Human Rights Situation in Belarus: July 2018
- Belarusian prisons continued to hold two political prisoners, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka. On July 17, eleven Belarusian human rights organizations wrote to President Lukashenka asking him to pardon political prisoner Zhamchuzhny;
- the authorities continue to investigate the criminal case against Ales Lipai, director of the independent news agency BelaPAN, charged under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (evasion from payment of taxes and duties on a large scale). The human rights and independent media community says the charges are linked to Lipai’s professional journalism and urges the authorities to drop them immediately;
- on July 30, the Court of Saviecki district of Minsk began hearing the charges against Henadz Fiadynich, leader of the independent trade union of radio-electronic industry (REP), and the trade inion’s accountant Ihar Komlik. The activists are charged with large-scale tax-evasion (Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code). The human rights community insists on an immediate cessation of the politically motivated criminal proceedings;
- during the month, there were numerous cases of pressure on independent journalists and bloggers, freelancers, as well as arrests and administrative detention of peaceful protesters;
- on July 6, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a critical resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus. The resolution provides for the renewal for one year of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus;
- on July 17, Minsk hosted the fifth round of the EU-Belarus human rights dialogue, which involved government representatives and members of several non-governmental organizations, in particular, the Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Belarusian Association of Journalists;
- the government enforced a number of amendments to the Law “On Mass Events”, which introduced the notification-based principle for certain types of events (meetings, rallies and pickets) held in the limited number of permanently authorized locations. While welcoming certain positive changes, the human rights community, however, stresses that they failed to significantly reform the situation with the freedom of peaceful assembly in the country;
- thus, July was not marked by any significant changes aimed at qualitative changes in the field of human rights.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On July 17, eleven Belarusian human rights organizations signed a petition to the Head of State, asking President Lukashenka to pardon political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny and release him from prison.
The same day, the human rights community made a statement in connection with the criminal prosecution of the head of the news agency BelaPAN Ales Lipai. The statement noted that the charges are linked to his professional activities, and are an attempt to interfere with the work of the news agency, one of the most respected independent sources of reliable and timely information about Belarus. Human rights activists urged the authorities to close the criminal case against the BelaPAN director.
On July 30, the hearing of the criminal case against Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, activists of the independent trade union REP, opened in the court of the Saviecki district of Minsk (in the premises of the court of Lieninski district).
Ihar Komlik was arrested on August 2, 2017 and released on bail two months later. He and Fiadynich were charged under Part 2, Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion).
According to the Investigative Committee, Fiadynich and Komlik opened a bank account in Lithuania, to which foreign nationals transferred EUR 140,000 in 2011.
The Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee argued that the amount of unpaid taxes equals 22,867.1 rubles.
If found guilty, Fiadynich and Komlik may be sentenced to restriction of freedom for up to five years, or imprisonment for three to seven years, with possible confiscation of property.
The death penalty
On June 28, the UN Human Rights Committee confirmed the registration of an individual communication on behalf of Siamion Berazhnoy, who was sentenced to death by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court on July 21, 2017.
According to Andrei Paluda, coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus”, the death convict’s complaint was registered under number 3196/2018.
On July 13, the UN Human Rights Committee also confirmed the registration of an individual communication by Ihar Hershankou, who was sentenced to death along with Berazhnoy.
The complaint was registered under number 3209/2018.
Earlier, human rights activists said that the Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court stayed the execution of death sentences against Hershankou and Berazhnoy for the period of examination of their supervisory appeals. However, the appeals have already been examined, as reported by the convicts’ lawyers. This effectively means that the period of suspension of the executions has expired and that the death penalty may be enforced at any time.
Human rights activists hope that the Republic of Belarus will enforce interim measures to suspend the execution of the death verdicts while the convicts’ complaints are under consideration at the UN Human Rights Committee.
Persecution of human rights defenders
Five observers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and BHC were detained on July 3 in Minsk. Hanna Sakhankova, Andrus Krechka, Tatsiana Mastykina, Yury Miatselski and Alena Bohdan were going to monitor a peaceful assembly announced by Mikalai Statkevich of the Belarusian National Congress. The observers were put into a van and taken to the Pieršamajski District Police Department. Another observer, Anisiya Kazliuk, was detained on her way to the police department, where she was going to confirm the whereabouts of her fellow observers. All the detainees were taken to a room where they were held together with the participants in the peaceful assembly. After three hours of detention, the monitors were released without charges.
Earlier, members of Viasna and BHC’s joint monitoring service had been illegally detained on a number of occasions. These detentions are contrary to national law, as observers are not participants in mass events. The only reason for the administrative detention is committing an offense.
Human rights defenders continue to receive reports of cruelty on the part of the Interior Ministry’s personnel.
In particular, on June 30, several youngsters were forced to kneel with their hands above their heads in the rain for more than five hours after police raided an anarchist event near the town of Krupki. Later, Mikalai Dziadok, an activist of an anarchist group, complained about the abuse to the district department of the Investigative Committee.
Hrodna activists Mikalai Salianik and Aliaksandr Laurentsyieu were forcibly detained by plainclothes policemen, as they staged an artistic protest on July 3, the official Independence Day. The activists wearing prison uniform were grabbed, thrown into a van and taken away in an unknown direction. Freelance journalist Ruslan Kulevich, who covered the arrest, received a blow in the face from one of the men in civilian clothes.
The attackers failed to display their IDs or give their names. The detainees were taken to the police department, but soon an ambulance took Salianik away to the hospital with suspected heart attack. Laurentsyieu spent the night in the detention center.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
On July 3, opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich was expected to hold a protest in Minsk. The unsanctioned rally was stopped by police officers in plain clothes. About thirty participants were detained and taken to the district police department. Most were later released without charges, while some were held for more than six hours. Mikalai Statkevich was also detained and sentenced to a fine.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" wrote to the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule to report violations by the Republic of Belarus of its international obligations to protect the right to peaceful assembly.
On July 4, several courts in Minsk ordered penalties of administrative detention and fines to activists protesting against the opening of an entertainment facility next to the Kurapaty memorial, a site of Stalin-era mass executions.
In Brest, judges fined activists campaigning for the resignation of local top-ranking officials. The campaign is linked to the construction of a battery factory, which is viewed as a threat to the environment. About 40,000 residents of Brest signed the petition asking to end the construction.
LGBTQ activist Vika Biran was fined twice for posing for photos with a poster “You Yourselves Are Fake”. The photos were taken against the background of the Interior Ministry, the KGB and the House of Government buildings on May 24.
On July 20, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk considered administrative cases of activists detained on July 19 during a picket outside the restaurant Grand Kushavel (belonging to the owners of the entertainment complex next to the Kurapaty memorial). Leanid Kulakou, Volha Nikalaichyk and Maya Navumava were fined under Part 3, Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event).
The new amendments to the Law “On Mass Events” failed to substantially change the situation with the freedom of assembly in Belarus.
Harassment of journalists and bloggers
In Hrodna, police officers in plain clothes detained journalists working with the TV channel "Belsat". They were held in the police station and then taken home for a search. Eyewitnesses say computer equipment was taken from their apartments.
Brest vlogger Siarhei Piatrukhin received a summons to the Interdistrict Investigation Committee, where he was told that he was under criminal investigation.
Piatrukhin said that he faced charges under Part 2 of Article 189 of the Criminal Code, “insult in a public speech, either in print or in publicly demonstrated works, or in the media.”
Aleh Shabetnik, an activist of the Tell the Truth campaign in Rečyca, is suspected of slandering the head of the district environmental inspection Mikalai Maiseyenka, BAJ said. The activist, in turn, wrote a statement to the police.