Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2016
- September was not marked by any significant changes of a systemic nature that could contribute to qualitative changes in the human rights situation;
- the parliamentary elections were held against a relatively calm domestic political background and did not result in a significant increase in the level of repression. However, the elections themselves failed to meet the criteria for free and democratic elections;
- the key negative trend of September were new cases of arbitrary detention of political activists. It should be noted that this type of detention had not been applied by the Belarusian authorities since August 2015;
- 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. In a number of cases, failure to pay the fines by the activists resulted in the arrest and seizure of their personal property;
- the authorities announced the commencement a trail of Eduard Palchys, founder of the 1863x.com website, facing charges of publishing materials inciting ethnic hatred and containing pornography (Part 1, Article 130 and Part 2, Article 343 of the Criminal Code). The first court session starts on October 14 in the Court of Minsk’s Centraĺny district;
- the court hearing of the criminal case against Dzmitry Paliyenka starts on October 11 in the Court of Centraĺny district of Minsk. As it became known, Dzmitry Paliyenka faced an additional charge under Part 2, Art. 343 of the Criminal Code (production and distribution of pornographic materials or items of a pornographic nature);
- the criminal case against Uladzimir Kondrus, currently in custody under Part 2, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting), has been sent for an additional preliminary investigation;
- 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.
Politically motivated criminal prosecution
According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", in late August, the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk returned the case of Uladzimir Kondrus for an additional preliminary investigation.
The Investigative Committee’s Minsk office has been ordered to complete the investigation within a month’s time. Thus, the expected trial was postponed.
Uladzimir Kondrus was arrested on June 14, 2016 as part of a preliminary investigation for his alleged involvement in the riots at the Government House during the presidential elections in 2010. He was charged under Part 2, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting). Kondrus is being held in jail No. 1 in Minsk.
The human rights community of Belarus recognized Uladzimir Kondrus a political prisoner, demanding that the authorities stopped the criminal proceedings against him and immediately released him from custody.
Political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, who is serving a sentence in penal colony No. 14 in Navasady, Barysaŭ district, received an answer to a supervisory appeal that had sent to the Supreme Court in early August.
In his appeal, Zhamchuzhny he was a victim of a repeated investigative experiment, while the criminal case was opened against him more than a year after the commission of acts that formed the basis for his conviction. Thus, the law enforcement agencies artificially created the conditions that provoked me to commit similar acts in order to further provide evidence of the commission of more serious crimes.
In response to the prisoner’s complaint, Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court Ruslan Aniskevich noted that the sentence handed down to Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was in accordance with the law. The appeal court carefully examined the arguments of the complaint and eventually confirmed the sentence.
It also became known that the founder of human rights institution Platform Innovation had been transferred to another detachment of the penal colony. Immediately after the transfer, the prisoner received the first warning — for allegedly failing to clean his bedside table. If he commits another violation, he will be labeled a repeat infringer. On this occasion, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny filed an appeal with the administration of the colony.
Belarusian human rights activists say Mikhail Zhamchuzhny is a political prisoner.
On September 20, the EU Council approved the Annual report on human rights and democracy in the world. The section on Belarus said that in 2015 “no legislative changes were introduced in view of easing the restrictions on freedom of assembly, association and the media”.
The document mentions the fact of the release on August 22, 2015 of all political prisoners in Belarus. The EU continues to call for the reinstatement of the civil and political rights of former political prisoners, the Report said.
On September 26, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned that the trial of Dzmitry Paliyenka would begin on October 11 in the Court of Centraĺny district of Minsk. The case will be considered by Judge Valery Yesman.
The activist faces charges under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code (violence or threat of violence against a law enforcement officer). In addition, the human rights defenders learned from a letter from Dzmitry Paliyenka that he also faced a charge under Part. 2, Art. 343 of the Criminal Code (production and distribution of pornographic materials or items of a pornographic nature).
The HRC “Viasna” issued a statement regarding the arrest of Paliyenka and the disproportionate use of force against the protesters in the Critical Mass cycling event.
Meanwhile, the prosecution of another person involved in the case, Stanislau Kanavalau, was terminated on August 24; he is likely to appear in court as a witness.
The brutal detention of cyclists involved in the Critical Mass protest took place in the evening of April 29. As a result of violence used by riot police, six people were detained. They were badly beaten and taken to the police department of Minsk’s Centraĺny district. Later, two of them faced criminal charges under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code.
On May 6, Dzmitry Paliyenka faced formal charges.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" informed the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about the activist’s case.
The death penalty
Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus, took part in the working session “Tolerance and non-discrimination, including Roma and Sinti issues, including implementation of the OSCE Action Plan on Improving the Situation of Roma and Sinti” held yesterday in Warsaw as part of the OSCE Human Dimension Implementation Meeting.
During his speech, the human rights activist said that Belarus remains the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union, which retains the death penalty in practice.
According to Andrei Paluda, 16 people have been sentenced to death since 2009, when the campaign was launched. Two of them belonged to the ethnic Roma.
“Particular attention should be paid to the way in which such events are covered by state media in Belarus. They often use hate speech, stigmatization, which leads to xenophobia and discriminatory behavior in society, as well as the formation of very negative assessments towards the representatives of the entire Roma national minority in our country,” said he.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly, freedom of expression
September saw more cases of violations of citizens’ rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
In Viciebsk, Tatsiana Seviarynets, Heorhi Stankevich and Alena Shabunia were charged with holding an illegal picket. According to local police officers, the protesters failed to follow campaigning objectives, but rather “expressed their political beliefs” by singing songs at the picket.
Based on the video footage provide by a police cameraman, the judge concluded that while singing the activists did not campaign for their nomination as candidates. Accordingly, in the opinion of the judge, they violated the administrative law. All the three participants of the picket were fined 5 basic units each.
In the evening on September 3, activists Leanid Kulakou Maksim Viniarski decided to hold a rally to remind citizens that the elections should be honest. They were going to hang a banner with the inscription “For Free and Fair Elections!” on a bridge over the Minsk Ring Road. As soon as the protesters displayed the banner, there appeared a traffic police car. The activists were held in the car for about 40 minutes. After that, police officers arrived to take them to the police department of Zavodski district. They then faced charges under Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event) and eventually released.
An activist of the National Trade Union of Entrepreneurs Solidarity, Henadz Berdzeneu, was fined 210 rubles in Navapolack for pasting a leaflet calling to join a protest against election fraud.
The Centraĺny District Court of Minsk sentenced Sviatlana Kavalenka (Yakshyna) to a fine of 30 basic units for reading poems at the monument to poet Yanka Kupala. The event was held to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Declaration of Belarus’ state sovereignty. For the same offense, activist Leanid Kulakou was fines 40 basic units.
On September 19, opposition activists staged a protest in Minsk to mark the 25th anniversary of the proclamation of the white-red-white flag and the Pahonia coat of arms as the state symbols of Belarus. The event was monitored by five professional observers. The observers stressed the peaceful nature of the protest.
On September 22, the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk considered the administrative case of Viachaslau Kasinerau, who was charged with “repeated violation of the order of holding mass events within one year after the imposition of an administrative penalty”. As a result, Judge Tatsiana Matyl found the activist guilty of violating Part 3, Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code and ordered to impose a fine 1,050 rubles.
Freedom of association
According to former political prisoner Mikalai Autukhovich, on September 5, he filed documents to the Ministry of Justice for the registration of the national public association “Committee for the Support of Entrepreneurship Solidarity”. As explained by Mikalai Autukhovich, the registration is an intermediate step towards the creation of a trade union of entrepreneurs of Belarus, as of today many people are still afraid to be the founders of such a trade union. Autukhovich expressed the hope that the registering authority will not create unnecessary obstacles for the realization of entrepreneurs’ rights.
Torture and ill-treatment
The Prosecutor's Office of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk quashed the decision not to open a criminal case over the death of Ihar Ptsichkin in Minsk jail No. 1.
The formal nature of the investigation, according to the victim’s mother Zhanna Ptsichkina, is indicated by a superficial analysis of the various groups of injuries found on her son’s body, as it is known that some of them have an unknown origin, i.e. not from fixing the prisoner strapped to a bed, but could be the result of criminal acts by the prison staff.
On September 16, the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk began the consideration of a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 162 of the Criminal Code for the improper performance of professional duties by Aliaksandr Krylou, police officer and medical assistant at detention center No. 1 in Minsk, which resulted in the death of a patient, Ihar Ptsichkin.
The prison paramedic was charged with ordering to tie Ptsichkin to a bed in the medical unit of the detention center, allegedly due to a withdrawal syndrome and violent behavior. At 8:05 am on August 4, Ihar Ptsichkin was found dead. Being tied to the bed for a long time without adequate medical care led to pains, depletion, reduction of water-salt balance, deterioration of the general state of health, acute heart failure, and as a consequence — cardiac arrest. In turn, the paramedic did not provide a proper and urgent assistance, thus violating Part 2 of Article 162 of the Criminal Code. Aliaksandr Krylou denies his guilt, still working in the jail.
Several convicts serving sentences in penal colony No. 14 wrote to the Human Rights Center "Viasna" to report on four suicides and two suicide attempts allegedly committed over a short period of time in detachment No. 18 of the colony. In this regard, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" asked the Interior Minister to confirm or deny the reports: in late August the organization’s chairman, Ales Bialiatski, wrote to the Minister of Internal Affairs Ihar Shunevich requesting to confirm or deny this information and, if such cases were confirmed, to investigate them.
A response from the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Department of Corrections signed by the first deputy head Ivan Myslitski said that “the facts reported in the complaint did not correspond to reality.” Moreover, referring to paragraph 40 of the Council of Ministers’ Decree No. 783 of December 8, 2014, the official argued that “information about the work of the bodies and institutions of the penitentiary system during the organization and execution of sentences constitutes restricted data.”
Due to the ambiguous nature of the response and a great social importance of the topic, the response of was appealed to the Prosecutor General of Belarus. However, the Prosecutor General's Office evaded answering the appeal and forwarded it to the Department of Corrections.
A decision by the Žodzina office of the Investigative Committee not to open a criminal investigation into the death of prisoner Aleh Bahdanau was canceled by deputy head of the Investigative Committee’s Minsk regional department, and the case file was sent for an additional probe. The complaint filed by the victim’s mother Maryna Bahdanava said that the investigation was carried out without taking into account the most important evidence — analysis of the video footage of the events immediately preceding the death and their further development. She asked the Prosecutor of Minsk region to cancel the decision by the Žodzina office and to open a criminal investigation into the improper performance of professional duties by the prison employees.
Aleh Bahdanau had a cardiac disease, and in 2014 he underwent heart surgery. After the surgery, he had to take medicines, regularly undergo tests and be under care of a cardiologist. All this could not be provided in detention. Shortly before his death Bogdanov complained about the lack of treatment and harassment by the prison staff, since for health reasons he was forced to break prison rules, namely lay on the bed in the daytime. Aleh Bahdanau was sent to solitary confinement for violations of prison rules, although his sentence had not entered into force (afterwards, the conviction was overturned by a court of appeal), and died on January 29. His body showed injuries typical of a beating. Without waiting for the experts’ conclusions about the cause of his death, the Investigative Committee ruled to not to open a criminal case.
Human rights defenders of "Viasna" continue monitoring the investigation into the death of Ihar Barbashynski in Žodzina prison No. 8, who was held there before trial; the human rights activists prepared petitions to clarify certain circumstances that preceded the prisoner’s death.
The human rights activists have also been following the case of the beating by riot police of juveniles who were detained for committing administrative offenses. The beating was accompanied by threats of sexual violence.
The authorities resumed the practice of arbitrary detentions of political and civil society activists.
Co-chairman of the Young Front opposition group, Zmitser Dashkevich, was twice detained by police officers in civilian clothes.
On September 8, he was captured in the backyard of his house and held until 8 pm in the Centraĺny district police department of Minsk. The detention is said to be linked to the activist’s expected involvement in a picket outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk, which was scheduled the same evening.
On September 24, he was once again detained by police officers near his home and held in the police department for 6 hours, while the center of Minsk hosted several events involving President Lukashenka. On this day, Dashkevich was planning to take part in a demonstration in the center of Minsk. The Young Front activists were going to campaign for assigning the status of a non-material historical and cultural value to the white-red-white flag.
Ex-candidate for Parliament in Homieĺ, Uladzimir Niapomniashchykh, was fined 63 rubles for disobeying police officers and disorderly conduct. Niapomniashchykh is known for wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “For Belarus without Lukashenka”. He was detained on September 12 at a bus stop in Homieĺ, as he was going to a peaceful protest in Minsk. The activist was approached by three riot policemen, who said that he looked like a man wanted for committing a crime. Niapomniashchykh was taken to the police station, where he was charged with two administrative offenses. Before the trial, head of the Čyhunačny District Police Department, Ihar Tsimashenka, petitioned the District Court with a request to arrest the opposition politician. In his letter to the court, the police chief said Niapomniashchykh was “inclined to commit crimes.”
According to Viasna’s representative in Polack, Aleh Pashkevich, on September 12 local police twice detained activist Mikalai Manokhin, who was driving to Minsk. Manokhin’s car was first stopped by traffic police. He was taken to the Navapolack city police department, and about an hour later the activist was released without charges. However, about 4 pm the same day he was detained again. Traffic policemen checked the vehicle number and released the activist.
In a similar incident in Lida, activists Valery Mints and Vitold Ashurak were stopped by traffic police. They were detained and taken to the police station.
The above case of arbitrary detention may be related to a protest against falsification of the parliamentary elections, which was announced by former political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich.
The website of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" reported that after the completion of the parliamentary elections on September 11 police officers detained observers of the Right of Choice independent monitoring campaign, Leanid Kulakou and Maya Navumava. Later it became known that they were sentenced to administrative arrests of three and one day respectively.
On September 14, the website of the Minsk city police department said that Kulakou and Navumava’s detention was legal, as they were allegedly charged under Part 1 of Article 17.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences (“drinking alcohol, soft drinks or beer in a public place or appearing in a public place or at work in a state of intoxication”) and Article 23.4 (“disobedience to an lawful order or request of an official in the exercise of official authority”). After that, according to the website, Kulakou was taken to a special detention center of Pieršamajski district police department, where he was examined by a doctor and a test allegedly showed blood levels of about 1 ppm of alcohol. On September 12, the Pieršamajski District Court sentenced the activists to administrative arrest.
However, the medical documents later showed that Kulakou and Navumava were sober, and everything that happened looked like a provocation and arbitrary arrest. The activists appealed the actions of the police and the decision of the judge, who, for some reason, personally arrived at the sobering-up station to hear the charges.
Maya Navumava’s detention was accompanied by a gross violation of her rights: after the observer went to the toilet, a police officer broke in there and accused her of an attempted escape, wrung her hands and handcuffed the woman. They handcuffs were removed only after she was asked to sign the documents.