Human Rights Situation in Belarus: June 2016
- June was not marked by any systemic changes demonstrating the authorities’ commitment to improving the country’s human rights situation;
- on June 13, the 32nd session of the UN Human Rights Council was opened in Geneva to hear a report by the Special Rapporteur on Belarus; on July 1, the Council’s member states voted for the renewal of the Special Rapporteur’s mandate;
- the Investigative Committee’s Centraĺny district office of Minsk extended by July 29 the investigation and detention of activist Dzmitry Paliyenka, who was detained on April 29 during a violent dispersal of the Critical Mass peaceful rally. The activist faced criminal charges under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code (violence or threat of violence against an employee of the Interior authority).
- prison No. 14 in Barysaŭ district continued to hold Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, whose sentencing was viewed by the country’s human rights community as politically motivated harassment. Human rights activists demand an immediate reconsideration of Zhamchuzhny’s criminal case in an open trial in compliance with the guarantees of a fair trial, which includes a wide range of legal measures, such as a pardon, amnesty, and parole;
- human rights defenders learned that Mikhail Zhamchuzhny received the status of a person prone to extremism as a result of a decision by the prison administration;
- on June 7, the Court of Minsk’s Maskoŭski district established preventive supervision of activist Pavel Vinahradau. International and Belarusian human rights organizations viewed this decision as politically motivated pressure on the activists related to his civil and political activities;
- despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of the unauthorized peaceful assemblies held during the month was not intervened by the law enforcement authorities or forcibly stopped, the participants and organizers of these gatherings continued to be brought to administrative responsibility in the form of fines. At the same time, local authorities still banned public events across the country;
- on June 7, the Committee on the Application of Standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) called on the Belarusian authorities to bring the national legislation into compliance with the ILO Convention No. 29. This conclusion was made as a result of the consideration of the Belarusian issue at the 105th session of the International Labor Conference in Geneva.
Politically motivated criminal prosecution
A preventive supervision of 6 months was imposed on opposition activist Pavel Vinahradau. The decision was taken on June 7 by Judge Maksim Sushko of the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk. However, the actual period of supervision is expected to be over on September 14, after the activist’s previous conviction expires. In the meantime, the commission of at least three violations may result in criminal charges for violation the rules of preventive supervision. Pavel Vinahradau cannot leave his home between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. In addition, he is forbidden to leave Belarus. The activist may only leave Minsk after obtaining permission from the police.
The restrictions stemmed from the three convictions since the beginning of the year under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (violation of the order of organizing and participating in public events) in connection with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression.
Earlier, Pavel Vinahradau was repeatedly brought to criminal and administrative responsibility over the peaceful implementation of freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of Belarus and the international standards of human rights.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" issued a statement to deplore the illegal establishment of preventive supervision of Vinahradau. The statement said it was a form of politically motivated pressure on the activist in connection with his civil and political activities. A similar statement was made by the international human rights organization Amnesty International.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned that Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, founder of the Platform Innovation human rights NGO, who is serving his sentence in penal colony No. 14, received the status of a person prone to extremism as a result of a decision by the prison administration. The prisoner told this in his letter to the human rights defenders.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny also wrote that in a private conversation with the prison staff he was told that the penalty was imposed after he spread among other prisoners the books of Svetlana Alexiyevich, the 2015 Nobel Literature Prize winner famous for her criticism of the current regime.
Shortly after his conviction, Belarusian human rights groups recognized Mikhail Zhamchuzhny a political prisoner.
Activist Dzmitry Paliyenka will remain in custody until July 29. According to human rights activists, the Investigative Committee extended the period of investigation due to the fact that the investigators were not able to organize a series of investigative actions. In particular, no confrontations were held with the participation of Dzmitry Paliyenka, Stanislau Kanavalau and the traffic policemen who stopped the cyclists during the Critical Mass event.
The cycling event was dispersed in the evening of April 29. As a result, six protesters were severely beaten and detained. Later, four of the detainees faced charges of violating traffic rules and resisting police officers, while criminal charges were brought against two more activists.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" issued a statement to condemn the detention of Dzmitry Paliyenka.
Violation of freedom of association, pressure on human rights defenders
On June 28, the Mahilioŭ Regional Department of Justice denied state registration to the public association Center For Gender Studies Ruža. According to the registering authority, the NGO’s statutory objectives to combat discrimination on grounds of gender do not fall within its competence, as equality is guaranteed by the authorized state bodies.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly and expression
In June, there were more convictions of peaceful protesters involved in unauthorized assemblies.
On June 1, Yury Lukashevich was fined 4.2 mln rubles for his involvement in a demonstration held in Minsk on May 14.
On June 2, several animal rights activists were convicted of staging a picket outside the City Circus on April 17. All of them faced charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event. As a result, seven protesters were sentenced to fines ranging from 3 150 000 to 6 300 000 rubles.
On June 13, the Court of Minsk’s Partyzanski district fined activists Maksim Viniarski and Volha Nikalaichyk 8.4 mln rubles each for displaying the portraits of disappeared politicians at the foot of the Victory Square Obelisk on March 16. During the trial, the activists learned that they had faced criminal charges for the protest, but soon the case was closed and they were accused of illegal picketing.
The Minsk City Court found errors during the trial of the participants of the Freedom Day celebrations, Ryhor Kastusiou, Mikalai Kazlou, Natallia Samatyia and Anatol Shumchanka. Their fines were revoked, and the case was sent back for retrial.
On June 20, the Court of Maskoŭski district fined participants in a picket of solidarity with Dzmitry Palieynka, currently held in the Minsk jail No. 1.
On June 23, police officers in Minsk detained lawyer Tamara Siarhei. According to her, she was detained for complaining to the head of Minsk police Aliaksandr Barsukou. Ms. Siarhei argued that she was detained along with other protesters during a picket held in Minsk’s Liberty Square on March 31.
On June 29, Barysaŭ hosted a trial of participants in an unsanctioned picket, which took place on May 7. As a result, the judge ruled to sentence the protesters to heavy fines ranging from 3,150,000 to 9,450,000 rubles.
The Salihorsk district executive committee banned a number of rallies that were expected to be held at the city stadium between June 6 and June 25. The pitch is the only authorized location for holding peaceful assemblies in the city. The temporary ban on exercising freedom of expression is justified by a series of youth sports events to be held at the stadium during the three weeks.
Harassment of journalists
On June 21, police officers in Lojeŭ, Homieĺ region, detained freelance journalists Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Aliaksei Atroshchanka as they were shooting a story about the problems of a local brick factory. According to Zhukouski, they spent more than five hours in the police department, where they were forced to lie on the floor and threatened with violence. They also say that the police officers put their feet on the journalists’ heads and twisted their hands. A video camera was damaged during the detention. As a result, the journalists were released without charges.
Aliaksandra Hlaholeva-Vaskovich, a journalist for the Bobruyskiy Kurier weekly and editor of the Naš Dom newsletter, was invited to the local police department to face charges of involvement in a picket in Slonim.
Violation of the right to freedom of opinion
On June 21, traffic policemen stopped the car of Leanid Kulakou, an activist of the European Belarus opposition group, that carried several white-red-white flags with the Pahonia national coat of arms, which he fixed to his taxi. After Kulakou was released from the police station, he found that the flags had disappeared from the vehicle parked next to the building.
In a similar manner, traffic policemen arrested the car of Yauhen Batura, as his vehicle was decorated with white-red-white flags. No documents of withdrawal were provided to the car owner.
In a separate incident, traffic police stopped the car of Tsimafei Dranchuk.
All of these cases are clearly linked to using opposition symbols.
Torture and cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment
Viasna activists wrote to the Interior Minister to complain about the abuse of imprisoned human rights defender, former head of the Platform Innovation NGO Andrei Bandarenka.
Andrei Bandarenka is faced with measures that the human rights defenders consider excessive for his environment, which, accompanied with other circumstances, testify to purposeful cruel treatment towards him because of his previous human rights activities.
In this regard, the human rights defenders reiterated their demand to stop the ungrounded persecution of Andrei Bandarenka by the Department of Corrections; to investigate the conditions of his imprisonment, and to allow the prisoner’s meeting with representatives of human rights organizations.
Freelance journalists Kanstantsin Zhukouski and Aliaksei Atroshchankau, who were detained on June 21 in the town of Lojeŭ, Homieĺ region, have written to the Investigation Committee asking the authorities to investigate their brutal detention by the police officers. The reporters say they were beaten after the arrest.
Guarantees of a fair trial
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” issued a statement urging the authorities to respect the procedural safeguards and rights in relation to Eduard Palchys, who is currently held in custody in the detention center in Žodzina.
Eduard Palchys, editor of the 1863x.com website, was detained on the territory of the Russian Federation in January 2016. He was then arrested and extradited to Belarus to face charges under Part 1, Art. 130 (“incitement to racial, national or religious enmity or discord”), and Part 2, Art. 343 (“dissemination of pornographic materials”) of the Criminal Code. After his extradition, his lawyer was not allowed to see her client and had therefore to complain to the Investigative Committee.
On June 29, Barysaŭ hosted a trial of the participants in an unsanctioned picket, which took place on May 7. One of the defendants, Aliaksandr Abramovich, asked to impeach Judge Bolatau, who illegally sentenced the activists to 35 days in jail 18 years ago. The Supreme Court later overturned the sentence, but Abramovich had already served the term. Judge Bolatau rejected the request, saying that there were no grounds for his disqualification.
The death penalty
The 6th World Congress against the Death Penalty took place in Norway’s Oslo from 21 to 23 June. The Congress was organized by Ensemble Contre la Peine de Mort (Together Against the Death Penalty – ECPM) in partnership with the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty (WCADP). Belarus is traditionally represented by the campaign Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus.
Prohibition of forced labor
The problem of forced labor is still extremely relevant for Belarus, despite some steps to bring the national legislation in line with the country’s international obligations, in particular the abolition of President’s Decree No. 9 “On Additional Measures to Develop the Wood Processing Industry” adopted in 2012. The Decree prohibited termination of employment contracts at employees' own request until after the completion of reconstruction of enterprises that are publicly funded.
The Committee on the Application of Standards of the International Labor Organization (ILO) urged the Belarusian authorities to conform the national legislation with the requirements of ILO’s Convention No. 29, which proclaimed the prohibition of forced labor following the consideration of the Belarusian issue at the 105th session of the International Labor Conference on June 6 in Geneva.
The Committee urged the Belarusian government to ensure that the following decrees and national laws are in full conformity with Convention No. 29, including: President’s Decree No. 3 of 2 April 2015 “On the prevention of social dependency”; Law No. 104-3 of 4 January 2010 “On the procedures and modalities for the transfer of citizens to medical labor centers and the conditions of their stay”; President’s Decree No. 5 “On strengthening the requirements for senior officials and workers”; President’s Decree No. 18 of 24 November 2006 “On additional measures for state protection of children from “dysfunctional families”.
Meanwhile, human rights activists still report cases of coercion of citizens to unpaid work by government officials. In a recent case, the Hlusk district executive committee ordered heads of local government-owned organizations to provide “assistance in haymaking”. Every male employee was expected to make 300 kg of hay. After the fact was made public, the executive committee cancelled the order. The Prosecutor’s Office of Hlusk district refused to address the violation. The human rights defenders have already filed a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office of the Mahilioŭ region.