Summary of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" report:
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
In April, the authorities continued to actively use criminal prosecution as the main form of political repression. Human Rights Center Viasna is aware of at least 96 convicts in politically motivated criminal cases during the month.
According to the General Prosecutor's Office, over the period from August 2020 to April 2021, more than three thousand criminal cases were initiated related to the organization and conduct of illegal mass events and protests. It also reported over 750 facts of alleged desecration of buildings and damage to property, about 600 insults to government officials, and more than 300 cases of violence or threats of its use against police officers.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" knows the names of more than 1,000 persons prosecuted for political reasons.
The number of political prisoners reached 360 at the end of the month and continues to grow as information about criminal cases is received and analyzed.
New trends have emerged in the politically motivated criminal prosecution, as the authorities are increasingly blacklisting local opposition chats and Telegram channels as extremist and accusing their administrators of creating extremist organizations, respectively. According to Viasna experts, these trends in law enforcement practice are due to the adoption by the National Assembly of amendments and additions to the Law “On Countering Extremism”. These changes criminalize almost any public criticism of the government, both in general and its individual representatives.
In particular, on March 18, a community activist from the village of Ždanovičy near Minsk, mother of four children Volha Zalatar, was detained. On March 29, the woman was officially charged under Part 1 of Art. B, Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation of an extremist formation) and remanded in a pre-trial facility. On April 2, the country’s human rights community condemned Zalatar’s detention, calling her a political prisoner and demanding her immediate release.
On April 16, after serving 25 days of administrative detention for participation in an unauthorized meeting, a student of the Belarusian State University Artsiom Bayarski was detained and placed in a pre-trial detention center. He is suspected under Part 1 of Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation of an extremist formation), as he, according to the investigation, is the administrator of the Telegram channel “Maya Kraina Belarus” (“My Country of Belarus”). According to his lawyer, Bayarski was forced to appear in a video confession, which was later shared on the Telegram channel of a well-known state TV propagandist Azaronak. In order to obtain the statement, he was reportedly tortured by the officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who beat him with truncheons on his legs and buttocks.
A number of notable criminal trials in politically motivated cases were held during the month. These trials caused specific public outcry, both in Belarus and abroad.
On April 14, the court of the Kastryčnicki district of Mahilioŭ issued a verdict in a criminal case against political prisoners Siarhei Piatrukhin and Aliaksandr Kabanau. Judge Volha Krauchanka found the bloggers guilty of organizing group actions that grossly violated public order (Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and insulting a government official (Article 369 of the Criminal Code). Piatrukhin was also found guilty of insulting judge Andrei Leshchanka of the Brest Regional Court (Article 391 of the Criminal Code). Both bloggers were sentenced to three years in a general-security penal colony. In addition, Piatrukhin and Kabanau are expected to pay 750 rubles each in damages to riot police officer Vital Autushenka, who, according to the verdict, was humiliated by the bloggers’ publications on social media. The judge ordered the removal of the defendants from the courtroom and the trial was held behind closed doors (the courtroom was occupied by students, so that no one, including representatives of independent media and human rights activists, could attend the hearings).
On April 27, the court of the Lieninski district of Hrodna sentenced Aliaksandr Aranovich, driver working with Siarhei Tsikhanouski’s “Country for Living” initiative, to six years in prison, finding him guilty of committing crimes under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order) and Part 2 of Article 13, Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (preparation for participation in riots). This is another sentence passed in the so-called “Tsikhanouski case” linked to the events of May 29, 2020, in Hrodna. On this very day, as a result of a poorly organized provocation by the special services, the well-known YouTube blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was detained together with a dozen of his supporters. Later, this served as a formal basis for the arrest in May-June 2020 of a number of well-known bloggers (Piatrukhin, Kabanau, Losik, Niaronski) and politicians (Statkevich, Seviarynets). Human rights defenders stress that the defendants in the “Tsikhanouski case” trials are accused of acting in collusion with Tsikhanouski, Statkevich and Seviarynets, while the three political activists themselves are not examined in court. As a result, the alleged participation of Tsikhanouski, Statkevich and Seviarynets in the organization of mass riots will not be subject to proof at the time of the judicial examination of their cases, as the facts will have been already established by the final court verdicts.
Meanwhile, as it became known, the trial of Pavel Seviarynets himself, as well as activists of the European Belarus opposition group Yauhen Afnahel, Pavel Yukhnevich, Dzmitry Kazlou, Maksim Viniarsky and Andrei Voinich will be held on May 12 in the Mahilioŭ Regional Court behind closed doors. The decision to classify the proceedings refers to the fact that the case file material “belongs to a secret protected by law.”
During the month, group trials continued in the city of Brest (the third group of defendants charged under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code in the so-called “dancing protest case”), as well as against those accused of participating in mass riots in the city of Pinsk.
On April 30, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest sentenced fourteen defendants in the Pinsk rioting case to terms imprisonment of ranging from five and a half to six and a half years.
Persecution of human rights defenders
The authorities continued to practice pressure and harassment of human rights defenders in connection with their human rights activities.
On April 5, police officers detained the organizers of the exhibition “The Machine Breathes, But I Am Not”, dedicated to the work of Belarusian doctors in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The detained activists of the public association “Zvyano” Natallia Trenina, Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya and Yuliya Siamechanka were placed in a temporary detention facility. Their homes and the organization’s office were searched.
Subsequently, it became known that the activists stood trials and were sentenced to short terms in prison for disobeying law enforcement officials. Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya was fined. However, Hatsura-Yavorskaya was not released, but was arrested on criminal charges, instead, and transferred to a pre-trial detention center.
On April 6, the security forces searched the apartment of the parents and the personal apartment of human rights activist Enira Branitskaya, activist of the Human Constanta team and member of the Supervisory Board of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The official reason for the raids was the “rioting” criminal case and the activities of the International Committee for the Investigation of Torture in Belarus. During the search in the human rights defender’s apartment, the electricity was turned off, and there was no contact with her until the end of the procedural actions. She is currently at large, but her IT equipment was confiscated and her exit from the country was restricted. On April 7, Branitskaya was questioned as a witness at the Investigative Committee.
The country’s human rights community issued a joint statement to protest the ongoing persecution of human rights defenders and the immediate release of Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya, as well as the imprisoned human rights defenders Aleh Hrableuski, Siarhei Drazdouski, Leanid Sudalenka, Marfa Rabkova, Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrei Chapiuk.
On April 16, after 10 days of detention, Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya was released from the pre-trial detention center without a charge, but remained a suspect and was temporarily restricted from leaving Belarus. At the same time, her husband, a well-known Ukrainian human rights activist Volodymyr Yavorsky, was detained and beaten by GUBAZIK officers, and was forced to leave the country under the threat of deportation.
During the month, active investigative actions continued in the framework of the criminal case into the activities of the HRC “Viasna”, as members of the organization, including chairman, Ales Bialiatski, were summoned for interrogation as witnesses.
On April 14, Viasna’s human rights activist Aliaksandr Vaitseshyk was detained while monitoring a trial at the court of Baranavičy. The next day, it became known that the human rights defender was sentenced to 15 days of detention under Article 25.1 of the Administrative Code, “contempt of court”. In protest against the illegal detention and unjust imprisonment, Vaitseshyk went on a hunger strike.
On April 22, the court’s decision was overturned by the Brest Regional Court, and the case was sent for a new trial to the court of first instance. Vaitseshyk was released after serving 8 days.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly
Despite the exclusively peaceful nature of protests, participants in these demonstrations continue to be severely repressed.
On March 1, a new Code of Administrative Offenses entered into force, which established new and clearly disproportionate fines for violating the procedure for holding mass events, as well as doubled the maximum period of imprisonment for re-committing this offense. The very procedure for organizing mass events is criticized by human rights activists and experts as violating the presumption in favor of peaceful assemblies and setting excessive demands on the organizers of such events.
At the same time, the authorities refused permission to hold the traditional “Chernobyl Way” demonstration marking the 35th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster on April 26, and in the evening of that day, security forces and police and army vehicles were pulled to the center of Minsk to perform random body searches of pedestrians and motorists. Pinpoint detentions were also documented.
According to Viasna, in April, the courts issued more than 210 rulings in politically motivated administrative cases. In 131 cases, short terms of administrative imprisonment were imposed, and in 68 – fines were issued. It is known that 304 people were detained (253 of them in Minsk) during the month, including 6 journalists.
The amendments to the Law “On Mass Events”, adopted in two readings by the House of Representatives, abolished the notification-based procedure for holding static public events (rallies, pickets, meetings) in places specifically designated for the purpose by decisions of local authorities. Besides, the amendments prohibit the dissemination of information about unauthorized meetings (which effectively outlaws live reporting). In addition, the amendments to the Criminal Code provide for the introduction of criminal liability for systematic violation of the procedure for organizing and holding mass events — after two administrative prosecutions for participating in unauthorized meetings during 12 months.
Violations of freedom of expression
The law "On Mass Events" arbitrarily includes various forms of expression: the use of national and protest symbols in houses, on items of clothing and cars, and the distribution of information materials.
For example, Katsiaryna Yakubenka was detained for a two-centimeter white and red brooch under a scarf. Judge Siarhei Shatsila asked if the woman realized “what this brooch means as a result of recent events.” Yakubenka explained that this was a gift from a friend, which she had been wearing for five years. The judge of the Saviecki District Court in Minsk, however, estimated the gift at 1,450 rubles.
The authorities continued to routinely use criminal charges to persecute forms of expression insulting police officers and the state apparatus. As a rule, the charges affect those who have expressed their assessment of the events that took place after the presidential election and the role of government representatives in this process. Often these statements border on moral and ethical norms or go beyond this border, not being, however, with rare exceptions, reactions to legitimate official activities, but to flagrant violations of human rights and national law by both government institutions and specific individuals.
On April 1, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest convicted three local residents of hanging an effigy of Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Andrei Kolas, Volha Zavadskaya and Yuliya Bodak were sentenced to various terms of restricted freedom under Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code, “hooliganism committed by a group of persons”.
Particularly alarming is the closure by the authorities of the exhibition “The Machine is Breathing, But I Am Not” dedicated to the work of Belarusian doctors during the spread of the coronavirus infection. The exposition was launched in Minsk on March 30, and on April 1, the sanitary station and the Ministry of Emergency Situations found violations at the site, so the organizers had to close the exhibition.
The Novaya Baravaya neighborhood of Minsk was again raided by security forces, resulting in searches in private apartments and detentions of residents. The neighborhood was targeted by the police and the judges supporting the repression after numerous paper-cut hearts were placed in the windows.
20 people were detained in Žodzina, after police officers came to a private sauna, where 13 women and 7 men allegedly organized an “unauthorized mass event”. All those present were detained and taken to the police department, where they faced charges under Art. 24.23 of the Administrative Code. Four detained men went on hunger strike to protest the charges of participating in a mass event and resisting arrest. The detainees’ homes were searched.
On April 30, the Ministry of Internal Affairs announced the initiation of a criminal case against a music teacher who posted a Tweet, “in which she outraged the text of the national anthem by changing the words.” The police views the Tweet as an insult of the state symbols.
Violations of freedom of association
The March arrests of representatives of the persecuted Union of Poles resulted in charges against activists of the Union Andżelika Borys, Andrzej Poczobut and Maria Tiszkowska under Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code, “deliberate actions aimed at inciting national and religious hatred and hostility on the grounds of national, religious, linguistic and other social affiliation,” as well as “rehabilitation of Nazism committed by a group of individuals.” The repression stems from the Union’s holding of a number of “illegal mass events to honor the members of anti-Soviet bandit formations who acted during and after the Great Patriotic War, committing robberies, murders of civilians in Belarus, destruction of property,” the Prosecutor General’s Office said. The events were held to commemorate the soldiers of the Home Army, the main organization of the Polish Resistance, which fought against the Nazi occupation, and after the end of World War II created an anti-Soviet and anti-communist underground.
The authorities continued to persecute the organizers and participants of local communities, which were formed in the wake of political and social turmoil of the summer and fall of 2020 to pursue exclusively peaceful and legal goals in a democratic society.
In this regard, the human rights community is particularly concerned about the announced changes to the country’s laws affecting freedom of expression, in particular, the Law "On Countering Extremism". The proposed changes outlaw as extremism and, accordingly, criminalize virtually any criticism of the authorities, government bodies and their representatives. According to Viasna experts, these changes are incompatible with the international human rights obligations voluntarily undertaken by the Republic of Belarus and go beyond the permissible restrictions on freedom of expression provided for in Art. 19 of the ICCPR.
Torture and prohibited treatment
UN human rights experts called on Belarus to end the continuing practice of excessive use of force, arrests, arbitrary detention and ill-treatment of protesters and the repression of journalists and media workers.
Human rights activists are deeply concerned about the widespread violations of the rights of persons detained and imprisoned in administrative cases: the administration and employees of detention centers create unbearable conditions for the detainees, whose short-term detention constitutes politically motivated imprisonment in connection with the non-violent exercise of freedoms guaranteed by international human rights law. In this situation, the nature of their treatment is regarded as torture. Some political prisoners report violence.
Artsiom Bayarski, a 19-year-old second-year student of the Faculty of Chemistry of the Belarusian State University, was arrested and charged with creating an extremist group. Bayarski was beaten by the police in order to force him appear in a video confession later used by a pro-government propaganda Telegram channel. The student was reportedly beaten with truncheons on the back and buttocks, which he reported to his lawyer during interrogation.
In addition, defendants in criminal trials repeatedly report beatings during pre-trial proceedings. The courts and prosecutors failed to take any steps to investigate such allegations.
Violations of the rights of persons subject to criminal prosecution
Viasna’s lawyers and analysts prepared and published another report, “Politically Motivated Criminal Prosecutions. Belarus 2020-2021”. Based on the results of monitoring criminal cases in courts and evaluating the investigations, the human rights defenders concluded that the criminal proceedings against dissidents, including in the courts, are marred by widespread violations of both domestic laws and constitutional and internationally recognized standards of a fair trial. Disregard for human rights and gross violations have fundamentally eroded trust in the rule of law, as well as trust and respect in the judiciary.
Human rights activists note the deterioration of the situation with the transparency and openness of the consideration of criminal cases, as several more trials against protesters and opposition activists were held behind closed doors without a valid reason. The case of Pavel Seviarynets and activists of the European Belarus opposition group will be considered in a closed session. It should be noted that the participants in such hearings, except for the defendants, have no right to disclose information they learned during the trial under the threat of criminal punishment.
The defendants in criminal cases and their lawyers have repeatedly noted the facts of opposition to the implementation of the defense: visits of lawyers and clients are arbitrarily limited, suspects and accused are often interrogated in the absence of a defense lawyer, judges do not provide legal assistance in administrative proceedings. In some cases, suspects are not informed in a timely manner about the reason for the detention and the charges they are facing.
On April 28, the government-owned TV channel ONT published a video of a conversation between Siarhei Tsikhanouski and his lawyer in the pre-trial prison in Minsk. Thus, the authorities openly admitted to a gross violation of the right of the accused and the defense attorney to confidential communication, predetermining the assessment of compliance with the guarantees of a fair trial not only in relation to Tsikhanouski, but also to other political prisoners.