Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2020
- political prisoners Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, Ivan Komar and Mikita Yemialyianau continued to be held in prisons;
- on May 7, Pilip Shaurou, an activist of the opposition group “Young Front”, who was earlier called a political prisoner by the human rights community of Belarus, was released to await trial. On May 19, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk found the activist guilty of criminal vandalism and damage to property and fined him 1,350 rubles;
- on May 8, the House of Representatives of the National Assembly adopted a resolution to call the August 9 presidential election;
- between May 6 and 31, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" documented 195 arrests and 155 trials in administrative cases (including 135 hearings under Article 23.43 of the Administrative Code) targeting at least 132 people. As a result, the courts ordered short prison terms for 69 people and fined 72 more;
- of particular concern are cases of arrests and detention of human rights defenders, including members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, and journalists. These facts provoked a negative reaction from both national and international human rights and journalistic organizations, as well as the EU, the OSCE and the European Parliament;
- on May 29, ten people were arrested in Hrodna as a result of a clearly planned provocation during a picket held to collect signatures for the nomination of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. The head of the nomination group and popular blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested. Later, the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs said that a criminal investigation had been opened into alleged use of violence against police officers. Tsikhanouski and seven other detainees are currently held in the pre-trial detention center in Minsk. State-owned media immediately accused the picketers of violating public order and attacking a police officer;
- the human rights community called Siarhei Tsikhanouski a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release and the release of other detainees not involved in the use of violence against police officers;
- on May 22, the Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court turned down the appeals of the Kostseu brothers, Stanislau and Illia, who were earlier sentenced to death. Thus, the death sentences handed down by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court became final;
- in May, there was a sharp deterioration in the human rights situation and an increase in repression, which is due to the start of the presidential election campaign.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
As it became known to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", on May 29, the Babrujsk District Court ruled to stiffen the detention conditions of political prisoner Mikita Yemialyianau, and the activist was transferred to a prison in Mahilioŭ.
Since April 9, Yemialyianau had been held in penal colony № 2 in Babruisk. During the time, he spent a total of 26 days in a punishment cell, and on May 7 the political prisoner was transferred to solitary confinement.
As it became known to human rights activists, political prisoner Mikhail Zhamchuzhny was placed in solitary confinement for 6 months for refusing to join his unit after being released from the punishment cell. The prisoner did this in fear for his safety.
During his imprisonment, Mikhail Zhamchuzhny has been penalized 77 times, 71 of which were handed down in the Horki-based penal colony No. 9, where he is currently serving his sentence.
On May 7, it became known that Young Front activist Pilip Shaurou had been released from custody to await trial.
On April 16, the human rights community of Belarus issued a statement demanding the immediate release of political prisoner Pilip Shaurou and an end to the criminal prosecution against him.
On May 19, the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk sentenced Pilip Shaurov: he was found guilty of committing crimes under Part 1 and 2 of Art. 339 (hooliganism) and 341 (damage to buildings and damage to property) of the Criminal Code and fined a total of 1,350 rubles.
On May 29, during an election picket held in Hrodna to collect signatures for the nomination of presidential hopeful Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the head of her nomination group, blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was arrested by the police. Other members of the nomination group and the team of the blogger’s project “Country for Living” were also detained. Eight of the detainees were transported to Minsk and placed in pre-trial detention. A criminal case has been instituted to investigate alleged violence against a police officer.
The detention took place around 8 p.m. At first, several women approached Tsikhanouski and asked him provocative questions, grabbing him by the clothes. Tsikhanouski repeatedly told them that he did not intend to communicate with them and walked away, but two women still followed the blogger. Then two police officers approached, to whom the women complained that Tsikhanouski had not answered their questions, and the police came up to arrest Tsikhanouski. People began to shield the blogger from the police. Then suddenly one of the police officers fell to the ground. Soon riot police appeared and arrested Tsikhanouski and other activists. Among the detainees was Dzmitry Furmanau, coordinator of Tsikhanouskaya’s headquarters in the Hrodna region. According to an eyewitness, four people in plainclothes grabbed him by the arms and legs, pulled him from the table where he was collecting signatures, and dragged him to the nearby park.
The human rights community called Siarhei Tsikhanouski a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release and the release of other detainees not involved in the use of violence against police officers.
Harassment of human rights defenders
During the month, there were numerous cases of persecution of human rights defenders, including members of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", in connection with their human rights activities.
On May 7, a district inspector, police lieutenant Dzmitry Ramashkevich came to the house of Andrei Miadzvedzeu, a member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” based in Rečyca. The police officer said that he was investigating the activist’s alleged insult of Ihar Siarheyeu, chief editor of the local government-owned newspaper Dniaprovets, in a comment on the social network VKontakte.
The investigation was opened after an officer of cybercrime section of the Rečyca police department, police major Andrei Butromyeu found the activist’s comment, which, in his opinion, insulted the pro-government journalist. The comment, according to Major Butromyeu, contained signs of a crime under Part 2 of Article 189 of the Criminal Code. Meanwhile, the case file lacks a statement by the alleged victim, a mandatory procedural step in defamation cases targeting private individuals.
On April 10, the website of Viasna’s Homieĺ office published an article entitled “How volunteers in Rečyca help fight coronavirus”, telling about a local activist of the NGO “Tell the Truth” Alena Linkevich who sews protective masks for medical workers under a contract with a local business.
On April 20, the local government-owned newspaper "Dniaprovets" reacted to the publication with an article entitled “To the people of Rečyca. Masks as a reason to hype”. It argued that sewing masks was good and noble, but not if done by the activists of opposition groups.
This article was re-posted by one of local advertising sites, and the administrators shared a link to it in a popular group on VKontakte. It was under the latter post that Andrei Miadzvedzeu left his comment on April 21.
On May 10, after a weekly rally of environmental activist opposing the construction of a car battery plant in Brest, some participants of the peaceful assembly were detained. The police also arrested human rights activists who monitored the meeting: Raman Kisliak and a member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Uladzimir Vialichkin.
For two days, neither their colleagues nor families knew anything about their whereabouts. Vialichkin’s wife wrote to the prosecutor's office to report the disappearance of her husband. Raman Kisliak’s mother did the same.
Only on May 12, two days after the detention, Kisliak and Vialichkin were taken to the Lieninski District Court of Brest. As it became known, from the moment of their arrest on Sunday and until the trial, both human rights activists were held incommunicado in the pre-trial detention facility in Kobryn, 48 kilometers away from Brest (although its staff denied the fact). Uladzimir Vialichkin was taken to court twice, and twice, on May 12 and 15, was convicted under Part 3 of Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (participation in an unauthorized meeting) and fined a total of 2,160 rubles. During all this time, Vialichkin was held in the detention center and was released only after the trial on May 15. Raman Kisliak was released on May 14, and on May 27, the court also ruled to bring the human rights activist to administrative responsibility under Art. 23. 34 of the Administrative Code and fined him 810 rubles.
On May 8, journalist and member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Aliaksandr Burakou was arrested in Mahilioŭ along with several supporters of blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Burakou was eventually sentenced to 10 days in prison under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code.
On May 15, police detained Ales Burakou (aka Alex Raycon), a human rights activist of Viasna’s Mahilioŭ branch. The judge of the Lieninski District Court then found Ales Burakou guilty under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code, convicting him of taking part in a rally on May 6 near the city detention center, and sentenced the human rights activist to 10 days of administrative detention.
On May 12, Viasna’s Board issued a statement demanding the immediate release of its arrested members and an end to their persecution in connection with their human rights activities.
The arrests and detentions of human rights activists provoked negative reactions from a number of international human rights organizations: FIDH, Front Line Defenders, and Human Rights Watch.
In addition, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a joint program by FIDH and OMCT) and the Human Rights Center "Viasna" issued a joint statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to stop persecuting peaceful civil society activists and release the detainees.
The right to life. The issue of the death penalty
On March 12, the UN Human Rights Committee adopted a decision recognizing that in the case of death convict Henadz Yakavitski, the Belarusian authorities had committed a number of violations of his rights guaranteed by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Committee concluded that Yakavitski was arbitrarily deprived of life, as he was eventually executed. In addition, the convict’s right to a fair trial by an independent and impartial court was violated, as well as the right to the presumption of innocence.
The UN Human Rights Committee drew attention to the refusal of the Belarusian state to cooperate with it, as well as to Belarus’s disregard for the Committee’s request for an interim measure of protection.
The UN Committee has repeatedly called on the Belarusian government to revise its legislation on the death penalty.
Yakavitski’s individual complaint was registered with the UN Human Rights Committee on July 17, 2016. Despite the fact that the UN Committee asked not to execute the death row prisoner during the consideration of his case, Yakavitski was executed in pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk on November 5, 2016.
On May 22, the Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court turned down the appeals of the Kostseu brothers, Stanislau and Illia, against the verdict passed on January 10, 2020 by the Mahilioŭ Regional Court. The death sentences became final.
19-year-old Stanislau Kostseu and 21-year-old Illia Kostseu were sentenced to death on January 10 at a court session of the Mahilioŭ Regional Court held in Čerykaŭ. They were accused of killing a teacher who lived next door and setting fire to her house.
Earlier this year, Belarusian courts sentenced three people to death. At the moment, four people are awaiting execution on death row in pre-trial detention center No. 1: the Kostseu brothers, Viktar Serhel, and Viktar Paulau. Another death sentence passed against Viktar Skrundzik has not yet become final, and the convict’s appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court on July 30.
Violation of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
In early May, blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski organized meetings in different cities of Belarus with the subscribers of his YouTube channel “Country for Living”. In addition to local residents, several bloggers also took part in the open microphone meetings. Police obstructed Tsikhanouski’s trips, repeatedly stopping, checking and detaining cars used by the blogger and his supporters, for formal or contrived reasons. As a result, on May 6, near Mahilioŭ, the blogger was arrested and taken to the Homieĺ pre-trial detention center to serve a term of administrative detention he received in January for participating in unauthorized protests against “advanced integration” with Russia.
In the evening of May 6, riot police and plainclothes police detained at least 19 people who had gathered near a shopping center on the outskirts of Minsk to support the arrested blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski. They were going to organize a convoy on the Minsk Ring Road. The detainees were released late in the evening after they faced charges. There were reports of ill-treatment of detainees.
Several other people were detained in other parts of Belarus, including a blogger from Brest, Siarhei Piatrukhin.
On May 7, persecution of peaceful protesters continued in different cities of the country, targeting participants in protests in support of the Brest environmental activists and in solidarity with Siarhei Tsikhanouski. Excessive violence was used by the police during the arrests.
On May 8, people who demonstrated in support of blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, participants of his meetings, and other protesters, including environmental activists in Brest, stood trials across Belarus to be sentenced to heavy fines and short prison terms.
The trials continued on May 11 in twelve cities of the country, and later on May 12, May 13, May 14, and on other days.
Youth Bloc activists Danila Lauretski and Liza Prakopchyk were sentenced to terms of administrative detention for staging a protest on May 9 in Minsk.
The human rights community demanded an end to the persecution of peaceful assembly participants, journalists and human rights activists.
On May 20, eight activists were tried in Minsk. They were detained on May 19 in the building of the Supreme Court, after they came to the hearings of appeals against the CEC’s decision to deny registration to several presidential hopefuls associated with opposition leader Mikalai Statkevich. Police officers in plain clothes entered the courtrooms in the middle of the hearings and took the activists away. Then they were all taken to the Centraĺny district police department of Minsk, and then to the Center for Isolation of Offenders, where they spent the night. The activists were eventually sentenced to heavy fines and terms of detention.
Many of the activists sentenced to administrative detention were not released after completing their terms. Instead, they were taken to courts and again convicted under new charges.
Aliaksandr Burakou, a journalist and human rights activist of Viasna’s Mahilioŭ branch, who spent 10 days in the city detention center, filed a complaint against the conditions of his detention. Even after a recent renovation, the facility offers conditions that can be equated to torture, mspring.online said. Other detainees also reported poor conditions.
On May 30 and 31, a wave of detentions of members of the nomination group and supporters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, as well as other activists, swept across the country. In total, more than 30 people were arrested, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
In total, between May 6 and May 31, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" is aware of the arrest of 195 citizens and 155 trials in administrative cases (including 135 trials under Article 23.43 of the Administrative Code) involving at least 132 people. As a result, 69 people were sentenced to short prison terms and 72 more were fined.
Persecution of journalists
Freelance cameraman from Mahilioŭ Mikhail Arshynski was tried in absentia on May 7 under Part 2 of Art. 22.9 of the Administrative Code ("Illegal manufacture of media content") for another story for the Belsat TV channel. The result was a fine of 594 rubles. Dzmitry Lupach was fined under the same article: in Šarkaŭščyna, Judge Aksana Tabol estimated the journalist’s story about the situation with the coronavirus in the district center at 1,080 rubles.
A peculiarity of the month was a number of arrests and administrative detentions of journalists covering mass events in different cities of Belarus.
In the evening of May 9, BelaPAN journalist Aliaksandr Asiptsou was arrested and placed in the Mahilioŭ district detention center. On May 12, he, just like a Deutsche Welle journalist and human rights activist Aliaksandr Burakou and freelance cameraman Mikhail Arshynski, received 10 days of administrative detention: his journalistic activities were viewed by the court as participation in an unauthorized mass event. On May 11, Dzmitry Lupach, a journalist of the Belsat TV channel, was sentenced to a term of detention in Hlybokaje.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a statement demanding the release of its colleagues and a review of their administrative cases.