Human Rights Situation in Belarus: March 2017
- March was marked by a dramatic deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, which testifies to the return of the authorities of Belarus to the policy of the worst repressive practices;
- during the month, Minsk and other cities of Belarus hosted numerous protests against the application of Presidential Decree No. 3 “On the prevention of social dependency” and the economic policy of the authorities in general. The government went back in response to the repression of the political opposition, civil society activists, bloggers, independent journalists, human rights activists, and ordinary citizens. Administrative detention was used against the leaders of major opposition parties and movements, including the chairman of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka, co-chairs of the BCD Vital Rymasheuski and Pavel Seviarynets, chairman of the movement “For Freedom” Yury Hubarevich;
- since March 3, a total of more than 900 people have been subjected to various forms of repression in connection with the mass demonstrations, of whom more than 100 were sentenced to administrative detention;
- on March 25, the opposition forces held in Minsk the traditional demonstration “Freedom Day”, which was violently dispersed by numerous police and special forces, around 700 people were arrested, 149 of them were subsequently brought to administrative responsibility for taking part in the peaceful demonstration;
- on the eve of the demonstration, in Minsk and other cities of the country, a wave of arbitrary arrests of citizens was held in order to prevent their participation in the demonstration. All these events were accompanied by propaganda on national television and whipping up an atmosphere of fear in the society;
- on March 21-22 and March 24, security forces arrest 32 people on suspicion of committing a crime under Part 3 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code (training or other preparation of persons for participation in mass disorders, as well as funding or other material support of such activities). All detainees are currently held in the jails of the Interior Ministry and the KGB in Minsk, including the leader of the organization “Young Front” Zmitser Dashkevich;
- on March 28, it became known that activist Viachaslau Kasinerau was taken into custody and transferred to the Interior Ministry detention center in Minsk. Kasinerau was charged with an offense under Part 1, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). The criminal charges stem from an action held on March 12 near the Interior Ministry’s building in Minsk;
- on March 17, the Homieĺ Regional Court handed down a death sentence to a 32-year resident of Naroŭlia, Aliaksei Mikhalenia. This was the first death verdict of 2017.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On March 21, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka said during his working trip to Mahilioŭ that several dozen “militants” were arrested in connection with their alleged preparation in “armed provocations”. He said this in reply to a question from an employee of the Kronospan company, who asked about the reasons for the “recent surge in the so-called fifth column and various structures of the opposition.”
Following the statement, media reported the arrest of several persons by security forces conducted on March 21-22 and March 24. According to an official statement by the KGB spokesperson, 26 people, including activists of the Young Front opposition group and former members of a now-defunct organization White Legion, were detained on suspicion of committing a crime under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (training or other preparation of persons for participation in mass disorders, as well as funding or other material support of such activities). On March 25, the Interior Ministry announced the arrest of five more suspects.
At least one suspect was released on March 31. However, reports said another person was detained in the case.
At the moment, the HRC "Viasna" does not possess full information about the identity of all those detained in the framework of the criminal case, their place of residence and the procedural status. There is information about four persons who faced formal charges under Part 3, Art. 293 of the Criminal Code.
It is worth noting that the detentions took place on the eve of the opposition demonstration on March 25 in Minsk and were accompanied by extensive propaganda on national television and wiping up an atmosphere of fear in the society.
On March 24, a joint statement of human rights organizations about the politically motivated nature of this criminal case was released at a press conference with some of the relatives of the detainees held in the office of the HRC "Viasna".
On March 28, it became known that activist Viachaslau Kasinerau was taken into custody and transferred to the Interior Ministry detention center in Minsk. Kasinerau was charged with an offense under Part 1, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). The criminal charges stem from an action held on March 12 near the Interior Ministry’s building in Minsk, when Kasinerau threw a noose on the statue of a Russian Empire policeman, protesting against police impunity and persecution of activists of the anarchist movement.
The death penalty
On March 17, the Homieĺ Regional Court pronounced a death sentence in the case of a 32-year-old resident of Naroŭlia, Aliaksei Mikhalenia. This is the first death verdict of 2017.
It is worth recalling that two death convicts, Kiryl Kazachok and Siarhei Vostrykau, are currently held on death row in the Interior Ministry’s detention center in Minsk. Their death sentences have already entered into force and can be enforced at any moment.
Harassment of human rights defenders
During a month, there were numerous documented cases of harassment of the country’s human rights organizations and separate human rights defenders.
On March 25, during a briefing of observers at the office of the HRC "Viasna", who were expected to monitor the Freedom Day protest, the premises were raided by the riot police and all those present were forced down to the floor. As a result, more than 50 volunteers, journalists and representatives of foreign and international organizations were detained. Among them were Aleh Hulak (Chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee), Raisa Mikhailouskaya, Liudmila Kuchura, and Dzmitry Drozd (Belarusian Documentation Center), Ales Bialiatski, Anastasiya Loika, Iryna Smeyan-Semianiuk, Siarhei Semianiuk, and Aliaksei Loika (Human Rights Center “Viasna”), Maria Chichtchenkova (Front Line Defenders), Evgenia Andreiuk (Crimea-SOS). As a result of unlawful use of physical force, Aliaksei Loika was hospitalized with a head injury.
Five human rights activists — Leanid Svetsik and Kastus Mardzvintsau (HRC "Viasna"), Pavel Levinau, Ales Yauseyenka, and Eduard Balanchuk (BHC) — were detained and brought to administrative responsibility for taking part in unauthorized gatherings. They were subsequently sentenced to administrative detention, while they in fact monitored these protests.
International human rights organizations issued a number of statements calling on the Belarusian authorities to cease harassment of human rights defenders.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
March was marked by increased protest activity in Belarusian cities; the authorities responded with a sharp increase in repression.
On March 5, the March of the Non-Parasites was held in Brest. On this day, a number of politicians and activists were preventively detained, but the demonstration became a notable event. Five detained representatives of the anarchist movement were punished by administrative detentions, while other active participants were sentenced to fines. Later, on March 9, the court ordered an activist from Biaroza Aliaksandr Kabanau to be sent to jail for participation in the protest.
Administrative penalties were also imposed on participants in the pickets staged to defend the Kurapaty memorial site: Siarhei Palcheuski and Zmitser Dashkevich were sentenced to 3 days of administrative detention each.
Stating the deterioration of the human rights situation, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" urged the authorities to stop the persecution of citizens for the exercise of their right to peaceful protest and expression.
On March 10, the March of the Non-Parasites was held in Maladziečna. When the protest was over, harsh detentions began: politicians Anatol Liabedzka, Yury Hubarevich, Vital Rymasheuski, activist of the BCD Volha Kavalkova were detained and thrown into a minibus with their faces to the floor. All were taken to the city police department. Some other participants of the March were also detained. Subsequently, Vital Rymasheuski, Anatol Liabedzka and Yury Hubarevich were sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention each.
A similar protest in Orša ended with detentions; journalists and co-chairman of the BCD Pavel Seviarynets were preventively detained.
On March 12, protests were held in Rahačoŭ, Brest and Babrujsk.
On March 13, the courts punished many participants in the protests with fines, several protesters were sentenced to short jail terms: Pavel Seviarynets was arrested for 15 days, Viktar Andreyeu and Vasil Berasneu — for 13 and 14 days, respectively.
On March 14, trials were held in Hrodna and Homieĺ; on March 15, the judicial harassment of participants of peaceful assemblies continued in Mahilioŭ, Homieĺ and other cities.
On March 15, a protest against President’s Decree No. 3, the March of the Non-Parasites, was held in Minsk. Despite the exclusively peaceful nature of the assembly, special services used excessive violence when detaining dozens of participants.
On March 16, the detained protesters stood trials across Belarus. In Minsk, all the detainees were punished with administrative detention.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) condemned the ongoing repression. Michael Georg Link, director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed concern about information on fines and detentions of dozens of protesters and human rights defenders in Belarus on March 17.
Meanwhile, on the eve of March 25 - Freedom Day - the courts continued to systematically reduce the number of potential participants in the demonstration: administrative detention was imposed on activists in all regions of the country.
On March 25, street protests were held to celebrate Freedom Day, anniversary of the creation of the Belarusian People's Republic. Ahead of the demonstration, numerous armed riot policemen and latest technology to disperse demonstrations appeared in the city center; in the morning, the entire district for the gathering of participants was blocked and cordoned off by the police.
The Minsk City Executive Committee, having proposed the Družby Narodaŭ Park as the only ground for the event, said on the eve of the demonstration that it was illegal to hold assemblies in any other districts of the city.
Despite the exclusively peaceful nature of the event, many of its participants were detained with unjustified force; among the detainees were random passers-by. Many detainees spent hours waiting in the weather on the territory of the district police departments, where cruel and degrading treatment was reported against them.
Some of the detainees were released after booking procedures, while the rest, along with dozens of participants in an event of solidarity, which took place the following day in Kastryčnickaja Square in Minsk, on March 27 stood trials, where they were sentenced to administrative penalties — fines and administrative arrests.
According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", 178 people were convicted under administrative procedures on March 27: 145 in Minsk and 33 in the regions, including 3 - in Babrujsk, 2 - in Barysaŭ, one - in Brest, 11 - in Viciebsk, 14 - in Homieĺ, and 2 - in Polack. The observers documented 74 cases of administrative arrest and 93 fines as forms of punishment imposed on the detainees. 56 persons were sentenced to short jail terms in Minsk, while 80 were fined (1 case was dismissed, the consideration of two more has been adjourned, the outcomes of 5 hearings are unknown). In the regions, the corresponding figures are: 18 arrests and 13 fines (outcome of two cases in Viciebsk is unknown). The period of administrative detention ordered by the courts ranged between 2 and 25 days. The minimum size of the fine was 46 BYN, while one person was sentenced to a fine of 1,840 BYN (USD 980).
On March 25, similar protests were held in the regions. The persecution of activists for the exercise of their right to peaceful assembly and expression continues; during March, it affected, according to the HRC "Viasna", more than 900 people.
Harassment of journalists
The Belarusian Association of Journalists reported in late March about 123 violations of journalists' rights related to their activities.
These include numerous causeless detentions of journalists, administrative charges for infringement of rules of manufacturing mass media under Art. 22.9 of the Code of Administrative Offenses and on other grounds, detention in the Center for the isolation of offenders before the trial, imposition of various fines or administrative detention by a court order. In particular, administrative detention under various pretexts was ordered for eight journalists.
The wave of pressure on journalists came as a reaction of the authorities to the wide coverage of the protest activity of Belarusian citizens in the media.
On March 31, it became known that the premises of the independent television channel Belsat were raided by the police; as a result, office equipment was removed from the offices. A formal basis was a probe into the illegal use of a trademark. Belsat’s representatives say the repression is linked to the channel’s active coverage of March protests in Belarus.
On March 21, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" presented an annual report on the results of monitoring places of detention in the Republic of Belarus; the human rights activists documented numerous violations of human rights in places of detention, and also submitted their recommendations for improving the situation in this area.
On March 23, the Zavodski District Court in Minsk partially satisfied a claim by Zhanna and Iryna Ptsichkinas, mother and sister of Ighar Ptsichkin, who died in jail No. 1 in Minsk through the fault of an officer of the Ministry of Internal Affairs A. Krylou. The Ministry of Internal Affairs was ordered to reimburse the material damage (burial costs) and a compensation for the moral damage in favor of the victim’s mother and sister — BYN 20,000 and 10,000, respectively.
Another probe was launched into the actions of riot policemen who violently detained pediatrician Dzmitry Serada in August last year. This was reported by the Minsk City Prosecutor's Office on March 23 in response to his complaint.