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"This situation is borderline illegal." Pavel Sapelka on prison health care

2024 2024-05-16T15:11:56+0300 2024-05-16T15:12:23+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

This year, the Viasna Human Rights Center has chosen the right to health and medical care in detention as the theme of the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus. During the week, we will share materials on this topic. Today we publish an interview with Viasna human rights defender Pavel Sapelka, where we talk about what the right to health in detention means, why it became the topic of the Day of Political Prisoners-2024 and what each of us can do today to preserve the health of political prisoners.

Pavel Sapelka during the demonstration for the Day of Political Prisoners in 2023

What is the current situation with medical care in Belarusian prisons?

"This situation is borderline illegal and often an outright crime. For many prisoners, the shortcomings of prison health care are a serious, but they are only one of many things which worsen the conditions of detention, but for several hundred political prisoners, due to their age and condition, the shortcomings of the system are a dangerously direct path to the irreparable deterioration of their health.

The situation in places of detention is best illustrated by the fact that at least six political prisoners have already died in places of incarceration. And we must say that responsibility for their lives is borne not only by those who executed arbitrary sentences, but also by those who passed those sentences."

What does the right to health mean in detention?

"The right to health belongs to a person regardless of whether they are deprived of liberty, and includes, according to the definition of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the following things:

  • safe drinking water and proper sanitation;
  • safe food;
  • proper meals and adequate housing;
  • healthy environment and working conditions;
  • health education;
  • gender equality.

The right to health encompasses freedoms, in particular freedom from torture and other cruel or inhuman treatment or punishment. The right to health includes the possibility to enjoy certain rights:

  • the right to a health care system that provides everyone with equal opportunities to achieve the highest attainable standard of health;
  • the right to prevention and treatment of diseases;
  • access to essential medicines;
  • the right to maternal, child, and reproductive health;
  • equal and timely access to primary health care;
  • accessibility of health education and information.

Healthcare facilities, goods and services must be accessible to everyone without discrimination; they must meet appropriate scientific and medical standards and be of high quality. For this, it is considered necessary to have qualified medical personnel, scientifically proven and suitable medicines and medical equipment."

What international standards should Belarus adhere to in this regard?

"Health indicators are relevant to the Sustainable Development Goals. Ensuring a healthy lifestyle and promoting well-being for all ages is one of the 17 goals developed and supported by the UN General Assembly.

In addition to the standards derived from the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, mentioned above, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the Nelson Mandela Rules, should be mentioned:

Rules 31–34 and 46 confer important powers and responsibilities on medical workers in institutions of deprivation of liberty, in particular:
a) the duty of protecting prisoners’ physical and mental health and the prevention and treatment of disease on the basis of clinical grounds only;
b) adherence to prisoners’ autonomy with regard to their own health and informed consent in the doctor-patient relationship;
c) the confidentiality of medical information, unless maintaining such confidentiality would result in a real and imminent threat to the patient or to others;
d) a absolute prohibition on engaging, actively or passively, in acts that may constitute torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including medical or scientific experimentation.

According to rule 69, individuals designated by a prisoner to receive his or her health information shall be notified by the prison director of the prisoner’s serious illness, injury or transfer to a health institution;
Rule 109 emphasizes the need for considering the condition of prisoners: those who are later diagnosed with severe health conditions, for whom staying in prison would mean an exacerbation of their condition, shall not be detained in prisons; if necessary, they can be observed and treated in specialized facilities under the supervision of qualified health-care professionals."

Why did the right to health become the theme of the Day of Political Prisoners this year?

"There are political prisoners who have been in places of incarceration for four years (Mikita Yemialyanau has been for five), and efforts to free them, undertaken by national, foreign, and international actors, have not yet yielded results. We do not deviate from our demands for the release of political prisoners and the review of their sentences, but we take into account the fact that the conditions which the defendants in politically motivated cases are in are an independent factor that should be on the agenda."

Can society now somehow help preserve the health of political prisoners?

"We can share information about the situation in places of incarceration, constantly emphasizing the link between the political nature of persecution and the restriction of the right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. We can share tips and recommendations for those who are under threat of imprisonment, who are deprived of their liberty, and who have already been released. Finally, we must make every possible effort to speak as openly as possible about the needs of political prisoners, continue to support and expand the possibilities of such support for all those who need it in connection with politically motivated persecution and, in general, those who have been victims of torture and prohibited treatment.

Viasna continues to provide psychological and social support for victims of torture and hopes to expand this area, as well as create and implement new approaches to support victims of politically motivated persecution."

Recall that on May 21, 2021, political prisoner activist Vitold Ashurak died in Škloŭ penal colony No. 17. A year later, as a tribute to him, human rights activists declared this day a Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus. Since then, five more political prisoners died in places of incarceration: Mikalai Klimovich, Ales Pushkin, Vadzim Khrasko, Ihar Lednik, and Aliaksandr Kulinich. They were all united not only by political persecution against them, but also by the fact that they received untimely or substandard medical care in prison, as well as health problems, despite which they were sent to penal colonies. As of May 6, 2024, human rights defenders are aware of at least 254 political prisoners who are at particular risk behind bars. For some of them, every day of imprisonment is critical, and their health and even their lives depend on it. Also, many political prisoners have mental health problems during and after their imprisonment. On May 21, Viasna calls to express solidarity with all political prisoners, draw the attention of the Belarusian and international society to the failure to provide proper medical care in places of detention, and once again demand the release of all political prisoners from the regime.

You can read how to join the Day of Political Prisoners here:

"The main thing is to save your health." May 21 is the Day of Political Prisoners

On May 21, Viasna calls on to express solidarity with all political prisoners and once again demand the regime to release them.

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