Situation of Human Rights in Belarus in April 2014
In April, the human rights situation remained consistently poor. Human rights defenders welcomed the release of political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich, who left prison in Hrodna on April 8, noting, however, that it happened after he had served the entire sentence, instead of being fostered by the political will of the authorities to abolish the shameful phenomenon of political prisoners. They, therefore, did not consider this event as a positive sign. While still in prison, Mikalai Autukhovich was sentenced to preventive supervision for a period of 1 year and 4 months, which was a signal of the authorities’ ongoing intention to use this form of control over political prisoners to limit their activity after serving their sentences.
Preventive supervision is not only a serious limiting factor for former political prisoners, but may also become grounds for prosecution, including criminal charges. The reality of this threat is suggested by the prison terms received by former political prisoners on charges of violating the rules of preventive supervision: Vasil Parfiankou (twice, six months in 2012-2013 and one year in 2013-2014) and Uladzimir Yaromenak (three months in 2013-2014). In April, besides in Autukhovich’s case, preventive supervision remained in place against two other former political prisoners, Dzmitry Dashkevich and Pavel Vinahradau. They were obliged to stay at home at night and could not travel outside the city without the permission of the responsible authority; in addition, they were subject to a number of other restrictions, including on visiting public places, etc., which significantly limited their freedom. Apart from that, 28 former political prisoners were on a preventive register of the Interior, which allows police officers to regularly visit them. They were under constant threat (in case of being prosecuted under administrative procedures three times during a year) of being subjected to preventive supervision.
The most acute problem – the existence of political prisoners – remained unresolved. Belarusian prisons continued to hold nine political prisoners: Ales Bialiatski, Mikalai Statkevich, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Dziadok, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich, Vasil Parfiankou and Andrei Haidukou. None of them were released, despite the expectations of some experts about their early release as a sign of goodwill by the authorities ahead of the World Ice Hockey Championship, which is scheduled in Minsk from 9 to 25 May. On April 21, it became known that the parliament received a bill on amnesty in 2014. The text of the law remained unknown until the end of the month, but the content of similar legislative acts in previous years left little optimism that it could be applied to political prisoners. In this situation, it was only the political will of the authorities that could become the deciding factor for the release of political prisoners. However, it was absent. The Belarusian leadership failed to demonstrate any real steps in this direction, neither as their own decision nor as a step towards the requirements of the European Union, which, in its turn, did not speak on the issue during this period, focusing on the negotiations with the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on visa facilitation and readmission agreements between the EU and Belarus.
April was marked by serious restrictions on freedom of peaceful assembly, resulting in preventive arrests and arbitrary detentions. In particular, on the eve of the Chernobyl Way demonstration, which was allowed by the Minsk city authorities, law enforcement officers preventively detained and sentenced to various terms of administrative arrest eight civil society and political activists, with eight more participants being detained after the event.
A wave of arbitrary detentions and arrests of activists was launched ahead of the World Ice Hockey Championship. In order to maximize the period of isolation, the detainees were charged with violating two articles of the Administrative Code: Article 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and Article 23.4 (disobedience to police), which made it possible to sentence them to the maximum possible period of administrative arrest, 25 days. The judicial system demonstrated a complete dependence on the executive power, as none of the detainees were acquitted.
It should be noted that arbitrary detentions and arrests, which were aimed at securing a favourable image of the city during the World Championship, affected both dissidents and so called “antisocial elements”, the homeless, alcoholics and prostitutes. The scale of these “cleansings” can be assessed only after a while.
During the month, the Supreme Court of Belarus considered the appeals by two death convicts, Aliaksandr Hrunou, 26, (repeatedly sentenced to death) and Eduard Lykau, 53. Both sentences were confirmed. Human rights defenders also learned about the execution of Pavel Sialiun, 23. Thus, there were no improvements in the state’s position on the use of the death penalty, as well as in the humanization of the judicial system and the means of execution.
Political prisoners, criminal prosecution of civil society activists
On April 2, the Swedish human rights organization Civil Rights Defenders announced that the head of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights Ales Bialiatski was awarded the 2014 Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award. The Prize is awarded on April 4, the day of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, during Civil Rights Defenders’ annual conference Defenders’ Days. On April 10, Palina Stsepanenka, a friend and colleague of Ales Bialiatski, said that the new book by the political prisoner, which was being prepared for publication, would be entitled “Cold Wing of Motherland”. The book includes articles, essays, interviews and memoirs by the imprisoned human rights defender. On April 19, human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka received from the Hrodna Regional Court a decision in the case concerning an earlier verdict by the Ashmiany District Court to ban the book “Asvechanyia Belarushchunai” (“Enlightened by Belarusian Issue”), written by Viasna’s leader Ales Bialiatski. “Having studied the book in a trial by the court of appeals, the judicial board believes that the court’s conclusion that the information it contains may harm the political interests of the Republic of Belarus, public safety and morals of the citizens is correct,” says the court’s decision. Meanwhile, the Hrodna Regional Court’s grounds for prohibition of the publication differ from the quotes by experts Yahorychau and Khiliuta of the Hrodna University (the results of two examinations they had conducted were found unacceptable by the Court of Ashmiany District), but the conclusions are the same: “The author’s style and rhetoric may force the reader to arrive at false conclusions and judgements, to form a misconception about the Republic of Belarus, its historical past and today, provoking socio-political tensions in the society.” On April 30, Ales Bialiatski had been in prison for 1,000 days. The political prisoner spent the day in the prison hospital, after being diagnosed with poisoning. It was also reported that he started having problems with blood pressure, which had not been reported before.
On April 6, political prisoner Andrei Haidukou was transferred from prison in Mahiliou to the penal colony “Vitsba-3” near Vitsebsk. His term expired on May 8, and the possible cause of such a hasty transfer could be the wish of the local security officials to keep the prisoner “within reach”, in a colony with stricter security rules since the investigation and his trial took place in Vitsebsk.
On April 7, political prisoner Vasil Parfiankou, serving a sentence in high-security penal colony No. 9 in Horki, was placed for six months in so-called cell-type premises. Vasil Parfiankou wrote about this in a letter to an activist of the civil campaign “European Belarus” Yuliya Stsiapanava. Prior to that, the prisoner had received 10 penalties, serving 23 days in solitary confinement. He was deprived of parcels and visits for the entire period.
On April 8, political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich was released from the Hrodna-based prison No. 1. He was met by his relatives, political activists and journalists, a total of about 30 people. Mikalai Autukhovich said that while in prison he was twice offered to write a petition for clemency to Lukashenka, but he refused to do so in order not to hear remarks about his “weakness”. He noted that in the first place he wanted to have a rest after prison and improve his health, then – to clarify the situation with the Union of the Afghan War Veterans and continue the work on its creation. Mikalai Autukhovich said that during his time in prison he received 2,292 letters, the last of which arrived on the day of his release.
On April 9, Ms. Valiantsina Alinevich, mother of political prisoner Ihar Alinevich, said that the administration of Navapolatsk colony No. 10 refused to explain why the prisoner had been prohibited to use the telephone for more than half a year. Mrs. Alinevich noted that her husband Uladzimir Alinevich had spoken with the colony’s deputy head and tried to find out the reasons for the ban, but the prison official refused to provide any explanations. She added that the colony had no payphones, and the prisoners had to write an application in order to be allowed to make a phone call. On April 26, Uladzimir Alinevich said that they started receiving large envelopes with letters of solidarity, which had been sent to Ihar by his friends and activists of various democratic organizations. The colony administration allowed to send these letters, since the prison did not have enough space to store huge amount of letters.
On April 12, Ms. Rushaniya Vaskovich, mother of political prisoner Yauhen Vaskovich, said that in his latest letters her son expressed optimism and will, and did not have health complaints. The prisoner had refused to sign a petition for clemency, and he had not been offered to sign it any more. On April 14, the organizing committee of the party “Belarusian Christian Democracy” disseminated information that they learned from sources in Mahiliou prison No. 4, arguing that the prison administration started harassing Yauhen Vaskovich through other convicts.
On April 14, after a rather long pause, Ms. Maryna Adamovich received several letters from her husband, political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich. She noted that each time the prisoner was publicly offered to write a petition for pardon, he immediately encountered harassment from the prison administration. This time, after a speech by A. Lukashenka on the day of the local elections, she did not receive a few letters, which were reportedly seized. In an answer to Mikalai Statkevich’s inquiry about the reasons for this confiscation, the prison head said that he did not have to explain the reasons, although it does not comply with the legislation.
On April 19, on the eve of Easter, political prisoner Eduard Lobau phoned home from Ivatsevichy colony No. 22 and was able to personally congratulate his family on the holiday. He told his mother, Ms. Maryna Lobava, that in June he was expected to complete a course of electro-gas welding and to receive a diploma.
On April 8, the Supreme Court repeatedly heard an appeal by a resident of Homel Aliaksandr Hrunou, 26, against a death sentence handed down by the Homel Regional Court. The young man was accused under Part 6, Paragraph 2 of Article 139 of the Criminal Code – murder committed with extreme cruelty. The trial in the case lasted for more than 1.5 years and consisted of about 20 hearings. The prosecutor immediately requested the maximum penalty – execution by shooting. The Homel Regional Court supported this demand. Aliaksandr Hrunou and his lawyer filed an appeal with the Supreme Court. At a hearing in the Supreme Court in October, Hrunou’s lawyer, Siarhei Krasnou, emphasized that the criminal legislation of Belarus provided for other penalties besides the capital punishment, including imprisonment for a term of 8 to 25 years or life imprisonment. The counsel, referring to the standards of the international legislation and the corresponding provisions of the national legislation, mentioned a number of violations, which were reflected in the case file, but were ignored by the trial court. The Criminal Division of the Supreme Court sent the case back for retrial in Homel, which repeatedly sentenced Aliaksandr Hrunou to death, and the Supreme Court confirmed the verdict. The decision was taken by Chairman of the Criminal Division Valery Kalinkovich, who had repeatedly stated that Belarus was ready to abolish the death penalty. Aliaksandr Hrunou’s lawyer said that his client was very depressed and did not want to file a petition for clemency to Lukashenka. “It is very hard to hear the death sentence for the third time, and now he is in a certain desperation,” said the lawyer. “I wonder why the Supreme Court sent the case back for a new trial, and then ignored the new extenuating circumstances that had been discovered at the Homel Regional Court.” On the same day, it became known that the UN Human Rights Committee accepted a complaint submitted on behalf of Aliaksandr Hrunou. In accordance with Rule 92 of the Committee’s Rules of Procedure, the State must not execute the death sentence until a decision is taken following the consideration of the complaint on the merits. On April 17, Aliaksandr Hrunou submitted a supervisory appeal against the death sentence and a petition for clemency. The convict stressed that when sentencing him to death the court failed to consider a number of mitigating circumstances, including his sincere repentance, complete confession and voluntary cooperation with the investigation, as well as the illegal and immoral actions by the victim, Natallia Yemialyanchykava.
On April 8, it was reported that the Prosecutor General’s Office refused to reopen proceedings in the case of Uladzislau Kavaliou, who was executed two years ago on charges of committing a terrorist act in the Minsk metro. In March, the death convict’s mother and sister sent a petition to the Prosecutor General of Belarus, Aliaksandr Kaniuk, asking him to reopen the case in connection with new circumstances. A response from Prosecutor General suggests that a decision by the UN Human Rights Committee in the case of Uladzislau Kavaliou is not included in the list of grounds for a retrial of the case in connection with new circumstances, as provided for in Article 218 of the Criminal-Procedural Code.
On April 14, the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court considered an appeal by Eduard Lykau, 53, who was sentenced to death for five murders. The sentence was handed down by the Minsk Regional Court on November 26, 2013. The Judicial Board was chaired by Valery Kalinkovich, the prosecution was represented by Prosecutor Ms. Iryna Dudarava, the defendant’s lawyer – Mr. Kliukach. During the trial, the accused did not deny his guilt and said he repented of his actions; he also cooperated with the investigation. However, he said the investigators forced him to drink alcohol in order to make him give evidence; he was also reportedly beaten. Eduard Lykau said that all the murders were committed as a result of quarrels. He said that he could not act differently in that situation, otherwise the victims would have killed him. The counsel only said that he supported the appeal. The prosecutor noted that Lykau’s guilt was completely proven, and, taking into account the mitigating circumstances, he was sentenced to a fair punishment – the death penalty. As a result, the cassation appeal was dismissed and the verdict of the Minsk Regional Court was confirmed.
On April 15, a letter signed by Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court Andrei Zabara said that a complaint by Uladzislau Kavaliou’s mother and sister requesting information on the death convict’s place of burial was beyond the powers of the courts of general jurisdiction. The decision thus confirmed earlier refusals by the Kastrychnitski District Court of Minsk and the Civil Division of the Minsk City Court. In their appeal to the Supreme Court, Liubou Kavaliova and Tatsiana Kaziar demanded that the Supreme Court abolished the decisions of the Kastrychnitski District Court of Minsk and the Civil Division of the Minsk City not to instigate civil proceedings against the KGB, the Interior Ministry and the Department of Corrections for a refusal to provide information on the place of burial of Mr. Kavaliou. The Supreme Court said that there was a different procedure of appealing against refusals to provide information about the place of burial of Uladzislau Kavaliou. However, the Criminal-Executive Code of the Republic of Belarus doesn’t provide for any other means. As a result, Liubou Kavaliova has no more opportunities to learn about the place of burial of her executed son.
On April 18, it was reported that death convict Pavel Sialiun, 23, had been executed, despite the fact that his complaint was still pending before the UN Human Rights Committee. This means that Belarus once again breached its international obligations. On June 12, 2013, the Hrodna Regional Court found Pavel Sialiun, former student of the Belarusian State University’s History Department, guilty of four criminal charges, including double murder, theft and desecration of corpses. The young man had no previous criminal record. He said his actions were an act of jealousy – he killed his wife and her lover. For multiple offences, the trial court sentenced Pavel Sialiun to capital punishment. The trail was chaired by Judge Anatol Zayats. The convict appealed against the verdict. On September 17, 2013, it was considered by the Supreme Court’s Judicial Board chaired by Valery Kalinkovich. As a result, the verdict was upheld. Pavel Sialiun’s mother wrote to President Lukashenka and the then head of the Belarusian Orthodox Church Filaret asking for help in pardoning her son and replacing the death penalty with life imprisonment. Pavel Sialiun himself also appealed for pardon to Lukashenka. The death convict’s mother learned from his lawyer that the sentence had been carried out. The lawyer came to the meeting with her client, but she was told that Sialiun had “departed on sentence”, which meant that the convict had been executed. No written documents or messages were sent to Pavel Sialiun’s relatives. His mother was not notified of the decision by the commission for pardon or the date of execution. In the coming days, she was going to visit her son in prison.
Persecution of human rights defenders and human rights organizations
On April 3, human rights defenders Viktar Sazonau, Uladzimir Khilmanovich and Raman Yurhel spent six hours in the Leninski district police department of Hrodna. They were first questioned and then charged with administrative offences. The police reports were based on photos posted on the websites of Radio Racyja and harodniaspring.org. The human rights activists were accused of staging several unsanctioned pickets, though their actions could not be viewed as mass gatherings. On March 25, Viktar Sazonau, Uladzimir Khilmanovich and Raman Yurhel were photographed with Belarusian and Ukrainian flags in several historic sites of Hrodna. The pictures were later posted online to congratulate the city residents on the anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People's Republic. The consideration of their administrative cases was actually held behind closed doors. Judge Natallia Kozel of the Leninski District Court rejected the defenders’ motion to arrange the consideration of the charges in the building of the Leninski District Court and to make the trial open. As a result, Natallia Kozel fined each of the activists 3.75 million roubles. On April 14, Viktar Sazonau, Uladzimir Khilmanovich and Raman Yurhel appealed against the verdict to the Hrodna Regional Court.
On April 26, human rights defenders Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina were summoned to the police department of Biaroza district. The decision was initiated by the District Court Judge Alena Niamtsova, who ordered local police to investigate the circumstances of a banned picket the human rights activists planned to hold on March 25. After the Executive Committee banned the picket, the decision was appealed by the human rights defenders. Siarhei Rusetski was questioned by senior inspector of the department of protection of public order Siarhei Halionka and Tamara Shchapiotkina – by police inspector Siarhei Nestsiarovich. Ms. Tamara Shchapiotkina refused to provide explanations on the banned picket. She said that all necessary information could be found in their lawsuit filed with the court and that she was ready to explain everything during the trial, the time and date of which was not reported to the human rights defenders.
Administrative prosecution of civil society and political activists, arbitrary detention
On April 3, poet Slavamir Adamowich was detained for wearing a Ukrainian yellow-blue ribbon on his clothes. He was taken to the police station, where his ID was checked and his things were examined. After Adamovich showed a document about a similar detention, he was released.
On April 9, an activist from Brest, Dzmitry Rabtsevich received a phone call from the police and was summoned to the police station, where he was charged under Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative offences (violation of the order of holding mass events). The charge stemmed from an event staged by Dzmitry Rabtsevich on 28 March, when he appeared in the city centre with a poster saying “No to Fast Executions” and “Life or Death”. The activist wanted to draw public attention to the rapid execution of death sentences in Belarus after their entry into force. Dzmitry Rabtsevich’s picket lasted for ten minutes, after which he was approached by police officers and taken to the Leninski District Police Department of Brest. The detainee was then questioned and released without charges. The poster however, was seized by the police.
On April 15, an activist from Vitsebsk, Alena Kavalenka, was found guilty of violating the order of organizing and holding mass events and fined 3 mln roubles for picketing against local elections, staged on March 22 in Vitsebsk. The trial in the Pershamaiski District Court of Vitsebsk lasted less than an hour; Alena Kavalenka refused to give any explanations, saying only that during the action she expressed her civic position. Ms. Kavalenka was convicted by Judge Natallia Karablina, who had earlier sentenced another participant of the same picket, a member of the CCP BPF, Yan Dziarzhautsau, to 7 days of arrest.
On April 17, the Tsentralny District Court of Homel issued official warnings to three members of the Young Front opposition movement, Andrei Tsianiuta, Natallia Kryvashei and Stanislau Bula, having found them guilty of illegal picketing. The activists were charged of staging an illegal picket on 22 February to commemorate the victims of Ukrainian political crisis. Stanislau Bula, who did not attend the hearing, was convicted in absentia. Meanwhile, the activists were summoned by a short message, instead of sending a notification. Andrei Tsianiuta noted that the administrative proceedings should be discontinued, since the charges were brought against the activists without their participation. The Young Front activists pleaded not guilty. They said that the place where the picket was held was a traditional location for solidarity actions and those who laid flowers and lit candles in memory of victims of the terrorist attacks in Minsk and Volgograd had not been brought to justice before.
On April 20, during an incident at the border checkpoint “Kamenny Loh”, Hanna Azemsha was forced to leave the territory of Belarus, as she was carrying 130 copies of the newsletter “Eight Interesting Facts about the Elections” and 65 copies of the bulletin “Observer Reports”. Hanna was let in the country only after leaving the publications.
On April 22, Maksim Viniarski, an activist of the European Belarus opposition movement, was sentenced to 12 days of arrest by the Court of Minsk’s Frunzenski district. During the trial, an ambulance was called, who said Maksim had to go to hospital because of tonsillitis. However, the police opposed and said he would go to the detention centre in Akrestsin Street. In response, Maksim Viniarski declared a dry hunger strike. Maksim Viniarski was detained by police when leaving the Karona shopping mall in Minsk. The police officers said the activist looked like a criminal. At the police station, he was charged with disobeying police officers. Coordinator of the European Belarus movement, Maksim Viniarski, who had been earlier released after a 15-day arrest, said that before the release a police officer offered him to leave the city during the forthcoming Ice Hockey World Championship. The prison employee threatened the activist with administrative charges in case he did not follow his advice.
On April 22, police officers in Minsk detained activists of the Alternative movement, Aliaksandr Stsepanenka and Uladzimir Siarheyeu. On April 23, the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk sentenced both to an arrest of 5 days on charges of disorderly conduct.
On April 23, Judge Anastasiya Asipchyk of Minsk’s Zavodski District Court sentenced opposition activist Illia Dabratvor to an administrative arrest of 10 days. Illia Dabratvor was detained the previous day while driving his car. He was stopped on suspicion of a car theft. However, the police officers then charged the activist with two administrative offences, violation of Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct) and Article 23.4 (disobeying the police). Illia Dabratvor was transporting white-red-white flags in his car. For each charge, the activist should have received a punishment of 7 days of arrest, but the judge eventually sentenced him to 10 days in prison.
On April 24, it was reported that the preventive supervision over opposition activist Pavel Vinahradau was extended by six months (the period of punishment was to expire on April 25), after the decision was enforced by the Court of Maskouski district. Pavel Vinahradau is one of the first activists to be convicted in the December 2010 case. He was released early, but was immediately put under preventive supervision. During this time, the activist was repeatedly subjected to administrative liability for his public activity. The activist was offered to leave for his home town of Berazino and stay there during the Ice Hockey Championship, being threatened with a short prison term otherwise. Pavel Vinahradau chose to leave Minsk.
On April 24, former political prisoner Dzmitry Dashkevich was detained at the entrance to his apartment in Minsk. He was searched and then brought to the Pershamaiski district police department. The following day, his administrative case was heard by Judge Yury Harbatouski of the Pershamaiski District Court. Dzmitry Dashkevich was charged with two offences, violation of preventive restriction rules (Article 24.12) and resisting police orders (Article 23.4). As a result, the former Young Front leader was sentenced to 25 days of administrative arrest.
On April 28, the court of Minsk’s Savetski district considered administrative charges brought against six participants of the Chernobyl Way march, who were detained immediately after the demonstration on April 26. In addition, the court heard the case of former political prisoner Aliaksandr Frantskevich, who was detained ahead of the demonstration. Judge Maryna Fiodarava found Dzianis Karnou guilty of two administrative offences (Article 17.1, disorderly conduct, and Article 23.34, participation in an unauthorized mass event) and sentenced him to 20 days of arrest. The case of Mikalai Kolas was considered by Judge Kiryl Palulekh. Mikalai Kolas says that he was beaten in a police bus and complained of a stiff arm. He told the court that the offence report was written under torture and he was not allowed to call home. Mikalai Kolas was eventually punished with arrest of 15 days. The case of Leanid Smouzh was considered by Judge Laukova. The charges were backed by a witness named Syravatau, commander of a riot police unit. Leanid Smouzh explained that they were held standing against the wall at the police station for more than three hours. He was eventually sentenced to 20 days of arrest. Vladimir Novikov, a Russian citizen, was sentenced to 15 days of arrest under two charges, disobeying police and hooliganism. Aliaksandr Kurbaskin was sentenced to 20 days of arrest. Valery Tamilin also received 20 days in jail. His case was heard by Judge Maryna Fiodarava. The same judge sentenced Aliaksandr Stukin to 20 days of arrest. Homel activist Yury Rubtsou was detained while wearing a T-shirt saying “Lukashenka, Leave!”. Rubtsou was brought to court without a shirt, wearing pants only. As a result, Judge Kiryl Palulekh sentenced the activist to 25 days in prison. Rubtsou also faced criminal charges for insulting the judge. Aliaksandr Frantskevich was sentenced to 25 days of arrest.
Restrictions on freedom of speech and the right to impart information, harassment of journalists
On April 2, the District Court of Beshankovichy heard administrative charges against Heorhi Stankevich, who was charged with illegal publishing and distributing the newspaper “Kryvinka” (Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code). Judge Natallia Reut rejected a request for an interpreter into Belarusian for Heorhi Stankevich, who was Belarusian-speaking. And she flatly refused to adjourn the trial so that a lawyer experienced in mass media law could arrive from Minsk. Finally, the Judge removed the defendant from the courtroom for alleged violation of public order. Mr. Stankevich appealed against the Judge’s actions, and the District Prosecutor promised to send a written response, instead of interfering in the case. On April 3, Heorhi Stankevich received the verdict of a fine of 7.5 million roubles. The sentence was based on an anonymous letter that reported on the activist’s alleged illegal publishing activities.
On April 3, Judge Natallia Charapukha of the Babruisk District Court found local blogger Aleh Zhalnou guilty of violating Article 23.4 of the Administrative Code, “disobedience to lawful order or request of an official in the exercise of official authority” and sentenced him to a fine of 6.9 mln roubles. Aleh Zhalnou was fined over an incident that had taken place during his visit to the Acting Head of the Investigative Committee’s Babruisk department on February 4, when the blogger had failed to leave his mobile phone, 3G modem and a memory card at the entrance to the building. According to the police officers, decree No. 185 of the Interior Ministry (labeled “for official use only”), with an annexed instruction, stipulate that police officers can demand that visiting citizens should not carry any audio or video recording devices, including cell phones. The blogger based his defense on the fact that orders and instructions of the Ministry should not apply to civilians. In his opinion, it is not clear whether the building was a “sensitive facility”. He also referred to a ruling of the Council of Ministers, according to which all regulations related to citizens must be published and have an open status. He said that since the decree was not registered in the registry of state acts, it was not binding.
On April 4, a freelance journalist in Babruisk, Maryna Malchanava, received a letter from the Prosecutor’s Office, saying that an administrative case against her had been closed. The journalist was summoned to the police department after covering an antiwar picket. There, she learned that she was being prosecuted for violation of Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code, “violation of the order of organizing and holding mass events”. In this regard, she decided to send a complaint against the police to local Prosecutor’s Office. She asked the prosecutor to assess the facts from the point of view of Article 198 of the Criminal Code, “Interfering with lawful professional activities of journalists”.However, the response from the Prosecutor’s Office only says that on March 19 it was decided to close the administrative case against her.
On April 15, the Vitsebsk Regional Prosecutor’s Office issued a warning to independent journalist Sviatlana Stsiapanava about possible liability under Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (“illegal production and distribution of media products”) for cooperating with foreign media without accreditation. The Prosecutor’s Office said that the independent journalist worked without accreditation for the Belarusian service of the Polish Radio Abroad. Prosecutor Pavel Zaitsau of the Department of Supervision of Legislative Execution talked with the journalist for 20 minutes, and demanded no explanations on her part. The Prosecutor showed her some printouts from the Radio’s website, and then went into the next room and brought the formal warning. The paper was prepared in advance and was signed by Deputy Prosecutor of Vitsebsk region Heorhi Karanko.
On April 15, a local newspaper in Hlybokaye called “Prefekt-Info” was fined for violating the advertising law. The founder of the newspaper, a local activist Yaraslau Bernikovich, and the editor Dzmitry Lupach stress that the newspaper attracts reinforced attention from the regulatory during election campaigns, in which both activists were involved for many years. A fine of 3.75 mln roubles was handed down by Judge Andrei Tarasevich of the Hlybokaye District Court. The sentence stemmed from an offence report submitted by an employee of the trade and services department of the Vitsebsk Regional Executive Committee, Zhanna Listapadava. The report said that one of the issues of the newspaper in October last year featured several violations of the Law “On Advertising”. On January 15, a representative of the newspaper was invited to Vitsebsk to give explanations regarding violations of Part 4, Article 10 of the Law “On Advertising”. However, an official summons was only received by the editorial office a week later.
On April 17, Uladzimir Shulzhytski, a distributor of a local low-circulation newsletter called Smarhonski Hrak, was found guilty of violating Part 2, Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (“illegal distribution of mass media products”). According to local human rights defender Ales Dzerhachou, the distributor was convicted over failing to sing a contract for distribution with the editorial office. In his protest against the administrative punishment report, Mr. Shulzhytski petitioned the judge to specify in the court’s verdict the legal entity with which he was expected to sign a contract for distribution, when the publisher was an individual. The petition was not given any assessment in the court’s ruling, because, according to Ales Dzerhachou, there was no rule of law the court could cite. The judge admitted that periodicals with a circulation below 300 copies did not require legal registration, thus their editorial offices did not have to register as a legal entity. Nevertheless, she punished Uladzimir Shulzhytski for not having a contract for the distribution of the newsletter. Ales Dzerhachou emphasized another fact: though the circulation of the newsletter was legal the copies of “Smarhonski Hrak, seized during distribution, were subject to destruction under a court order.
On April 18, during a visit to the Kastrychnitski district police department of Vitsebsk, journalist Alena Stsiapanava learned that she was accused of working for foreign media without accreditation. The summons was signed by senior inspector of the department of law enforcement and prevention Siarhei Viaraksa. He told the journalist that he had initiated an administrative case for violation of the law on mass media. Alena Stsiapanava was questioned about the article entitled “Vitsebsk schoolchildren refuse to learn anthem”, which appeared on Radio Liberty’s website on January 28. Siarhei Viaraksa told the journalist that he would inform her about the future development of the administrative case.
On April 23, the Supreme Court of Belarus refused to initiate disciplinary proceedings against Judge Aliaksandr Yakunchykhin, who had prohibited using voice recorders during the consideration of an administrative case. According to a response of Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court Valery Kalinkovich, in the course of administrative proceedings against a civil society activist Siarhei Finkevich, held on March 3, no complaints were received about the actions of Judge Yakunchykhin. In this regard, the Supreme Court saw no reason to initiate disciplinary proceedings against the judge. However, according to the testimony of journalists who were present at the trial, Aliaksandr Yakunchykhin warned the reporters after he saw voice recorders in their hands. The judge said that audio recording during the trial could be carried out only with his permission, and that in case of disobedience, the journalists could be punished.
On April 25, Vadzim Drazdou, the founder of the website freeregion.info, who had been living in Switzerland for several years, said that police were looking for him. He was told about this by his former neighbors. Drazdou asked his relatives to contact a lawyer, and as a result he found out that he had been under a probe since early April. According to Vadzim Drazdou, referring to the words of his lawyer, the police targeted the website over articles of critical content.
Restrictions on freedom of assembly
On April 9, the Ministry of Justice and the Brest Regional Department of Internal Affairs said that they were going to write to the Biaroza District Executive Committee in order to harmonize at the official level the issue of signing contracts with the police in preparation for mass gatherings. As follows from the responses of these institutions received by local human rights activist Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina, who had written to them on the issue, Ruling No. 207 of the Council of Ministers of Belarus of March 5, 2012 was more important than Ruling No. 138 of the Biaroza District Executive Committee of February 9, 2010. According to the Council of Ministers’ Ruling, after applying for a mass event to the Executive Committee the executive authority shall send within 24 hours a copy of the statement to the police to agree on serving the event. However, the ruling of the Biaroza District Executive Committee (just like dozens similar rulings in many regions of Belarus) requires to submit a copy of the contract with the police when applying for public events. As reported by the Ministry of Justice in a letter signed by First Deputy Minister Bileichyk and by the Brest Regional Department of Internal Affairs in a letter signed by its deputy head Uhlianitsa, the Executive Committee’s ruling must be corrected in accordance with the Resolution of the Council of Ministers. Earlier, human rights defenders Siarhei Rusetski and Tamara Shchapiotkina repeatedly petitioned, both in writing and in person, officials of the Biaroza District Executive Committee, urging them to bring ruling No. 138 in line with the requirements of the Council of Ministers’ Decree. However, all their requests were rejected. During the trial, in which they challenged a ban on a picket, they also focused on the discrepancy between the Council of Ministers’ regulation and the Executive Committee’s ruling, and in the presence of the judge and assistant prosecutor asked to correct the contradiction. Then the Executive Committee’s lawyer Yauhen Kashtalian said that the Council of Ministers had not written to them on the issue, but they would receive answers from the Ministry of Justice and the Brest Regional Department of Internal Affairs. The human rights activists expressed the hope they would not face problems in signing agreements with the police during preparations for mass events in the future.
On April 16, the Minsk Regional Court dismissed a cassation appeal filed by Salihorsk opposition activist Uladzimir Shyla to challenge a ban on a picket scheduled for Human Rights Day, after an earlier decision by the District Court was confirmed. None of the arguments provided by the activist were found valid by the Court’s Judicial Board. In particular, Uladzimir Shyla’s request to force local authorities to take measures to ensure public order during the event was interpreted as the organizer’s unwillingness to take these measures himself. The activist’s reference to the Salihorsk District Court’s disrespect for the provisions of the Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was considered incorrect by the Minsk Regional Court. According to the Judicial Board, the current Law “On Mass Events” was directly applicable and fully consistent with the Constitution and international law.
On April 22, local authorities in Vitsebsk and Navapolatsk banned a number of events scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster on April 26. Four representatives of the Conservative Christian Party “Belarusian Popular Front” in Vitsebsk sent a request to the administration of the Chyhunachny district to hold a picket in the local park. However, the bid was rejected, as the applicants failed to attach copies of the contracts as required by the City Executive Committee’s ruling. It says that the organizers must sign contracts with the police, public utilities and health care departments. However, these agencies refuse to enter into contracts with the activists. Therefore, the activists requested that the authorities did not pay attention to the ruling of the Vitsebsk City Executive Committee, but were directly guided by the Law “On Mass Events” and the Constitution. They said that the ruling actually made it impossible to exercise people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Over the past five years, not a single opposition activist has managed to sign agreements required by the Vitsebsk executive officials. In Navapolatsk, a request to stage a picket on the Chernobyl tragedy memorial day was filed by Yauhen Parchynski. He eventually received a response from Deputy Mayor Albert Shakel, who wrote that the picket was banned, since the application was filed in violation of the applicable laws.
On April 23, Vadzim Saranchukou and Mikalai Lemianouski, members of the Belarusian Popular Front’s Hrodna office, received from the Executive Committee official bans on conducting awareness-raising pickets, which were scheduled for April 26 to mark the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster. Officials from the City Executive Committee argued that the activists’ applications failed to meet all the requirements of the law, namely it did not mention all the necessary information. The applicants said the ban was political discrimination and a violation of constitutional rights of citizens. All public pickets in the city have been banned for more than twelve years already.
On April 26, Minsk hosted an authorized mass event (demonstration and rally) held to mark the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident. The event was observed by ten representatives of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights centre “Viasna” and was peaceful in its nature. However, the rally was marred by cases of restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly, as one of its organizers, Illia Dabratvor, received a ban, as well as by groundless changes of time and route of the procession, unreasonable security measures during the gathering. Of particular concern were the facts of arbitrary detention as a preventive means. Eight people were detained ahead of the march (Maksim Viniarski, Illia Dabratvor, Aliaksandr Stsepanenka, Uladzislau Siarheyeu, Dzmitry Dashkevich, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, Anatol Mirashnichenka and Uladzislau Zapasau), and eight more were detained after the demonstration was over (Dzianis Karnou, Mikalai Kolas, Leanid Smouzh, Uladzimir Novikau, Aliaksandr Kurbaskin, Valery Tamilin, Aliaksandr Stukin and Yury Rubtsou), which is a gross violation of the rights of these persons. These detentions were illegal and were meant to intimidate the protesters, as well as to continue the practice of political repression against the political opposition and civil society activists. Observers reported the inability to identify law enforcement officers among a significant part of those present during the mass event, as far as the former ones weren't wearing the uniform, as well as the absence of identification badges on the vast majority of employees in the uniform.
Restrictions of freedom of association
On April 7, the Ministry of Justice issued an official warning to one of the largest Belarusian opposition organizations, the United Civil Party (UCP). The warning related to the UCP’s activities during the local elections campaign, when the activists demanded the “release of political prisoners” and “raised the Ukrainian issue” during their authorized campaigning pickets.