Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Prosecution of citizens has become one of the main types of repression used by the Belarusian authorities during the acute human rights crisis, which began in the post-election period.
As a result of attempts by law enforcement agencies to forcibly suppress mostly peaceful spontaneous protests in the period from 9 to 12 August, the Investigative Committee opened criminal proceedings under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (mass riots) against more than eighty citizens.
Experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" disagree with the qualification of the demonstrations as mass riots, since the demonstrators did not commit any of the actions covered by Art. 293 of the Criminal Code — arson, destruction of property, or armed resistance to police officers.
According to the experts, isolated cases of violence against police officers and soldiers of the Interior Ministry should be classified in each case separately, taking into account the context of such violence, including in the context of self-defense against disproportionate use of violence by Interior Ministry officers.
The human rights crisis has led to a sharp increase in the number of political prisoners in the country.
While before the election on August 9 there were 24 political prisoners in Belarus recognized as such by the Belarusian human rights community, in the post-election period their number increased to 41.
During the first days after the election, numerous people were arrested throughout the country, including activists of the election headquarters of presidential nominee Viktar Babaryka and the initiative of civic election observation “Chestnye Lyudi” (“Honest People”). Some of them were subsequently charged under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code and detained before trial. These people were later recognized as political prisoners by the Belarusian human rights community.
On August 20, one of the leaders of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, Pavel Seviarynets, who had served 75 days of administrative detention, was transferred to a pre-trial detention center as a suspect in a criminal case under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (mass riots).
Also on August 20, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case under Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus) against members of the Coordination Council, a body composed of representatives of various political forces and civil society, aiming to facilitate a possible negotiation process with government officials and resolve the political crisis in place since the presidential election.
According to Prosecutor General Aliaksandr Kaniuk, the activities of the Council are aimed at seizing state power, as well as harming the national security of the country.
As part of the criminal case, a number of interrogations took place targeting members of the Presidium of the Council, including the Nobel Prize winner in literature, famous Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich.
The Belarusian human rights community continues to call on the authorities to immediately release all political prisoners as a first step towards a possible dialogue, both at the international level and within the country.
Similarly, EU countries and international organizations, of which the Republic of Belarus is a member, called for the release of all political prisoners.
Violations of freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Dispersal of peaceful protests. Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
In early August, many activists, including observers, were isolated: some were sent to serve earlier administrative penalties, while others were arrested on trumped-up charges.
On August 4, in Salihorsk, a campaign rally of presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was unexpectedly canceled. Some of the people who came to the rally were detained by the police. Of the 20 detainees, two were sentenced to short terms of detention, and the rest were fined.
On August 7, participants of traditional solidarity bicycle rallies were detained in Minsk; riot police and internal troops took part in the detentions.
Activists were tried across the country on the same day. In two of the hearings, Judges Yulia Hustyr and Viktoriya Shabunia sentenced Kiryl Halanau and Uladzislau Sakalouski, DJs who played the song “Peremen!” (“[We Want] Change!”) at a government-organized rally on August 6, to 10 days of detention each. During the arrest, Halanau and Sakalouski were ill-treated, and after their release, they were pressured by the Interior Ministry.
On August 9, after polls closed in many cities, citizens took to the streets to protest election fraud demanding a fair vote count. The protests continued in the following days. Despite the mostly peaceful nature of the protests, disproportionate physical force, riot gear and, for the first time in the history of Belarus, weapons (stun grenades, rubber bullets and in some cases combat weapon) were used against the demonstrators, as well as against random people who came into contact with the security forces. Officers of special units detained hundreds of protesters, including people wearing clothes or carrying insignia affiliated with the democratic candidates, national white-red-white symbols, as well as those with photos of ballots, voting protocols and subscriptions to protest channels and groups on social media in the memory of their mobile phones. In addition, numerous bystanders were detained. On August 10, human rights activists called on the authorities to end detentions and to refrain from using violence and riot gear against civilians.
In the first night of the protests alone, more than 3,000 people were detained, according to the Interior Ministry; for the first three days - more than 6,000 people. Another 700 people were detained on August 12. Human rights activists have every reason to believe that the figures are incomplete. Detentions were carried out in almost all cities of the country.
The Ministry of Health said that a little more than 200 people were admitted to hospitals with injuries during the two days of the protests, and several needed surgery.
As early as August 11, there were indications that peaceful demonstrators and bystanders were subjected to unprecedented violence and torture: police and other special forces beat detainees after detention, in police vehicles, in police stations and in other facilities run by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which were used for the accumulation and accommodation of detainees, as well as in places of detention: detention centers and prisons. Almost all those detained and arrested became victims of torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, to one degree or another. The crimes were committed by masked and unmarked officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and special forces. Acts of ill-treatment were widespread and systemic. Interior Ministry officials confirmed, with varying degrees of certainty, that the violence was not an excess of individual employees, but was planned in advance in response to the protests.
Interior Minister Yury Karayeu said in an interview that he controlled his subordinates, and their aggression was a response to the violence against their colleagues; he also threatened to “respond with lawlessness” to the harassment of his subordinates. Karayeu confirmed that some of the detainees did not face charges, which is evidence of the arbitrary nature of these detentions. Thus, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs did not condemn the use of torture by his subordinates.
Deputy Interior Minister Aliaksandr Barsukou hypocritically denied any ill-treatment of the detainees and claimed that he had spoken to each of them on the night the beaten people were released from the Center for the Confinement of Offenders in Minsk (August 14).
Regular police officers were also involved in the crimes, who either actively assisted special forces in carrying out torture and ill-treatment, or by their criminal inaction.
Judges of district courts conducted hundreds of carbon-copy administrative hearings, in which detainees were deprived of all procedural rights and subjected to torture and ill-treatment. Given the apparent nature and process of torture, in particular inside the Center for the Confinement of Offenders, it is necessary to conduct an appropriate analysis and evaluate the actions of a number of judges not only in terms of failure to provide procedural guarantees, but also in terms of evidence of crimes against justice and crimes against the security of humanity.
By the end of the month, no criminal proceedings had been instituted against officers of the Interior Ministry and the Ministry of Defense for any of the allegations filed with the Investigative Committee bearing ample evidence of bodily injuries. Human rights activists claim that between August 9 and 14, crimes against human security were committed throughout the country, including detentions and abductions, followed by torture and other ill-treatment in connection with the people’s political beliefs.
The Prosecutor General's Office announced the establishment of an interagency commission to investigate allegations of ill-treatment of protesters in prisons. The commission included representatives of the Prosecutor's Office, the Investigative Committee, the Interior Ministry, the State Committee for Forensic Science and the House of Representatives of the National Assembly. However, such a format does not meet the procedural requirements and is assessed by human rights activists of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" as ineffective.
At least two protesters, Aliaksandr Taraikouski in Minsk and Henadz Shutau in Brest, were killed during the protests at the hands of special services. Aliaksandr Vikhor from Homieĺ died immediately after the detention. There are media reports alleging more deaths during the events of August 9-14, which, however, cannot be confirmed with certainty due to the opaque and biased nature of the investigations currently underway.
The media also mentioned cases of sexual harassment of detainees, but the Investigative Committee denies this information. It should be noted that Belarus does not have a program for the protection and rehabilitation of victims of torture, which would help restore the integrity of victims of torture and their physical, mental, social and professional abilities, as well as their full social integration and participation in society. According to the experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", a large number of people who were tortured and ill-treated during the period under review, including most of the victims affected by sexual abuse, refused to disclose information about torture or complain to government agencies, which was caused by their extreme mental condition, on the one hand, and fear for an escalation of persecution by law enforcement agencies, on the other hand.
Thus, we are witnessing a deep crisis of the legal system in Belarus, the negative consequences of which are obvious: the country has destroyed respect for law enforcement agencies, when every police officer is perceived as an accomplice to mass crimes; undermined the credibility of investigative bodies; discredited the role of the prosecutor's office as a body that oversees the rule of law. The courts and judges have become a tool for issuing judicial rulings that violate not only Belarus’s international human rights obligations, but also national law.
The outrageous violations of non-derogable human rights, including the right not to be subjected to torture and other inhuman, cruel, degrading treatment, have overshadowed other, no less gross violations of human rights and national law: imprisonment in overcrowded cells, which, among other things, led to the spread of coronavirus among detainees; lengthy deprivation of water, food, sleep and fresh air; exposure to cold weather, the rain, without regular access to the toilet.
The use of non-lethal weapons, which, as a result of obvious violations of the rules of their use, caused numerous injuries of varying severity, including amputation of limbs and muscles, should be subject to scrutiny. Meanwhile, the Minsk City Prosecutor's Office refused to provide information on the use of weapons and the number of victims.
Journalists were subjected to widespread and targeted persecution: reporters working with independent media outlets were detained, subjected to ill-treatment in detention, and several journalists were beaten and wounded by special services.
On 13 August, the leading human rights organizations of Belarus appealed to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as to a number of special thematic rapporteurs, asking them to take urgent action on the current human rights situation in the country and to trigger all possible measures to monitor the situation. The appeal focuses on the following key points: use of violence and ill-treatment; right to a fair trial; situation of journalists; situation of human rights defenders; access to information; and situation with foreign nationals.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna", the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), the World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) appealed to the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture to express their serious concern and to call for the expert’s intervention in connection with the brutal dispersal of peaceful demonstrators after the presidential election on August 9.
The shocking evidence of police-related torture and violence prompted a powerful movement of sympathy and solidarity in society, as well as numerous initiatives offering assistance to the victims.
Repression of civil society has been accompanied by attacks on independent sources of information, blocking of independent websites, and periodic disruption of the Internet or a sharp reduction in the capacity of operators. The state printing houses disrupted the publication of several issues of the newspapers Narodnaya Volya, Belgazeta and Komsomolskaya Pravda v Belarusi.
Despite the incessant detentions of demonstrators and strike activists, thousands of protesters continue to regularly gather in Minsk and other cities of the country. In the last week of August, more than 400 people were detained, some of whom were subjected to administrative penalties – short terms of detention and fines.