Human Rights Situation in Belarus: June 2020
- during the month, the authorities arrested over a dozen persons involved in a criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order). Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Dzmitry Furmanau, Viarhili Ushak, Aliaksandr Aranovich, Vasil Babrouski, Artsiom Sakau, Uladzimir Navumik and Andrei Novikau were charged under this article;
- on June 16, Siarhei Tsikhanouski faced new charges under Art. 191 of the Criminal Code (obstruction of the exercise of voting rights, the right to participate in a referendum, or the exercise of the right of legislative nomination of citizens, or the work of the CEC, election commissions, referendum commissions, commissions for recalling deputies). It is known that the criminal case was opened after a complaint by the CEC chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna;
- after a series of peaceful protests held across the country and the Interior Minister’s public statement accusing popular bloggers of their organization and coordination, a wave of detentions swept across the country within the criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. A number of well-known bloggers were arrested, as a result, including Aliaksandr Kabanau, Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, Ihar Losik, Siarhei Piatrukhin and Uladzimir Niaronski. Opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich was also arrested and placed in the pre-trial detention center in Minsk;
- particular public outcry was sparked by the arrest of one of the most prominent presidential nominees in this year's election, Viktar Babaryka, and the head of his nomination group, Eduard Babaryka. Both were placed in the KGB pre-trial detention center after the arrest. Their detention was preceded by public threats and accusations from a number of high-ranking officials, including the head of state, Babaryka’s rival in the election, as well as the arrests of members of his nomination group and the freezing of his election funds. The human rights community unequivocally links the criminal prosecution of Viktar Babaryka to his participation in the presidential election;
- the list of political prisoners in Belarus has grown to 22 people, which is comparable to the situation of the most severe human rights crisis in Belarus in late 2010 – early 2011. The EU and the US have demanded that the Belarusian authorities released the detainees and secured fair and just elections;
- on June 29, Amnesty International issued a statement calling the new Belarusian political prisoners “prisoners of conscience”;
- the human rights community is particularly concerned about the violations of the rights of political prisoners held in pre-trial detention centers and other detention facilities, notably systematic bans on meetings with lawyers on the grounds of anti-pandemic measures, and cruel and inhuman treatment;
- on June 18, 19 and 20, peaceful rallies of solidarity with the new political prisoners took place in Minsk and other cities. Despite being absolutely peaceful, police officers dispersed the protests, detaining more than 360 people in 19 cities, including over 260 in Minsk, often with disproportionate use of violence;
- in total, since the beginning of the election campaign, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, about 600 people have been brought to administrative responsibility for participating in peaceful assemblies. 101 of them were sentenced to short terms of detention, and at least 200 were fined a total of more than 180,000 Belarusian rubles;
- on May 30, the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court overturned the death sentence imposed on Viktar Skrundzik. The criminal case was sent to the Minsk Regional Court for a new trial;
- in general, experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" note that the election campaign is taking place against the background of continuous repressions, in an atmosphere of intimidation of society. In June, the overall human rights situation in the country deteriorated sharply.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
During the month, the general human rights situation deteriorated significantly, primarily due to a sharp increase in cases of politically motivated criminal prosecution, including of those directly involved in the election process — members and leaders of nomination groups, as well as presidential nominees themselves.
In June, the authorities continued to target new persons within the criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order). Siarhei Tskihanouski and seven other participants of the May 29 Hrodna election rally, Dzmitry Furmanau, Viarhili Ushak, Aliaksandr Aranovich, Vasil Babrouski, Artsiom Sakau, Uladzimir Navumik and Andrei Novikau, were charged in the case.
The criminal prosecution of these individuals was recognized by the Belarusian human rights community as politically motivated, and the accused themselves were called political prisoners.
Later during the month, several more persons were arrested in different cities as part of this criminal case.
On June 6, Russian national Andrei Novikau was arrested. He was initially charged with participating in an unauthorized assembly and detained under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code (for participating in a meeting with blogger Tsikhanouski). Novikau was later transferred to a detention facility in Minsk, and on June 9, his house was searched as part of a criminal case. On June 12, Novikau was charged under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code and was remanded in pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk. He was also called a political prisoner.
Another criminal case was opened against Siarhei Tskihanouski under Art. 191 of the Criminal Code (obstruction of the exercise of voting rights, the right to participate in a referendum, or the exercise of the right of legislative nomination of citizens, or the work of the CEC, election commissions, referendum commissions, commissions for recalling deputies). It is known that the criminal case was opened after a complaint filed by the CEC chairwoman Lidziya Yarmoshyna, according to whom Tsikhanouski threatened her and tried to influence the work of the CEC.
Following solidarity rallies across the country, Interior Minister Yury Karayeu accused bloggers and journalists (including an employee of Radio Liberty’s accredited office in Belarus) of organizing and coordinating street protests.
After that, a wave of arrest of bloggers swept across the country as part of the criminal case under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code.
Well-known bloggers Aliaksandr Kabanau, Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, Ihar Losik, Siarhei Piatrukhin and Uladzimir Niaronski were arrested as suspects in the criminal case. Niaronski faced an additional charge under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a government official). On June 30, it became known that blogger Dzmitry Kazlou was also named a suspect in the criminal case.
On June 29, opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich, who had previously served 30 days of administrative detention, was arrested in the same criminal case.
According to Viasna’s experts, these arrests are a new form of arbitrary, preventive detention of bloggers, activists and opposition leaders in order to prevent mass protests during the election campaign and in the post-election period.
As previously stated by representatives of the Belarusian human rights community, all the persons arrested under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code are considered as political prisoners and should be immediately released.
The June 18 arrest of one of the most popular presidential nominees in this year's elections, Viktar Babaryka, and his son, who served as the head of his nomination group, Eduard Babaryka, sparked considerable public outcry.
According to the head of the State Control Committee, who authorized Babaryka’s arrest, the former banker was detained on suspicion of being the “direct organizer of illegal activities, attempting to influence witnesses, and hiding traces of previous crimes.” Later it became known that the Prosecutor General's Office opened a criminal case under Parts 2 and 3 of Art. 285 of the Criminal Code (creation of a criminal organization or participation in it). It is not reported, however, what exactly Viktar Babaryka is accused of. It is known that on June 22 his son Eduard Babaryka was charged under Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion in a particularly large amount).
Earlier members of Viktar Babaryka's nomination group, Sviatlana Kupreyeva and Uladzimir Dudarau, were arrested and taken into custody. These arrests were preceded by other detentions as part of a criminal case targeting Belgazprombank employees and a number of threats by the head of state against Viktar Babaryka, as well as the blocking of his election fund.
In a joint statement, Belarusian human rights organizations called the arrest of Babaryka and four members of his nomination group politically motivated and demanded their immediate release.
Also, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Human Rights Center "Viasna" wrote to a number of UN Special Rapporteurs, after Babaryka’s lawyer was repeatedly denied access to his client and other violations of the rights of Viktar and Eduard Babaryka were reported.
Thus, the number of political prisoners in Belarus has grown to 22 people, which is comparable to the situation of late 2010 – early 2011, the period of the most severe crisis in the field of human rights in Belarus.
On June 29, Amnesty International issued a statement calling the new Belarusian political prisoners “prisoners of conscience”.
In connection with the sharp deterioration of the human rights situation in the country, BHC and the Human Rights Center “Viasna” appealed to a number of thematic Special Rapporteurs and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
The human rights activists asked the Special Rapporteurs to urge the government of Belarus, in accordance with the relevant procedures, to take immediate steps to fulfill its international human rights obligations enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, and other documents.
The death penalty
On June 30, the Judicial Board for Criminal Cases of the Supreme Court considered the appeal of death convict Viktar Skrundzik and three of his accomplices. The appeal was granted and the sentence overturned. The case will be sent to the Minsk Regional Court for a retrial.
Four people are currently awaiting execution on death row at pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk.
Violations of freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly
Since the beginning of the month, the authorities have targeted supporters of the arrested blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski: on June 1, three activists were fined in Viciebsk for helping to set up a picket to collect signatures in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential nomination.
The government authorized the application of legal restrictions on peaceful protests and, accordingly, administrative penalties by the police and courts against the participants in numerous election pickets.
On May 31, the police detained several participants in a picket held to collect signatures outside Kamarouski Market in Minsk. The list of persons arrested, imprisoned and fined for similar protests is growing on a daily basis.
However, the pickets do not stop. A joint picket by several alternative candidates took place on June 5 near the capital’s GUM department store. On June 7, several pickets were held near the Minsk Kamarouski Market, as well as in other cities of Belarus. The pickets ended in mass detentions. Independent observers of the #ControlBY civil observation initiative were pressured by plainclothes officers who behaved aggressively and threatened the monitors.
The following day, courts in different cities of Belarus fined and imprisoned numerous detainees.
Noting the continuing repression of activists, civil society organizations and ordinary citizens in May, despite calls from the national human rights community, international organizations and UN experts, the human rights organizations of Belarus on June 11 demanded an end to pressure and intimidation of people in connection with the election.
Some activists were sentenced to several consecutive terms of detention without leaving the detention facilities: on June 16, Narodnaya Hramada activists Valiantsin Trotski, Aliaksandr Hrachyshnikau and Veranika Mishchanka were sentenced to another 15 days in jail each.
On June 18, one day before the end of the signature collection campaign, several presidential nominees - BCD co-chair Volha Kavalkova, UCP leader Mikalai Kazlou, and For Freedom leader Yury Hubarevich - organized a picket of solidarity near the Belarusian State Philharmonic Hall in Minsk. After 9 pm, the election picket turned into a protest in support of Viktar Babaryka arrested earlier the same day.
The last day of collecting signatures resulted in spontaneous rallies across the country. People lined up in human chains along the streets and avenues in solidarity with the detained activists. The protests were dispersed and numerous people were detained, as a result. The Interior Ministry said the number of people detained at the pickets on June 19 was about 270. According to Viasna’s activists, more than 360 people were detained during the solidarity rallies (as well as before and after the protests), which took place across the country from June 18 to 21.
After the protests of solidarity with Viktar and Eduard Babaryka, Siarhei Tikhanouski and his associates, the participants in the rallies stood trials in different cities of Belarus.
Daily trials continue to issue a range of penalties, including warnings and fines in Minsk district courts and short terms of detention in the courts of Orša, Braslaŭ, Hrodna and Viciebsk. At the same time, a court Hrodna convicted political prisoners, who are now held in a remand prison in Minsk, for their involvement in the May 29 election picket, following hearings held via video conferences. Human rights activists have summed up the preliminary results of repression: since the beginning of the election campaign, according to Human Rights Center “Viasna”, about 600 people have been brought to administrative responsibility for participating in peaceful assemblies. 101 of them were sentenced to short terms of detention, and at least 200 were fined a total of more than 130,000 Belarusian rubles (more than 50,000 euros).
The fundraising initiative BY_Help launched crowdfunding in support of those who were detained and prosecuted during the 2020 election campaign.
Restrictions on freedom of expression also affected those who did not participate in mass events. Hanna Seviarynets, a teacher, writer, researcher, and author of several books on the history of Belarusian literature, lost her job at the Smaliavičy district high school, after her contract was not renewed by the employer. The reason was a poem entitled “But I Never Voted For You”, which was published on Radio Svaboda’s website on June 6.
Persecution of journalists
On June 4, Belsat TV journalists Alena Shcharbinskaya and Aliaksandr Barazenka were detained by the police when livestreaming an election picket by Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in Babrujsk.
At least 14 journalists were detained in Belarus in just two days, on June 19 and 20. The Belarusian Association of Journalists and a number of media outlets demanded an end to the persecution of journalists and restrictions on freedom of expression.
Ill-treatment of prisoners and protesters
After his release from the Center for the Confinement of Offenders, opposition activist Maksim Urbanovich complained about abuse of prisoners’ rights and promised to file a formal complaint about the poor conditions of detention: the detainees were kept in cells filled with chlorinated lime solution; they were deprived of personal belongings and hygiene items, and no walks were allowed. It was also reported that the arrested opposition leader Pavel Seviarynets was confined to a cold cell and deprived of his clothes and hygiene items.
Earlier, the administrations of Minsk detention facilities, where arrested activists have been held, illegally banned receiving parcels with essentials and food, explaining this by epidemiological concerns. Meanwhile, in other places of imprisonment, the administrations increased parcel rates. Human rights activists view this as torture, manifestation of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Dzianis Urbanovich, who was also serving a term of detention, complained about other forms of torture and pressure on arrested activists.
On June 20, a small picket of solidarity was held in the town of Hancavičy, Brest Region. Journalists of the local independent newspaper Hancavicki Čas, Siarhei Bahrou and Aliaksandr Pazniak, livestreamed the protest. Soon police arrived and detained about ten participants, and then the journalists themselves. The journalists reported being beaten and filed a statement with the police. However, the reporters themselves were accused of resisting arrest and sentenced to short terms of detention.
Many protesters detained on June 19 in Minsk complained about the disproportionate use of violence by the police. Some of them filed complaints with the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor's Office.