Human Rights Situation in Belarus: December 2018
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in prison;
- on December 19, the court of Maskoŭski district of Minsk granted the appeal of a citizen of the Russian Federation and United Civil Party press secretary Hanna Krasulina against the decision of the district police department of Minsk to expel her from Belarus. Earlier, the Belarusian human rights organizations issued a joint statement in which they demanded the immediate repeal of all previous decisions to expel Krasulina from the country, describing such actions of the Belarusian authorities as part of a politically motivated prosecution against the activist;
- during the month, there were numerous facts of pressure on independent journalists and bloggers, freelancers, arrests of peaceful protesters;
- the police department of the Kastryčnicki district of the city of Mahilioŭ confirmed in a written reply to a representative of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Burakou that the activists was under investigation under Art. 193.1 of the Criminal Code in connection with his activities on behalf of the unregistered Human Rights Center "Viasna";
- on December 19, the House of Representatives of the National Assembly approved in the second reading the draft bill “On amendments to certain Codes of the Republic of Belarus”, which provides for the removal of Article 193.1 from the Criminal Code and the introduction of the new article 23.88 with similar content into the Code of Administrative Offenses, which will provide for a penalty of up to 50 basic units, which, according to human rights activists, is another impermissible restriction on freedom of association;
- in December, there were multiple documented violations of the freedom of conscience and religion;
- during the month, the HRC "Viasna" received new reports of torture and cruel and inhuman treatment;
- thus, the situation with human rights failed to be improved significantly during the month.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
The penal colony in the city of Horki continued to hold political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny.
On December 6, during a seminar on public control over penal institutions in Minsk, which was organized by the Ministry of Justice and the Council of Europe Information point, Tatsiana Krauchanka, chairperson of the National Public Supervisory Commission and a member of the Parliament’s upper chamber, Council of the Republic, told journalists that earlier reports on the inhumane detention conditions for Mikhail Zhamchuzhny did not correspond to reality. Commenting on statements by human rights activists alleging attempts to place Zhamchuzhny in the lowest caste of the informal prison hierarchy, the official said that the information was not true.
In response to a remark that Zhamchuzhny spent months in a punishment cell, Ms. Krauchanka said that it was his decision not to leave the cell. The official also told reporters that she and other commissioners personally met with the prisoner, while the fact is refuted by human rights activists, including a member of the Mahilioŭ supervisory commission, human rights activist Barys Bukhel. Earlier, Tatsiana Krauchanka wrote that the meeting with Zhamchuzhny did not take place.
On December 19, the court of the Maskoŭski district of Minsk allowed an appeal by Hanna Krasulina, spokesperson for the United Civil Party, against a decision of the district police department to expel her from Belarus.
The Russia-born UCP press-secretary learned about the decision on November 13. The district Department of Internal Affairs told Ms. Krasulina that the reason for the expulsion were three administrative convictions, two cases of administrative responsibility for illegal protesting in 2016 and 2017 and one penalty for ticketless travel in 2018. In response to the two convictions for participating in peaceful assemblies, the activist complained to the UN Human Rights Committee. The complaint was registered and the Committee started its communication with the government of Belarus.
On November 30, the Minsk city executive committee upheld the decision to expel Krasulina, and the politician went to court.
The human rights community of Belarus issued a statement asking to cancel all previously adopted decisions on the expulsion of Hanna Krasulina from the territory of Belarus and to immediately stop the deportation procedure.
The authorities started the execution of the politically motivated verdict against REP leaders. On December 19, Ihar Komlik was briefed on the conditions of serving the restriction of freedom; Komlik is obliged to stay in his apartment every day from 9 pm to 6 am. At any time of the day or night, his home may be visited by the police or any authorized representative of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
According to praca-by.info, on holidays and weekends Ihar Komlik is expected to stay in continuously, except in cases of emergency. He cannot leave his home even to do shopping or walk the dog.
Harassment of human rights defenders
Ales Burakou, an activist of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in Mahilioŭ, received a reply to his complaint about the investigation under the Criminal Procedure Code launched to verify legal grounds for a criminal case under Art. 193.1 of the Criminal Code. The investigation is linked to the activist’s work on behalf of the unregistered Human Rights Center "Viasna".
In his complaint, the human rights activist pointed out that on November 8 he had a meeting with police officer Pavel Kot, during which he learned that he had been under investigation since October 8. The officer said that the probe was authorized based on information about Ales Burakou’s work as an administrator of the mspring.online site, one of the online resources run by Viasna.
The police said in response that the investigation had been suspended due to “lack of results.”
Earlier, Viasna’s human rights activists issued a statement in support of Ales Burakou, urging the police to immediately close the investigation. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders also condemned the harassment of Ales Burakou.
On May 11, the government submitted to the Parliament a draft bill aimed to remove Article 193.1 from the Criminal Code and to replace it with administrative responsibility by introducing Article 23.88 with similar content, which will entail penalties in the amount of 50 basic units (1,225 rubles as of December 2018), which, according to human rights activists, constitutes impermissible restriction on freedom of association. On December 19, the bill was approved by the House of Representatives in the second reading.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression
On December 2, a group of young people led by anarchist Viachaslau Kasinerau laid a funeral wreath with the inscription “To the image of the Interior Ministry” at the foot of the sculpture of a policeman near the Interior Ministry’s building in Minsk. Viachaslau Kasinerau and Siarhei Sparysh were both fined 735 rubles.
On the Human Rights International Day, December 10, police arrested Ales Abramovich and Siarhei Padzolka, activists of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party, who appeared in central Minsk carrying posters reading “Authorities violate our rights” and “Failure to respect human rights leads to slavery. Freedom to the media! Freedom to journalists!”.
In December, judge Viktoryia Shabunia fined 367.5 rubles one of the participants in a political performance “Deconstruction of a Policeman”, which was held in November 28 in Minsk. Several theater students came to a shopping mall in special uniforms with rainbow-colored shoulder straps; they stopped people for “disproportionate mood”, asked them about their smiles, danced and handed out free whistles.
On November 18, the administrators of a YouTube channel “Top Pinsk” met with their subscribers in the city’s central Lenin Square. The meeting was attended by several hundred teenagers. The bloggers climbed the pedestal of the Lenin monument, talked to their fans and took selfies with the subscribers. The city court, however, viewed the event as a violation of the order of holding public assemblies and fined the two bloggers 490 rubles each. After the event, city schools teachers were instructed to report on the number of students subscribed to the channel.
On December 18, judge Aksana Sarakhman of the Lahojsk City Court ruled to fine Young Front leader Dzianis Urbanovich 980 rubles for joining the memorial event “Night of Executed Poets.” The activist was accused of “pointedly ringing the bell” during the protest.
On December 22, the court of Centraĺny district of Minsk ordered fines of 490 rubles each for the participants in the protest in support of the captured Ukrainian seamen staged near the Russian Embassy in Minsk. The protesters, including minors, put paper boats at the fence of the embassy.
On December 1, the unpopular changes to the media law entered into legal force, which infringe, inter alia, on freedom of opinion: the owners of Internet resources are now required to identify users who post messages or leave your comments. This significantly limits the freedom of speech, as denying online anonymity under current conditions in Belarus narrows the possibilities to express unpopular opinions, to criticize the current government, or to speak in favor of or on behalf of stigmatized groups or minorities.
Judge Maryia Yarokhina of the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk fined anarchist activist Mikalai Dziadok 980 rubles on charges of using Nazi symbols online. However, the context was the opposite, as the activist’s beliefs oppose any manifestations of Nazism.
Violation of the right to information. Persecution of journalists
The above changes to media laws greatly expanded legal grounds for extra-judicial blocking of websites, as well as charged the owners of online resources with exclusive responsible for the content of information published on their websites, including comments and advertising banners.
On December 14, the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk convicted five journalists on charges of illegal work with the Poland-based TV channel “Belsat”: Volha Chaichyts, Siarhei Kavaliou, Liubou Luniova, Iryna Arekhouskaya and Siarhei Krauchuk.
Judge Ivan Kastsian fined Dziayana Seradziuk, a journalist of the Novy Chas weekly, 490 rubles on charges of joining a protest near the Russian embassy.
Violation of the right to freedom of conscience and religion
The legislation of Belarus provides for responsibility for communities of believers operating without registration. Meanwhile, the registration procedure is extremely burdensome for religious groups, as they are subject to excessive demands (the issues was earlier considered at the UN Human Rights Committee). For example, the Minsk-based Pentecostal church “Thy Will Be Done” has been unable to register for two years already, as the authorities set excessive, in comparison with the generally accepted international standards, conditions for the group’s activities. Ten communities of Jehovah’s Witnesses are unable to obtain registration; the Barysaŭ community has made 16 attempts in twenty years, the community in Viliejka received six bans in 2017 alone.
Believers can be fined for distributing religious literature and singing religious hymns, reading religious texts outside of worship buildings; for the same actions, communities may face dissolution.
In Liepieĺ, police arrested Baptist believers, Andrei Fokin and his wife Tatsiana, for singing and distributing Christian literature near the local market. The total penalty for the couple was 1,200 rubles.