Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2017
- the month was marked by a continued negative trend evidencing the deterioration of the overall human rights situation in the country;
- as of May 31, human rights activists are aware of 16 persons arrested in a criminal case of preparing mass riots, who are in custody in the KGB’s and the Interior Ministry’s pre-trial prisons. At the same time, they also faced an additional charge under Art. 287 of the Criminal Code (creating an illegal armed group). Earlier, human rights activists stressed the politically motivated nature of the criminal case;
- the country’s penal colonies continued to hold Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka, who were earlier named political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights organizations;
- Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk and Andrei Sharenda, both activists of the European Belarus opposition movement in Brest, faced criminal charges under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus). The country’s human rights community insists on decriminalization of defamation offenses and views the practice of criminal prosecution for such offenses as inconsistent with the international standards of human rights;
- during the month, there were cases of harassment of journalists and human rights defenders;
- the authorities continued the practice of bringing citizens to administrative responsibility, including by imposing administrative detention for participation in peaceful assemblies;
- on May 5, human rights defenders learned about the execution of another death-row prisoner, Siarhei Vostrykau, who was earlier sentenced to death by the Homieĺ Regional Court.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On May 18, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned about the release of Mikalai Mikhalkou, leader of a Babrujsk-based club Patriot. The investigators provided no official explanation for Mikhalkou’s procedural status and the reasons for the release.
On May 19, Yauhen Paltarzhytski, another person involved in the case of preparing riots, was released from pre-trial detention. Before the trial, he will remain under house arrest.
Thus, as of May 31, the human rights defenders were aware of 16 defendants in the case, who are detained in the KGB’s and the Interior Ministry’s pre-trial prisons. All of them (except Siarhei Kuntsevich) face additional charges under Art. 287 of the Criminal Code (creating an illegal armed group).
The human rights defenders stress the closed nature of the criminal case. Despite an appeal sent to the KGB by the Belarusian Association of Journalists asking to provide official information about the criminal case, no details were disclosed. At the same time, the Minister of Foreign Affairs Uladzimir Makei said that the Foreign Ministry informed foreign diplomats on the investigation.
Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk and Andrei Sharenda, both activists of the European Belarus opposition movement in Brest, faced criminal charges under Part 1 of Art. 368 of the Criminal Code (defamation of the President of the Republic of Belarus).
Belarusian human rights organizations call for the decriminalization of defamation offenses (Art. 368 of the Criminal Code, in particular), which is a standard in the field of human rights, formulated and substantiated by the decisions of international organizations. International bodies, the UN and the OSCE, recommended the repeal of laws that criminalize defamation, or at least refraining from the deprivation of freedom for committing defamation offenses, taking civil proceedings a standard.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
In May, there were numerous violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly.
Opposition leader Pavel Seviarynets, who spoke at a rally on May 1 in Minsk and led the column of demonstrators, as well as activist Maksim Viniarski, were detained by the police after the protest. The following day, they, as well as Viachaslau Siuchyk and activist Yauhen Afnahel, were punished with administrative detention for a period of 15 days each. Several other protesters were fined.
Deputy chairman of the United Civil Party Vasil Paliakou was detained after a protest held in Homieĺ on the same day, May 1. Several other activists were also arbitrarily detained.
Several people were detained during a protest held on May 1 in Brest. They were displaying clean sheets of paper. At least four people were detained, including Inha Abramava. Of the organizers, Aliaksandr Kabanau, was detained before the protest. Local police also detained blogger and journalist Dzmitry Harbunou.
About ten activists took to the Lenin Square in Baranavičy. The people were planning to show clean sheets of paper, but then abandoned the idea for fear of detention. One person displayed a clean sheet and was detained by the police. Activists Mikalai Charnavus and his son Mikalai Charnavus Jr., as well as Vital Khitryk were detained in the city police department.
According to mspring.online, activist Raman Mishchanka was sentenced to detention for 15 days in Mahilioŭ for an appeal in social networks to join an illegal protest on May 1. Judge Aksana Ratnikava opened the hearing before the official opening of the court house after the lunch break. Because of this, the trial was actually held behind closed doors.
After repeated cases of violations of due process and constitutional rights of administrative detainees, and the rights of their defenders, Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", wrote to the Prosecutor General of Belarus Aliaksandr Kaniuk asking to investigate the reports. In response, the Prosecutor General sent a run-around reply, refusing to consider the appeal on the merits.
Violated rights were unable to be restored in courts: the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk turned down an appeal by Dzianis Sadouski, a BCD activist and one of the organizers of the Freedom Day protest, against the actions of the authorities in Minsk on the eve of the demonstration. Sadouski argued that the Minsk city executive committee violated the law by failing to issue an official answer within the due period of five days before the protest.
In May, courts rejected appeals by several opposition parties (on May 17 - United Civil Party, May 19 - BNF and May 24 - Movement "For Freedom"), which challenged warnings issued by the Ministry of Justice. The warnings were linked, according to the Ministry of Justice, to the involvement of members of these associations in organizing a protest on March 25.
Harassment of journalists
Numerous violations of the rights of journalists in May were related to their work for the independent TV channel "Belsat".
Journalists Maryna Drabysheuskaya and Larysa Shchyrakova, both working for the TV channel "Belsat", were detained in Homieĺ after a legal rally on May 1. The policemen did not explain grounds for the detention.
On May 5, freelance journalist Yauhen Merkis was fined 920 rubles under Article 22.9 of the Administrative Code for "violating the law on the press and other media." Since the beginning of this spring, it was the sixth administrative trial against the freelancer.
Several democratic activists wrote to the court of the Saviecki district of Homieĺ to complaint about the inhuman conditions of imprisonment in a temporary detention facility of the Homieĺ Regional Executive Committee. After serving punishment for the March protests, the activists complained of cold cells, lack of hot water, irregular walks, insanitary conditions and the inability to take a shower. However, the court refused to consider the complaint siting lack of jurisdiction.
Activist Dzmitry Liuntau complained about poor sanitary conditions in the temporary detention facility of Mahilioŭ.
On May 25, the Minsk City Court dismissed an appeal filed by the Ministry of the Interior to challenge a decision by the court of Zavodski district of Minsk, which ruled on March 23 that the mother and sister of Ihar Ptsichkin, inmate of Minsk prison No. 1 who died back in August 2013, should receive a total of BYN 30,000 in emotional distress damages.
The Minsk regional department of the Investigative Committee decided to terminate the criminal investigation into the improper performance of professional duties by medical staff, resulting in the death of Aleh Bahdanau in prison No. 8 of Žodzina. A notification was received on May 12 by his mother, Maryna Bahdanava.
Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", wrote to the Prosecutor General of Belarus Aliaksandr Kaniuk, after several media reports alleging use of torture and other cruel, inhuman treatment against persons detained as accused in the case of the preparation of mass disorders and activities of an illegal armed group in the pre-trial prisons of the KGB and the Interior Ministry. The rights activist recalls that freedom from torture is absolute and not subject to restrictions under any circumstances. The use of torture is prohibited by Art. 25 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, as well as a number of international instruments on human rights ratified by Belarus: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (article 7) and the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. Bialiatski requested a prosecutor's probe into the media reports.
Conditions of detention and treatment of persons administratively arrested for involvement peaceful protests in March 2017 in Minsk were analyzed by the HRC "Viasna" in a research report.
The death penalty
Representatives of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus" learned about the execution of another death convict, Siarhei Vostrykau. His mother received a notification from the Homieĺ Regional Court. This is the first execution of 2017.
Campaign coordinator Andrei Paluda believes that Vostrykau was executed between April 13 and April 29, as the last letter from jail No. 1, which held the convict, was dated April 13, and the Regional Court informed of carrying out the death sentence on April 29. On May 5, Vostrykau’s mother was allowed to meet with her son in jail. It was their last meeting.
On 19 May 2016, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced Siarhei Vostrykau, 33, to death on charges of two separate counts of rape and murder. The Supreme Court later upheld the death sentence.
The death row in jail No. 1 in Minsk continues to hold one death convict, Kiryl Kazachok; a jail in Homieĺ - death convict Aliaksei Mikhalenia. The latter’s appeal will be considered by the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court on June 30.
After the execution of another death convict in Belarus, the European Union said in a statement that this form of punishment is unacceptable under all circumstances and once again called on the authorities of Belarus to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty.
A similar statement was made by the Council of Europe’s Secretary General Thorbjørn Jagland.