Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2019
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in a prison in Horki;
- on April 18, the court of the Lieninski district of Brest sentenced local blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin to a fine of 9,180 rubles (USD 4,381), finding him guilty of crimes under Part 2, Art. 188 (defamation) and Part 2, Art. 189 (insult) of the Criminal Code. Also, the court sustained the civil claims of four victims, employees of the Lieninski district police department for a total of 7,750 rubles or 3,700 US dollars. Thus, the blogger will have to pay a total of USD 8,000;
- the authorities discontinued a criminal investigation against blogger Andrei Pavuk. However, they have not closed the criminal case under Part 1, Art. 340 (knowingly false threat message) into a false bomb threat to the executive committee building in the town of Akciabrski allegedly sent from Pavuk’s email address to the Homieĺ regional office of the Emergencies Ministry. The investigators have not returned the equipment seized from the blogger during the search at his apartment;
- during the month, the authorities continued to investigate a criminal case against blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau from Biaroza, Brest region. Kabanau is accused under Part 1, Art. 211 CC (embezzlement).
- the opposition forces withdrew their bid to host the traditional demonstration Čarnobyĺski Šliach due to lack of funds to pay for the costs associated with its organization. The total expenditure amounted to 5,737 rubles, or more than 2,300 US dollars;
- journalists working with foreign media without accreditation were still prosecuted in court;
- in April, there were new cases of citizens being prosecuted under administrative procedures for the spread of so-called “extremist materials”, including on the Internet. In most cases, the charges constituted an illegal and disproportionate restriction on freedom of expression;
- human rights defenders documented more cases of arrests and administrative sentences in connection with the exercise of freedom of peaceful assembly;
- activist Dzmitry Paliyenka is still held in a jail in Žodzina. After 16 days of detention, he finally faced charges under Part 3, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (especially malicious hooliganism), Art. 130 (inciting discord) and Art. 341 of the Criminal Code (desecration of the buildings and property damage). The Human Rights Center “Viasna” continues to closely monitor this criminal case;
- in general, April was marked by a certain deterioration of the overall human rights situation in the country and the negative trends that had emerged in March were further developed. At the same time, the authorities were still trying to avoid the use of most severe forms of repression against civil society and the political opposition;
- during his address to the Parliament, President Lukashenka said the next parliamentary elections were scheduled for November. Thus, the powers of the current MPs will be reduced by almost one year, which runs counter to the country’s Constitution.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On April 2, representatives of the Belarusian human rights community issued a joint statement in connection with the criminal prosecution of Brest blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin, which called on the Belarusian authorities to immediately cease his persecution and drop all the charges.
On April 18, Judge Aliaksandr Semianchuk of the Lieninski District Court of Brest found Piatrukhin guilty under Part 2, Art. 188 (defamation) and Part 2, Art. 189 (insult) of the Criminal Code. The blogger was punished by a fine of 9,180 rubles or 4,381 US dollars. The court also sustained the civil claims of the victims in the case and ordered to cover moral damages to four employees of the Lieninski district police department of Brest in the amount of 7,750 rubles or 3,700 US dollars. Thus, the blogger will have to pay a total of USD 8,000.
The prosecution asked the judge to sentence the blogger to 2 years of restricted freedom in an open-type correctional facility and a fine of 100 basic units.
In a similar case in Biaroza, the authorities continued a criminal investigation against blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau earlier charged under Part 1, Art. 211 of the Criminal Code (embezzlement).
Blogger Andrei Pavuk was cleared of the charges under Part 1, Art. 340 of the Criminal Code. Pavuk was suspected of sending a false bomb threat to the Homieĺ regional department of the Ministry of Emergencies.
The criminal case, however, has not been closed. The investigators continue to search for the perpetrators, and refuse to return the equipment seized from the blogger during the search.
On April 2, police found what they said was an explosive device, as well as ammunition, in a car driven by environmental activist Maisei Mazko. Later Mazko and his son Dzianis were detained as suspected of committing a crime under Part 2, Art. 295 of the Criminal Code (illegal actions with firearms, explosives and ammunition). Their home was searched, and no illegal items were found. After three days of stay in the detention center, the two were released.
A resident of the village of Teĺmy, Brest district, Maisei Mazko is a protester against the construction of a battery plant near Brest. The factory has been repeatedly criticized by environmental activists and local residents. The activist’s family and associates believe his arrest is a provocation.
During the month, the authorities continued to investigate the criminal charges against blogger Aliaksandr Kabanau, who was charged under Part 1, Art. 211 of the Criminal Code (embezzlement). He is suspected of misappropriating 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.
Human rights defenders of Viasna say the arrests and criminal charges against several environmental activists and bloggers in Brest are linked to the authorities’ wish to put pressure on them in order to prevent protests against the construction of the battery factory.
The prison in the town of Horki continued to hold political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny. Most of the time recently, he has been spending in a punishment cell for refusing to obey the prison administration’s orders, which endanger his life, health and dignity.
Harassment of human rights defenders
The Observatory for the protection of human rights defenders condemned the prosecution Viasna activist Uladzimir Vialichkin and 17 environmental activists who were arrested on 12 and 14 April following their involvement in protests against the construction of a battery factory in Brest.
Vialichkin was detained in the Lieninski district police department of Brest after he, along with nine other environmental activists, was summoned to the police as a witness in administrative proceedings. The two activists were released after a few hours. Others, including Vialichkin, spent three days in a temporary detention facility.
Another eight protesters were arrested on April 14 during a new protest against the construction of the plant, which was held in Brest’s central Lenin Square.
Uladzimir Vialichkin and most other activists were detained under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code for violating the order of organizing or holding mass events. The charges relate to a protest, which took place in the center of Brest on April 7.
The hearings in the cases of all the 18 activists were held in the premises of the Lieninski district police department on April 15. Reporters and human rights defenders were not allowed to be present at the hearings as observers. As a result, the court postponed consideration of the cases. Three activists were fined.
The Observatory recalls that this is not the first arrest of Uladzimir Vialichkin and other activists from Brest, and that other human rights defenders have been targeted for taking part in protests against the construction of the plant, in particular, Raman Kisliak.
Maryia Bahdanava, the mother of Aleh Bahdanau who died in Žodzina prison No. 8 in 2016, received another, sixth consecutive notification of the termination of the preliminary investigation into her son’s death, after the previous five were canceled following the woman’s complaints. The victim’s mother has been seeking prosecution of the prison staff for negligence and professional misconduct, which caused the prisoner’s death. Yet another complaint is being prepared.
A resident of Brest Pavel Kaminski, whose story became known thanks to blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin, received a reply from the prosecutor of Brest who refused to institute criminal proceedings against the police officers, whom he blames for his beating. Since July 3, 2016, the authorities have canceled several decisions by the investigators to refuse to initiate criminal proceedings against the police officers, but the prosecutor repeatedly avoided a full investigation into the act of police violence. In March, the deputy prosecutor of Brest dismissed one of the complaints on apparently spurious grounds, providing no grounds in support of his decision. The repeated denials of a full investigation are clearly linked to the fact that the prosecutor's office of Brest supported in court criminal charges against blogger Siarhei Piatrukhin of defaming the police officers involved in Kaminski’s case.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly
On April 4, the authorities organized the mass demolition of dozens of wooden crosses installed around the Kurapaty forest, a place of mass executions of victims of Stalinist repression. More than a dozen activists who intervened were arrested and detained for several hours in the police department of Minsk. They were later fined.
The following day, opposition activists Pavel Seviarynets and Nina Bahinskaya were arrested in Kurapaty. On April 5, Seviarynets was punished with fifteen days of prison, while Bahinskaya was awarded a fine of 50 basic units.
On April 7, several peaceful assemblies were held across Belarus. A prayer service for those killed in Kurapaty was held in central Minsk after an announcement by opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich. For this, he and Maksim Viniarski were detained and punished with administrative detention. Another protest against the construction of an environmentally hazardous battery factory was held in Brest. Activists gathered in the center of Svietlahorsk to protest the deterioration of the ecological situation in the city.
Nine people were arrested in Brest ahead of another protest against the opening of a battery factory. More protesters were arrested after a procession on Sunday. On Monday, April 15, the protesters’ administrative charges were heard behind closed doors in the building of the police department.
There was no true simplification of the procedure of holding peaceful assemblies, despite announcements and wide publicity by the Belarusian authorities at different negotiating fora and in international organizations. On the contrary, the few public events that were previously allowed by the government are now under threat of extinction. The key reasons are the heavy costs the authorities charge the organizers for policing the events. The recent victims of the disproportional restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly include members of the organizing committee for the celebration of the Freedom Day in Minsk: the organizers of the event have disputed the quality of services provided and the amount charged for policing the assembly, which was significantly increased in comparison with that specified in the contract. Although the relevant legislation provides for such situations and allows for the resolution of disputes through negotiations and in court, the organizers were fined for refusing to pay for police services before the solution of the dispute on the merits.
In April, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” documented a total of 48 cases of bringing protesters to administrative responsibility for exercising their right to peaceful assembly.
On April 22, the organizers of Čarnobyĺski Šliach, the annual march on the anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident, received permission from the Minsk city executive committee to carry out the April 26 procession. However, the city police department charged 7,500 rubles for policing the event. Following this, the organizing committee issued a statement in which he expressed strong disagreement with the excessive cost. As a result, the organizers withdrew their application for the event referring to lack of funds.
Several dozens of people who chose to come out on April 26, despite the absence of official permission, will be prosecuted under administrative procedures, facing heavy fines and short prison terms. Some of them have already faced administrative charges.
The new procedure of charging organizers of peaceful assemblies affected representatives of religious denominations who practice various kinds of processions, since open-air religious gatherings are governed by the rules of the Law “On Mass Events”.
Violations of freedom of opinion and expression
Law enforcement agencies continued to arbitrary apply anti-extremist legislation to limit freedom of opinion and expression, freedom to receive and impart information.
On April 8, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk fined anarchist Mikalai Dzidok on charges of distributing blacklisted information under Part 2, Art. 17.11 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. Protesting against the unjustified restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, the activist posted several anti-police offensive acronyms and photos in his social media accounts as part of a flash mob #яэкстремист (“iamanextremist”).
Harassment of journalists
The pressure on independent journalists continues.
On April 9, the office of TV channel “Belsat” in Minsk was searched in a criminal case opened by the Investigative Committee after Belsat’s website published false information about the arrest of a former employee of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Investigative Committee Andrei Shved. The error was quickly corrected, but the official was not satisfied with the official rebuttal and sought prosecution for the independent journalists.
On April 11, Judge Aliaksandr Semianchuk considered administrative charges against journalist Yauhen Skrabets under Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code (working for foreign media without accreditation). As a result, the reporter was fined 765 rubles.
In April, there were a total of 6 cases of independent journalists fined for their cooperation with foreign media.
Violations of the guarantees of a fair trial
Five months after his release from prison, Amnesty International’s prisoner of conscience Dzmitry Paliyenka was again arrested and held in detention without charge since March 20. On April 5, it became known that he was accused of committing several crimes: especially malicious hooliganism, incitement of social hatred under Art. 130 of the Criminal Code, as well as desecration of buildings and property damage. The reason for the first charge was the activist’s conflict with a drunken passer-by, in which Paliyenka used pepper spray, which he says was self-defense. The other two charges stem from a video the activists posted online to criticize the activities of the Interior Ministry.