At least 35 convicts, mass detentions and dismissals: how medical professionals are persecuted in Belarus
Despite the catastrophic shortage of doctors in the country, the authorities continue to persecute people both in public medical institutions and in private clinics. Hundreds of doctors have been subjected to severe repression since 2020: they were dismissed for their "wrong" position, arrested for participating in protest actions and "spreading extremism", tried in criminal cases, and now a large number of them are forced to leave Belarus because of persecution. According to human rights activists, over three years of unprecedented repression in criminal political cases, at least 35 medical professionals have been convicted, 15 of whom are currently imprisoned. Viasna tells about the persecution of medical professionals, and gastroenterologist Aliaksandr Trafimau shares his story of detention and departure from the country, as well as comments on the current situation with repression and the policy of the Ministry of Health.
How and why are the authorities persecuting medical professionals?
According to Viasna, since the beginning of the 2020 election campaign, at least 35 doctors have been convicted in criminal political cases, 15 of whom are now in prison. In addition, dozens of doctors went through detentions, administrative trials and days of administrative arrest in inhuman conditions in detention centres throughout Belarus. Many medical professionals are detained right at their workplaces, after which they are tried for "petty hooliganism", "disobedience to police officers", "unauthorized picketing", or for "extremist" reposts of independent media news.
The Ministry of Health actively deprives medical centers of licenses. It is known that the work of at least nine of them was suspended, but over time most clinics resumed their work.
Many doctors are fired because of "wrong" political beliefs, and some simply do not have their contracts renewed. As of November 11, in the whole country, there are 4,825 specialized medical professionals less than needed, so they are forced to take on an additional workload. Hundreds of qualified specialists were forced to leave Belarus due difficult working conditions or political persecution among other things.
The authorities are trying to silence health professionals in various ways and intimidate them. For example, a month after the hospitalization of a political prisoner Viktar Babaryka in April 2023 with traces of beating from the colony to the Navapolack city hospital, at least five doctors were detained. As a result, according to the court's decision, four were sentenced to several days of detention, and one woman was fined 3,700 rubles. The reason for mass repressions in this hospital was sharing the information about Babaryka's condition.
"After the interrogation, I ended up in a detention centre in handcuffs." The story of a gastroenterologist
Aliaksandr Trafimau, a gastroenterologist, former deputy head of the ambulance station in Baranavičy, writes his blog on Instagram.
In June 2021, police officers came to Aliaksandr's workplace, checked his phone for "extremist materials", but in the end they found nothing. Then they showed a search warrant and asked when he would have free time. Aliaksandr replied that they could come straight from work, since he had nothing to hide, but the officers suggested postponing the search until the next day.
"After the interrogation, I ended up in a detention centre in handcuffs"
The next day the search took place in the presence of Aliaksandr's wife and children. During the search in the house, nothing "forbidden" was found, nothing was confiscated.
At that time, the doctor had already decided to stop working in the ambulance because he was sure that his contract would not be renewed in autumn because of his opinions.
The doctor spent three days in the Baranavičy detention centre as a suspect
The doctor was kept in the Baranavičy detention centre for three days as a suspect, while he was not charged with anything.
On the second day, a police officer came to Aliaksandr and showed him photos from 2006 found on his VKontakte social media page. They show Aliaksandr in Crimea with a white-red-white flag. Because of the age of the photo, they could not charge him with anything, but simply interrogated him.
Nothing else was found, so after three days he was released. After leaving the detention centre, Aliaksandr stayed at home for several more days. He and his wife had an agreement that in case of detention, it would be made public. Because of the stir in the news, everyone at his workplace knew about his arrest. But after a few weeks, Aliaksandr had his contract renewed at the clinic anyway.
"The burden of a shortage of doctors is redistributed to those who remain"
With such a large shortage of specialists, medical professional who remain in the country have to work beyond the norm. In September, a group of independent sociologists with the support of Panatseya independent trade union of medical professionals and ByMedSol published information about the state of affairs in Belarusian healthcare. According to the study, doctors regularly work more than 24 hours in a row and have insufficient breaks between their shifts. At the same time, a significant part of their overwork is not paid: on average, two hours of working time per week is not taken into account in time reports.
The burden of a shortage of specialists is redistributed to those who remain, says Aliaksandr.
At the same time, Aliaksandr draws attention to the fact that the greater the burden and responsibility on the doctor, the higher the probability of error is.
Checking doctors' phones, monitoring their social media
"Now in the healthcare structures, whether it is a clinic or a hospital, there are special people who monitor the mood and behavior of doctors. And if they find more active doctors, then they have preventive conversations with them."
Aliaksandr knows from his colleagues what is happening in medical institutions in Belarus now. According to him, if employees' phones are checked, it is more likely happens to those who are monitored by the administration. At the same time, police officers are monitoring the social media of doctors.
Which doctors are currently behind bars?
We tell the stories of some of them.
Political prisoner Andrei Liubetski – 2 years, 6 months, and 7 days in prison
Andrei has worked at the Children's Hospital No. 4 in Minsk as a jaw surgeon for 18 years. He was a volunteer near the Akrescina detention centre. He has four children. Liubetski was detained on May 4, 2021. On April 18, 2022, judge Sviatlana Charapanava sentenced the doctor to five years of imprisonment in a general security colony. He was charged under four articles of the Criminal Code. Now he is serving time in the Babrujsk colony No. 2.
Political prisoner Volha Barushka – 1 year, 1 month, and 21 days in prison
Volha is an anesthesiologist-resuscitator of the Minsk Scientific and Practical Center of Surgery, Transplantology, and Hematology. She was detained at the end of August 2022. She was charged under Article 369 (insulting a representative of the authorities) and Article 391 (insulting a judge) of the Criminal Code for comments on the Internet. In December 2022, she was sentenced to 2 years in a penal colony. Now the woman is serving time in correctional colony No. 4.
Political prisoner Yauhen Buzhynski – 1 year, 5 months, and 3 days in prison
Yauhen is a doctor of ultrasound diagnostics of the first qualification category from Smarhon. He was detained in June 2022. In the Hrodna Regional Court on February 13, he was sentenced to six years in a medium security penal colony and a fine of 1,850 rubles. Yauhen was sent to serve his term in Navapolack colony No. 1.
Political prisoner Uladzislau Martynovich – 2 years, 11 months, and 23 days in prison
Uladzislau is a former 4th year student of the Belarusian State Medical University, who was detained on November 19, 2020. The man was accused of administering White coats Telegram channel under Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus). Uladzislau pleaded not guilty at the trial. Now the man is serving time in correctional colony No. 15 in Veina.
Political prisoner Aliaksei Aliakseichyk – 1 year, 1 month, and 8 days of imprisonment
The man worked for more than 20 years as a transplant doctor at the Republican Scientific and Practical Center of Pediatric Oncology and Hematology. He was accused of calling for restrictive measures (sanctions), or other actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus under Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code. The court found Aliakseichyk guilty and sentenced him to imprisonment for a period of two and a half years in a general security colony.
Political prisoner Artur Khlus – 1 year and 21 days in prison
Artur is a paramedic of a Hrodna ambulance brigade, a student of the Hrodna State Medical University. He was detained at the end of October 2022 for registering in the Victory plan and for participating in protests. As a result, he was charged under Article 293 of the Criminal Code (participation in mass riots).
The trial of the political prisoner began on February 27, 2023, but for an unknown reason, the trial was suspended until May. On June 22, the judge found Artur guilty and punished him with imprisonment for a period of five years in a medium security colony.
Political prisoner Aliaksandr Tsialeha – 2 years, 6 months, and 9 days in prison
Aliaksandr is a neurologist from Barysau, who worked in Norilsk, Russia, and came home on vacation in April 2021.
His actions were found criminal under three articles of the Criminal Code. On January 21, 2022,Aliaksandr was sentenced to four years in a penal colony in the Leninski District Court of Hrodna. It is known that the administration of the Babrujsk colony No. 2, where the political prisoner is serving time, regularly draws up reports on him for fabricated reasons. He has already been deprived of meetings, parcels, and care packages.
Political prisoner Aliaksei Mandzik – 2 years, and 4 days in prison
Aliaksei is an employee of the fifth city clinic, head of the prevention department, a general practitioner. He was detained by the employees of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption in November 2021, allegedly for participating in "destructive Telegram channels", where he wrote "destructive and offensive comments" to police officers.
The Hrodna Regional Court in June 2022 found him guilty on six criminal articles and sentenced him to seven years in a penal medium security colony. The political prisoner is serving his term in the Babrujsk colony No. 2.
Participation in Marches, comments, disclosure of medical secrets: what else are doctors being tried for in Belarus?
Tatsiana Talochka – three years of home confinement
Tatsiana is an anesthesiologist-resuscitator, worked at Children's City Clinical Hospital № 2 in Minsk. She was detained on May 12, 2022 right at her workplace in the hospital.
In August 2020, a political prisoner saved a teenager Tsimur Mitskevich from persecution, who fell into a coma after being beaten by security forces. She signed the paper saying that it was impossible to interrogate him, but the chief doctor did not sign this document. Now the 19-year-old man is fighting in Ukraine in Kastus Kalinoŭski regiment. Judge Volha Niaborskaya found her guilty of actively participating in actions that grossly violate public order (Article 342 of the Criminal Code), and sentenced Tatsiana to three years of restriction of freedom without referral to an open-type correctional facility.
Artsiom Sarokin – two years in a penal colony with a one-year delay
Artsiom is an anesthesiologist at an emergency hospital in Minsk.
On November 19, 2020, at the initiative of the Prosecutor General's Office, he was arrested and placed in custody. Later he, as well as a TUT.BY journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, was charged under Part 3 of Article 178 of the Criminal Code for disclosing medical secrets that entailed grave consequences in connection with the publication of medical documents concerning Raman Bandarenka who died from injuries.
The information contained in these documents refutes the statements of officials that Raman Bandarenka was drunk at the time of the beating, after which he was taken to a police station. At the same time, Bandarenka's close relatives do not consider themselves victims because of this disclosure and confirm this information.
On March 2, 2021, the Court of the Maskouski District of Minsk handed down sentences: Artsiom was sentenced to two years of imprisonment with a one-year delay and a fine of 1,450 rubles.
Former political prisoner Natallia Nikitsina – one year and 10 months in a penal colony
Natallia is a pediatrician, psychiatrist, narcologist, psychotherapist, existential philosopher, and psychologist. On September 29, 2021, the woman was detained right at her workplace, the Minsk Center for Child Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. A few hours before her detention, she was informed of her dismissal.
Natallia was sentenced to one year and 10 months in prison in the Zeltser case, and a fine of 6,400 rubles (almost $2,500) was imposed. She was found guilty under Article 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a representative of the authorities) and Article 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting social hatred).
The woman was serving her sentence in Homeĺ colony No. 4.