Picks of the week
After the winter, which was marked by a record high number of trials and fines targeting civil society and political activists, the amount of repressions declined in March. The authorities almost did not charge people for exercising their right to peaceful assembly. However, other negative trends emerged during this time, including increased repression against independent journalists and arbitrary detention. The persecution of bloggers was also an ongoing trend.
According to human rights defenders, opposition activists and journalists were detained several times in March for no apparent reason, and then released without a charge. These include Young Front leader Dzianis Urbanovich, and Belsat TV reporters Stanislau Ivashkevich and Mikhail Arshynski.
There were 12 trials of activists and journalists in March. The total amount of fines imposed is 7,155 rubles. Blogger Uladzimir Tsyhanovich received 15 days in prison for calling to join a street gathering.
10 of the 12 trials in March affected bloggers or freelance journalists. 5 journalists were prosecuted in Mahilioŭ.
Numerous reactions, both inside the country and abroad, have condemned the arrest of investigative journalist Siarhei Satsuk.
Satsuk is facing bribery charges, which, according to the country’s civil society, is the government’s retaliation for his role in exposing corruption in the Ministry of Health Care.
Reporters without Borders called to immediately release the critical journalist, alleging that the charge may be related to his “criticizing the president’s relaxed approach to the Covid-19 epidemic.”
“This arrest is a warning to media that question the Belarusian government’s healthcare policies,” said Jeanne Cavelier, the head of RSF’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “We call for Sergei Satsuk’s immediate release and the withdrawal of all charges against him. This criminalization of journalism in Belarus creates an unacceptable climate of self-censorship.”
The European Parliament said in a statement that the accusations Satsuk is facing are “absurd.”
It also claims it is no coincidence that the journalist was arrested after he publicly criticized the government’s “light-handed approach to the containment of the COVID-19 epidemic in Belarus.”
“At a moment of global health emergency, media have a crucial role to play by reporting on the pandemic and providing accurate information to the public. This latest development is all the more unfortunate as it could lead to the further intimidation or self-censorship of independent journalists who work on socially important issues, such as corruption or public health,” the statement reads.
Human rights defenders have voiced concerns over the situation of prisoners serving sentences in the penal facilities of the Viciebsk region, the northeastern part of Belarus with most confirmed cases of coronavirus as of today.
The region is home to five prisons, one pre-trial detention center, and five other correctional facilities. There is also a hospital for tuberculosis patients, which provides forced treatment.
The activists fear the poor detention conditions in Belarusian prisons can result in unchecked spread of the COVID-19 disease. They say the situation is even more alarming since these facilities are closed to any form of public scrutiny.
Earlier prison authorities across the country suspended all family visits, and allowed extra food parcels with fruits and vitamins. However, no other measures have been reported.
On March 25, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet called for urgent measures to protect the lives and health of prisoners and inmates of other detention facilities as part of the comprehensive response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It is vital that governments should address the situation of detained people in their crisis planning to protect detainees, staff, visitors and of course wider society,” she said.
“Now, more than ever, governments should release every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners and others detained simply for expressing critical or dissenting views,” Bachelet stressed.