Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2018
- the country’s prisons continued to hold two political prisoners: Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Dzmitry Paliyenka. The latter is Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience;
- the authorities have not dropped the criminal charges against activists of the independent trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik; the month was marked by an intensification of investigative activities and a series of interrogations of union activists by the Investigative Committee, which extended the period of investigation until May 1;
- during the month, there were new arrests and harassment of independent journalists and bloggers, including in connection with their coverage of the local elections;
- on February 18, members of local councils were elected in Belarus. The elections, which were extremely passive, prompted criticism from the political opposition and non-partisan domestic observation. Following the monitoring of every phase of the election process, experts of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections" concluded that the electoral process did not comply with a number of key international standards for democratic and free elections;
- on February 22, head of the Legal Transformation Center Alena Tankachova was able to return to Belarus after three years in exile;
- in February, there were more obstacles to the registration of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, a political party operating in Belarus since 2005, and the pressure on its founders;
- thus, February was not marked by any significant systemic changes in the field of human rights.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" learned about an incident that occurred with Mikhail Zhamchuzhny in penal colony No. 9 in Horki.
On 24 January, the political prisoner was left unescorted in the infirmary hallway, where he was attacked by another prisoner wearing sunglasses, black gloves and a knitted cap. Mikhail Zhamchuzhny received several blows to the head. Following the incident, the political prisoner filed a complaint to the Prosecutor's Office of the Mahilioŭ region.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” also learned that during Zhamchuzhny’s stay in so-called ‘cell-type premises’, where he recently spent one month for ‘failing to obey the legitimate orders of the prison administration’, the prisoner was subjected to yet another penalty, three days in a punishment cell. The political prisoner was punished for allegedly failing to dust the table in his cell. It is the 18th penalty imposed on the political prisoner since his transfer to the Horki colony in July 2017.
To complain about the violations, human rights activist Tatsiana Reviaka wrote to the National and Mahilioŭ Regional Public Monitoring Commissions.
The authorities continue to investigate the criminal case against activists of the independent trade union REP Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik. In February, the composition of the investigative group was completely changed and the investigation deadline was extended until May 1. The Investigative Committee continued to question ordinary members of the union in different regions of the country.
The death penalty
On February 1, the UN Human Rights Committee confirmed the registration of an individual communication by Aliaksei Mikhalenia, who was sentenced to death by the Homieĺ Regional Court on March 17, 2017.
According to the coordinator of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus" Andrei Paluda, the complaint was registered under No. 3105/2018. In its response, the Committee asked the Belarusian authorities to postpone the execution of Mikhalenia while his case is under consideration at the Committee. The HRC also sent a copy to the state party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights with a request to report within six months any information or observations with respect to both the admissibility and on the merits of the convict’s complaint.
The European Union delegation in Belarus issued a statement with the consent of the heads of diplomatic missions of EU member states in Belarus, which once again called on the Belarusian authorities to commute the death sentences and establish a moratorium on executions as a first step towards its abolition.
Violations of freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression
The authorities still used pressure on the activists for their exercise of freedoms of peaceful assembly and expression.
Many activists of opposition parties and movements, who were earlier subjected to administrative proceedings and fined for participating in protests, complained about the actions of law enforcement offices, court bailiffs: without waiting for the judgment to become final, the bailiffs terrorized citizens, blocking the provision of mobile services, imposing restrictions on the ownership of real estate and other property, as well as vehicles.
Human rights activist Aleh Matskevich sent a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The complaint stemmed from a violation of his rights guaranteed by Articles 19 and 21 of the ICCPR — freedom of opinion and freedom of peaceful assembly. The grounds for the complaint was a ban on a picket on Human Rights Day, December 15, 2016 and subsequent court decisions that left the ban in place.
Freedom of association
On January 22, the Ministry of Justice received documents for the registration of the Belarusian Christian Democracy, an unregistered center-right political party, which has been active since 2005. It was the seventh attempt to register the party; in total, there have been over twenty attempts to register Christian-Democratic organizations in Belarus. On February 23, BCD’s organizing committee received a letter from the Ministry of Justice saying the registration was suspended for 1 month.
After this, local authorities in different regions started harassing BCD’s co-founders, forcing them to withdraw their signatures on the documents submitted to the Ministry of Justice.
Since 2006, participation in the activities of unregistered public associations and political parties in Belarus entails criminal liability and is punishable by various types of punishment, including imprisonment.
Freedom of information. Harassment of journalists
On February 5, the country’s leading human rights organizations issued a joint statement to condemn the blocking of websites belaruspartisan.org and charter97.org, which stressed that the media, both traditional and Internet ones, are the cornerstones of a democratic society; any restrictions in this area should comply with the provisions of the Constitution and the international obligations of the Republic of Belarus. The human rights activists called to cancel the decisions of the Ministry of Information and restore access to these sites, as well as to review existing legislation on the media and to end the practice of political censorship on the Internet.
On the day of the local elections, February 18, police beat Belsat cameraman Andrei Kozel at a polling station in Minsk, where he covered voting procedures. Kozel was arrested by four police officers while streaming on his Facebook account. According to an eyewitness, the police officers beat him during the arrest, smashing his head against a glass door.
The following day, the court heard a resistance charge, which the police said justified the violence, and sent the case back for revision.
On February 19, the police raided the apartment of chief editor of an online media outlet vrogacheve.ru Dzianis Dashkevich. According to Belsat’s source, the police broke the door to the journalist’s apartment in Rahačoŭ. The raid is linked to a story about police-related violence earlier published by the website.
The police continued the practice of charging journalists with illegal cooperation with the independent TV channel Belsat: the court of the Kastryčnicki district of Viciebsk sentenced Vital Skryl and Uladzimir Luniou to a fine of 588 rubles each, finding them guilty of illegally producing and distributing media products (part 2 of Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code), according to vitebskspring.org.
On February 22, the police raided the apartment owned by the parents of Stsiapan Sviatlou, a 19-year-old blogger, the author of a popular YouTube blog called NEXTA, which is dedicated to the socio-political life in Belarus. Sviatlou is a university student based in Poland. According to the blogger, law enforcement officers seized a laptop and a video camera. However, they did not give his mother a copy of the search record and refused to disclose her son’s procedural status.
On February 28, the court of Brest’s Lieninski district considered the administrative case of local bloggers Siarhei Piatrukhin and Aliaksandr Kabanau. They were forcibly detained on February 23 and placed in a temporary detention center in Brest. They were then charged with calling to join an illegal protest. As a result, both were punished with fines of 1,225 rubles each.
On February 22, the bloggers received an official warning about the inadmissibility of violation of the provisions of the Law "On Mass Events", which was signed by the prosecutor of Brest Ivan Chaichyts and Biaroza District Prosecutor Aliaksandr Krutsko. Local authorities thus responded to their reports about a protest against the construction of a battery factory.
In February, there were new cases of police-related violence. However, these cases did not receive proper investigation.
In particular, the human rights activists learned about an incident that took place on New Year's Eve in Minsk, when actress Sviatlana Sakalova was attacked by riot police officers, one of whom hit her on the head with a baton, causing bodily injury. The case is investigated by the Investigative Committee.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” launched a campaign on social called #BezPravaNaRaspravu, calling to give publicity to cases in which law enforcement bodies acted in excess of their powers.
Viasna received a complaint from Aliaksei Zhaliba, who told about police abuse he suffered on January 31, when he was reportedly beaten by police officers of Minsk’s Kastryčnicki police department. The man asked to call an ambulance, but was, instead, handcuffed to an iron chair; his hands were bruised. He was then forced to sign the documents. The case has been appealed to the Investigative Committee.
In response to a complaint by Viasna’s volunteer Yury Miatselski, who was detained on the night of January 1, the Prosecutor's Office of Sluck district said it found no violations of detention conditions in the detention facility of the local police department. A few days after his release from the temporary detention facility, where he was placed on trumped up charges, the volunteer complained to the Prosecutor's Office of Sluck district, detailing poor detention conditions. On February 22, the administrative proceedings were discontinued due to lack of proof of the offense. Miatselski is going to sue the police department and to request a compensation for his illegal two-day detention.
For more than a year, Dzmitry Serada has been trying to hold accountable police officers who unreasonably beat him during a raid on his apartment. He recently received a reply from Minsk City Prosecutor's Office, which still argues there are no grounds for opening a criminal case into his beating by the police in his apartment and in a police bus. Deputy City Prosecutor Dzmitry Kastsiukevich says in his letter that “the decision to dismiss the criminal case was based on the findings that law enforcement officers acted within the powers granted by art. 25 of the Law "On the Bodies of Internal Affairs." Thus, the prosecutor justifies the blow in the face the man received from a riot police officer.
Since the summer of 2015, Mikalai Radzivilau has been seeking initiation of criminal proceedings against the police department of Talačyn, where he was reportedly beaten. The violence report has been checked by the Investigative Committee and the prosecuting authorities. However, despite the victim’s active position, law enforcement officers have not even been able to establish what injuries were suffered by Radzivilau. The human rights activists are preparing to appeal the results of the probes.