Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2020
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in a penal colony in Horki. In February, he was transferred to the detention facility in Viciebsk;
- on February 12, the court of the Saviecki district of Minsk found two anarchists, Mikita Yemialyianau and Ivan Komar, guilty of damage to property (Art. 341 of the Criminal Code), attempted intentional damage to property and intentional damage to property committed by generally hazardous means (Part 1, Art. 14, Part 2, Art. 218, and Part 2, Art. 218 of the Criminal Code), as well as unlawful actions in respect of items the effect of which is based on the use of combustibles (Part 2, Art. 295-3 of the Code) and sentenced both to seven years in prison. According to human rights defenders, in violation of the principles of a fair trial, Mikita Yemialyianau was sentenced to excessively cruel and disproportionate punishment. Ivan Komar’s sentence is also excessive, as it is clearly disproportionate to the charges. In addition, a violation of his right not to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment was reported. The human rights community called the convicts political prisoners and requested an immediate re-trial for both activists, which would respect the right to a fair trial and eliminate the above violations;
- during the month, courts across Belarus continued to convict participants in peaceful protests against the so-called advanced integration. 13 people were convicted under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code; the amount of fines totaled 10,260 rubles, and 75 days of detention were imposed on separate protesters;
- there were new cases of judicial harassment of freelance journalists who contribute to the Poland-based TV channel “Belsat”;
- in general, the situation with human rights remained poor. There was an ongoing deterioration of the situation, which was primarily manifested by an increase in the number of cases of administrative convictions of the participants in peaceful assemblies, as well as the emergence of new political prisoners.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On February 12, the court of the Saviecki district of Minsk found two anarchists, Mikita Yemialyianau and Ivan Komar, guilty of damage to property (Art. 341 of the Criminal Code), attempted intentional damage to property and intentional damage to property committed by generally hazardous means (Part 1, Art. 14, Part 2, Art. 218, and Part 2, Art. 218 of the Criminal Code), as well as unlawful actions in respect of items the effect of which is based on the use of combustibles (Part 2, Art. 295-3 of the Code) and sentenced both to seven years in prison.
The defendants were accused of throwing light bulbs filled with paint at the facade of the Minsk City Court building in September 2019 and two counts of using Molotov cocktails (one of them unsuccessful) to set on fire the door of the pre-trial prison in Minsk in October 2019.
Yemialyianau did not deny his involvement in the three acts and announced that the purpose of his actions was drawing public attention to political prisoners in Belarus, and expressing disagreement with the current system and the repression of freedom of opinion.
Komar denied the charges and said that he was subjected to abuse and pressure by representatives of the Interior Ministry and others who forced him to sign a confession of guilt.
Unlawful use of combustible mixtures and property damage can and should be prosecuted, but the punishment for these violations should not be excessive or disproportionate.
However, according to human rights activists, in violation of the principles of a fair trial, Mikita Yemialyianau was sentenced to excessively cruel and disproportionate punishment. Ivan Komar’s sentence is also excessive, as it is clearly disproportionate to the charges. In addition, a violation of his right not to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment was reported. According to human rights organizations, it is triggered by the defendants’ anarchist beliefs.
The human rights community called the convicts political prisoners and requested an immediate re-trial for both activists, which would respect the right to a fair trial and eliminate the above violations.
On February 14, the Supreme Court considered an appeal filed by activist Dzmitry Paliyenka to challenge the verdict of the Minsk City Court. As a result, the conviction was upheld. Paliyenka was not allowed to attend the hearing by court security guards. He was thus deprived of his right to speak in court. The sentence of three years of restraint of liberty (under Part 3, Art. 339 of the Criminal Code) became final. In view of the amnesty and the time Paliyenka spent in pre-trial detention, the eventual sentence was reduced to 10 months.
Ahead of the trial in September 2019, the human rights community insisted on an open hearing of the criminal case, noting that some of the charges testified to his politically motivated prosecution.
Following the verdict, representatives of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” said that the trial failed to produce any credible evidence of the activist’s guilt. The use of pepper spray against the alleged victim was by its nature an act of self-defense against illegal and violent actions and cannot be qualified as a criminal offense. Under such circumstances, the court was expected to acquit Paliyenka and interpret all doubts about his guilt in favor of the defendant.
During the month, political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in prison. On February 25, he was transferred to a detention center in Viciebsk.
On February 3, chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski again wrote to the Prosecutor General's Office after receiving the information referred to in the official response of the Republic of Belarus in the framework of its communication with a number of UN Special Rapporteurs in the case of police raids in Roma neighborhood in Mahilioŭ in May 2019.
The government’s official response to the United Nations said that at least 132 persons of the Roma minority were arrested on the day and 52 people faced administrative charges. The government's reply, however, did not mention the outcome of those cases: how many persons were brought to administrative responsibility and for which offenses.
The human rights activist believes that the actions of police officers who gave the orders to carry out the raids and arrests are instances of official misconduct. Similarly, the actions of the Interior Ministry employees were illegal, as they unlawfully used physical force against the Roma citizens.
In response, Maryna Papova, head of the department for supervision over observance of the rights and freedoms of citizens, reported that the actions of the police during the arrest of the Roma were not motivated by racial bias. A new probe was conducted, the results of which found certain procedural violations committed by law enforcement officers during administrative proceedings against the detained Roma people. As a result, a number of officials were brought to disciplinary responsibility. Meanwhile, the administrative cases, which targeted 52 people, were eventually closed by the same body.
According to Viasna’s human rights defenders, the above fact clearly shows that the events in Mahilioŭ were nothing but arbitrary detention on the grounds of ethnicity.
Persecution of human rights defenders
On February 25, Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk, Viasna activist and a lawyer working with the REP trade union, was detained by police in Niasviž district after he tried to attend a meeting of the agricultural company Snoŭ as a defender of a former employee Viachaslau Syrytsa. The meeting was expected to approve the deprivation of Syrytsa of his honorary employee title and his expulsion from the company.
A member of the independent trade union REP, Syrytsa chose to be represented by a counsel, Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk.
Vaitseshyk argued that he was entitled to attend the meeting and showed a power of attorney. However, both the security guards and the police prevented him from entering the room. As a result, the human rights activist was detained and taken to the police station in Niasviž, and then to a detention center in Sluck. There, the activist asked for medical assistance and was hospitalized escorted by six police officers.
On February 26, the human rights activist visited the Niasviž district police department in response to a summons he was served at the hospital. The questioning lasted for three hours. The activist is expected to face charges in the near future.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly
In February, the courts continued to hear administrative charges brought against participants in a series of pro-independence peaceful protests that took place during the 2019 parliamentary elections and after them. Prior to that, in January, human rights defenders reported a record level of repression in the last 2 and a half years.
On February 3, judge Anatol Barysionak ordered 15 days of detention for the leader of the solidarity movement “Razam” Viachaslau Siuchyk for taking part in a protest on December 8. On February 4, the same judge sentenced the politician to another 15 days in prison. On February 20, judge Natallia Dziadkova added 15 more days to Siuchyk’s jail term. The three hearings were held in the activist’s absence, as he had left Belarus, fearing prosecution.
On January 28, the Polack Court sentenced Aliaksandr Krutkin to 15 days in prison. He was punished for participating in peaceful protests in December 2019. For over a week, the activist was not allowed to see his lawyer. On February 12, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Viciebsk sentenced Krutkin to 15 more days of detention for putting up leaflets on the walls of government buildings.
In the same case, a fine of 810 rubles was imposed on Natallia Spirydonava. The court rulings were the first instances of prosecution under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (illegal protesting) for posting leaflets. Previously, courts applied the charge only to target distributing leaflets calling for participation in a protest, provided they specified the place and time of the event.
On February 13, judge Alena Protas fined the two activists a total of 2,700 rubles for placing similar leaflets in various parts of the city.
On February 26, Ales Krutkin was supposed to be released after completing his 30-days term, but it turned out that there had been another in absentia hearing which awarded him with an additional 15-day sentence.
Viasna’s human rights activists wrote to the UN Special Rapporteurs to report the persecution of Krutkin who has been sentenced to a consecutive 45 days in jail. Appeals were sent to three UN Special Rapporteurs: on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and on the situation in the field of human rights in Belarus.
In addition to the above cases, in several cities of Belarus, anti-integration peaceful protesters were sentenced to heavy fines.
Thus, according to human rights activists, in the period from December 26, 2019 to February 25, 2020, there were 202 trials of participants in the protests against the integration of Belarus and Russia. The administrative proceedings affected 132 people. The total amount of fines is reported at 144,993 Belarusian rubles (about 65,000 dollars), and the total duration of administrative detention – 375 days.
In response to the large-scale crackdown, Amnesty International called on Belarus to stop the repression against peaceful demonstrators.
Meanwhile, the Brest regional executive committee banned 15 rallies against the IPower car battery factory. According to local human rights activist Raman Kisliak, it turned out that the venue of the protests, a children’s stadium, was removed from the list of places for holding public events, but the executive committee’s website was not updated to mention the changes. Thus, it is still extremely difficult to hold a peaceful assembly without breaking the law "On Mass Events", an act heavily criticized by human rights activists.
In early February, after a long break, the authorities resumed the criminal investigation into the death of Aleh Bahdanau, an inmate in prison No. 8 in Žodzina, who died in January 2016. After heart surgery in 2014, he required constant skilled care. At the beginning of 2016, while awaiting a retrial in prison, he complained of ill health and lack of treatment and died on January 29. His mother believes that her son died because he did not receive adequate medical care. An earlier investigation found violations in the prison doctor’s assistance to the inmate but refused to link them to the fact of death.
During the consideration of the criminal case against the anarchists accused of attempted arson, Ivan Komar said during the investigation he was subjected to torture and ill-treatment. The activist was reportedly forced to sign a confession after he was put a cell with the person who hit him 10 times in the face and threatened him with rape. Komar also said that before the interrogation police officers threatened to send him to a cell with inmates with low criminal status, urging him to testify against himself. The defendant reported the fact to the Investigative Committee, but no investigation of the allegations was conducted. The investigator only initiated a probe, in which witnesses are not liable for perjury, testimonies are not verified on the crime scene and no confrontations are allowed; officers suspected of abuse are never suspended, either. As a result, the court delivered its verdict without taking steps to investigate Komar’s ill-treatment report.
The Hrodna Regional Prosecutor's Office once again ordered to re-open the investigation into the beating of Barys Zmitrovich. As a result of a violent arrest, Zmitrovich suffered a chemical injury of the eyes and other injuries, and then wrote to the Smarhoń office of the Investigative Committee asking to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, over the past two years, investigators have not been able to give a correct assessment of police actions. According to harodniaspring.org, there have been seven decisions to refuse to open a criminal case, but all of them were later canceled after the victim’s complaints.
Persecution of journalists
The authorities have failed to abandon the persecution of journalists working for unaccredited foreign media.
Aliaksandr Sidareuski from Mahilioŭ was fined 540 rubles under Part 2, Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media content) for his cooperation with the Polish TV channel "Belsat". A 1,080-ruble fine under the same charge was assigned by judge Aksana Tabola to a Hlybokaje journalist Dzmitry Lupach.