Human Rights Situation in Belarus: March 2019
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to be held in a penal colony in the town of Horki;
- on March 4, Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the independent news portal TUT.by, was found guilty of committing a crime under Part 2, Art. 245 of the Criminal Code(official inaction) and fined 300 base units (7,650 rubles);
- on March 7, blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau faced criminal charges under Part 1, Art. 211 of the Criminal Code (misappropriation of funds). He is suspected of embezzling 440 rubles while serving as chairperson of a housing cooperative in 2017. The case was opened at the request of a resident of the condominium, a current police officer.
- on March 20, it became known that the authorities opened a criminal case against another famous blogger, Andrei Pavuk, who is based in the town of Akciabrski, Homieĺ region. The case was opened under Part 1, Art. 340 of the Criminal Code (knowingly false statement of danger). Pavuk is suspected of using his email to send a hoax bomb threat at the address of the local office of the Ministry of Emergencies. Earlier, a criminal case was opened against a known blogger in Brest Siarhei Piatrukhin;
- on March 23 and 24, traditional public events were held in Hrodna and Minsk on the occasion of the proclamation of the BNR independence. The legal demonstration in Minsk was accompanied by arbitrary arrests of several participants. Later, a number of protesters were arrested in the central Kastryčnickaja Square and adjacent streets. In particular, police briefly detained well-known Belarusian rock musicians, who were going to organize a street concert;
- during the month, the authorities continued persecution of journalists working with foreign media without accreditation;
- during March, there were cases of administrative prosecution for the spread of so-called “extremist materials”, including on the Internet. In most cases, the judicial harassment constituted illegal and disproportionate restriction of freedom of expression;
- Viasna documented cases of arrest and administrative detention in connection with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly;
- Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka was again arrested and held in custody without a charge for more than ten days;
- March witnessed certain alarming trends of deteriorating situation with human rights in the country, which may indicate a strengthening of the level of repression ahead of the elections expected later this year.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On March 4, the court of Zavodski district of Minsk convicted Maryna Zolatava, chief editor of the portal TUT.by, under Part 2, Art. 425 of the Criminal Code (failure to act as an official). Judge Aliaksandr Petrash sentenced Zolatava to a fine of 300 basic units, or 7,650 rubles. Also, the court ordered to recover the legal costs of more than 6,000 rubles BelTA suffered during the trial.
On August 7, 2018, the Investigative Committee said that it opened a criminal case under Part 2, Art. 349 of the Criminal Code (unauthorized access to computer data committed out of personal interest, or by a group of persons by prior conspiracy, or by a person who has access to a computer system or network).
A total of 9 journalists from various media outlets and online resources were detained for two days, while the offices of the leading independent news portals and the journalists’ homes were raided. Seven journalists were detained for three days as suspects in the criminal case and placed in custody. All the detainees were eventually released. Maryna Zolatava was charged with official inaction.
Clearly repressive and disproportionate actions of the Belarusian authorities against the independent media and journalists triggered considerable public outcry and protests from both national and international journalistic and human rights organizations.
In connection with these events, the HRC “Viasna” and the Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a joint statement to describe the situation as a flagrant violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the media. A joint appeal of human rights organizations in Belarus was sent to the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media Harlem Désir.
On March 7, the Biaroza house of blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau was searched by police in the framework of a criminal case opened against him. As it became known later, the criminal case under Part 1, Art. 211 of the Criminal Code (embezzlement) was opened at the request of one of the blogger’s neighbors, which is an active police officer.
The blogger is said to have allegedly received from the residents of the house in which he resides funds for the state registration of a housing cooperative and drafting of project documentation for the construction of basements. After that, he reportedly appropriated these funds in the amount of 400 rubles, having neglected his obligations.
Kabanau himself claims that 440 rubles were his salary during his four months as chairperson of the owners’ association. These funds were voluntarily handed to him by the residents and they voiced no claims as to the administration of the money.
It is worth recalling that on February 1 the Brest interdistrict department of the Investigative Committee issued a decision to prosecute a well-known blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin. He is accused under Part 2, Art. 188 (defamation) and Part 2, Art. 189 (insult) of the Criminal Code. The grounds for the legal action were his videos, in which he alleged the involvement of a number of police officers in the beating of a local resident back in 2016.
Bloggers Siarhei Piatrukhin and Aliaksandr Kabanau are constant participants in the protests against the construction of an environmentally harmful battery factory in Brest. They were repeatedly arrested by the police for joining the protests. Piatrukhin and Kabanau are also known thanks to the numerous videos that criticize the activities of local authorities, including law-enforcement bodies.
Human rights defenders of the HRC “Viasna” are also concerned about the situation around blogger Andrei Pavuk, who was arrested on March 20 in the town of Akciabrski, Homieĺ region. Later, his apartment was searched, and equipment was seized. The criminal case against Pavuk was opened under Part 1, Art. 340 of the Criminal Code (knowingly false statement of danger). According to the investigators, the blogger sent from his email address a hoax bomb message to the regional department of the Ministry of Emergency Situations. As a result, the District Executive Committee staff were evacuated. Andrei Pavuk was released after an interrogation as a suspect.
According to Viasna’s human rights defenders, the facts of prosecution of bloggers on apparently trumped-up charges may indicate a strengthening of control in the sphere of Internet on the eve of elections to be held later this year.
Pavel Kaminski, whose story become known thanks to blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin, filed a complaint with the prosecutor of Brest to challenge the refusal to institute criminal proceedings against the police officers, whom he blames for his beating. Since July 3, 2016, various bodies repeatedly cancelled decisions of the investigator to refuse to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers, but he again and again failed to fully investigate the incident.
The deputy prosecutor of Brest dismissed the complaint on apparently spurious grounds; the decision is obviously related to the fact that the same department is ready to support the criminal charges recently brought against blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin for allegedly defaming the police officers mentioned in the probe file. New complaints have been files, including urging the Prosecutor General’s Office to independently investigate the incident.
Violations of guarantees of a fair trial
Five months after his release from prison, Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka was again arrested and has been held without a charge for more than ten days. After that, he was taken to the pre-trial prison. Contrary to the generally accepted rules of procedural standards, the Belarusian legislation allows for the detention of certain suspects without a charge for up to 20 days. This also violates the suspect’s right to legal defense. In addition, there are reports of Paliyenka being denied the rights to health care and correspondence, as well as putting pressure on a witness in the criminal case against the activist. During the search at the activist’s apartment, the police arbitrarily confiscated all the equipment (computer, mobile phone), books, leaflets, stickers, etc.
In February, Dzmitry Paliyenka was detained on suspicion of spraying graffiti. The current detention is linked to an incident when the activist used pepper gas in a conflict with a drunken passerby. According to available information, Paliyenka explains the use of pepper spray by self-defense.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly
On March 1, courts in Minsk convicted participants in a protest called “Freedom to political prisoners”, which was held on February 26 in the city’s central Kastryčnickaja Square. The authorities arbitrarily used the procedural rule that allows detaining people charged with administrative offenses for up to 72 hours to defer the consideration of administrative cases.
Judge Hanna Buinouskaya sentenced opposition politician Pavel Seviarynets to 10 days in prison. Judges Tatsiana Akavitaya and Viktoryia Shabunia awarded fines of 1 147.5 rubles each to protesters Maya Navumava, Leanid Kulakou and Volha Nikalaichyk. Three other activists were fined on similar charges in the following days.
Meanwhile, it is still extremely difficult to hold peaceful assemblies in Minsk, in accordance with current legal restrictions: organizers of this year’s Freedom Day events, representing different parties and movements, as well as their association with activist groups, were not allowed to organize events in a number of key locations in the city.
In particular, the city authorities banned a rally scheduled for March 25 near the Bolshoi Theater of Opera and Ballet. They also prohibited events at the Dynamo stadium, near the Palace of Sports and in Freedom Square.
During the permitted activities, police arrested a few people, in particular, on March 24: Zmitser Dashkevich — for the critical speech he delivered during the event (he was eventually fined after two days of detention), Vital Rymasheuski — without a reason, and Natallia Harachka whose case file of disorderly conduct was sent for revision after three days of detention.
On March 25, according to Viasna, more than 15 people were arrested at different locations in Minsk. Among them were politicians and activists, as well as several famous rock musicians who were going to arrange an impromptu concert on a pedestrian street in the city center.
On March 28, Judge Viktoryia Shabunia considered an administrative case of activist Alena Talstaya, who chained herself to a pole and displayed a banner reading “Freedom Day in Unfreedom. Freedom for the People!”. The action lasted about 10 minutes and ended with arrest. The protester spent three days in a temporary detention, and was eventually fined 1,020 rubles.
Violation of freedom of opinion and expression
The authorities continued arbitrary application of anti-extremist legislation to limit freedom of opinion and expression, as well as freedom to receive and impart information.
On March 4, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk heard the administrative charges against anarchist Mikala Dziadok. He was accused of reposting a message from a website that was blacklisted as extremist (Part 2, Art. 17.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses).
Judge Alena Bushava fined him 1,275 rubles. This is Dziadok’s third conviction on extremist charges in six months.
Similarly, Judge Yaraslau Paremski punished Ihar Chub for reposting a publication from an “extremist” website in Homieĺ.
Harassment of journalists
The pressure on independent journalists continues. Journalists from Brest Aliaksandr Liauchuk and Milana Kharytonava were fined a total of 3,060 rubles for making a report for foreign media.
Judge Mikhail Zubenia in Viciebsk fined Vital Skryl 637.5 rubles for a series of reports aired on Belsat TV.
Arbitrary deprivation of liberty in the LTPs
The lawyers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" wrote to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about the arbitrary deprivation of liberty of a citizen of Belarus Yaraslau Habrynets, who has been isolated in an activity therapy center (so called LTP) and forced to perform unpaid labor.
This is another step in the actions of human rights defenders aimed at eliminating LTPs as an institution.