession. They are inconsistent with the role of the legal profession in society, while many of them were adopted solely for political reasons.
It is obvious that the bodies of legal self-government, having abandoned the functions of protecting the independence of the legal profession, themselves became an instrument of repression, depriving critical representatives of the legal profession of the right to the profession for political reasons.
The activities of lawyers are politicized not only on the own initiative of the bodies of legal self-government, which, in order to demonstrate loyalty to the authorities, choose a policy of repression against pro-democratic lawyers, who also often professionally defend those persecuted for political reasons. The process of transformation of lawyers from independent defenders of the rights and freedoms of individuals into a faceless and dependent element of the law enforcement system is given great attention by the supervisory authority, the Ministry of Justice. In particular, Minister of Justice Siarhei Khamenka said during the international conference “Lawyers of the Republic of Belarus and the Russian Federation in the Union State. Current Issues of Legal Defense” that the “the key quality of a contemporary lawyer is readiness to protect not only an individual or an organization, but also the constitutional system, legality and law and order,” which, in the authorities’ modern distorted understanding of the listed values, means forcing lawyers not only to be loyal, but also to actively support the positions of the Belarusian dictatorship.