Human Rights Situation in Belarus: November 2018
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his imprisonment;
- the investigators stopped criminal proceedings against all the journalists involved in the so-called “BelTA case”, who were previously charged under Part 2 Art. 349 of the Criminal Code (illegal access to computer information committed out of personal interest that caused significant damage). The criminal charges were replaced with administrative responsibility. At the same time, Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the portal TUT.BY, was charged under Part 2, Art. 425 of the Criminal Code (failure to act), which provides for punishment of up to five years in prison;
- during the month, there were numerous facts of pressure on independent journalists and bloggers, as well as arrests and administrative detention of peaceful protesters;
- November was marked by cases of citizens prosecuted under administrative procedures for distributing allegedly extremist materials. In most cases, such charges are nothing but a violation of freedom of expression and contrary to known international standards in this field;
- there were also documented facts of pressure on human rights defenders in connection with the exercise of their human rights activities. Thus, in particular, Ales Burakou, a member of the HRC "Viasna" in Mahilioŭ, is under criminal investigation under Art. 193.1 in connection with his activities on behalf of the unregistered Human Rights Center "Viasna", while Viasna’s representative in Hrodna Viktar Sazonau was brought to administrative responsibility under Art. 23:34 for monitoring an unauthorized protest;
- during the month, Viasna documented new cases of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment;
- on November 27, human rights defenders learned about the execution of death row inmates Ihar Hershankou and Siamion Berazhnoy;
- Thus, the situation with human rights did not improved significantly during the month.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On November 9, the Minsk City Court turned down appeals by the leaders of the REP trade union Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik. Thus, the sentence handed down by the Saviecki District Court of August 24 has come into legal force.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" continues to urge the authorities to drop all charges against Fiadynich and Komlik and to put an end to their politically motivated prosecution.
On November 5, some of the journalists involved in the so-called “BelTA case” were indicted under Part 2, Art. 349 of the Criminal Code. The investigators imposed travel restrictions on the journalists.
Later criminal proceedings against fourteen persons involved in the case were terminated and all of them faced administrative charges, instead.
At the same time, on November 22, Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the portal TUT.BY, was charged under Part 2, Art. 425 of the Criminal Code (official inaction), which provides for imprisonment of up to five years. Thus, Zolatava is the only persons still charged in the case.
On August 7-9, the newsrooms of TUT.BY, BelaPAN news agency and other media, as well as journalists' apartments, were searched by the police.
TUT.BY chief editor Maryna Zolatava, editors Hanna Kaltyhina, Halina Ulasik and Hanna Yermachonak, BelaPAN chief editor Iryna Leushyna and international commentator Tatsiana Karaviankova, Deutsche Welle correspondent Pauliuk Bykousky, editor of the website of the newspaper Belorusy i Rynok Aliaksei Zhukau were detained.
All of them were held three days in a temporary detention facility. After release, most of the suspects were banned from leaving the country. The HRC "Viasna" views the authorities' actions as excessive and disproportionate, which violates freedom of expression and disrupts the work of independent media.
Hanna Krasulina, press-secretary of the United Civil Party, was ordered to leave Belarus, according to a decision by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. A Russian citizen, Krasulina had administrative penalties under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for participating peaceful assemblies. In 2018, she paid a fine for public transport fare evasion. Thus, it is obvious that Krasulina’s actions do not infringe public order, but represent the exercise of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression; the insignificance of ticketless travel should not have made the basis of the expulsion decision.
Harassment of human rights defenders
On November 8, member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Burakou was summoned to an interview by a senior lieutenant of the Kastryčnicki district police department of Mahilioŭ Pavel Kot. The occasion was an investigation under Art. 193-1 of the Criminal Code (illegal organization of activity of a public association, religious organization or foundation or participation in their activities), since, according to the police officer, Burakou administers the website “Human Rights in Mahilioŭ” (mspring.online) associated with the Human Rights Center "Viasna", which in turn, has been operating without state registration.
According to the police officer, the investigation was opened on October 8.
In this regard, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders issued a statement condemning the actions of the authorities in respect of Viasna activist Ales Burakou and demanding an immediate cease of the criminal proceedings against him.
It should be noted that the harassment of Ales Burakou in connection with his activities on behalf of the unregistered Human Rights Center "Viasna" is taking place against the backdrop of widely announced process of decriminalization of illegal NGO membership and the introduction of administrative responsibility for the offense.
On November 23, the Svislač District Court ruled to fine Viktar Sazonau, Viasna activist in Hrodna, 367.5 rubles under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized mass event).
On October 27, activists gathered in Svislač to commemorate the participants of the 1863 anti-Russian uprising. Viktar Sazonau was present at the event as an observer, monitoring the actions of the authorities and security forces, as in recent years, participants of similar memorial rallies have faced judicial harassment.
Human rights defender Valiantsin Stefanovich wrote to the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk region, asking to investigate cases of illegal involvement of government employees in forced labor, in particular harvesting crops on state-owned farms.
The Prosecutor's Office said in response that it would not investigate the allegations, as the activist’s report allegedly lacks specific information about the forced nature of unpaid work.
In late September, Stefanovich complained to the Prosecutor of Horki district and Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee about similar cases of forced labor. The activist argued that the process did not meet national laws and international standards of human rights.
District Prosecutor Aliaksandr Tarasiuk simply forwarded the appeal to Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee, referring to the President’s Decree “On additional measures to work with appeals of citizens and legal entities.”
Mahilioŭ Regional Executive Committee, in turn, noted that for organizations not affiliated to the Executive Committee similar executive orders may be only advisory in nature. This means that it is subject to execution only after obtaining their written consent. As a result, regional officials reportedly instructed the district government to correct these legal shortcomings. The reply also alleged that government employees were invited to do unpaid work on a voluntary basis and in their free time.
The General Prosecutor’s Office examined Valiantsin Stefanovich’s request for investigation into the involvement of military personnel in the harvest on the farms of Sianno district.
The reply argues that “military personnel was sent to help the agricultural organizations in the harvest in the manner prescribed by Presidential Decree number 300 “On granting and execution of gratuitous (sponsor) help.”
The UN Human Rights Committee accepted for examination a complaint by the parents of Viktoryia Papchenia, a 13-year old student who died when harvesting crops on a farm in Maladziečna district.
The death penalty
On November 27, human rights activists learned about the execution of death row inmates Siamion Berazhnoy and Ihar Hershankou. Both were sentenced to death by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court on July 21, 2017.
This year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee registered Berazhnoy’s complain, while Belarus was asked to apply interim measures pending a final decision by the Committee. Human rights activists had hoped that Belarus would suspend the execution, but the authorities have not responded to the request. A similar complaint was registered with regard to Ihar Hershankou.
Currently, two men are awaiting execution on death row in Belarus: Viachaslau Sukharko and Aliaksandr Zhylnikau.
A number of international organizations and governments condemned the executions in Belarus.
Freedom of opinion and expression
Human rights activists are concerned about the recent wave of repression for the expression of opinion in the way, which does not fall under known legitimate restrictions. These include materials on the national list of extremist materials, which were added to the list on questionable grounds; distribution, manufacturing, storage, transportation of information products containing calls to extremist activity or promoting such activities constitute an offense and are punishable under administrative procedures.
In particular, on November 1, Viachaslau Kasinerau and Maryna Nasenka were fined by the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk for sharing on Facebook a photo containing the word “classwar”. Judge Tatsiana Motyl sentenced both activists to a total fine of 1102.5 rubles.
On November 2, Judge Valery Shpak of the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna ordered a fine of 612.5 rubles for vocalist of the Dzieciuki band and freelance journalist Ales Dzianisau for reposting on the social network VKontakte two videos from a banned anarchist group.
On November 16, the same court fined Uladzislau Serada 367.5 rubles, finding him guilty of violating Article 17.11 of the Administrative Code (dissemination of extremist materials).
The young man was convicted for posting links to prohibited groups, including a publication about an event staged by Moscow anarchists in support of Belarusian activists and protests against “social parasitism laws” held last year across Belarus.
Torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" presented a multimedia project entitled #BezPravaNaRaspravu (“no right to violence”) exposing cases of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The project aims to break down the wall of silence, fear and lawlessness and to show that torture and ill-treatment can and must be confronted.
In November, the General Prosecutor's Office quashed the decision to close the investigation into the death of prisoner Aleh Bahdanau on January 29, 2016. In 2014, the prisoner suffered a serious heart surgery and needed constant care, including supervision of a cardiologist. According to preliminary data, Bahdanau was not provided with adequate medical care; however, the investigation into violations in the provision of health care failed to associate the fact with the prisoner’s death.
On November 5, the Navapolack-based penal colony number 1 hosted a court hearing in the case of Sviataslau Baranovich earlier convicted of violence against a police officer. The court heard the prisoner’s appeal against multiple disciplinary sanctions imposed on him by the prison authorities. During the hearing, Baranovich said he was subjected to cruel treatment.
Violation of the right to peaceful assembly
The Lieninski District Court of Hrodna sentenced Aliaksandr Laurentsieu to a fine of 735 rubles on charges of staging an illegal picket on November 7.
Several participants in the traditional memorial event in Svislač on October 27 were convicted of illegal protesting, harodniaspring.org said. On November 15, the Svislač District Court fined activist Yury Hlebik 612.5 rubles and Viktar Piatselchyts 245 rubles.
On November 22, the court of Centraĺny District of Minsk fined Ales Abramovich 857.5 rubles for participation in the event dedicated to the memory of several dozens authors and scientists executed in secret in 1937. The event was held on October 29 near the KGB building in Minsk. Abramovich was said to be “holding an oil lamp and chanting the slogan “Long live Belarus!”.
Thus, the right of peaceful assembly continues to be routinely violated in Belarus: the process of obtaining permits is overly complicated and expensive for the applicants, while holding peaceful assemblies without permission entails judicial harassment.