Human Rights Situation in Belarus: March 2022
- The ongoing war in Ukraine and its consequences have radically changed the current agenda in Europe and in the world; democratic countries have imposed new sanctions and restrictions on Belarus because of the Belarusian authorities' support for Russia's aggression.
- The Human Rights Center Viasna strongly condemns the actions of the Belarusian and Russian authorities that undermine the principles of peaceful coexistence of peoples, violate the Constitution and laws of Belarus, and international treaties.
- Reckless actions of the Belarusian authorities, which contradict the public interest, put the country on a par with the aggressor; such a policy of the authorities causes rejection and resistance of those citizens who adhere to democratic values.
- During February Belarusian authorities continuously prosecuted citizens on political grounds, including for anti-war protests; detentions of peaceful protesters continue, together with arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. According to human rights defenders' data, at least 445 people were detained in March, Viasna documented 36 fines totaling over 80,000 rubles (about 24,000 US dollars) and 476 instances of administrative detention under the cases against protesters.
- By the end of March 1110 political prisoners were held in places of detention. The number continues to increase steadily.
- Members of the Human Rights Center Viasna continue to be held in pre-trial detention on arbitrary charges: Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the organization, member of Viasna’s Board, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk. A member of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the head of the Center for Strategic Litigation Leanid Sudalenka, and a volunteer of Viasna Tatsiana Lasitsa were sentenced to three and two years and six months in prison, respectively, the verdict against them came into force.
- Human rights defenders and journalists continue to report numerous cases of ill-treatment of politically imprisoned citizens detained and administratively imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies. Viasna experts consider the inhumane conditions that have been deliberately created by administrations of pre-trial prisons and other facilities for political detainees as torture.
- Torture and other ways of ill-treatment continue to be used during the investigation of politically motivated criminal cases.
- On March 9, at the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet presented a report “Situation of human rights in Belarus in the run-up to the 49 presidential election and in its aftermath”. It provides an overview of the situation of human rights in Belarus with respect to the 9 August 2020 election, including the infliction of arbitrary detentions, torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, failure to effectively investigate allegations of such violations, and lack of respect for due process and fair trial rights.
- Amnesty International has presented its annual “Amnesty International Report 2021/22: The state of the world’s human rights”.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
As in previous months, authorities have been arbitrarily prosecuting those who had participated in the post-election protests of 2020, and other peaceful protest actions, together with dissidents and critics of the government. Criminal prosecution is the most severe form of repression, and it remains indiscriminate and widespread. The judiciary has become an effective instrument for the suppression of rights and freedoms, with judges actively engaged in repression. Trumped-up evidence does not undergo objective critical evaluation, undemocratic legislation is blindly applied, and defendants are selectively sentenced to the harshest possible punishment.
The political prisoner count has increased by 42 in the month to 1110. It continues to grow steadily.
Ales Bialiatski, the chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Valiantsin Stefanovich, a member of Viasna’s Board and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, Maryia (Marfa) Rabkova, the head of Viasna’s network of volunteers, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk continue to be held in pre-trial detention. The head of Viasna’s Homieĺ branch, Leanid Sudalenka and volunteer Tatsiana Lasitsa were sentenced to three and two and a half years in jail respectively. Imprisoned human rights defenders are deliberately and arbitrarily restricted in their correspondence.
Political prisoners get their terms of imprisonment prolonged. On March 11, political prisoner anarchist Mikita Yemialyianau was sentenced at an off-site court hearing in Mahilioŭ prison No. 4 on charges of malicious disobedience to the demands of the administration of the correctional institution (Part 2, Article 411 of the Criminal Code) for violating jail’s internal regulations. Judge Aksana Ratnikava found him guilty and sentenced him to two years in jail under Part 2 of Article 411 of the Criminal Code. The court finally sentenced Mikita to three and a half years in a penal colony by combining the sentences pronounced against him. On March 25, a criminal case against political prisoner Tsikhan Osipau sentenced to 11 years in prison was considered for several hours in Mahilioŭ penal colony No. 15. He was convicted under Part 2 of Art. 411 of the Criminal Code (Malicious disobedience to the demands of the correctional institution administration) to seven months of imprisonment and his custody level was increased from medium to maximum. The verdict was passed by the judge of the Kastryčnicki district of Mahilioŭ Natallia Krashkina.
Violation of the freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression
Criminal and administrative persecution of peaceful protesters and dissidents continues. The courts are still passing verdicts against the participants of the 2020 protests:
On March 9 in Mazyr Judge Valiantsina Novikava sentenced Anton Koshchanka to two and a half years in a penal colony under Part 1 of Art. 13 and Part 1 of Art. 342, part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. According to the indictment, he prepared a text file, the purpose of which was to gather citizens to discuss, get to know each other, and distribute roles for unauthorized action. They were to take to the streets of Mazyr and Kalinkavičy on August 2-10, 2020, and to stand in line along roads between the above-mentioned towns for one or two days. On June 30, 2020, he sent this file via Telegram messenger to an unidentified person “for the purpose of reviewing and coordinating these actions”. He was also accused of repeatedly posting messages on one of the Telegram channels between August 4 and 10, 2020, calling for the active participation of citizens in group actions, grossly violating public order - including blocking District Executive Committee building, the police department, and the Investigative Committee and the Prosecutor's Office.
On March 12, the Centraĺny District Court of Homieĺ completed the consideration of the criminal case against local radio host political prisoner Aliaksei Kruhliak, known professionally as Aliaksei Kaveryn. The journalist has been accused under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them). Judge Viktar Kazachak considered the case. According to the indictment, on August 12, 2020, Aliaksei Kruhliak, while at work, sent several messages using his phone in a closed professional chat concerning the political situation in Belarus after the election. In the heat of the moment, Aliaksei encouraged everyone to take to the streets in Homieĺ, to protest, and stand in chains. He himself was ready to take part in any activities, including wearing a white dress and joining women in their “flower protest”. These messages were considered calls to unauthorized rallies and actions that grossly violate public order, and Aliaksei was considered their organizer. The punishment is one-year imprisonment in a penal colony.
On March 17, 2022, Kastryčnicki District Court of Minsk sentenced 40-years-old Andrei Chudzinau to two years in a general-regime penal colony. He was charged under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (Active participation in actions that grossly violate public order) for taking part in the New Belarus Rally on August 23, 2020. The case was considered by judge Volha Niaborskaya.
Judge of the Maskoŭski district court of Brest Maryna Skalkovich convicted two more participants of the“dance protest case” on March 16. A political prisoner ex-investigator Aliaksandr Antaniuk was sentenced to 18 months in jail under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (participation in actions that grossly violate public order), while Ruslan Hachynski got two years of home confinement under the same article. 116 people have already been convicted in the “dancing protest case”. The prosecutor's office reports that a criminal case against six other participants of this case has been sent to court.
On March 16, 2022, a political prisoner Siarhei Krasouski was tried in the Maskoŭski District Court. Judge Yuryi Mashketau found him guilty under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code and sentenced to 18 months in a penal colony. According to the indictment, on August 9, 2020, Krasouski participated in actions involving repeated disobedience to the demands of the police, obstructing the movement of traffic, and blocking the road. In addition, the political prisoner blocked the traffic while moving with other participants in the front rows.
Police officers continue to organize special operations across Belarus to storm houses and apartments in search of protest symbols, detain people in their workplaces, conduct searches, and interrogations. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression for active citizenship and opposing government policies. The courts hear administrative cases against persons arrested for displaying flags and stickers on windows and storing them in their apartments, reposting and commenting on social media, as well as other forms of protest activities or expression of opinion.
Viasna has information about administrative persecution for exercising the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression of peaceful protesters including those protesting against the war continue, together with arbitrary detentions for displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. According to human rights defenders' data, at least 445 people were detained in March; Viasna documented 36 fines totaling over 80,000 rubles (about 24,000 US dollars) and 476 instances of administrative detention under the cases against protesters. This is by no means a complete record of the number of politically motivated administrative cases: in many cases, judges secretly hold closed sessions by videoconference without announcing the date and place of the hearing, which grossly violates the procedural and constitutional rights of those involved in administrative proceedings, and observers of fair justice standards are prosecuted for their lawful activities.
Thus, on March 10, 32-year-old Dzmitryi Matsiushonak was arrested in Minsk. He had a poster “No war” on his balcony. It is said that his neighbor reported it to the police department; he took a photo of the poster and informed a local police officer.
On the evening of February 27, many people gathered near the General Staff building in Minsk for an anti-war protest against Russia's attack on Ukraine. People chanted “Glory to Ukraine” and “No to War”. A while later, law enforcers began to brutally arrest them. Police beat the protesters with truncheons and then put them in prisoner transport vans. In just three days judges reviewed more than 628 administrative cases and ordered the administrative arrest of at least 589 people.
Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code, which punishes the dissemination of extremist materials, is increasingly used by the Belarusian authorities to repress dissent. Most of these cases are triggered by reposts of various online publications from resources whose information products were earlier recognized as “extremist”.
In February the Republican List of Extremist Materials was considerably expanded. The following resources are recognized as extremist by court rulings: the content of Malanka Telegram channel and other resources entitled “Malanka Media”; DW Belarus Telegram channel, logo (watermark) in the form of two Latin letters ‘D’ and ‘W’ against a background of blue and white circles; Telegram channel Zerkalo.io news and pages on social networks with the title Zerkalo.io, visuals (image, logo, digital watermark, etc.), or texts of Zerkalo.io with or without any inscriptions, regardless of the medium; the logos (watermarks) of the several channels, namely (but not exclusively): "Karateli Belarusi" (Punishers of Belarus), "Belsat", including logo with imprisoned journalists Katsiaryna Bakhvalava and Darya Chultsova against an orange background with an owl in white and orange; "Charter 97", "Basta", "Euroradio", "Radio Liberty Belarus", "Viasna" (an image of a white palm against n a lilac background with blue ornaments and the inscription "Viasna".
Many regional resources in Telegram and social networks, as well as the Telegram channel called “Bielaruski Hajun”, which has become a well-known anti-war resource, have been also recognized as extremist.
The only resource justly included in February in the list is the Internet community in the social network VKontakte “Veselyye Nazi ;)” (Cheerful Nazi) and the content it has produced.
Viasna human rights defenders continue to monitor criminal cases related to zero tolerance of the Belarusian authorities to any form of protest. According to human rights defenders, a common tool of repression today is criminal prosecution under defamation articles: for insulting the President, representatives of authorities, and judges, as well as for desecration of state symbols (Articles 368, 369, 370, 391 of the Criminal Code). There are trials on such charges all over Belarus.
Thus, on March 15–16, Smarhoń District Court Judge Siarhei Bolandz considered the case of local resident Yauhen Shuliuk, who was accused of committing a crime under part 1 of article 367 (Slander against the President of the Republic of Belarus). The man was accused of posting on his personal page on Odnoklassniki social network an image of Lukashenka with the words ‘treacherous’, ‘greedy’, ‘cockroach’, ‘liar’ etc., that he found on the Internet. The forensic linguistic expertise concluded that these words are insulting, negatively characterize Lukashenka, and imply slander. Yauhen Shuliuk was found guilty of committing a crime under Part 1 of Art. 367 (Slander against the President of the Republic of Belarus); he was sentenced to two and a half years of restricted freedom in an open-type penitentiary.
On March 10, Dobruš Court Judge Sviatlana Lukyanava sentenced Uladzimir Baliunou to one year of imprisonment in a general-regime penal colony under Part 1 of Article 367 of the Criminal Code (Slander against the President of the Republic of Belarus). According to the indictment, he posted a message on the Internet with information that insults A. Lukashenka.
On March 16, a blogger and activist, political prisoner Pavel Vinahradau, was convicted in Minsk Regional Court. He became a defendant in a criminal case under Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (Inciting social discord), Part 2 of Art. 367 of the Criminal Code (Slander against the President) and Art. 342 (Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them). The trial was held behind closed doors.
On March 4, the Centraĺny district Court of Homieĺ pronounced a sentence in a criminal case against Viktar Rysinski. Judge Viktar Kazachak considered the case. According to the investigation files, at the end of 2021, the accused Rysinsky, being in a state of alcohol intoxication and “having the desire to publicly demonstrate his disrespectful attitude to the state symbol, demonstrating courage and bold behavior aimed at the mockery of the state symbols of the Republic of Belarus", committed a crime: he deliberately tore the flag together with the mounting from the facade of the building. He was sentenced to one year of restricted freedom in a penal colony.
On March 7, the Lieninski District Court of Mahilioŭ handed down a verdict against Alesia Barysava, reports MAYDAY.TEAM. Judge Aksana Ratnikava sentenced her to two years in an open-type penitentiary under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code (Insulting a government official). The reason for the criminal case against Barysava was her comment on a social network against two police officers from Dubroŭna: senior inspector of the Dubroŭna police department of law enforcement and crime prevention Aliaksandr Shlupakou and operative of the anti-drug and anti-trafficking group officer Siarhei Shramau. On June 17, 2021, a photo of Shramau and Shlupakou appeared on a social network with the caption “these officers, risking their lives, seized balloons”. Barysava, as she admitted in court, commented: “Two morons is power”.
On March 30, the Minsk City Court passed a verdict has been passed in the case of Ales Pushkin‘s, a political prisoner, a well-known Belarusian artist and performer. He was accused of desecrating state symbols (Article 370 of the Criminal Code) and inciting hatred (Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by judge Alena Shylko. The trial has been held in private. The case was brought over the portrait of Yauhen Zhykhar with an automatic gun on his shoulder, made by the artist Ales Pushkin. The portrait was put up at an exhibition, held in the Center of City Life in Hrodna on March 19, 2021. Prosecutor's office stated, that with his artwork Ales Pushkin “characterized Zhykhar as a man of the Belarusian resistance, a fighter against the Bolsheviks, by which glorified and approved of his actions”.
Belarusian lawyers are under pressure for signing an anti-war petition: on March 1, a petition appeared on the Internet in which the authors, referring to the norms of the current Constitution, argued that missiles, planes, and helicopters should not take off from the territory of Belarus to attack the neighboring state. At the moment, 258 lawyers have signed the petition. According to defenders.by, the lawyers were summoned to the local authorities and asked for explanations. Despite the pressure and possible persecution, Belarusian lawyers and advocates continue to leave their signatures on the petition.
Freedom of association
On March 9, Minsk City Court held a sitting on the liquidation of the public association Radislava. It is reported that the court ruled to liquidate the organization. Since that day Radzislava hotline that used to operate 24/7 providing support for victims of domestic violence is closed.
Radzislava is a non-profit non-governmental charitable organization established in 2002 in Minsk to help women affected by domestic violence. In November 2021, the former head of Radzislava Volha Harbunova was detained: the Ministry of Internal Affairs believes that she led the women's rallies.
On March 25 Homieĺ regional court considered the criminal cases against two administrators of the Telegram channel “Petrikov 97%”, which was declared extremist. Viktar Bedryi, 42, and a craftsman Yauhen Klimau, 25, both residents of Pietrykaŭ, were found guilty of leading an extremist group (Part 1, Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code). In addition, Yauhen was found guilty of inciting social hatred for reposting a message about the riot police from another “extremist” Telegram channel Nexta. Judge Ruslan Tsaruk sentenced Viktar and Yauhen to three and five years in medium-security penal colony, respectively.
Persecution of journalists and media
Freedom of speech in Belarus continues to be violated in various forms. In particular, media outlets are deprived of registration and accreditation, and their journalists are criminally prosecuted for performing their professional duties. At least 60 media representatives are criminally prosecuted, and 26 of them are imprisoned.
For instance, on March 3, Judge of Saviecki district of Minsk Siarhei Shatsila sentenced Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a reporter with RFE/RL, to18 months of imprisonment in a penal colony. Hruzdzilovich was found guilty under Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code for participation in unauthorized actions when the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stripped foreign mass media, including RFE/RL, of their accreditation.
On March 15, 2022, Zavadski District Court of Minsk pronounced verdicts on Yahor Martsinovich, editor-in-chief of Nasha Niva, and Andrei Skurko, head of the marketing and advertising department. Judge Anzhela Kastsiukevich found them guilty under Part 2 of Art. 216 of the Criminal Code and sentenced both of them to two years and 6 months of imprisonment in a general-security penal colony. According to the indictment, “Skurko and Martsinovich, as officials of a publishing company, and Martinovich - also the owner of a private unitary enterprise, from May 2017 until June 2021, hosted offices of these organizations in an apartment belonging to Skurko for business activities”. However, the utility services of the premises were paid at the rates for individuals instead of those for legal entities Utility providers had no claims against the defendants in the civil lawsuit, as they fully covered the damage.
Regional mass media are persecuted as well. The prosecutor's office of Luniniec district brought a criminal case against the director and founder of MP-Company, which owns Miedyja-Paliessie Internet medium. They are charged with abuse of power.
Representatives of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty in Belarus” received documentary evidence of Victor Pavlov’s execution. According to the death certificate, he was shot on May 13, 2021.
The UN Human Rights Committee on Thursday condemned Belarus for its execution of Victor Pavlov, whose petition was still being examined by the Committee. Victor Pavlov is the 15th person since 2010 whose execution had been carried out at the same time as the case was pending before the Human Rights Committee. The Committee had requested Belarus to halt his execution while the independent experts examined his allegations of human rights violations.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment
On March 6, a former actor of the Gorky Theater Arsenii Siachko was arrested in Minsk. At 8 pm, while walking near his house, the man noticed policemen detaining drunken men and remarked about it. For that, Arsenii was also detained under Art. 24.23 of the Administrative Code for picketing. Arsenii was badly beaten in the police department. On March 7, Judge Dzmitryi Lukashevich sentenced Siachko to 13 days of administrative imprisonment despite the defendant’s poor condition and his request for a fine. However, Arseniy did not get to jail: a detention center medic refused to admit him because three of his ribs were broken. Siachko was hospitalized. The doctors had to puncture his lung, as fluid was collecting there.
Human rights activists of Viasna continue to receive information about inhumane conditions of detention in Minsk detention facilities.
Detainees and those arrested for political reasons are kept in overcrowded cells, receive no medical care, no outdoor time, and no mail or care packages from their families. There is evidence of beatings of detainees.
In particular, on March 2 it became known that in Žodzina prison, where those detained on anti-war protests were transferred on March 1, care packages are not admitted. A week before Akrescina detention center did not accept care packages as well. The official reason for that are measures against the spread of COVID-19. Also, some people detained at anti-war rallies in Minsk were transferred to the Baranavičy pre-trial detention center and Mahilioŭ prison. According to human rights activists, some people were beaten after arrest, and in detention centers on Akrescina street they were not given food.
Detainees in criminal cases are also held in brutal conditions; in penal colonies, prisoners are subjected to pressure and torture.
Shocking cases of torture, brought to light by political prisoners and widely known, remain uninvestigated.