Human rights situation in Belarus. January 2024
The repressive policies of the Belarusian authorities have not changed, and the atmosphere of fear continues to prevail in the country.
As of January 31, 2024, Belarus had 1,429 political prisoners. In the past month, 28 people were recognized as political prisoners by the human rights community. Viasna has information on more than 4,500 individuals convicted in politically motivated criminal cases.
The Viasna Human Rights Center has several members who are currently serving sentences in correctional facilities. These include Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, Maria Rabkova, volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, and Human Constanta human rights activist Nasta Loika.
The arbitrary detention of individuals for exercising their civil rights persists. In January 2024, Viasna received information about at least 560 cases of repression, including 310 detentions and 349 administrative proceedings on political grounds. The courts imposed at least 77 fines totaling 1,611 base values ($19,765) and 46 detention sentences totaling 512 days.
In Belarus, during the last week of January, over 200 people were detained on suspicion of receiving aid from the humanitarian project INeedHelpBy.
Human rights defenders regularly identify, collect, and file facts of torture and prohibited treatment during politically motivated criminal investigations and the serving of criminal and administrative punishments for prisoners in politically motivated cases.
On the night of January 8-9, a 50-year-old political prisoner Vadzim Khrasko died in Correctional Facility No. 3. He had been sentenced to three years in prison in August 2023 for making several donations to initiatives that were declared extremist by the authorities.
Politically motivated persecution and political prisoners
In January 2024, the Belarusian authorities continued to actively persecute participants of the 2020 protests and anyone who disagreed with state policy. They demonstrated a strict adherence to suppressing any lawful actions, which is contrary to their stated goals. Since the start of the 2020 election campaign, human rights defenders have registered over 4,500 convictions and at least 5,736 individuals (including those suspected, charged, or convicted) in politically motivated criminal cases.
As of January 31, 2024, Belarus had 1,429 political prisoners, including 170 women and approximately 530 young people. Over 1,500 individuals have been released due to completing their sentence, change of restraining order, non-custodial sentence, or pardon. These individuals require support, rehabilitation, and in some cases, the opportunity to leave Belarus. In January, the human rights community recognized 28 individuals as political prisoners. It is known that at least 20 convicts have been released.
Human rights activists are documenting repeated instances of persecution against former political prisoners. The ongoing repression demonstrates a constant and systematic pressure on individuals with opinions that differ from the state's rhetoric. This has become a persistent policy of repression in the country.
On January 23, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, a former political prisoner, was detained after completing his six-and-a-half-year prison sentence in February 2021. Prior to 2020, he was among the limited number of individuals incarcerated for political reasons in Belarus.
A criminal case has been opened against former political prisoner Hanna Vishniak for the interview she gave to an 'extremist formation' after her release and departure from the country. The authorities prosecute individuals who have left Belarus through the absentee court system, which was introduced in 2022.
The trial of 68-year-old political prisoner Barys Vitko continued in Brest. The man had previously served a home confinement sentence. However, in May 2023, he was brutally detained at home on suspicion of insulting Lukashenka under Article 368 of the Criminal Code.
In January, the intentional worsening of detention conditions for political prisoners continued. At the moment Viasna human rights activists know the names of 100 political prisoners, who are framed by the prison administration for ‘violation of the prison routine.’ Of these, 67 political prisoners have had their prison security upped.
On January 15, Ryhor Kastusiou, a political prisoner and former chairman of the deregistered Belarusian Popular Front Party, was transferred to a maximum-security prison, the strictest form of punishment. The trial was held via video link, which violated the right to a fair trial. The decision was made by Judge Siarhei Kukhatskavolts of the Ivanavičy District Court. It is known that the political prisoner sentenced to 10 years in prison has a cancer disease. Viasna's lawyers have appealed to the UN Special Rapporteurs regarding Ryhor Kastusiou's detention conditions.
On January 22, another trial of political prisoner Vadzim Huseu was held. He was convicted of 'persistent disobedience of the prison administration' as defined in Article 411 of the Criminal Code.
On January 8, it was revealed that Ala Zuyeva, a 62-year-old cancer patient, had been transferred to a correctional facility. In October 2023, the woman was sentenced on defamation charges to two and a half years in prison. The court did not take into account the woman's serious illness and did not impose a lighter sentence.
In Belarus, the courts are still reliant on the executive branch and the presidential vertical and continue to be used as a tool of repression against defendants in politically motivated administrative, criminal, and civil cases. Moreover, appellate and supervisory instances may not provide an effective remedy. In January, the court considered the appeal of Leanid Raichonak and upheld the sentence of the political prisoner.
Many political prisoners are often placed in a state of incommunicado by the authorities. No information is available about Maria Kalesnikava (from February 15, 2023), Mikalai Statkevich (from February 10, 2023), Siarhei Tsikhanouski (from March 9, 2023), Ihar Losik (from February 20, 2023), Viktar Babaryka, Ales Bialiatski, and other political prisoners.
The persecution of Belarusians for expressing solidarity through legal means is ongoing and gaining momentum. On January 23, KGB officers conducted mass raids, interrogations, and detentions of relatives and close friends of (ex)political prisoners throughout Belarus. More than 200 people were subjected to the crackdown. Some of them were detained and prosecuted under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code for participating in an extremist formation, and under Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code for promoting extremist activity. Some were convicted on administrative charges. The KGB was interested in the INeedHelpBY initiative's support for the families of political prisoners. The authorities had labeled the initiative an 'extremist formation' the day before.
Maryna Adamovich, who is actively advocating for the release of political prisoners, including her husband Mikalai Statkevich, has been sentenced to arbitrary administrative arrest.
Persecution of human rights defenders
Two human rights activists from Viciebsk, Pavel Levinau and Iryna Tratsiakova, were criminally prosecuted and put on the wanted list. Acquaintances informed them about seeing their portraits on display with the text 'Wanted by police' and the message ‘Pieršamajski District Police Department of Viciebsk is looking for these persons for committing a crime under Part 2 of Art 342 of the Criminal Code (providing training or other preparation for participating in group actions that grossly violate public order, as well as financing or providing other material support for such activities).’ The announcement regarding Levinau states that he has committed several crimes that fall under the aforementioned criminal article, according to Viasna's Viciebsk chapter.
On January 6, Marfa Rabkova, the coordinator of the Viasna Volunteer Service, celebrated her 29th birthday in detention for the fourth consecutive year. Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, Andrei Chapiuk, and Human Constanta human rights defender Anastasiya Loika remain in captivity.
A book about politically imprisoned women in Belarus was published in Germany with the title If You Are Going Through Hell, Don't Stop. The edition includes letters from Marfa Rabkova and Nasta Loika.
International response to the human rights situation in Belarus
The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) considered the case of political prisoner lawyer Vital Brahinets and concluded that Belarus had violated his rights. The WGAD acknowledged that Brahinets was detained due to discrimination based on his political views and his role as an 'opposition lawyer' for representing clients in politically motivated trials. The fact that the lawyer was arrested for exercising his rights to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly also makes his detention arbitrary. In addition, Brahinets' right to a fair trial was grossly violated.
The UN Human Rights Committee adopted a precedent decision on the individual communication of human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka regarding systematic violations of privacy guaranteed by Article 17 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The HRC evaluated rigorous border searches and the practice of providing border guards with a list of dissidents in 2015.
Libereco's #WeStandBYyou campaign of solidarity with political prisoners reached an important moment: Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland, has become the first head of government and the 400th MP to take on the duties of a symbolic 'godfather' of a political prisoner in Belarus — Dzmitry Halavach. Additionally, three politicians from the UK and Germany have joined the #WeStandBYyou campaign and become 'godparents' of Larysa Shchyrakova, Yauhen Hlushkou, as well as Tatsiana and Aliaksandr Birulias.
During a U.S. Senate hearing on political prisoners held on January 9, Senator Richard Durbin mentioned several individuals, including Ales Bialiatski, Siarhei Tikhanouski, Ihar Losik, and Andrei Kuznechyk. During his speech, he showed photos of political prisoners from five countries — Belarus, Russia, Cambodia, Algeria, and Guatemala — and emphasized their plight while openly advocating for democracy and fundamental freedoms. He called for their immediate release.
Violation of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, at the end of January 2024, 35 media representatives are behind bars.
The whereabouts of former Mahilioŭ journalist and videographer Yauhen Hlushkou are unknown. According to MAYDAY TEAM, he may be in a temporary detention center due to political persecution.
January 23, Minsk Regional Court upheld the verdict to the editor of Rehijanalnaja Hazeta Aliaksandr Mantsevich. On November 3, Mantsevich was sentenced to four years in prison and a fine of $4,500 by the Maladziečna District Court. The journalist was accused of discrediting the Republic of Belarus under Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code.
On January 24, Siarhei Hardziyevich, a journalist from Pershy Rehijon, was detained. According to BAJ, the authorities initiated administrative proceedings against him for violating Article 19.11 of the Administrative Offences Code, which prohibits the distribution, production, or storage of information products that contain calls for extremist activity. As a result, the journalist was detained for 15 days.
The practice of blocking resources that are significant to the public to control the information space and restrict access to alternative sources of information in Belarus continues.
On January 3, it was revealed that BAJ's domain name and email address were revoked due to violations. The Minister of Information signed a decree to block access for users from Belarus to the regional online publication Moj Brest. The publication was created over ten years ago and mainly covers news, events, and people related to Brest and its surroundings.
Including media resources in the list of extremist materials restricts the activities of the Current Time project (currenttime.tv) and the Pershy Rehijon YouTube channel.
The Internet resource Belaruskaje Radio Racyja was declared an extremist formation.
Torture and other cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. Violation of the right to life
Human rights defenders are still documenting cases of torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment. The issue is not restricted to isolated incidents, but rather a widespread phenomenon. This is supported by the accounts of former political prisoners who have experienced psychological pressure, physical violence, as well as humiliation, and insults from police officers. Their stories are published regularly. The available evidence indicates that there have been significant breaches of ethical and legal regulations governing the conduct of personnel in detention facilities, as well as fundamental human rights principles, such as the right to be free from torture, which must not be curtailed under any circumstances.
The illegal practice of recording public apologies, also known as 'repentant videos', continues. This practice is a serious violation of human rights and goes against the principles of legality and humanity. A detained education worker stated on a videotape made by law enforcement that he participated in the rallies and provided information about a police officer to the Black Book of Belarus [a Telegram channel collecting personal information about law enforcers]. The State Department for Combating Organized Crime released a 'repentant video' featuring a detained man who allegedly called for the radicalization of protests. It has been reported that four individuals in the Homiel region were arrested for following 'extremist' channels, and 'repentant videos' featuring them have also surfaced.
Preventing prisoners from receiving care packages is also a form of cruel treatment by the administration of detention facilities. Prisoners may be thus subjected to the incommunicado policy, which involves complete isolation from the outside world. It has been reported that political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich did not receive any parcels sent by his relatives in 2023. According to Mikalai's relatives, the official reason given was that the political prisoner allegedly refused to receive the parcels. However, during a short phone conversation, Mikalai stated that he had not received anything.
According to MAYDAY.TEAM, there is a flu epidemic in Navapolack Correctional Facility No. 1. Hundreds of inmates are known to have fallen ill in the prison's overcrowded medical unit. It is also reported that inmates have been banned from making phone calls. There are 106 political prisoners serving sentences in Correctional Facility No. 1. The overcrowding and high incidence of illness in the infirmary suggest inadequate hygiene and healthcare conditions in the prison system. It is the responsibility of prison administrations to ensure the human right to health and adequate medical care. The state must ensure safe and humane detention conditions for all prisoners. Measures must be taken in places of detention to ensure adequate healthcare, including controlling hygiene conditions, timely identification and treatment of the sick, and preventing epidemics.
On the night of January 8-9, Vadzim Khrasko, a 50-year-old political prisoner, died in Correctional Facility No. 3. Despite his serious illness, the Minsk City Court sentenced him to three years in prison in August 2023 for making several donations to initiatives that were declared extremist by the authorities. In prison, Vadzim suffered from pneumonia. The man was taken to the hospital when it was no longer possible to save his life. The human rights community of Belarus issued a statement emphasizing the state's responsibility to ensure the right to life and health. They also called for decisive action by the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor General's Office to initiate a criminal case on the death of Vadzim Khrasko, conduct an objective and comprehensive investigation to determine the causes of the incident, and inform the public about the results.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Political persecution of individuals for expressing their opinions online and participating in mass protests following the 2020 presidential election persists.
On January 8, 2024, the Frunzenski District Court of Minsk found Aliaksei Dmukhouski and Vital Paliakou guilty of committing a crime under part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. Aliaksei Dmukhouski was sentenced to 1.5 years of home confinement. It is noted that the man 'repented sincerely' and transferred the money 'voluntarily' to a public charitable institution. Vital Paliakou was sentenced to three years of home confinement. The defendants were in custody before the trial and were released in the courtroom.
On January 12, 2024, the Leninski District Court of Minsk found Uladzislau Mialeshka guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. The court imposed a sentence of two years and six months of home confinement. According to the case files, in September 2020 Uladzislau Mialeshka 'actively participated in group actions that grossly violated public order and involved willful disobedience to the lawful demands of police officers. He also blocked and obstructed the movement of vehicles, which led to transportation disruption.'
On January 24, 2024, the human rights community recognized five people as political prisoners. They were convicted or charged under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code for participating in peaceful protests in 2020.
Special criminal proceedings have been initiated against 20 individuals referred to as 'Tsikhanouskaya analysts' by the Investigative Committee. These individuals include experts, scientists, and public figures associated with democratic initiatives. It is important to note that their court rulings will be made in absentia. The prosecution alleges that they joined a conspiracy to seize state power in the Republic of Belarus through unconstitutional means. They also allegedly joined extremist formations created to facilitate criminal activity.
Belarus continues to block access to Internet resources.
On January 1, 2024, it was reported that access to YouTube had been blocked in Belarus prior to Sviatlana Tsikhanovskaya's New Year's address.
The consistent suppression of freedom of expression online continues.
On January 11, 2024, the Homiel Regional Court held a closed hearing for the criminal case against Ihar Kozubau. He was accused of inciting social discord or enmity (part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code), libeling Lukashenka (part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code), and insulting him (part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The verdict is unknown, but it involves imprisonment.
On January 22, 2024, the Brest Regional Court considered the criminal case of Dzianis Krasko, who was accused of inciting social discord or enmity under part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code. The individual was arrested on July 28, 2023 and placed in custody pending trial. Initially, he faced charges under Article 368 of the Criminal Code for publicly insulting Lukashenka, Article 369 for insulting a public officer, and Article 130 for inciting social discord. However, prior to the trial, the charges on the first two articles were dropped due to the expiration of the statute of limitations. The prosecution alleges that in December 2020, Dzianis Krasko made online comments to promote extremist activities, propaganda, and inciting social discord and hostility toward state law enforcement agencies, judiciary representatives, and military personnel serving in the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus. Dzianis Krasko was sentenced to three years in prison.
Along with criminal prosecutions, administrative prosecutions for expression of opinion are ongoing.
In January, Viasna received information about at least 349 administrative proceedings on political grounds. In December 2023, the number was 390. The courts ordered the imposition of at least 77 fines totaling 1,611 base values ($19,765) and 46 detentions totaling 512 days. The results of the remaining processes are unknown.
Violation of rights and freedoms under the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism
The Belarusian authorities are using the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism to persecute individuals who are exercising their civil and political rights. This is a cynical and hypocritical approach.
Thus, in January, the list of extremist formations was supplemented with nine more entities. These organizations include Belaruskaje Radio Racyja, an independent mass media outlet, the Free Belarusian University initiative, and INeedHelpBY, which assists families of political repression victims.
In January, 86 individuals were added to the List of Citizens of the Republic of Belarus, Foreign Citizens, or Stateless Persons Involved in Extremist Activities.
Furthermore, 107 additional decisions were made to classify information products as extremist materials, which were then added to the relevant list.
Violation of freedom of association
According to Lawtrend, as of January 2024, 971 civil society organizations have been forcibly liquidated or are in the process of liquidation, resulting in a reduction in the number of non-governmental organizations.
The KGB has declared the Free Belarusian University an extremist formation.
The Minsk City Court began considering the criminal case against the leaders of the BYPOL organization, which is made up of former law enforcement officers collecting evidence of crimes against peaceful protesters, in absentia. The criminal case involves six people charged with 12 criminal articles, including treason and an act of terrorism. This case continues to influence how the Belarusian authorities violate the freedom of association of Belarusian citizens outside of Belarus and associations established outside of Belarus.
The Belarusian authorities' support of Russia's military aggression, prosecution for supporting Ukraine, and anti-war stance
Persecution for expressing an anti-war stance and support for Ukraine has continued unabated since the start of the full-scale invasion of its territory by Russian troops.
In January, Heorhi Charavaka and Aliaksei Shvetsau were sentenced to prison for donating money to support the Kalinouski Regiment. The men were accused of financing activities related to recruiting, training, and preparing for participation in an armed conflict in a foreign state. Aliaksandr Boika was sentenced to imprisonment for sharing videos of military equipment with the media. His actions were deemed to facilitate extremist activity.
There have been reports of individuals being detained for displaying the Ukrainian flag on their office desks or expressing support for Ukraine online.
Harassment of lawyers, interference in the activities of the Bar
At its regular meeting, the Qualification Commission of the Ministry of Justice made several decisions that could be seen as excessive interference in the activities of the Bar. Thus, the licenses of lawyers Sviatlana Birylava (who defended political prisoner Pavel Mazheika), Anton Navitski, and Aliaksei Sakalou were terminated. The decision was allegedly motivated by their insufficient qualifications and Sakalou's misdemeanor, which was deemed incompatible with the title of a lawyer. A decision was made regarding the inability of lawyers Natallia Konada and Ihar Ryzhy to perform their professional duties due to insufficient qualifications.
On January 26, the Belarusian Republican Bar Association held an enlarged meeting with the participation of Volha Chuprys, the deputy head of the administration of A. Lukashenka, and Siarhei Khamenka, the Minister of Justice. Volha Chuprys answered questions from journalists about the role of lawyers in the socio-political life of the country. She stated that lawyers have been active in responding to the sites, meeting with labor collectives, and providing legal assistance to citizens. Additionally, they have been encouraging citizens to take an active part in the election campaign. "After all, every person should realize that participation in elections is not only related to their political right but is also an important socio-political function." This is a clear illustration of the authorities' perception of the Bar's role in society, emphasizing its technical and supportive functions, particularly in the last three years.