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Human rights situation in Belarus. May 2024

2024 2024-06-06T21:29:10+0300 2024-06-06T22:54:00+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”


  • The level of repression against political opponents of the regime and dissidents in Belarus remains critically high; anyone who has ever taken part in protests, criticized the political situation in the country, or otherwise expressed an opinion or exercised a right not approved by the authorities, runs the risk of arbitrary — under international and, in certain cases, national law — criminal or administrative prosecution  and consequently of imprisonment in inhumane conditions.

  • It is important to note that possible fluctuations in quantitative indicators of repression, often caused by unreported or delayed information, do not necessarily indicate the absense of totalitarian tendencies in the development of state and social institutions in the country. Repression equally affects representatives of absolutely all professional and social groups, ages, and worldviews. Teachers, doctors, priests, officials, businessmen, desk officers, young people, and the elderly are all equally in a vulnerable position when it comes to the relentless search for enemies and those responsible for the loss of legitimacy of Aliaksandr Lukashenka and the state institutions that support him.

  • The detention of Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a vlogger and author of the popular YouTube channel "Country for Life," and other participants of his election picket in Hrodna on 29 May 2020, initiated a period of significant repression in Belarus, which continues to this day. Four years ago, on 1 June 2020, Tsikhanouski was declared a political prisoner, becoming the first individual to be labeled as such in relation to the events of 2020. Since that time, thousands of individuals have been detained, subjected to physical abuse and torture, and imprisoned on political grounds. Viasna presents an overview of the results of four years of post-election harassment.

  • As of May 2024, Belarus had 1,410 political prisoners, including 173 women. The human rights community recognized 46 people as political prisoners during that month;

  • The Viasna Human Rights Center has several members 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 Stefanovic, 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 May 2024, Viasna received information about at least 361 cases of administrative and criminal persecution (trials and arrests), including at least 361 administrative proceedings on political grounds. Judges imposed at least 46 administrative detention sentences and 45 fines;

  • In May, Viasna human rights defenders carried out an analysis of the results of politically motivated criminal prosecution in April and highlighted the continued growth in the number of trials in politically motivated criminal cases. Based on the preliminary data, the number of convictions over this month was at least 161, including 50 women.

  • Viasna has prepared an overview of the persecution of foreign citizens in Belarus on political grounds.

  • Viasna human rights defenders still regularly register and document instances of torture and prohibited treatment during politically motivated criminal investigations, as well as in administrative proceedings. The same applies to persecution and imprisonment on political grounds. Detainees are also deprived of adequate medical care.

Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders

As of 31 May, it is known that at least 5,133 people have been sentenced in politically motivated criminal cases. The number of political prisoners in Belarus stands at 1,410: 1,237 men and 173 women. A further 46 people were added to the list of political prisoners in May 2024. The human rights defenders also demanded the rehabilitation of 26 individuals who, at the time of their imprisonment, detention, or house arrest, met the criteria for recognition as political prisoners. Information about their persecution was only made available after their release.

Ten individuals were identified as political prisoners due to their detention being linked to the right to participate in peaceful assemblies. 

A total of 19 individuals were declared political prisoners due to their detention or imprisonment on charges of treason or incitement to hatred. The legislation is drafted in a way that is overly broad and vague, which creates the potential for the authorities to persecute dissent.

Eleven individuals have been identified as political prisoners due to their imprisonment being related to charges of defamation, which are used by the authorities solely to punish criticism of officials.

Six individuals were recognized as political prisoners due to their detention and imprisonment being related to extremism charges. An overly broad and vague concept of extremism provides opportunities for arbitrary persecution of individuals and their associations that criticize the actions of the authorities and demand changes in the state and its policies.

In May 2024, at least 28 political prisoners had completed their prison sentences and were released. Furthermore, at least one political prisoner was released from custody due to the imposition of a punishment in the form of restriction of freedom. In total, since May 2020, more than 1,900 political prisoners have been released; of these, 1,012 have been released from correctional facilities upon completion of their prison sentences. They require support and rehabilitation, with many in need of treatment and re-socialisation.

Based on the received information, since May 2020, 5,133 politically motivated sentences have been handed down, of which 40 verdicts were delivered in absentia.

Political prisoners continue to face persecution while already serving their prison sentences. Aliaksandr Sharabaika, who was sentenced to 1.5 years in a correctional facility, is a defendant in a new criminal case. The trial was scheduled to begin on 7 May, but the results are still pending. The eighth criminal case was initiated against Vasil Dzemidovich, who was sentenced to a total of seven years in prison. Furthermore, new charges have been filed against Aliaksandra Kasko, who was previously sentenced to ten years in prison. A total of at least 38 individuals who were previously imprisoned for political reasons are known to have been subjected to new criminal proceedings following the verdict.

Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk was once again not released upon completion of her prison term. Initially, she was detained for three days and later charged for the third time under Article 411 of the Criminal Code (persistent disobedience to the prison administration). She has been in incommunicado mode for more than 140 days.

It is currently known that eight political prisoners are being held in incommunicado detention for an extended period. These individuals are Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, Maria Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka, Uladzimir Hundar, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Maksim Znak and Ihar Losik.

In May, it was also revealed that Ivan Viarbitski, Dzmitry Dashkevich, and Dzmitry Rezanovich had been charged with persistent disobedience to the demands of the prison administration (Article 411 of the Criminal Code). At least 38 political prisoners are currently facing such charges, which are being used by the authorities to arbitrarily extend their sentences.

Furthermore, we received information about the upcoming trials regarding the transfer of Aliaksandr Hashnikau and Yury Kastsiuk to high-security prisons. In total, at least 76 political prisoners were transferred to high-security prisons.

It has been reported that in early May, political prisoner Ihar Alinevich was once again placed in a punishment cell, while political prisoner Siarhei Ramanau was released from the Secure Housing Unit cell, where he had spent six months.

Many political prisoners face health problems and suffer serious illnesses in detention. The inhumane conditions of detention and the generally poor level of medical care in prisons represent significant risk factors for life and health. Thus, Katsiaryna Andreyeva suffered from pneumonia at the end of April. Iryna Aliabovich sustained a femoral neck fracture while incarcerated and remained in the infirmary for over a year. She was not provided with crutches during her stay. Alena Yafremenka began experiencing significant health issues while incarcerated. She lost the use of her legs. Human rights activist Nasta Loika also reported a deterioration in her health.

As of 27 May 2024, human rights activists have identified at least 254 political prisoners who are at particular risk of mistreatment while incarcerated. The group includes 16 individuals with disabilities, 91 individuals with serious health conditions, 65 elderly individuals over the age of 60 (many of whom also have significant health issues), and 10 individuals with mental disorders. Additionally, 23 young people were detained as minors, and 40 political prisoners are parents in large families. It is known that at least five families have both parents in prison.

The UN Special Rapporteurs and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention have requested that the Belarusian authorities take immediate action regarding the deterioration of Pavel Kuchynski’s health condition and the failure to provide adequate medical care in detention. Kuchynski has a cancer disease and a first-degree disability.

Harassment and pressure from the law enforcement authorities on the families of political prisoners continues. For example, Aliaksandra Semianiuk, the daughter of political prisoner Alena Hnauk, was persecuted and forced to leave Belarus because of receiving aid from the DissidentBy initiative.

The Law on Amnesty Commemorating the 80th Anniversary of the Liberation of Belarus from the Nazi Invaders, adopted in two readings by the House of Representatives of the National Assembly, excluded from the list of those covered by the amnesty individuals who are accused and convicted in so-called “extremist” criminal cases, as well as persons included in the List of Citizens of the Republic of Belarus, Foreign Citizens or Stateless Persons Involved in Extremist Activities.

Special proceedings were initiated against Svetlahorsk human rights activist Alena Masliukova – she will be tried in absentia under parts 1 and 2 of Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code (promoting extremist activity).

Violation of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression

The persecution and imprisonment of those taking part in peaceful assemblies not authorized by the authorities continue: the majority of those involved in the mass street protests of 2020-2021 remain in prison. In total, since May 2020, at least 2,466 people have been convicted under Articles 342 and 293 of the Criminal Code for participating in post-election protests.

While street protests have been largely peaceful and the vast majority of those involved in criminal cases are being prosecuted solely for peaceful actions, the authorities still employ disproportionate levels of coercive means, ill-treatment, and intimidation that exceed legal limits. For instance, this month, at least seven law enforcement officers, some of whom were in full gear, were involved in the detention of Yury Buturlakin for participation in street protests in Brest. Maksim Panou and Lizaveta Shulskaya were detained as a result of a published photograph from the protests.

The penalties imposed by the court may include a period of incarceration or the restriction of liberty for a specified period. For instance, the spouses Dziyana and Siarhei Danchankas were sentenced to two and a half years of home confinement, with Dziyana being on childcare leave. Yahor Zenchanka was sentenced to two years in prison for participation in the protests in Homieĺ. 

Eight people were sentenced to imprisonment for participating in a protest on the night of 9-10 August 2020 in Brest.

Siarhei Kulesh, accused of participation in mass riots, was sentenced to four years of imprisonment. The specifics of this case remain unclear. However, in similar instances, human rights advocates have consistently highlighted that the exceptional instances of using violence by protesters that occurred during the post-election protests in 2020 were not widespread and were instigated by the abuse of power by law enforcement agencies that dispersed the protests.

The Investigative Committee has announced the initiation of criminal proceedings against the participants of peaceful assemblies dedicated to Freedom Day held on March 25 in multiple countries hosting exiled Belarusians. The participants of the actions are accused of discrediting the Republic of Belarus (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). The apartments of the identified protest participants were searched and property was seized. In the past, the authorities have repeatedly persecuted those involved in organizing and participating in the Freedom Day celebrations in Belarus.

In light of the current circumstances, which make it impossible to hold peaceful assemblies in the country, the authorities are continuing to pursue administrative prosecutions for other forms of expression under the guise of accusations of holding unauthorized protests (Article 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Violations). A Minsk resident was sentenced to three days of administrative detention for picketing in the form of displaying white-red-white curtains on his apartment window. The Court of Appeals found no violation and upheld the court order.

The Brest Regional Court has been considering the case of political prisoner Yauhen Peliakhaty, who is accused under several defamation and protest articles, in a closed session since 2 May. The case is being presided over by Judge Katsiaryna Hruda. His charges include Article 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka), Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting other social discord or enmity), Part 1 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (establishing an extremist formation), Part 2 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code (slandering Aliaksandr Lukashenka), Article 361 of the Criminal Code (calling for restrictive measures aimed at harming the national security of Belarus), Article 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a public official). The court schedule record indicates that Peliakhaty has committed an antisocial deed, namely, in a state of insanity or suffering from a mental disorder. The individual was arrested on 1 June 2023. The arrest was conducted using “special means and physical force”. The individual was removed from his place of work in handcuffs and with a bag over his head. The next day the Leninski District Court of Brest accused him of disobedience to police officers (Article 24.3 of the Code of Administrative Violations) and detained him for five days. Later Yauhen was transferred to Pre-Trial Detention Center No. 6 in Baranavičy. Human rights activists have repeatedly highlighted the inadmissibility of detaining people with mental disorders in remand centers, especially in cases where there are grounds for exemption from criminal responsibility.

Prosecution of citizens for defamation continues.

Violation of freedom of association

The authorities’ labeling of pro-democracy civil society organizations as extremist formations persists. In May, for example, the Doctors for Truth and Justice and FreeInfoBel initiatives were granted this status. 

The recognition of organizations as extremist formations makes it possible to prosecute people who support them with donations under the guise of charges of financing extremist activities. As a result, Maksim Lapatsin was sentenced to four years and Artur Rolich to nine years in prison for financing the activities of an extremist formation and financing terrorist activities. The fate of people who have donated to support public initiatives is determined by the list the authorities put such an initiative on (the terrorist or extremist one).

It is becoming increasingly common for citizens to be prosecuted for interviews with independent media outlets on the grounds of extremism accusations. Uladzimir Martau was taken into custody in a criminal case involving the creation of an extremist formation for participation in a podcast and an interview.

In addition to the ongoing harassment of Coordination Council members, the KGB began persecuting coalitions that participated in the election of new CC members in the run-up to the election. Criminal proceedings against 257 persons on the electoral lists were initiated on this basis.

Lack of fair trial in politically motivated cases

Without adequate justification, courts often hear politically motivated criminal cases in camera. For example, political prisoner Yury Alkhavik, who is accused of calling for sanctions against Belarus, is being tried behind closed doors.

Prosecution under special procedings is expanded to enable the investigation and referral to court of criminal cases involving defendants located outside Belarus. To date, special proceedings have been initiated against 106 persons. The trial takes place without the accused attending (in absentia). In May, a trial in absentia commenced in the “case of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s analysts.” The trial involves 20 representatives of civil society and the academia, some of whom had interacted with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s Office as part of their professional activities.

Viasna human rights defender and former political prisoner Leanid Sudalenka, who is the subject of special proceedings, has reported that the state-appointed lawyer has refused to contact him. The Homieĺ Regional Court will commence in absentia proceedings for the accused on June 12.

Viasna has compiled a comprehensive list of all known cases where politically motivated sentences were handed down in pre-trial detention centers. This practice, as well as the practice of considering criminal cases in extramural sessions on the premises of police departments, is contrary to the principle of publicity of court proceedings and ultimately undermines the integrity of the judicial process.

Torture and inhumane treatment

On the occasion of the Day of Political Prisoners, Viasna issued a statement and prepared a series of materials on the topic of health in detention. These materials include doctors’ advice and recommendations, a description of the level of medical care in detention facilities, information on the problems faced by victims of human rights violations, and the issues with untimely assistance.

Violation of rights and freedoms under the pretext of combating extremism and terrorism

The Investigative Committee has issued a report on the ongoing efforts to combat those who have participated in protests and have an active civil position. The Committee has identified this as a fight against extremist crimes. According to the IC, “Since August 2020, about 19,000 extremism-related crimes have been committed across the country. About 5,500 crimes were registered last year, including those committed in the previous years. These include participation in unauthorized protests, mass riots, financing extremist activities, insulting public officials.”

Such statements are clearly designed to intimidate those who do not align with the government’s policy and suggest that repression is still a concern. According to the investigator, “Many of those who committed crimes in 2020 are still in hiding. Almost four years have passed, but active participants of mass riots continue to be identified and brought to justice.”  

The persecution of individuals for demonstrating solidarity and assisting those affected by the regime is intensifying. To date, at least 77 individuals have been convicted for donations under Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code (financing an extremist formation) and in conjunction with Article 290-1 of the Criminal Code (financing of terrorism). The group comprises individuals from a range of professional backgrounds, as well as those from different social and economic classes. The Interior Ministry has reported that 260 individuals have made voluntary donations to government agencies exceeding $356,000 since the beginning of 2024. These donations were extorted under threat of imprisonment. Some donors were immediately detained as part of a criminal case for “financing extremist activity” (Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code). Donations to structures recognized as “extremist formations” are punishable by up to five years in prison under the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, even if the recipient initiative was not recognized as extremist or terrorist at the time.

Under established practice, an organization or group of citizens is designated as an extremist formation from the outset of its activities, rather than the date of the corresponding decision. This presents the Belarusian authorities with the opportunity to prosecute acts that were not criminalized at the time of their commission. Such practices have the effect of undermining the predictability of the legal framework and result in the violation of several essential procedural rights of persons charged under such circumstances. Furthermore, such practice fails to consider a mandatory condition: the crime under Art. 361-2 and Art. 290-1 of the Criminal Code can only be committed with intent. In most cases, those charged did not know and could not have known that the authorities would later accuse certain entities of extremism and terrorism.

The ongoing prosecution for “financing of terrorist activities” (Article 290-1 of the Criminal Code) for donations to various initiatives, such as BYPOL and CyberPartisans, which have been recognized by the authorities as “terrorist organizations,” remains a concern. The penalty for violation of this article is imprisonment for up to 12 years. Recently, Belarusians have increasingly been prosecuted for financing extremist and terrorist activities. At least eight such cases have been documented in May. 

In May 2024, the Interior Ministry and the KGB issued a total of 17 decisions “on recognizing a group of citizens as an extremist formation and banning its activities” (for comparison, 62 such decisions were issued in the whole of 2023). As a result of these decisions, the List of Organizations, Formations, and Individual Entrepreneurs Involved in Extremist Activity was expanded to include interest groups of Belarusians, including all coalitions in the elections to the Coordination Council.

The KGB also designated the following initiatives as extremist organizations: European Choice, Doctors for Truth and Justice, FreeInfoBel, Chat 97% DKZh, and No More Being Scared (also known as No More Being Scared of Making Grandpa Angry). The Interior Ministry issued relevant decisions concerning online communities We are not Serfs, People’s Reporter, and Bobr 97%.

In response, the founders of the human rights institution Doctors for Truth and Justice issued a statement to this effect. They note that their institution engages in research and discussion of socially significant issues, provides platforms for public comment by experts, professionals, and citizens, and holds discussions on prison health issues. The doctors deemed the decision of the KGB officers as illegal and informed about the continuation of their activities aimed at ensuring the rule of law, truth, and justice in the Republic of Belarus.

In May, 107 individuals were added to the List of Citizens of the Republic of Belarus, Foreign Citizens, or Stateless Persons Involved in Extremist Activities. An enforceable court ruling on “extremist” charges is the basis for inclusion in the list. 

Among the articles of the Criminal Code appearing in such sentences, the most common are:

  • Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organizing, preparing, or actively participating in actions that grossly violate public order);

  • Article 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting the President of the Republic of Belarus);

  • Article 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting racial, national, religious, or other social enmity or discord);

  • Article 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a public official);

  • Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (establishing or participating in an extremist formation).

The Belarusian Helsinki Committee has presented the results of the analytical study “Human Rights in Belarus: Key Trends in Public Policy. January — April'24.” The symbolic cover featuring a kitten cosmonaut fleeing from a police baton reflects that even those who enjoy the privileges defined by Lukashenka may lose them if accused of extremism-related crimes (Decree of the President of the Republic of Belarus “On the Status of Belarusian Cosmonauts”). 

The National List of Extremist Materials, which is maintained by the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Belarus, has been expanded by 65 court decisions containing from one to seven information products. These include approximately 20 YouTube channels and videos, 20 Instagram pages, 15 Telegram channels, chats, and bots, four TikTok accounts, four Vkontakte pages, six Odnoglassniki pages, and more. 

It is worth noting that among the pages identified as extremist materials is the Telegram channel “Andrei Buka. Thinking out loud,” which has only three subscribers, and the last post on it was published more than a year ago.

The process of identifying products as extremist materials lacks objectivity, transparency, and expertise. It has been observed that politically motivated assessments made by commission members who simultaneously hold public office or have links to state structures are not always based on proper analysis and justification. The republican commission (for the city of Minsk) and the regional commissions are responsible for the assessment of signs of extremism. In addition, at the legislative level, they are subject to vague requirements regarding their member tasks, rights, and duties, as well as membership and regulations for decision-making.

As a result of recognizing materials as extremist, individuals who share information from such sources or information that contains extremist logos are subject to administrative prosecution under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Violations (distributing, producing, storing, transporting of information products containing calls for extremist activity or promoting such activity). In May, at least 270 court hearings under Article 19.11 of the Code of Administrative Violations took place.

Maryna Uladyka, an activist of the “Mothers-328” movement and orphan aid coordinator, was arrested and detained for 15 days based on the aforementioned formalities.

Furthermore, a Telegram channel linked to law enforcement agencies has published a video featuring a 20-year-old third-year student of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics who was arrested. On camera, the young man says he interacted with the Golos chatbot in 2020, took part in protests, and distributed “extremist materials.” 

On May 28, the trial of Herman Lebedzeu, an 18-year-old first-year student at the Belarusian State Pedagogical University, began. He is charged under Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code (insulting Lukashenka) and Part 1 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code (inciting other social discord). At the same time, instead of instituting immediate criminal proceedings against Herman, he was tried three times for distributing “extremist materials,” namely sharing posts from the NEXTA and Belarus Golovnogo Mozga Telegram channels, for which he served one month of administrative detention. This well-established illegal practice is used by law enforcement to “extort” confessions that are then added to the criminal case file.

The KGB stopped publication of the list of individuals and organizations engaged in terrorist activities, as its website has ceased operations. 

Harassment of lawyers

On May 7, 2024, the Qualification Commission for the Legal Profession in the Republic of Belarus conducted a routine attestation of lawyers. As a result, it was decided that lawyers Ina Bartash and Anatol Laptseu were incapable of performing their professional duties. The Qualification Commission decided to cancel the license of Hleb Drazdou, the reason being his expulsion from the Viciebsk Regional Bar Association.

It is unacceptable for an independent institution to be subject to such interference, as this creates conditions for impunity for pressure on the Bar. The Belarusian Bar has been forced to relinquish its autonomy as a result of external pressure. The Qualification Commission is comprised of eight lawyers who are loyal to the authorities. It also includes one representative each from the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor General’s Office, and other state bodies; five representatives from the Ministry of Justice; and two representatives from scientific organizations. The Deputy Minister of Justice is the Chairman of the Qualification Commission.

On May 27, Human Rights Watch, the Belarusian Association of Human Rights Advocates, and the Right to Defense Project released a report entitled "'I Swear to Fulfill the Duties of Defense Lawyer Honestly and Faithfully'. Politically Motivated Crackdown on Human Rights Lawyers in Belarus”. The report details the implementation of comprehensive state control over the legal profession in Belarus and the suppression of lawyers advocating for human rights by the government of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.

At least seven lawyers are currently imprisoned for political reasons.

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