Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2016
Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2016
- on February 15, the EU Foreign Affairs Council decided to lift sanctions against 170 individuals and three companies in Belarus. However, the sanctions still applied to several persons suspected of involvement in enforced disappearances of opposition politicians and a journalist in 1999-2000: Uladzimir Navumau (former Interior Minister), Viktar Sheiman (former Prosecutor General and head of the Presidential Administration), Yury Sivakou (former Interior Minister) and Dzmitry Paulichenka (commander of the Interior Ministry’s Special Forces Brigade);
- in February there were no systemic changes that could demonstrate the commitment of the Belarusian authorities to a qualitative change in the human rights situation;
- there were no new politically motivated criminal cases during the month, which is a continuation of the general trend of reducing the level of repression in the country observed since last August;
- the authorities have not taken any steps towards the full restoration of rights of previously released political prisoners; nor have they closed previously initiated politically motivated criminal cases. In particular, the criminal investigation against a presidential candidate in the 2010 elections, Ales Mikhalevich, was extended for another month;
- the Belarusian authorities denied the petition by exiled human rights defender Alena Tankachova asking to reduce the period of a ban on her entry into the Republic of Belarus;
- despite the fact that all unauthorized peaceful assemblies within a month passed without the intervention of law enforcement authorities and were not forcibly stopped, participants and organizers of the these gatherings continued to be brought to administrative responsibility in the form of fines;
- during the month, there were cases of bringing to administrative responsibility of journalists for their cooperating with foreign media;
- on February 15, the Minsk Regional Court issued this year's second death sentence against a 31-year-old resident of the Minsk region, Siarhei Khmialeuski;
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
During the month, there were no new politically motivated criminal cases in Belarus, which is a continuation of the positive trend to reduce the overall level of repression in the country observed since last August.
First of all, this is manifested by a significant reduction in the number of cases of arrests, detentions, and new criminal cases against people because of their socio-political activities or in connection with the exercise of civil and political rights.
It should be noted that there were no systemic changes at the level of legislation in the field of human rights, which makes the above-mentioned practices very unstable.
In addition, a number of previously opened politically motivated criminal cases have not been closed.
In particular, on February 16, it was reported that the criminal case against ex-presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich was again extended by another month. Thus, Mikhalevich remained the accused in a criminal case related to the “riots” of December 19, 2010. A preventive measure of a subscription on his own recognizance was also extended by one month.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence, despite the fact that his sentencing was recognized by the country’s human rights community as politically motivated. Belarusian human rights defenders demand an immediate revision of his criminal case in an open trial in compliance with fair trial guarantees.
The Belarusian authorities have so far not launched any actions aimed at the rehabilitation of released political prisoners.
Violations of freedom of association and harassment of human rights defenders
Human rights activist Alena Tankachova, who was deported from Belarus in February 2015, wrote to the Minsk city executive committee’s Department of the Interior, asking to reduce the period of ban on her entry to the Republic of Belarus and to exclude her from the list of persons banned from entering the country.
However, the Department refused to meet the activist’s request.
It should be noted that the demand for the lifting of restrictions on Alena Tankachova’s return to Belarus is considered by the country’s human rights community as one of the priority measures of restorative character that would indicate the presence of the political will of the country's leadership to be engaged in a qualitative improvement of the human rights situation.
On February 17, Viktar Shery, a representative of the Students’ Government Coordinating Council of the Belarusian State Medical University, posted a message in his account on the VKontakte social network arguing that the NGOs “Brotherhood of Students’ Self-Government Organizers”, the Center of Students’ Initiatives and the Studrada Students’ Council were called “unauthorized” and “illegal” youth organizations, according to “reliable information”.
In this connection, monitors of University groups were urged to hold “preventive conversations” warning the students against participation in the activities of these organizations, because their activity was “targeted by other forces as misleading with elements of anti-government nature”.
In connection with these obviously illegal actions on the part of the University administration, activists of these student organizations issued an open collective appeal.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
In February, the authorities still unreasonably restricted the right to peaceful assembly, although the events that were carried out without a permit were not dispersed by police officers. The organizers and active participants were brought to administrative responsibility in the form of heavy fines.
The Brest city executive committee banned several events: a picket against high prices for medical services, which was supposed to be held on February 3 in the city center; a series of pickets by the regional branch of the United Civil Party near large shopping centers, as well as near the Central Department Store, Belarus cinema, in the park of soldiers-internationalists and at the Lakamatyŭ stadium (the mentioned park and the stadium were specifically mentioned in the decision of the city executive committee as locations where it is possible to arrange such events). The picketers were expected to express their support for individual entrepreneurs, to attract the attention of citizens to the problem of pressure on small businesses and the need for market reforms. The Brest city executive committee banned the pickets, referring to the fact that most of them were to be held in places not designed for holding of mass events. As for the stadium and the park, the protests were not allowed due to the lack of contracts with doctors, police and cleaning services.
On February 11, the Court of Minsk’s Lieninski district heard the administrative cases against participants of a protest against police-related violence, which was held outside the building of the Supreme Court of Belarus on January 30. A total of nine protesters faced administrative charges: they were members of the United Civil Party and representatives of a number of opposition movements. As a result, Aliaksandr Makayeu was punished by a fine of 10.5 mln rubles. Nina Bahinskaya was punished by a fine of 5.25 mln rubles. An activist of the European Belarus movement, Maksim Viniarski, was punished by a fine of 10.5 mln rubles. Fines were also imposed on Natallia Harachka and Dzianis Krasachka.
On February 16, the court continued its consideration of administrative cases against participants in the protest of January 30. UCP leader Anatol Liabedzka was punished by a fine of 10.5 mln rubles. Mikalai Kazlou was also punished by a fine of 10.5 mln rubles, Volha Mayorava – by a fine of 4.2 mln rubles.
On February 12, the Court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district sentenced BCD member Vital Staurovich to a fine of 3,150,000 rubles on charges of involvement in the same protest.
On February 15, individual entrepreneurs from Minsk and other Belarusian cities, opposition activists and politicians held a rally in Kastryčnickaja Square. They protested against President’s Decree No. 222, which left the vendors without work, introducing mandatory certification of products. The rally involved 400-500 entrepreneurs and activists from Minsk, Homieĺ, Baranavičy, Sluck and other cities of Belarus. A number of opposition leaders also participated in the protests, speaking to the demonstrators: a former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich, co-chairman of the BCD Pavel Seviarynets, Uladzimir Niaklyaeu, chairman of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka.
On February 17, the Court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district considered the administrative cases of a number of participants in the unauthorized rally of solidarity with individual entrepreneurs, which was attended by about 30 people (UCP activists and entrepreneurs from different cities of Belarus). As a result, the Court sentenced Liabedzka to a fine of 10.5 mln rubles; Iryna Yaskevich – to fine of 5.25 mln rubles; Artur Adamian was fined 5.25 mln rubles, Nina Bahinskaya – 6.3 mln rubles.
At the same time, the Brest city executive committee did not allow local entrepreneurs to organize a similar rally: the decision to apply was taken by the vendors on February 3 during a meeting outside the TSUM market, which was attended by more than 400 businessmen. The ban referred to the fact that the applicants did not provide contracts with health care facilities and cleaning services.
Viciebsk entrepreneur were not allowed to hold meetings in the EVIKOM shopping center; the mall was the venue for entrepreneurs’ protests during the last two months. However, the administration warned them that meetings, which were attended by entrepreneurs from other retail properties, were “not welcome”.
On February 22, individual entrepreneurs held another rally in Kastryčnickaja Square in Minsk in response to Decree No. 222. As recorded by observers, police officers tried to disrupt the speech of Anatol Liabedzka, while the people chanted “Shame!”, “Get out!” and pushed the policemen aside. At 12:30, there appeared nine policemen with folders. They started writing down the protesters’ passport information. People surrounded the speakers, thus preventing the police from approaching the leaders. Then, there appeared six winter service vehicles, which disrupted the protest.
On February 28, another rally of entrepreneurs and opposition activists was held in Minsk. As recorded by observers, at about 12:00 the first participants displayed banners and flags outside the Palace of the Republic. After 15 minutes, there appeared three more banners, protesters spoke through a megaphone, a flash mob was organized and those present received leaflets. At 3:20 p.m., five uniformed police officers appeared and started filling in some documents. At 4:15, the participants were offered to move to the Independence Square; about 220 people walked along the sidewalk along Independence Avenue. Ahead were people with banners, which they earlier displayed on the steps of the Palace of the Republic. There were slogans, sometimes using the loudspeaker. The procession was followed by a police bus with a video camera on top. At traffic lights, police officers in uniform stopped the protesters breaking the procession into two parts. At about 4:30 p.m., the group approached to the Red Church, where a small meeting was held, which was attended by no less than forty police officers in civilian clothes and not less than ten of them filmed the protesters. There were about 120 participants. At 4:45, the assembly was over.
Persecution of journalists
February was marked by more instances of administrative charges against independent journalists.
On February 4, an administrative case against freelance journalist Larisa Shchyrakova was closed “due to lack of elements of an administrative offense under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code in the event of December 7”. The judge explained that the police reports could not clarify the exact day of the alleged offense, as the numbers were crossed out and corrected, so the charge was dismissed. Thus, this case failed to end the illegal practice of obstructing journalistic activities.
On the contrary, on February 4 the court of Buda-Kašaliova district punished freelance journalist Kanstantsin Zhukouski by fine of 8.4 mln rubles. The charges stemmed from a video report made in the district center at the request of local residents, who were forced to take unpaid leaves at a local dairy.
On February 24, the Žlobin District Court considered two administrative charges under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code (“Illicit manufacturing of media products”) brought against Kanstantsin Zhukouski. For each of the charges, the judge sentenced the journalist to a fine of 40 basic units (a total of 80 basic units, which is more than 16 million rubles). According to the police reports, Kanstantsin Zhukouski illegally interviewed and filmed the residents of the Žlobin district, despite having no accreditation as a journalist of a foreign mass media. The videos were later aired on the Belsat TV channel.
The death penalty
On February 2, the Board on criminal cases of the Supreme Court was expected to consider an appeal against the death sentence to Ivan Kulesh, who was convicted of killing three people. However, the hearing was postponed to a later date after the defendant’s lawyer submitted a complement to the appeal, which required more time to study. On February 26, consideration of the Ivan Kulesh’s appeal was once again postponed.
On February 15, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced to death Siarhei Khmialeuski, a 31-year-old native of the village of Mačuliščy, Minsk region. He was charged with the murder of two or more persons, which was committed with particular cruelty for the purpose of concealing another crime or facilitating its commission. In addition, he was accused of theft, attempted deliberate destruction or damage to property, and non-compliance with preventive supervision requirements. Based on available information, this sentence was imposed after a review of an earlier criminal case in which Siarhei Khmialeuski was sentenced to life imprisonment. This is the second death sentence handed down in Belarus in 2016.
On February 17, the European Union’s External Action Service issued a statement condemning the issuance of the death sentence against Siarhei Khmialeuski.
In response to the recent death sentences passed against Siarhei Khmialeuski and Henadz Yakavitski, Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), called on Belarus to immediately declare a moratorium on the death penalty.