Belarus: Arbitrary arrest of several environmental rights defenders in Brest

2020 2020-05-15T15:28:17+0300 2020-05-15T15:28:18+0300 en https://spring96.org/files/images/sources/absiervatoryjapaabaroniepravaabaroncau-logo.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

May 15, 2020

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has received new information and requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Belarus.

New information:

The Observatory has been informed by reliable sources about the enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention of two environmental rights defenders, as well as the arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment of several other environmental rights defenders in the context of the repression of an environmental protest movement against the construction of a battery plant LLC “IPower” in Brest [1].

According to the information received, on May 10, 2020, around 300 individuals took part in a protest action on Lenin Square against the battery plant construction in Brest. After the rally, the police detained human rights lawyer Mr. Roman Kislyak. On May 11, 2020, Mr. Kislyak’s mother filed a complaint with the regional prosecutor’s office regarding the enforced disappearance of her son.

On the same day, Mr. Vladimir Velichkin, a member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (HRC “Viasna”) who observed the protest on behalf of HRC “Viasna”, disappeared after the protest. The police did not disclose the information about his location for two days. Mr. Velichkin’s wife, Ms. Margarita Velichkina, later found out that he was detained by the police officers of the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs on May 10, 2020 around 1.30 pm. According to the information given by the authorities, Mr. Velichkin was taken to the Kobrin temporary detention centre (outside of Brest). However, the Kobrin District Department of Internal Affairs claimed that they did not hold Mr. Velichkin. On May 11, 2020, Ms. Margarita Velichkina filed a complaint with the regional prosecutor’s office about the disappearance of her husband.

On the morning of May 12, 2020, their location was identified as Messrs. Roman Kislyak and Vladimir Velichkin were convoyed to the Leninsky District Court of Brest. Mr. Velichkin’s lawyer learned that the activist had been detained by police on May 10 and taken to the Kobrin District Department of Internal Affairs. On May 12, the police took him back to Brest. The Observatory considers that Velichkin’s groundless transportation to another city, together with failure to provide information about his whereabouts to his family and colleagues for two days, were used in a view to putting pressure on the defender.

On May 12, 2020, the Leninsky District Court of Brest fined both Messrs. Kislyak and Velichkin 1,350 Rubles (approximately 500 Euros) for the “participation in an unauthorized mass event” (under Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of Belarus, “violation of the established procedure for holding a rally”). However, they were not released after the hearing: the authorities took them to the pre-trial detention center. As of the publication of this urgent appeal, they await new court hearing in the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs of Brest, but no other details are available yet.

Prior to the protest, on May 6, 2020, the police arrested Mr. Sergey Petrukhin, one of the leaders of the protest movement, and took him to a temporary detention facility, located at the Leninsky District Internal Affairs Department. He was accused of “violating the established procedure for holding a rally” (part 1 of Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of Belarus) for participating in a peaceful protest on April 19, 2020, and “filming and transmitting the gathering on his online channel”. The first hearing on his case was held on May 8, 2020, in the Leninsky District Court of Brest, but Judge Dmitry Kurovsky postponed the hearing until May 11, 2020. In the courtroom, Mr. Petrukhin claimed he had a temperature of 37.8 and that he was not the only one to have a high temperature in the detention facility. In disregard to this information, Judge Kurovsky sentenced Mr. Petrukhin to 15 days of detention. Later, Mr. Petrukhin was taken to the hospital as his temperature rose to 38. He was later diagnosed with COVID-19 and stays in the central city hospital of Brest.

On May 8, 2020, four other environmental rights defenders were detained, including Messrs. Vladimir MorozYuri KalkoDenis MalyshenkoKonstantin Ostapuk. The police broke Mr. Yuri Kalko’s finger during the detention. Mr. Moroz was detained in the city of Kobrin, thus the police placed him in the temporary detention center of the Kobrin District Department of Internal Affairs. The three others were held in the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs of Brest. All four activists were accused of “participating in an unauthorized mass event” and were held in preliminary detention facilities until facing trials on May 11 and May 13, 2020. On May 9, 2020, two police officers detained Mr. Oleg Vyalov at about 5 pm in his apartment in Brest and escorted him to the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs in Brest.

On May 11 and 13, 2020, Messrs. Malyshenko and Ostapuk were convicted twice for “participating in the May 3 Brest protest against the plant” (on May 11), and for “participating in a meeting on May 2 in Brest with a blogger Sergei Tikhanovsky who previously announced his intention to run for presidency” (on May 13). On May 11, 2020, the Leninsky District Court of Brest also condemned Messrs. Yuri Kalko and Oleg Vyalov. They were fined up to 1080 Roubles (approximately 400 Euros) for “participation” (Kalko) and “repeated participation” (Vyalov) in one of the Brest protests. Mr. Vladimir Moroz was tried on May 12, 2020, and also received a 1010 Roubles (approximately 300 Euros) fine.

The Observatory recalls that this is not the first time Messrs. Roman Kislyak [2], Vladimir Velichkin, Sergey Petrukhin, Oleg Vyalov, Denis Malychenko and other environmental rights defenders [3] have been targeted for their participation in protests against this battery plant in Brest (see background information) [4] and that they have previously been arrested and received administrative fines.

The Belarusian legislation violates the right to peaceful assembly by unjustifiably prohibiting citizens to hold peaceful assemblies without authorisation. In Belarus, the authorities routinely reject requests to hold peaceful assemblies related to practically any human rights or other societal issue, either without providing adequate reason or by referring to the law that requires organisers to ensure first medical aid during the event and to subsequently clean the event venue.

The Observatory condemns the arbitrary arrest and judicial harassment of the above-mentioned environmental rights defenders and urges authorities to immediately and unconditionally release them, as their arrest seems to be only aimed at punishing them for their legitimate and peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of association and assembly. The Observatory is also concerned with the risk of infection of the detained human rights defenders in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Belarus is a party to the Aarhus Convention, which prohibits the prosecution of activists for their actions related to the exercise of their environmental rights. More so, in the context of COVID-19 pandemic, administrative detention poses a dangerous threat to the health of the detainees, thus violating constitutional rights of the detained activists to life and health.

Background information:

In the morning of February 17, 2019, in the city of Bereza, the police arrested Mr. Alexander Kabanov. At time of the arrest he was at the Bereza railway station, as he was going to Brest to join the Sunday rally as usual. Mr. Alexander Kabanov posted on his Facebook page that he was arrested for participating in a rally in Brest on February 10, 2019. He was brought to Bereza police department and released following questioning on the February 10, 2019 events.

On April 12, 2019, Mr. Vladimir Velichkin was arrested at the Leninsky police department in Brest, after being summoned by the police to appear at the precinct. Nine other environmental defenders — Ms. Ekaterina Basargina and Messrs. Dmitry AndrosyukVladimir Kozlovsky, Denis Malyshenko, Sergey SvirskyVladislav AbramovichOleg YarmolenkoDemyan Lepesevich, and Oleg Vyalov— were arrested at the Leninsky police department on the same day. Mr. Dmitry Androsyuk and Ms. Ekaterina Basargina were released several hours after the arrests. Others spent three days in a temporary detention facility of the department. All ten defenders, including Mr. Andrasyuk and Ms. Basargina, were summoned before the Leninsky District Court of the city of Brest for a hearing on April 15, 2019.

At least eight other protesters—Ms. Tatyana Fesikova and Messrs. Alexander Kabanov, Dmitry BekalyukAles AblyakYegor KondratyukVitaly KozakVictor Sender, and Nikolay Trotsyuk — were arrested on April 14, 2019, while they were protesting on Brest’s Lenin Square against the construction of the battery plant. They were also summoned before the Leninsky District Court of the city of Brest for a hearing on April 15, 2019. Mr. Alexander Kabanov was released three hours after his arrest.

Mr. Vladimir Velichkin and most of the other protesters were arrested under Article 23.34 of the Belarus Code of Administrative offences for violating the procedure for organizing or holding mass events. The charges were related to the protest along Brest’s Sovetskaya Street on April 7, 2019, during which people chanted slogans against the construction of the plant. Ms. Tatyana Fesikova was accused under the same Article 23.34 for handing out yellow balloons with a protest appeal on March 31, 2019. Mr. Dmitry Bekalyuk was summoned to the Court as a witness in the case of Ms. Fesikova but was later accused of being three hours late to the precinct.

The hearings in the cases of all 18 defenders took place at the Leninsky police department in Brest, on April 15, 2019. Media and human rights defenders were not allowed to attend the hearings as observers. The Court postponed the consideration of cases of those arrested on April 12, 2019 — Messrs. Vladimir Velichkin, Dmitry Adrosyuk, Vladimir Kozlovsky, Denis Malashenko, Sergey Svirsky, Vladislav Abramovich, Demyan Lepesevich, and Oleg Vyalov— to April 18, 2019. The hearing in the case of Vitaly Kozak was held on April 24, 2019. The hearings in the cases of Ms. Tatyana Fesikova and Messrs. Yegor Kondratyuk, Ales Ablyak, and Victor Sender were postponed to April 25, 2019.

Mr. Oleg Yarmolenko was fined with 30 basic units (the equivalent of approximately 24.5 Belarusian Rubles, approximately 10 Euros), Mr. Dmitry Bekalyuk with one basic unit, and Mr. Nikolay Trotsyuk with 10 basic units.

On April 8, 2020, the Belarus State environmental expertise issued a positive review [5] of the construction project of the battery plant, giving the company-constructor “IPOWER” the green light for the next stage of the project, namely, testing of the equipment, water supply, heating and ventilation systems. The public environmental review of the project, which the President promised [6] to carry out, did not take place [7].

On April 12, 2020, around 200 Brest residents took part in a protest rally against the construction of the Brest battery plant [8]. Protesters were wearing masks to protect themselves against the risk of COVID-19 contamination, in a context where the Belarus authorities did not impose any restriction on public gatherings in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic. The police officers present on the spot announced that the event was not authorized by the authorities, but did not proceed with arrests.

On April 17, 2020, Mr. Dmitry Bekalyuk was arrested by police officers in a grocery store [9]. Four police officers took him to a temporary detention facility, located at the Leninsky District Internal Affairs Department, without explaining him neither his rights nor a reason for his arrest. At the temporary detention centre, Mr. Bekalyuk found out that the authorities opened an investigation against him for his participation in a protest rally against the Brest plant construction on April 12, 2020.

On April 18, 2020, police officers arrested Messrs. Alexander Kabanov and Dmitry Andrasyuk and placed them in the temporary detention centre at the Leninsky District Internal Affairs Department. The hearings in their cases took place on April 20, 2020, and both were convicted and sentenced to 15 days of administrative detention. Unlike Mr. Andrasyuk, who was found guilty of participating in the rally, Mr. Kabanov was convicted of organizing the rally (part 2 of Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses).

As the trial of Mr. Bekalyuk began on April 20, 2020, the accused requested a week to familiarize himself with the case and to find a lawyer. The judge, Mr. Alexander Semenchuk, granted him two days and scheduled the next hearing on April 22, 2020. Subsequently, the Leninsky District Court of Brest convicted Mr. Bekalyuk and sentenced him to 15 days of administrative detention for violating part 3 of Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses for his participation in the protest rally on April 12, 2020.

On April 20 and 23, 2020, the Leninsky District Court of Brest sentenced [10] Messrs. Alexander Kabanov, Dmitry Bekalyuk and Dmitry Andrasyuk, to 15 days of administrative detention for taking part in the April 12, 2020 protest against the construction of a battery plant in Brest. Alexander Kabanov was charged with the “organisation of an unauthorized mass event” (Article 23.34 part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses), while the two others – with the participation in such event (parts 2 of Article 23.34). On May 9, 2020, Mr. Kabanov was diagnosed with COVID-19.

On April 27, 2020, environmental rights defender Mr. Mikhail Galuzo was fined 945 Rubles (approximately 350 Euros) in the Leninsky District Department of Internal Affairs of Brest for disseminating leaflets in support of the arrested defenders.

On May 7, 2020, a court of the Leninsky district of Brest fined Mr. Andrei Nevdakh, another environmental rights defender, 810 Roubles (approximately 305 Euros) for participating in a rally against the battery plant in Brest on May 3.

Actions requested:

Please write to the authorities of Belarus, urging them to:

i. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of the above-mentioned environmental rights defenders and all human rights defenders in Belarus;

ii. Immediately and unconditionally release and put an end to any form of harassment, including at the judicial level, against all the human rights defenders mentioned in this Urgent Appeal, as well as all human rights defenders in Belarus;

iii. Comply with all their international obligations to respect the exercise of the citizens’ right to freedom of association and assembly, as established in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, in particular its Articles 21 and 22;

iv. Comply with the provisions of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, in particular with its Articles 1, 2, 5 and 12.2;

v. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by Belarus.

Addresses:

• President Aliaksandr Lukashenko, Belarus, fax: + 375 172 26 06 10 or + 375 172 22 38 72, email: contact@president.gov.by ;
• General Prosecutor, Alexandr Konyuk, Belarus, fax: + 375 17 226 42 52, email: info@prokuratura.gov.by ;
• Minister of Justice of Belarus, Mr. Oleg Slizhevsky, Belarus, fax: + 375 17 200 86 87, email: kanc@minjust.by ;
• Chairman of the State Control Committee of Belarus, Mr. Leonid Anfimov, Belarus, fax: +375 17 289 14 84, email: kgk@mail.belpak.by ;
• Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations in Geneva, Mr. Yury Ambrazevich, Switzerland, Fax: +41 22 748 24 51, email: mission.belarus@ties.itu.int ;
• H.E. Mr. Aleksandr Mikhnevich, Embassy of Belarus in Brussels, Fax: + 32 2.340.02.87, Email: belgium@mfa.gov.by ;
• Svetlogorsk district court, Belarus, fax: +375 (2342) 7-02-47, 4-02-39; e-mail: svetlgorsk@court.by .

Please also write to the diplomatic representations of Belarus in your respective countries.

***

Paris-Geneva, May 15, 2020

Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:
• E-mail: appeals@fidh-omct.org
• Tel and fax FIDH + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18 / +33 1 43 55 18 80
• Tel and fax OMCT + 41 (0) 22 809 49 39 / + 41 22 809 49 29

[1] The construction of the plant is largely criticized by ecological activists and civil society of Belarus. They claim that the battery factory constructed 7 km away from the city will pollute the environment of Brest and the Brest region. The company owner “1AKGroup” plans to establish in the Brest cite a full production cycle of lead-acid batteries. Human rights activists highlight that the plant facilities are being built with numerous irregularities in terms of security and environmental norms. Since the beginning of 2018, a civil campaign has been underway against the construction of the battery plant in Brest. In February 2018, a petition of about 40,000 signatures against the construction was transferred to the Administration of the President of Belarus. Since February 25, 2018, every Sunday, protesters assemble peacefully and silently on the Lenin Square in Brest to express their opposition by feeding pigeons on the square. When organisers started the protests, they sought authorisation from the authorities, yet they only got one authorisation (in April 2018) while all other requests were denied. Therefore, protesters decided to simply assemble and feed pigeons or carry balloons in sign of protest.
[2] See also the Observatory Urgent Appeal BLR 003 / 1018 / OBS 128, published on October 19, 2018.
[3] See also the Observatory Urgent Appeal BLR 001 / 0219 / OBS 018, published on February 20, 2019, and BLR 001 / 0219 / OBS 018.1, published and April 17, 2019.
[4] See the Observatory Urgent Appeal BLR 001 / 0219 / OBS 018.1 published on April 17, 2019; BLR 002 / 0918 / OBS 119 published on September 28, 2018 and BLR 002 / 0918 / OBS 119.1 published on October 12, 2018.
[5] See : https://tjournal.ru/by/158110-aypauer-poluchil-polozhitelnoe-zaklyuchenie-po-akkumulyatornomu-zavodu
[6] See : http://president.gov.by/ru/news_ru/view/rabochaja-poezdka-v-brest-21949/
[7] See : http://spring96.org/ru/news/96519
[8] See : https://belsat.eu/ru/news/v-breste-sotni-lyudej-protestovali-protiv-akkumulyatornogo-zavoda/
[9] See : https://spring96.org/ru/news/96641
[10] See : http://spring96.org/ru/news/96610

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