Belarus – Widespread searches and judicial harassment of human rights defenders following Presidential Elections

2011 2011-01-13T10:15:04+0200 1970-01-01T03:00:00+0300 en The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Numerous individual human rights defenders and organisations have been subjected to police and judicial harassment, ill-treatment, searches and raids carried out at their offices and homes, since the unrest which followed the Presidential Elections of 19 December 2010.

Most of the searches have been carried out in relation to a criminal investigation opened by the Minsk Department of Interior under Article 293 parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (participation and organisation of mass disorder) which is punishable by up to 15 years in prison. This investigation aims at establishing the involvement of human rights defenders in the political unrest.

On 19 December 2010, Mr Aleh Gulak, Chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), who was observing the opposition rally, was arrested despite explaining the reasons for his presence. He was brought to a temporary detention facility where was forced to spend three hours standing with his face to a wall. On 20 December at midday, he was brought to court where he was accused of participation in an unauthorised rally. In the Court house, he was ill-treated as he had to spend several hours in a cell measuring 120 cm by 80 cm together with four other persons. At 7pm, he learned that his supposedly open hearing had already taken place, and that the judge had ordered additional investigation into his case. He was subsequently released. Aleh Gulak intends to lodge a complaint against his unlawful arrest and detention.

On the night of 19-20 December 2010, the office of Human Rights Centre 'Viasna' was raided twice by special security officers. The office was searched and all electronic equipment was seized. Members of 'Viasna', Messrs Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, Andrey Paluda, Zmitser Salaueu, Siarzhuk Sys, Uladzimir Mikalaeu, Aleg Zhlutka, Kanstantsin Staradubets, Vital Charniauski and Mrs Nasta Loyka were arrested and brought to a police station. They were subsequently released following interrogation.

On 21 December 2010, a search was reportedly carried out by the State Security Agency (KGB) at home of Mr Oleg Volchek, head of the Belarusian organisation “Legal Aid to the Population”. The search was reported to be part of the investigation of the criminal case opened on the events of 19 December 2010. Oleg Volchek's computer and personal video archive were seized during the search.

On 24 December 2010, Mr Mikhail Matskevich, an ecologist and member of the Belarusian NGO Centre for Legal Transformation, and of International Youth Human Rights Movement, and Ms Olga Domorad, also a member of International Youth Human Rights Movement, were arrested during a protest near a temporary detention facility in Minsk, in solidarity with those detained on 19 December. Both were brought to court where the hearing was held behind closed doors, in the absence of their lawyers. Both Mikhail Matskevich and Olga Domorad were sentenced to 10 days of administrative detention.

On 28 December 2010, and again on 5 January 2011, Belarusian human rights defender and journalist Mr Vladimir Khilmanovich of Grodno was interrogated by the KGB regarding his role in the events of 19 December.

On 29 December 2010, Ms Elena Tonkacheva, head of the Centre of Legal Transformation, was called to the KGB for interrogation. Following the interrogation, KGB officers came to her house and carried out a search. They seized documents related to her human rights activity and her SIM card. The same day, the regional office of 'Viasna' in Molodechno was also allegedly searched; it is reported that all computers, USB-keys and CD-Roms in the office were seized.

On 3 January 2011, Ms Raisa Mikhaylovskaya of the Centre for Human Rights was interrogated by KGB officers.

On 4 January 2011, at approximately midday, unknown men reportedly attempted to enter the apartment of Ms Nasta Loyka, a lawyer working with 'Viasna' and member of International Youth Human Rights Movement. Nasta Loyka's mother, who was present in the apartment, refused to open the door. At 12.30 the same men, who claimed to be KGB officers, returned to the apartment, and called Nasta Loyka on her cell phone, threatening that if she did not come immediately, they would break the doors. Once Nasta Loyka arrived, her apartment was searched, and she was reportedly brought to the KGB office for interrogation. It is reported that she signed a non disclosure agreement.

On 5 January 2011, four KGB officers allegedly searched the office of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC). The officers reportedly displayed a search warrant that stated that BHC may possess documents regarding the organisation of 'mass disorders' in Minsk on 19 December. All the computers in the office were allegedly ceased. Directly following the search, the apartment of BHC's head, Aleh Gulak, was also searched.

On 6 January 2011, a search was carried out in the office of NGO "Legal Initiative" in Gomel. The  apartment of Mr Leonid Sudalenko, a member of Legal Initiative, was also subsequently searched.

Front Line believes that the wave of repression against the aforementioned human rights defenders is directly related to their legitimate work in defence of human rights, and reflects a political will to put pressure on, and impede the work of, Belarusian human rights defenders.

Front Line urges the Belarusian authorities to:

  1. Immediately cease all harassment of human rights defenders and carry out an immediate, thorough and impartial investigation into the aforementioned acts with a view to publishing the results and bringing those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards;
  2. Guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of all human rights defenders and ensure their full exercise of freedom of expression and association;
  3. Guarantee in all circumstances that human rights defenders in Belarus are able to carry out their legitimate and peaceful human rights activities without fear of reprisals, and free of all restrictions including judicial harassment.