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"It does not indicate serious changes in the human rights situation." Viasna human rights activist comments on the release of political prisoners

2024 2024-07-08T15:09:09+0300 2024-07-08T15:09:09+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

On the third of July, at least 18 political prisoners were released from penal colonies. Many associated this with the Law On Amnesty in Connection with the 80th Anniversary of the Liberation of Belarus from Nazi Invaders, but, nevertheless, this law did not provide for the release of political prisoners. According to human rights activists, they were released on pardon. In addition, despite Lukashenka's statement on the release of political prisoners with serious illnesses, only one released from the list of political prisoners at special risk is known for certain, and this is 67-year-old Ryhor Kastusiou. It was mostly men who were released from penal colonies, sentenced to two to five years under articles for "participation in mass riots", "active participation in actions grossly violating public order", "insulting government officials", and other "extremist articles". Some of them had several months left before the end of their term. For security reasons, Viasna does not publish the names of those released, but human rights activist Pavel Sapelka comments on the situation.

Исправительная колония № 22. Скриншот видеосюжета ТРК
Penal Colony No. 22. Screenshot from a film from Brest TV-channel

Some statistics for four years

Recall that since 2020, this is not the first case of the release of political prisoners ahead of time by pardon or amnesty. Thus, according to human rights activists of Viasna, 29 political prisoners have been pardoned in four years of mass persecution in Belarus. Among them are volunteer Tatsiana Lasitsa, Radio Svaboda journalist Aleh Hruzdzilovich, editor of the Black Book of Belarus Sofia Sapega, and former Nexta editor Raman Pratasevich, Swiss citizen Natallia Khershe. The petition for pardon, especially in 2021–2022, was a massive element of pressure on political prisoners. Some of them, according to the testimony of former prisoners, were forced to write a petition addressed to Lukashenka.

Since 2020, only four political prisoners sentenced to an open-type correctional institution have been amnestied. This happened in 2023. Among them is the former owner and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni, Ramuald Ulan. It should be noted that this happened only because Article 188 of the Criminal Code (libel), under which the political prisoner was convicted, was not included in the list of those that prevent amnesty.

Pavel Sapelka: "This does not indicate serious or strategic changes in the human rights situation in Belarus"

"We, human rights defenders, welcome the fact that people who were torn from their families, who went through ordeals and who were treated in prohibited ways, including being tortured, only for the exercise of their constitutional rights. Their number does not give grounds for optimism, especially if it turns out to be a one-time event related to the celebration of Independence Day by the authorities.

We know that the released have been recognized by the human rights community as political prisoners, some of them have serious illnesses, and the release of others may not be directly related to humanitarian considerations. From this, we can draw a firm conclusion that it is the advocacy efforts of the human right defenders and democratic political community that are yielding results; of course, not at the scale that is expected.

It is unlikely that the release of political prisoners was the result of the political processes of recent days, since the usual way of applying for pardon takes much longer. An exception may be the case when the release by way of pardon, contrary to the assurances of the dictator, occurs without a statement from the convicted person and, accordingly, is solely the result of a political decision. Such cases have occured in practice.

The release coincided with the signing and publication of the amnesty law. So, the release of the listed political prisoners could not be carried out in accordance with this law. It has set insurmountable obstacles for political prisoners, with the exception of those convicted under individual articles (almost all "extremist" articles are in the list), and for those who are included in the list of persons involved in extremist activities. There are no exceptions for the persons listed in Article 1 of the Amnesty Law, which, among other things, refers to those who are people with disabilities of groups 1 and 2, suffer from certain diseases, moreover, there is a number of restrictions in relation to their release based on the severity of crimes they were accused of. The indication in the law of an individual review of materials on the application of amnesty does not cancel the mandatory consideration of the restrictions established by law during the amnesty, it only does not make it possible to amnesty a list of persons, without an individual review of the case of each prisoner.

It should be emphasized that despite the positive nature of the event itself, it does not indicate serious or strategic changes in the human rights situation in Belarus. To begin the real process of establishing civil consent, it is necessary at least to stop politically motivated persecution, especially criminal prosecution of dissidents and opponents of the regime, as well as a broad and rapid process of releasing political prisoners using all available legal instruments."

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