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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2023

2024 2024-01-04T13:25:11+0300 2024-01-04T13:25:11+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”


  • the human rights situation in Belarus remains critical. The authorities continue to persecute dissidents and political opponents, instigating a climate of terror and limiting rights and freedoms to the maximum extent possible;
  • at the end of December 2023, there were 1,477 political prisoners in Belarus; during the month, 92 people were added to the list; about 1,400 political prisoners have been released since 2020 after either fully serving their prison terms or sentenced to non-custodial penalties; some were released pending trial or pardoned;
  • political prisoners are subject to particularly high regime requirements, harsh treatment, they are arbitrarily and selectively subjected to disciplinary punishments, some of them regularly have their term of imprisonment extended during or after serving their sentence;
  • six human rights human rights defenders, including five members of Viasna, continue to be incarcerated: Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova, volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, and Nasta Loika;
  • the authorities continue routine persecution for exercising civil rights; in December, Viasna became aware of no less than 448 administrative trials, including 44 imposing fines and 53 short terms of administrative imprisonment in politically motivated cases;
  • human rights activists of Viasna and other human rights organizations regularly identify and document facts of the use 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;
  • persecution continues for political reasons under the pretext of the fight against extremism and terrorism: the lists of persons allegedly involved in extremism and terrorism are regularly updated to include new names of those convicted of protesting and exercising their civil and political rights; associations of individuals and other groups affiliated with the protest movement are blacklisted as “extremist formations”;
  • the right to association and freedom of conscience are routinely violated: the authorities continue to deregister associations, including religious ones, e.g. the Full Gospel Church, and the organizations of national minorities;
  • the initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” continues its expert mission to observe the elections of members of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the eighth convocation and local Councils of Deputies of the twenty-ninth convocation, which will be held on February 25. The initiative presented a report on the formation of local and district commissions;
  • the United Nations Human Rights Prize was awarded at a ceremony in New York City on December 15. The award was shared by five winners, including the Human Rights Center Viasna.

Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders

As of December 31, there were 1,477 political prisoners in Belarus, including 168 women. 1,395 former political prisoners were released after serving their sentences, pending trial or appeal hearing, or under a pardon.

In December, the human rights community designated 92 people as political prisoners.

Viasna human rights defenders Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovic, Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk, as well as human rights activist Nasta Loika, are still in serving their sentences of imprisonment.

Prison authorities pursue a deliberate policy of segregation and discrimination against political prisoners, with the goal of worsening the conditions of their detention as compared to other prisoners. In particular, political prisoners face pervasive blocking of correspondence, restrictions on receiving parcels, including containing medications, bans on telephone calls and family visits.

As before, confinement to punishment cells (SHIZO) and cell-type rooms (PKT) for minor or fictitious offenses is routinely used as a method of pressure on prisoners.

While in punishment cells, prisoners are exposed to extreme conditions, without bed linen or warm clothes, and without communication with the outside world. It is known that political prisoners Viktoryia Kulsha, Dzmitry Sushchyk, Ihar Alinevich and Artur Zhvirydouski, among others, have been repeatedly penalized by time in punishment cells. It is also reported that the prison authorities plans to hold Zhvirydouski for four months, until the expiration of his term of imprisonment.

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski is still being held in a PKT.

On December 6, the Vaŭkavysk District Court ordered to upgrade the security level of imprisonment for political prisoner Pavel Vinahradau. By a decision of judge Mikalai Siarheika, the prisoner was transferred to prison No. 1 in Hrodna, a penitentiary with the maximum possible level of security and, accordingly, the most severe detention conditions.

There is still no exact information about the wellbeing of several known opposition politicians held incommunicado: they cannot send or receive mail; they are deprived of the right to telephone conversations and visits, including meetings with their lawyers; their families have no information about the state of their health: Maryia Kalesnikava (since February 15), Mikalai Statkevich (since February 10), Siarhei Tsikhanouski (since March 9), Ihar Losik (since February 20), Viktar Babaryka and others.

Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression

Almost three and a half years after the outbreak of the peaceful protests during the 2020 presidential election, Belarusian authorities are still daily prosecuting protesters.

The Frunzienski District Court of Minsk sentenced Sviatlana Kryvitskaya and Nadzeya Bedunko to three and two and a half years of restricted freedom (home imprisonment), respectively, for participating in the protests in the fall of 2020. Judge Andrei Mlechka found the women guilty of “organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or actively participating in them” (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code).

The same court convicted Ihar Kotau, facing the same charge under Part 1 of Art. 342, of sharing in a Telegram group information about police presence in Minsk “for the purpose of organizing group actions that grossly violate public order.”

Various forms of expression are also subject to prosecution: statements on the Internet and other forms of expression of protest and dissatisfaction with government policies become grounds for criminal charges.

Political prisoner Uladzimir Zapolskikh was convicted in another trial, this time under Art. 369 and 368 of the Criminal Code for “insulting a government official and Aliaksandr Lukashenka”. On December 22, 2023, judge Dzmitry Karsiuk of the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk sentenced him to one year of imprisonment. It is known that Zapolskikh was arrested in May 2023 for comments posted in 2020. For the first time, the student of law was tried in the “Zeltser case.” Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka then sentenced him to two years in prison. Uladzimir served his sentence and was released at the end of January 2023. Soon he was detained again.

On December 14, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest convicted Iryna Sankouskaya under Art. 370, 368, and 369 of the Criminal Code on charges of “vandalizing state symbols” and “insulting Lukashenka” and a “government official”. Judge Maryia Aliferuk sentenced Iryna to one and a half years in prison. The woman was accused of commenting in a Telegram chat; she also reportedly published an image of a red and green flag, with a swastika in the background.

On December 7, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest considered the criminal case of Uladzimir Lukiyanchuk, who was accused of “publicly insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka” under Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code. The case was heard by judge Yauhen Brehan. Lukiyanchuk was arrested on November 1, 2023 and placed in custody pending trial.

One more trial on charges of “vandalizing state symbols” took place in Minsk on September 28. The Kastryčnicki District Court sentenced Aliaksandr Kandratsyeu to one year’s imprisonment under Art. 370 of the Criminal Code. The case was heard by judge Alena Zhyvitsa. According to the prosecution, on July 31, 2023, Kandratsyeu, while near the building of a dormitories, grabbed a red-green flag attached to the facade of the building, and then tore it off the mount, breaking the pole. Then, he took it with him. By doing this, he allegedly “caused harm to the authority of the Republic of Belarus.”

In the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk, judge Maksim Trusevich sentenced foreign national Aliaksandr Smirnou to three years in prison. He was found guilty under Part 2 of Art. 339 (hooliganism) and Art. 370 (vandalizing state symbols) of the Criminal Code for three damaged flags.

Across Belarus, representatives of a wide variety of social and professional groups are regularly detained. As a rule, known detentions end in administrative or criminal prosecution.

In addition to criminal and administrative prosecution, the authorities widely use other types of repression: for example, depriving individuals of the right to a profession, dismissing them from work on various formal grounds; those fired for political reasons find it extremely difficult to be employed again.

Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers

According to the BAJ, as of the end of December, 32 journalists and media workers were being held in prisons.

In Svietlahorsk, employees of the Ranak TV station were arrested on charges of “creating an extremist group”. The station was designated as an “extremist group”, presumably over reports of deaths from an explosion at a pulp mill.

Several persons were arrested in Mahilioŭ allegedly affiliated to the media resources and Mahilioŭ Media. Among those detained is the former director of the City History Museum, Aliaksei Batsiukou. The police searched the home of journalist Andrei Vyrvich. His equipment was confiscated, and Vyrvich himself was interrogated.

A criminal case was opened against journalist Uladzimir Khilmanovich on charges of “promoting extremist activities”. The charges are likely related to his activities in media resources that the Belarusian authorities view as “extremist”.

Ales Sabaleuski, a blogger and activist of the Belarusian Language Society, was detained in Mahilioŭ; the reasons for the detention are still unknown.

Siarhei Arlou, CEO of the government-owned TV and Radio Company in Viciebsk, was arrested after a search in his office and apartment; the charges against him are currently unknown.

A search was conducted in the apartment of journalist Dzmitry Lupach.

BAJ notes that due to the recent changes in the procedure for considering public appeals, it will become more difficult for non-pro-government journalists to obtain information from officials: representatives of government agencies may now not respond to anonymous appeals by phone and interrupt communication with the applicant if they suspect that the purpose of the appeal is to “discredit the Republic of Belarus” .

Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

Human rights defenders of Viasna shared the stories of torture and ill-treatment in detention documented in 2023. Such stories describe cold cells with constant lights on at night, lack of bedding and hygiene items, bans on outdoor time or shower, and problems with parasitic insects. Evidence of physical violence, threats of sexualized violence and murder, and psychological pressure was collected. Documented stories also address post-release issues, including deteriorating health and psychological consequences.

A review of the most common prohibited practices from 2020 to the present has been prepared about torture and inhumane conditions of detention of women. These include various types of physical violence, threats of physical and sexualized violence, threats to family and children, psychological pressure, unsanitary conditions, lack of hygiene products and failure to provide medical care.

While serving their sentences, political prisoners continue to be subjected to repression, including unjustified penalties and deteriorating living conditions. Human rights defenders continue to receive reports of arbitrary restrictions such as bans on phone calls, family visits, and parcels, together with solitary confinement in punishment cells and cell-type facilities, and false accusations leading to harsher imprisonment. Taken together, this characterizes the conditions of detention as cruel, inhuman, humiliating, often amounting to torture.

Former political prisoners shared stories of abuse while in detention. Aliaksandr Antaniuk told about inhumane treatment, including poor living conditions, lack of heat, daylight and poor food, as well as psychological pressure in the temporary detention center and pre-trial prison in Brest. Mikita Tratsiakevich spoke about the use of physical violence against him, unsanitary conditions, lack of basic amenities and psychological pressure in the temporary detention center and pre-trial prison in Minsk. A former political prisoner held in penal colony No. 15 in Mahilioŭ spoke about the harsh conditions of detention in a punishment cell, including sleeping on wooden boards without any bedding as punishment, low temperatures and absence of warm clothes.

Of greatest concern is the situation of several dozen political prisoners with serious health problems. Ryhor Kastusiou, a 66-year-old head of the Belarusian Popular Front party, said in a recent letter about the deterioration of his condition related to his cancer and that he was not informed of the results of the latest tests. Pavel Kuchynski’s cancer is progressing; in prison, he is deprived of the opportunity to undergo the necessary treatment, bone marrow transplantation. Uladzimir Hundar, whose prosthesis was previously taken away in a pre-trial detention center and the man was brought to court hearings in his underpants, cannot move or go outside while serving his sentence in prison No. 4 due to the fact that the rubber tips on the crutches have worn out and there is no way to replace them.

Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, who was earlier transferred to a maximum-security prison, is experiencing problems with her spine and has recently seen her mail blocked, as well as restrictions on family visits.

Violations of freedom of expression under the guise of fighting extremism

Authorities continue to persecute individuals under the guise of fighting extremism and terrorism. Such actions include running several blacklists: people designated by the authorities as “extremists” and “terrorists”, prohibited information resources and content, as well as organizations and initiatives labelled as “radical”.

In December, the list of “extremist formations” increased by five entries: the 6TV Belarus project, BelPol, Belarusian sports project Tribuna, Belarusian volunteer corps, and a Belarusian-Georgian-Ukrainian Telegram chat called “Russia is Evil”.

The list of persons “involved in extremist activities” increased by 113 people in December, which is almost twice as much as in November. Now there are 3,654 names on the list. Among the new entries are the imprisoned human rights defenders of Viasna Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich, who were sentenced to 10, 9 and 7 years of imprisonment, respectively, and Dzmitry Salauyou, who was sentenced in absentia to 8 years. Journalists Stsiapan Putsila and Yan Rudzik were also included in the list.

Others include Ukrainian citizen Katsiaryna Brukhanava, programmer Leanid Raichonak, who was convicted for donating to Belarusian soldiers fighting in Ukraine, businessman Valiantsin Shtermer, biker Andrei Ivaniushyn, businessman Aliaksei Tsypiliou, and Aliaksandr Hancharou convicted for transferring money to the Kastus Kalinouski Regiment.

The list is run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the KGB, which in turn follow court rulings in trials involving “extremist activities”. By doing this, the government is fighting against human rights defenders, free journalists, people who stand in solidarity with the victims of repression and individuals already persecuted for exercising their right to express their opinions and the right to peaceful assembly.

On December 1, a criminal case was opened against journalist and human rights defender Uladzimir Khilmanovich. He is charged with Parts 1 and 2 of Art. 361-4 of the Criminal Code (promoting extremist activities).

In the Hrodna Regional Court, on December 19, political prisoner Aliaksandra Kasko was sentenced to ten years in prison, after found guilty under eight articles of the Criminal Code, including for “participation in an extremist formation” and “promoting extremist activities”. The woman was arrested after returning from Poland in early February 2023.

A variety of sources of independent information and media outlets are featured in the list of “extremist materials”, which also follows court rulings. The authorities continue to restrict access to independent media, local outlets and Telegram chats, activities of Belarusians abroad, political parties and Belarusian culture initiatives.

On December 4, in an unprecedented decision, the Homieĺ Čyhunačny District Court designated as “extremist” 89 Internet resources: TikTok and Instagram accounts, Telegram chats, accounts on Odnoklassniki and YouTube channels.

The “extremism” label prompts regular charges against people who publicly respond to, read, subscribe to, store and share such content. In December, the authorities detained people and prosecuted them under Art. 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses, “distribution of extremist materials”, in at least 48 cases.

On December 12, Ales Sabaleuski was detained while at work, after which he stood trial and sentenced to 10 days of administrative imprisonment. After serving the term, however, the man was not released, facing another charge of “distribution of extremist materials”.

In Homieĺ, the regional head of the pro-government trade union, Tatsiana Hatskova, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for spreading “extremist materials” on Facebook.

On December 1-2, 15 students of local educational institutions, including the Pushkin State University, were arrested in Brest for spreading “Nazi, fascist, extremist materials and pornography” on social media, public forums and chat rooms. On December 4, arrests took place in Homieĺ: at least 5 people were detained for spreading “extremist materials” on the Internet. On December 8, two men were detained in Hrodna for “spreading extremism”, and it also became known that on December 7, law enforcement officers detained another man for the same reason. The detainees were forced to appear in video confessions later published in pro-government Telegram channels. In Svietlahorsk, law enforcement officers detained former employees of the Ranak TV station. It is known that they were detained as part of another wave of interrogations and detentions of TV channel employees. On December 9, political arrests took place at the Neman glass factory in Biarozaŭka: the police detained about ten people for subscriptions and likes.

In December, the State Security Committee updated the list of “persons involved in terrorist activities” three times, adding 18 new names to the registry.

Now there are 1,156 people on the “terrorist list”, including 397 Belarusians (there are 1,165 entries on the KGB list, but 9 people were removed from it earlier). Among them, since December, there are former security officer Ivan Yanchuk, the son of presidential candidate Eduard Babaryka, entrepreneur Valiantsin Shtermer and others.

Viasna’s lawyers sent an appeal to UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, and on freedom of association, regarding the persecution of Belarusians for donating to charity funds.

Violations of freedom of association

The persecution of the members of the Coordination Council continues: the apartment of Roza Turarbekava was searched, as the authorities reported two hundred raids affecting members of the opposition group.

About forty people were detained in Polack and Navapolack in connection with the independent trade union at the Naftan refinery, whose members are being prosecuted for calling for sanctions against Belarus.

A number of participants of amateur cycling events were detained in Navapolack. They are accused of “plotting to overthrow the current government in an unconstitutional way”.

The police searched the house of Aliaksandr Milinkevich, head of the Free Belarusian University and adviser on implementation of the European choice of Belarus to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s office.

Aleh Stakhayevich, former leader of the independent trade union at the Granit enterprise, was not released after serving 15 days in jail.

In early December, the Supreme Court ordered to deregister the New Life church, a religious community of Christians of the Full Gospel. At the beginning of 2021, the Minsk city authorities accused the community of improper use of the land occupied by the church building, while representatives of the community claimed that they were illegally deprived of the right to the land. In late December, it became known that the pastor of the New Life church, Viachaslau Hancharenka, was summoned to the Investigative Committee’s office for questioning.

The Belarusian Union of Artists closed down an artistic association “Pahonia”, reportedly at the request of the Ministry of Culture. Earlier, numerous members of the union were subjected to pressure from officials.

The Hrodna Regional Court deregistered Gervėčiai, an association of the Lithuanian national minority. The formal reason for the decision was the club’s failure to provide reports to the authorities.

Belarusian authorities’ support for the aggression of the Russian Federation, persecution of Ukraine’s support and anti-war position

As before, 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 Russian aggressors.

The Mahilioŭ Regional Court considered the case of Aliaksandr Kulikou, who was arrested in June 2023 after returning from Poland. The man went abroad because of political persecution, but returned, believing the promises of the security forces not to deprive him of his freedom. As a result, the political prisoner was detained at the border and placed in a pre-trial detention center. Two months later, he was convicted for comments in “extremist” chats. In December, Kulikou stood trial on charges of attempting to join the Kalinouski regiment in Ukraine, as well as for “training to participate in extremist activities”. On December 20, judge Dzianis Kichyhin sentenced the political prisoner to four years in prison. The final aggregate sentence is four and a half years of imprisonment.

On December 18, the Minsk Regional Court convicted Cheslau Kananovich for ten donations to the Kalinouski regiment. He was charged under Part 2 of Art. 361-3 of the Criminal Code, “financing of activities for participation on the territory of a foreign state in an armed formation, or in armed conflicts”. The charge stems from Kananovich’s donations to Belarusians fighting for Ukraine. The political prisoner was eventually sentenced to five years in prison.

On December 1, the Minsk Regional Court convicted Aliaksandr Hancharou, who was charged under Part 2 of Art. 361-3 of the Criminal Code. The charge was heard by judge Alena Misnik, but no details of the trial are unknown. Hancharou was accused of transferring money through the bank to finance the activities of the Kalinouski regiment. He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Persecution of lawyers

On December 21, the qualification commission of the Ministry of Justice ruled to disqualify lawyers Sviatlana Biryliova and Anton Navitski.

The commission also authorized the termination of licenses of Anastasiya Lazarenka, a lawyer earlier convicted in a politically motivated trial, and Natallia Tarasiuk, whose qualifications were found insufficient by the commission’s decision of dated November 22, 2023.

Anastasiya Lazarenka is a political prisoner, who was arbitrarily convicted of participating in protests and sharing data about security officers involved in repression to an online media. Natallia Tarasiuk is an experienced lawyer with an impeccable reputation who has taken part in the defense of persons involved in politically motivated cases.

These measures constitute arbitrary and excessive interference in the activities of the legal profession, inconsistent with the role of the legal profession in society, and, as a rule, are taken by the Ministry of Justice solely for political reasons.

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