Human Rights Situation in Belarus: March 2020
- political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny continued to serve his sentence in prison;
- on March 27, the Minsk City Court examined the appeals of anarchist Mikita Yemialyianau and Ivan Komar who were earlier sentenced to seven years in prison. As a result, the initial verdict was changed and the court ordered 4 years in prison for Yemialyianau and 3 ½ years for Komar. Despite the commutation of the sentence, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” still considers the sentence to be excessively harsh, calling the convicts political prisoners and demanding a revision of the court ruling;
- on March 18, Pilip Shaurou, an activist of the opposition youth group “Young Front”, who was arrested on January 19, faced final charges. He is accused of spraying a number of political graffiti and staging a performance against the “advanced integration of Russia and Belarus”, in which Shaurou painted red the hands of the monument to Pushkin in central Minsk. These actions were qualified by the investigators under part 1 and part 2 of Article 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). The activist himself was remanded in pre-trial detention. Viasna’s experts questioned the correctness of such a qualification and believe that his detention before the trial is clearly disproportionate, which may indicate the presence of a political motive on the part of the authorities;
- on March 5, financial police arrested Siarhei Satsuk, journalist and editor of the news site ej.by. According to available information, he is accused of committing a crime under part 2 of Art. 430 of the Criminal Code (receiving a bribe repeatedly or by extortion, or by a group of persons by prior conspiracy or in large amounts). The BAJ and a number of other civil society structures issued statements demanding his release and termination of the criminal prosecution;
- despite the general decline in the wave of persecution of participants in peaceful assemblies during March, responsibility under Art. 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses affected two people, who were fined a total of 945 rubles, and one person was detained for 15 days;
- during the month, there were new cases of judicial harassment of freelance journalists collaborating with foreign media (Belsat TV channel, in particular);
- on March 6, the Minsk Regional Court issued a death sentence against a 29-year-old Viktar Skrundzik. This is the third person sentenced to death since the beginning of the year.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
On March 27, the judicial board for criminal cases of the Minsk City Court, chaired by judge Stsiapurka, examined appeals filed by convicted anarchists Mikita Yemialyianau and Ivan Komar. As a result, the sentence was changed in several parts. By partial addition of punishments, the court sentenced Yemialyianau to 4 years and Komar to 3 years and 6 months in prison. The defendants themselves were not brought to court, and the hearing was held without their participation.
On February 12, the Saviecki District Court of Minsk sentenced anarchists Mikita Yemialyianau and Ivan Komar to seven years in prison for damage to property in public places (Article 341 of the Criminal Code), attempted intentional damage to property and intentional damage to property committed in a generally dangerous way (part 1 of Article 14, part 2 of Article 218, part 2 of Article 218 of the Criminal Code), illegal actions in respect of items whose damaging effect is based on the use of combustible substances (part 2 of Article 295-3 of the Criminal Code).
According to human rights activists, in violation of the principles of a fair trial, Mikita Yemialyianau was sentenced to excessively harsh punishment, which is clearly disproportionate to the offense. Ivan Komar’s sentence was also excessively harsh and disproportionate to the actions committed. Komar’s right not to be subjected to torture and ill-treatment was also violated. According to human rights activists, this is due to the defendants’ affiliation with the anarchist community.
The human rights organizations called the convicts political prisoners and demanded a retrial for both activists, which would respect their right to a fair trial and eliminate the above violations.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” notes that the significant mitigation of the sentence was a clear result of the harsh criticism by the human rights community of the initial verdict but, despite this, still considers the sentences to be excessively harsh.
On March 18, a Young Front activist Pilip Shaurou faced formal charges. According to his wife, there are three episodes in his criminal case:
- part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) – staining with red paint the hands of the monument to Pushkin.
- part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code - painting a white-red-white flag on the memorial sign to dead police officers.
- part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism committed repeatedly or by a group of persons) - for the graffiti “Freedom to Seviarynets”.
On the latest charge, Pilip Shaurou may be punished with detention, restriction of liberty for a term of up to 3 years or imprisonment for a term of 1 to 6 years.
According to Radio Liberty, the total amount of damage in the three episodes, according to the investigation, is 228 rubles 93 kopecks.
The activist was denied a request to be releases and continues to be in jail No. 1 in Minsk. Shaurou was arrested on January 19, 2020 after he came to the police to tell that it was he who painted the hands of the monument to Pushkin the previous day. The activist was searched and his clothes were seized. A few days after his arrest, he was charged with the first episode.
Viasna’s experts questioned the correctness of such a legal qualification of his actions, saying that the choice of part 1 and part 2 of Article 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) was due primarily to the desire to isolate the activist. The application of pre-trial detention is clearly arbitrary and was selected without taking into account the actual circumstances of the case and the identity of the accused, which in turn may be evidence of a political motive on the part of the authorities. HRC "Viasna" continues to closely monitor this criminal case.
On March 5, Siarhei Satsuk, journalist and editor-in-chief of the online newspaper ej.by, was arrested in Minsk by the Department of Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee. On March 26, officers seized documents in the outlet’s editorial office.
According to Satsuk’s family and colleagues, he was charged with a crime under Part 2 of Art. 430 of the Criminal Code (receiving a bribe repeatedly or by extortion, or by a group of persons by prior conspiracy or in large amounts), the punishment for which provides for imprisonment for a term of three to ten years.
Siarhei Satsuk is known as an investigative journalist. One of his recent high-profile works was a series of articles exposing corruption in the system of the Ministry of Health Care. Later, many of the officials mentioned in the publications were sentenced to prison for corruption offenses.
Satsuk’s investigations triggered a wave of negative materials about him in the state media, in which he was accused of paid journalism.
According to an interview that Satsuk gave to naviny.by in August 2019, as well as a text published on the European Radio for Belarus website on March 26, 2020, the journalist repeatedly received threats related to his journalistic activities.
A number of civil society organizations issued statements demanding Satsuk’s immediate release and an end to his criminal prosecution. Satsuk’s release was requested by the France-based international organization Reporters Without Borders.
HRC "Viasna" continues to monitor this criminal case.
The death penalty
On March 6, the Minsk Regional Court delivered, at a hearing in Sluck, a death sentence against a 29-year-old Viktar Skrundzik. This is the third person sentenced to death since the beginning of the year.
The first two death sentences were handed down in the city of Čerykaŭ to the brothers Ilya and Stanislau Kostseu.
Their sister launched an online petition requesting clemency and commutation of the sentence to life imprisonment. The Human Rights Center “Viasna” supported this initiative and, in turn, appealed to all concerned citizens advocating the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus with a request to join the petition.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
March saw the last trials of participants in the series of peaceful assemblies in defense of the independence of Belarus; participants and organizers of other actions were also convicted during the month.
On March 2, the Polack Court sentenced local trade union activist Mikalai Sharakh to a fine of 405 rubles on charges of participating in an unauthorized mass event (Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses).
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” sent a message to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention about the persecution of bloggers and activists for their participation in peaceful protests against the "advanced integration" with Russia.
In total, the Public Reception Center of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in Minsk for administrative affairs for participating in the I prepared 122 complaints in defense of independence, of which 55 volunteer lawyers filed.
Repressions also affected other forms of social activity.
Blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich was sentenced in absentia to 15 days of detention for calls to join an unauthorized gathering near the headquarters of the Belneftekhim group of companies in Minsk, which was held on February 25. The protest was called in response to the recent increase in fuel prices and was attended by several dozen people.
On March 25, a blogger from Sluck, Uladzimir Niaronski, was fined 540 rubles for organizing a meeting with local residents.
The authorities continued to practice repression for distributing “extremist content”.
In particular, Andrei Voinich posted a video on his YouTube channel, where he is seen talking with an activist of the European Belarus opposition group Ales Krutkin at the entrance of a residential building. It features an inscription on the wall, which is an abbreviation labeled “extremist” and included in the national list of extremist materials. On January 24, the inscription was located by police officers, and on February 21, judge Tatsiana Matyl of the Maskoŭski District Court in Minsk sentenced Voinich to the maximum possible fine of 1,350 rubles under part 2 of Art. 17.11 of the Administrative Code (distribution of information products included in the national list of extremist materials).
On March 31, judge Yauhen Shershniou of the Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ imposed a fine of 135 Belarusian rubles on Ihar Mazeika for posting a video in his account in VKontakte entitled “Lukashenka on Hitler”, which was featuring a Nazi flag. Another police report on charges of extremism was sent back for revision.
Piotr Kuchura, an inmate in the Mahilioŭ prison, and his wife Liudmila are still trying to force the authorities to open an investigation into the violation of the prisoner’s rights. These include his beating by the prison head, inciting him to suicide, and injecting an unknown medicine without medical evidence. The courts, however, continue to refuse to consider complaints against decisions of officials.
Aliaksei Loika of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" again appealed to the city prosecutor’s office against the refusal to initiate criminal proceedings and the inaction by the prosecutor’s office in the Pieršamajski district of Minsk. For almost three years, the human rights activist has been trying to bring to justice the police officers for illegally causing bodily harm to him during a raid on the Viasna office on March 25, 2017.
Three years ago, 19-year-old Yana Chulitskaya was beaten by a police officer during her arrest at a Freedom Day protest, and a week later the girl began to show the first bouts of epilepsy. The policeman still goes unpunished, and Yana’s health is constantly deteriorating during these three years. Since last summer, the authorities have twice refused to initiate criminal proceedings against the riot police that arrested the girl. The investigators did not find the perpetrators, although Yana provided a video where one of the policemen is visible, and the voice of the second is heard - the one that hit the girl. The investigators sent a request to the police department to search for these officers, but no reply was given. At this phase, the Investigative Committee stopped its "search." Currently, Yana is awaiting the results of another probe reopened after her complaint.
In response to new publications on Yana’s story, police officers came to her home and threatened to force her into a mental hospital. The girl clarified the situation with her doctor and made sure that mandatory treatment was out of the question. This means that the Ministry of Internal Affairs made an attempt to intimidate the victim of police brutality.
The Partyzanski District Court of Minsk fully met the claim of Dzmitry Serada who asked to overturn the decision to refuse to institute criminal proceedings over the unlawful raid on his apartment and his beating by riot police during the arrest. For more than three years, Dzmitry Serada has been trying to prosecute those responsible for his illegal detention and beating. During this time, he has received eight refusals to institute criminal proceedings against riot police. And as many times the investigation of his case was resumed.
More than four years ago, on January 29, 2016, Aleh Bahdanau died in prison No. 8 in Žodzina from acute heart failure. During all this time, his mother has been seeking prosecution for those responsible for the death of her son. The case of Aleh Bahdanau has been repeatedly re-opened and dismissed due to the lack of evidence. After in early February the Prosecutor General’s Office overturned the decision of the Investigative Committee to terminate the investigation, investigative actions were resumed. A new investigation team of four people was formed. However, investigators unexpectedly focused on verifying the authorship of the letters in which Bahdanau informed his family about shortcomings in medical care, lack of medicine and ill-treatment in prison.
Persecution of journalists
On March 27, Judge Zhanna Pushkina of the Kastryčnicki District Court of Mahilioŭ fined freelancer Mikhail Arshynski 20 basic units for his journalistic activities. Arshynski was accused of "illegal production of media products" for a report broadcast on the Belsat TV channel. The story was dedicated to a protest staged by motorists against increasing gas prices on February 8.
Earlier, on March 24, for the same report, the Kastryčnicki District Court fined Belsat reporter Darya Chultsova.