Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2023
- human rights defenders continue to document cases of arbitrary politically motivated criminal and administrative prosecution, as well as other forms of repression, torture and other types of prohibited treatment against participants in the 2020-2021 protests, political opponents of the regime and dissidents; the human rights situation in Belarus remains critical;
- as of the end of November, there were 1,447 political prisoners in Belarus. 20 people were designated as political prisoners during the month. About 1,350 political prisoners have been released since 2020 after serving their prison terms, having been released pending trial or sentenced to a non-custodial sentence; several political prisoners were pardoned;
- political prisoners are subjected to particularly severe detention conditions, resulting in inhuman treatment. They are arbitrarily and selectively subjected to disciplinary punishments, while several dozen saw their prison terms 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 sentences in penal facilities;
- human rights defender Nasta Loika, who was earlier sentenced to seven years in prison in a politically motivated trial, is also serving her term;
- of a persistent nature is the arbitrary repression targeting exercise of civil rights. In November, Viasna became aware of at least 465 administrative trials, which imposed at least 105 fines and 69 terms of administrative imprisonment in politically motivated administrative cases;
- human rights defenders of Viasna and other human rights organizations regularly identify and document cases 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;
- the authorities continue to persecute individuals and entities for political reasons under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism;
- the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” announced the launch of an expert mission to observe the elections of members of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the eighth convocation and of local Councils of Deputies of the twenty-ninth convocation, which will be held on February 25, 2024.
Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders
As of November 30, there were 1,446 political prisoners in Belarus. 163 of them are women. In total, since May 2020, Viasna is aware of 5,523 people who have faced politically motivated criminal prosecution (this includes those who were not arrested). Since then, the country’s human rights community has designated 2,823 people, including 492 women, as political prisoners. 1,377 of them have been released after serving their terms, having been released pending trial or sentenced to a non-custodial penalty.
In November, the human rights community added 20 more names to the list of political prisoners:
Journalist Andrei Tolchyn, who was repeatedly persecuted for his work before 2020, has been designated as a political prisoner. He is in custody on criminal charges of “creating an extremist group or participating in it”. Human rights activists believe that the charge pursues a political objective as part of the authorities’ deliberate policy to limit the dissemination of uncensored information under the guise of fighting extremism.
13 people were designated as political prisoners because they are in detention on defamatory charges: for insulting or slandering officials, “vandalizing state symbols”, sharing threats against officials in online comments, etc. Defamation offenses should be decriminalized, while government officials should not enjoy a higher level of protection than other persons.
In addition, 6 people were called political prisoners, detained or sentenced to imprisonment on criminal charges of supporting (donations, sharing information, etc.) protest initiatives, as well as Belarusian volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine. For such non-violent actions, they face serious charges, treason and promoting extremist activities, among others.
In November, human rights defenders and the media learned about at least 32 political prisoners who fully served their criminal sentences and were released.
While in penitentiaries, political prisoners continue to face various manifestations of deteriorating treatment: blocking of correspondence, restrictions on receiving parcels, bans on telephone calls and long-term family visits. For example, in penal colony No. 1 in Navapolack, prisoners labelled as “prone to extremism and destructive activities” (most political prisoners fall into this category) were deprived of telephone calls during the entire month of November.
As a method of pressure, prison authorities use time in punishment cells imposed for allegedly committing minor offenses. For example, it became known that this method of pressure was used against Maksim Zinevich, Alena Lazarchyk, and Ihar Alinevich. It is also known that Andrei Herasimovich, who is now free, was kept in a punishment cell for several days before his release.
After several consecutive weeks in a punishment cell, a more stringent measure, transfer to so-called “cell-type room”, was imposed on Ihar Alinevich, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, Viktoryia Kulsha, Pavel Vinahradau, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski.
It is also known that several political prisoners were transferred to higher-security prison conditions, including Aliaksei Khralovich and Siarhei Tratsiuk.
While imprisoned, political prisoners report deteriorating health. This is due both to the failure to provide any or timely medical care, and to poor detention conditions. In November, these complaints were received from Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, Ryhor Kastusiou, Ala Zuyeva, and Aliaksandr Liubianchuk.
Human rights defenders also became aware of a case of persecution of a political prisoner’s family member. Anatol Starasvetski, who is now on the list of political prisoners, was detained immediately after a meeting with his wife Vitaliya Bandarenka, also a political prisoner. It is known that he is charged with “aiding extremist activities”.
According to human rights defenders, almost all political prisoners face arbitrary restrictions on receiving or sending mail. Against this background, it is important to note that in November 2023, the Facebook group “Letters of Solidarity Belarus 2020”, in which people share their experiences of correspondence with political prisoners, was added to the list of “extremist materials”. Also, information has emerged that letters from some political prisoners in various penitentiaries are being confiscated, as prison authorities are reportedly looking for information about donations to civil society organizations designated as “extremist groups”.
Viasna human rights defenders Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk are still imprisoned.
In November, human rights defenders Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk and Uladzimir Tseliapun were arrested in Baranavičy and Mazyr, respectively.
Nasta Loika, earlier sentenced to imprisonment for her human rights activities, also remains in detention.
There is still no accurate information about the whereabouts and wellbeing of several well-known opposition politicians, whom the authorities keep in strict isolation. They are deprived of the right to telephone conversations and visits, including the right to see their lawyers; their family members have no information about their health. These include Maryia Kalesnikava, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Viktar Babaryka and some other political prisoners, who have been held incommunicado for several months.
November 20 was World Children’s Day, dedicated to the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Since the beginning of the 2020 protests, thousands of children have experienced repression due to the detention and criminal prosecution of their parents, and dozens have found themselves behind bars. As of November 29, there were 10 political prisoners who had turned 18 behind bars, or who are still minors: Mikita Zalatarou, Siarhei Hatskevich, Eduard Kudyniuk, Maksim Imkhavik, Ivan Patsiaichuk, Dzianis Khazei, Aliaksandr Viniarski, Pavel Piskun, Aleh Dabrydneu, and Mikita Brui. Viasna described in detail how the Belarusian authorities persecute children for political reasons.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Almost three and a half years after peaceful protests began during the 2020 presidential election, Belarusian authorities are still prosecuting their participants.
The Prosecutor General of Belarus recently said that there were 16,000 criminal cases, which the authorities assigned the status of “extremist”, i.e. usually associated with participation in protests or other forms of expression. The protests of 2020 thus remain an almost inexhaustible source of further criminal prosecutions.
In particular, on November 1, the court of the Frunzienski district of Minsk convicted political prisoner Dzianis Halauko of participating in a protest. Judge Yuliya Krepskaya sentenced him under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code to three years of restricted freedom. After almost four months behind bars, Halauko was released in the courtroom.
On November 2, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk convicted a couple from Smaliavičy, Kiryl and Viktoryia Prakopau, who were accused of participating in the post-election protests in the fall of 2020 (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The charges were heard by judge Ala Skuratovich, who sentenced the defendants to two and a half years each of restricted freedom under home confinement.
On November 20, judge Volha Sukhadolskaya of the Brest District Court sentenced 51-year-old political prisoner Alena Dzmitryieva to three years of restricted freedom. The woman was found guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (active participation in actions that grossly violate public order) for her involvement in what is known as the “dancing protest case”, in which more than 130 people have already been convicted. Alena was arrested while returning from Poland and placed in custody pending trial.
The pervasive suppression of freedom of expression continues through criminal prosecution of various forms of expression of dissent, including criticism of law enforcement agencies. Arrests continue for comments on social media targeting security forces, subscriptions to media resources designated by the authorities as “extremist”, etc. In particular, in November, multiple persons were arrested during police raids in the Hrodna region: in Lida, Vaŭkavysk, Ščučyn, Hrodna, Navahrudak, Mir and other cities.
On October 30, judge Natallia Kozel of the Lieninski District Court of Hrodna convicted Viachaslau Charnetski, who was accused of “insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka” under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code. The man was sentenced to two years of restricted freedom.
The Baranavičy District and City Court found Volha Kazlouskaya guilty of “insulting” Lukashenka on the Internet under Part 2 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code. The case was considered by judge Ina Paulouskaya, who Kazlouskaya to six months in prison.
Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers
According to the BAJ, as of the end of November, there were 31 journalists and media workers in prison.
On November 3, judge Aliaksei Irshyn of the Maladziečna District Court convicted the editor-in-chief of the Rehiyanalnaya Hazieta newspaper, political prisoner Aliaksandr Mantsevich. The journalist was accused of “discrediting the Republic of Belarus” under Art. 369-1 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to four years of imprisonment and a fine of 14,800 Belarusian rubles.
On November 22, the Supreme Court considered appeals against the sentences earlier handed down to political prisoners Tatsiana Pytsko and Viachaslau Lazarau, who were sentenced to three and five and a half years in prison, respectively. As a result, judge Yury Rutkouski ruled to assign Pytsko three years of suspended imprisonment. The woman spent almost six months in pre-trial detention. Lazarau’s sentence was reduced by six months, the Belarusian Association of Journalists reported.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment
Human rights activists defenders to document torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
Persons imprisoned for political reasons are subjected to cruel treatment, provocations, and often torture.
On April 24, political prisoner and former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka was taken to a hospital from the Navapolack-based colony No. 1, where he is serving a 14-year sentence. He was kept in the hospital for several days and, presumably, returned to the colony. Later it became known that the political prisoner was transferred to a cell-type room (PKT); it was reported that Babaryka was kept in a punishment cell for a long time in the winter. Viasna human rights defenders managed to obtain details of the incident. Viktar Babaryka was reportedly taken to the surgical department of the Navapolack city hospital with severe injuries, and his treatment was carried out under the control of the special services.
The illegal practice of recording public apologies (video confessions) continues.
Violations of freedom of expression under the guise of fight against extremism
The list of “extremist formations” increased by five entries, including a group supporting political prisoner Mikita Zalatarou and a Telegram chat launched to exchange information about political arrests.
61 names were added to the list of persons “involved in extremist activities”, which today features 3,541 people.
20 people were added to the list on November 10, among them Yana Pinchuk, who was sentenced to 12 years in prison, imprisoned lawyer Anastasiya Lazarenka, and a university professor Natallia Zhloba.
22 people were blacklisted on November 17. Among them is political prisoner Dzmitry Mastavoi, who allegedly set up a livestream of the Mačuliščy airfield drone attack, journalist Pavel Mazheika, lawyer Yuliya Yurhilevich, and Artsiom Liabedzka, son of opposition politician Anatol Liabedzka.
21 people were added to the list on November 24, including football coach Artur Mustyhin and Mikhail Miakeka, who was convicted after his return from Poland.
The list of “extremist materials” continues to outlaw a variety of independent media and other sources of information and communication.
November was marked by targeted repression against individual bloggers, journalists and public figures. In particular, the authorities blacklisted the personal social media accounts of journalist Katsia Pytleva, politician Anatol Liabedzka, opera singer Marharyta Liauchuk and former political prisoner Illia Mironau.
Repression still targets local social media accounts and chats on messaging applications, e.g. several Telegram channels from around the country were designated as “extremist” in November.
Similarly, restrictions affect online activity abroad, including the Telegram channels of so-called “people’s embassies” based in various countries, Israel, Lithuania and Montenegro, in particular.
An “extremism” label was slapped on several accounts affiliated with political parties, movement “Za Svabodu” and Viktar Babaryka’s party “Razam”.
In an absurd move, the authorities blacklisted a collection of works by the classic of Belarusian literature Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkevich.
Publication of information about political prisoners and the coordination of people around their support are equally persecuted as “extremism”. The Facebook community “Letters of Solidarity Belarus 2020” and the website about political prisoners politzek.me are now also “extremist materials”.
At the end of November, 99 political prisoners were being prosecuted under Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code, “engaging in extremist activities”, while the charge often supplements other political charges, which indicates its instrumentality in repression under the guise of fighting extremism and terrorism.
On November 1, Article 361-4 was used to charge human rights defenders Leanid Sudalenka, who was released in July, after spending two and a half years in prison.
On October 18, the Homieĺ Regional Court handed down a sentence to political prisoner Zhanna Volkava. The woman was charged with several articles of the Criminal Code, including “aiding and abetting extremist activities.”
Any independent information that the authorities designated as “extremist” entails the possibility of administrative prosecution, which is procedurally much simpler than criminal prosecution and covers a larger number of people. In November, the authorities widely applied Art. 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, “dissemination of extremist materials” (at least 396 times), which in reality stands for subscription to “extremist” sources of information, participation in “extremist communities”, sharing “extremist content”, etc.
The authorities are actively prosecuting people under this article repeatedly, sometimes several times in a row involving the same person, despite the fact that according to the Code of Administrative Offenses, repeated offenses must be considered in one session and, accordingly, the terms of imprisonment cannot exceed 15 days.
In particular, on November 3, Mikhail Lapunou stood another trial in the court of the Centraĺny district of Homieĺ, facing charges under Part 2 of Art. 19.11. Judge Viktar Kazachok eventually sentenced him to another 15 days. Lapunou was arrested on August 8 and has been continuously held in detention since then. In total, the man will spend more than three months behind bars.
November was marked by numerous arrests for “distribution of extremist materials” carried out across the country.
On November 9, at least six people were detained in Rečyca, allegedly for distributing “extremist” materials and subscribing to “extremist” social media accounts.
On the same day, the police arrested a man in Brest who lives and works in Poland. Pro-government Telegram channels reported that the man allegedly authored more than 5,000 messages in “extremist” channels and chats.
On November 11, the arrests took place at a factory in Ščučyn. On the same day, a dozen people were also detained in the towns of Mir and Vaŭkavysk.
On November 11, police raids were held in Navahrudak, as the security forces detained a number of employees of a local factory.
On November 12, arrests were held in Lida, allegedly linked to the distribution of “extremist” materials.
On November 23, law enforcement agencies detained at least six people for online comments and subscriptions to “extremist” social media accounts. A pro-government Twitter channel later posted a video confession featuring the arrested persons.
The father of the writer Sasha Filipenka was sentenced to 13 days for a repost from zerkalo.io website, which was designated as “extremist” by the authorities.
In November, the State Security Committee (KGB) twice updated the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities”. Since the fall of 2020, the list ceased to fulfill its function and began to be used as a repressive tool against dissidents.
On November 3, the KGB added four people to the list: Artsiom Yankouski, a convict in the Black Book of Belarus trial Raman Tsyhankou, deputy board chair of Technobank Dzmitry Bohush, and businessman Yury Tashkinau.
On November 28, the KGB added eight more people to the list. Among them are Yana Pinchuk, sentenced to 12 years in prison, 68-year-old Natallia Piatrovich, lawyer Anastasiya Lazarenka, 69-year-old Barys Vitko, Andrei Ihnatovich, Andrei Laurynovich, 65-year-old Piotr Staratsitarau, as well as Viktar Zhavaranak.
Now there are 1,138 people on the “terrorist list”, including only 383 Belarusians.
Violations of freedom of association
The Dissidentby initiative, widely known for its active and uncompromising support of political prisoners and struggle for their release, was designated as an “extremist formation”. This entails criminal charges both for the activists and regular people who support the initiative.
The support of the Belarusian authorities for the aggression of the Russian Federation, war criminals, persecution for support of Ukraine and anti-war position
There is no information on the complete withdrawal from Belarus of the Russian private military company “Wagner Group”, which was invited by Aliaksandr Lukashenka and provided with the territory and facilities of a former military unit in the Mahilioŭ region. Accommodating mercenaries accused of crimes against humanity is an act of support for war crimes, aiding and abetting Russian aggression against Ukraine, introducing a new treat to security in Europe, endangering the citizens of Belarus and jeopardizing national security and sovereignty.
At the same time, the Belarusian authorities mercilessly crack down on representatives of their own people for their anti-war stance, support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people and the army against the aggressor. This refutes the erroneous opinion about Lukashenka’s decisive role in preventing Belarus from being directly involved in the armed conflict. The true reason is the prevailing anti-war position of the country’s population, as many Belarusians joined the Ukrainian army or otherwise support Ukraine.
On November 1, the court of the Lieninski District of Mahilioŭ sentenced Dzmitry Pashyn to two years in prison. Judge Natallia Panasenka found him guilty of “insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka” under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code. The charge stemmed from a video on TikTok of March 2023 supporting Ukraine, in which Lukashenka was also sharply criticized.
The notorious GUBAZIK department continues to persecute Belarusians fighting on the side of Ukraine. The security forces forced the father of Pavel Kukhta, who is part of the Kalinouski regiment, to publicly call his son to return to Belarus. The video was shared by a pro-government Telegram channel on November 20.
Security forces published a video confession featuring businessman Ihar Soladau. The man said on camera that he was detained for comments in Telegram channels about the Belarusian and Russian armies.
On November 22, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court considered a criminal case against Aliaksandr Baranouski, who was accused of “financing extremist activities” (Part 1 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code) and “participation in an armed formation or armed conflict on the territory of a foreign state” (Part 2 of Article 361-2). The case was heard in a closed court session by judge Iryna Tsiaplova. According to the prosecution, Baranouski provided funds to support extremist activities and financed activities involving citizens of the Republic of Belarus participating in armed formations and military operations on the territory of a foreign state. The charges stemmed from several donations the defendant allegedly made to help Belarusian soldiers fighting for Ukraine. The political prisoner was eventually sentenced to five years in prison.
The Baranavičy prosecutor’s office opened criminal cases against the founder of the Union of Mothers of Belarus and her husband for allegedly “creating and leading an extremist formation”, “publicly insulting Lukashenka” and “slandering” him, as well as “promoting extremist activities”. The KGB blacklisted the Union of Mothers as an “extremist formation” on September 29. The organization is known for speaking out against Russian military aggression in Ukraine, Belarusian complicity in this aggression, and the militarization of schoolchildren.
Persecution of lawyers
On November 22, the Ministry of Justice ordered to revoke the licenses of lawyers Natallia Tarasiuk, Yuliya Karachun and Aksana Puchkouskaya.
These measures constitute arbitrary and excessive interference in the activities of the legal profession, inconsistent with the role of the legal profession in society, while many of them were adopted solely for political reasons.