Human Rights Situation in Belarus: February 2021
- in February, the authorities continued to apply criminal prosecution for political reasons. Viasna is aware of at least 102 sentences handed down during the month, with 49 convicts sentenced to terms of imprisonment;
- there are 258 political prisoners in places of detention, as their number continues to increase. The total number of criminal cases initiated in the post-election period amounted to more than 2,300, while Viasna knows the names of as few as 850 people involved;
- security forces continue to detain peaceful protesters and other people accused of displaying white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. In total, Viasna possesses information about the detention of 511 citizens during the month; 312 court rulings were issued: in 222 cases short terms of administrative arrest detention were imposed, in 73 cases – fines were handed down;
- persecution of journalists and bloggers continues. On February 17, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk sentenced Belsat journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova to two years in prison for reporting on a protest triggered by the death of Raman Bandarenka;
- pressure on human rights activists intensified. On February 2, Siarhei Drazdouski, chairman of the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, was placed under house arrest on charges of fraud, and Aleh Hrableuski, the organization’s legal adviser, was remanded in custody;
- on February 16, the offices of numerous human rights organizations and the apartments of human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society activists were searched in Minsk and across the country. Searches were conducted in the offices of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", BAJ, and the independent trade union REP. The search warrants referred to a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order);
- of particular concern are the scheduled legislative amendments aimed at strengthening administrative and criminal liability for participating in protests and public criticism of the current political regime;
- during the month, the human rights situation in the country continued to deteriorate, indicating an even greater aggravation of the already profound human rights crisis.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
During February, according to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, at least 102 convictions were handed down in criminal cases related to events during and after the presidential election. Of these, 88 are men, 33 women and 3 minors. 49 defendants were sentenced to terms of imprisonment, 26 - to restricted freedom in open penitentiaries, 21 - to home imprisonment, 3 - to arrest for up to three months and 3 - to fines.
The largest group of defendants in the political trials were convicted under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order) - 39 people and under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code (insulting a government official) - 17 people, under Art. 364 of the Criminal Code (violence or threat of violence against a police officer) - 15 people, under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (mass riots) - 12 people and under Art. 339 (hooliganism) - 11 people.
According to the data voiced by the Investigative Committee chairman Ivan Naskevich, since the summer of 2020, more than 2,300 criminal cases of “extremist orientation” have been initiated in the country.
The number of political prisoners by the end of the month reached 258 and continues to grow as information on criminal cases continues to be received and analyzed.
The month was marked by a number of high-profile criminal trials in politically motivated cases, which caused outrage and condemnation both in Belarus and abroad.
On February 17, the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk sentenced Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova, both journalists of Belsat TV channel, to two years in prison, finding them guilty of organizing group actions that grossly violate public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). The journalists were accused of calling for protests and directing the actions of the protesters while they were reporting live on a rally in memory of Raman Bandarenka, a protester who died in November 2020.
Persecution of human rights defenders
Of particular concern is the increase in cases of criminal prosecution of human rights defenders.
During the month, the authorities began to systematically persecute and put pressure on human rights defenders and human rights organizations in connection with their legitimate activities to protect the rights and freedoms of others.
In particular, the chairman of the human rights organization “Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities”, Siarhei Drazdouski, and the lawyer of this organization Aleh Hrableuski were persecuted by the authorities. Following an investigation into the organization’s work initiated by the State Control Committee on February 2, a criminal case under Article 209 of the Criminal Code (fraud) was opened against Drazdouski and Hrableuski. Siarhei Drazdouski was placed under house arrest (the activist is a wheelchair user), while Aleh Hrableuski was remanded in a pre-trial prison.
The country’s human rights community condemned these actions and demanded the immediate release of Drazdouski and Hrableuski, recognizing them as political prisoners.
On February 12, it became known that Marfa Rabkova, volunteer coordinator at the Human Rights Center "Viasna", faced new and heavier charges under Part 2 of Art. 285 (participation in a criminal organization) and Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred against another social group, committed by a group of persons). Marfa Rabkova has been in the -trial detention for five months on charges under Part 3 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (financing and other preparation of mass riots).
According to the new charges, the Viasna activist faces up to 12 years in prison.
The new charges were brought against Marfa Rabkova shortly after the national television aired a film called “TNT of Protest”, which alleged the involvement of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in general and Marfa Rabkova, in particular, in terrorist activities.
On February 16, several local offices of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and the apartments of human rights defenders and civil society activists were searched all over the country. A total of 90 searches were conducted by law enforcement agencies.
Searches were also conducted in the offices of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in Minsk, as well as in the apartments of Viasna members - the chairman of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" Ales Bialiatski, lawyer Pavel Sapelka, coordinator of the campaign "Human Rights Defenders against the Death Penalty in Belarus" Andrei Paluda, member of the organization’s Board Dzmitry Salauyou, and a Viasna activist Natallia Satsunkevich.
Security forces further raided the Minsk office of BAJ and the apartments of the organization's chairman Andrei Bastunets and his deputies Aleh Aheyeu and Barys Haretski.
Searches were also conducted at the office of the independent trade union REP and in the apartments of its representatives: Vasil Zavadski, Ihar Komlik, Andrei Komlik-Yamatsin and Henadz Fiadynich.
The nationwide raids were carried out as part of a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order), which, according to the Investigative Committee, were aimed at establishing the circumstances of the financing of protest activities.
Dzmitry Salauyou, a member of the Board of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", was detained during a search in his house, and was later sentenced to 12 days of in prison under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code for allegedly staging a one-person picket by publicly displaying the emblem “Pahonia” on the wall of his house. The coat of arms, which is protected by law a historical and cultural value, was mounted on the wall during its construction eight years ago.
Freedom of peaceful assembly
In February, citizens continued to be persecuted for participating in peaceful assemblies and pickets. In different cities of the country people were detained in their apartments and houses, on the street; inspections and searches were carried out at their places of residence.
The authorities chose to persecute even those events that did not have a clear political context. Late in the evening on February 13, riot police detained participants and attendees of a concert by the bands RSP, Panska Moc and Ok-Band. The detainees faced charges of “illegal protesting.” A total of 68 people were detained at the concert held in the village of Sokal, Smaliavičy district.
On February 14, in the village of Lešna, Maladziečna district, police detained 19 skiers who, in their opinion, were holding an unauthorized rally using unregistered symbols. All detainees were subsequently brought to administrative responsibility under Art. 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses.
On February 27, 25 residents of Minsk, who had come for a joint outdoor party, were detained outside a private house near Maladziečna. According to the Interior Ministry, the people “intended to burn a state flag-colored effigy.”
On March 1, the new version of the Administrative Code is expected to come into force, the rules of which provide for increased liability for violating the order of organizing and holding unauthorized mass events, including increased fines (up to 200 basic units, or 5,800 rubles as of late February) and duration of administrative detention for repeated violations of this article (up to 30 days in prison). Moreover, the authorities announced criminal liability for systematic violations of protesting procedures.
In February, according to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", there were 511 detentions in connection with the exercise of rights and freedoms. Among them 176 were women, 21 – pensioners, 15 – journalists, 4 – people with disabilities. 312 court rulings were issued: in 222 cases administrative detention was imposed (in 125 cases - 15 days), in 73 - a fine. 9 warnings were issued, 1 case was dropped, and several cases were sent for retrial.
Freedom of expression
During December, people in Belarus continued to be prosecuted for free expression en masse.
On February 1, the Smarhoń District Court sentenced Dzmitry Hrynevich, a local resident, to one year of home imprisonment for desecrating the state flag (Article 370 of the Criminal Code). The case was considered by Judge Liudmila Piatrova. Hrynevich was accused of removing the state flag on the roof of high school No. 4 in Smarhoń on the night of October 28. He then folded the flag, put it in his pocket, and hung a “white-red-white canvas” instead. It is noteworthy that the convict was earlier fined for the same offense.
The impunity of police officers for their acts of cruel and inhuman treatment and torture has generated a wave of negative reactions targeting the police in social media and in Telegram channels and chats.
On February 1, Judge Raman Krylovich of the Dziaržynsk District Court sentenced Maksim Sambras, a resident of the town of Fanipaĺ, to 15 months of home imprisonment under Art. 369 (insulting a government official). According to the indictment, on September 26, 2020, Sambras posted an obscene statement about the head of the Dziaržynsk police department, police colonel Yauhen Zhylinski, in one of local Telegram chats, which the prosecution believed to be “personal and insulting.” The convict was also ordered to pay 3,000 rubles in moral damages.
On February 1, Judge Alena Novikava of the Minsk District Court sentenced Aliaksandr Dziashchenia to two years of home imprisonment and 2,000 rubles in compensation for moral damage on charges of insulting a government official. On September 20, Dziashchenia reportedly posted a message of a “humiliating nature, using obscene language” in a group in the Vkontakte social media. The alleged victim is a police officer Pavel Kurs.
On February 2, Ihar Mitsiankou, a 31-year-old resident of Mahilioŭ, was convicted by the Lieninski District Court for insulting a traffic police officer. In September, Mitsiankou allegedly commented on a publication in a Vkontakte group about fines for drivers who sounded their horns in solidarity with protesters.
Judge Tatsiana Kastsiuk found Mitsiankou guilty under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code and sentenced him to two years of home imprisonment. The judge estimated the victim’s moral suffering at 1,000 rubles.
Judge Natallia Panasenka of the same court sentenced Dzmitry Tsimafeyeu, a blogger from Baranavičy, to two years in an open correctional facility. He was found guilty of insulting the head of the traffic police department of the Babrujsk city executive committee Vital Paddubski.
On February 5, Judge Alla Bushava of the Frunzienski District Court sentenced software technician Aliaksei Machalau to 18 months of home imprisonment under Article 369 of the Criminal Code for insulting in a Telegram chat Mikhail Bedunkevich, head of GUBAZIK’s 3rd department.
On February 2, the Dziaržynsk District Court sentenced Andrei Kavalchuk to 18 months of home imprisonment under Art. 341 of the Criminal Code (desecration of buildings and damage to property) and under Art. 368 (insulting the president). According to the indictment, on September 24, 2020, in a public place in Dziaržynsk, Kavalchuk deliberately spray-painted “cynical inscriptions and a graphic image” on the concrete fence of a local private enterprise, which caused damage to the business estimated at 43 rubles.
On February 17, chairperson of the Hrodna District Court Hanna Chyleka sentenced two Skidaĺ residents Krystsina Paltavets and Andrei Apanasovich to fines of 4,350 and 2,900 rubles, respectively. Between late August and December 21, 2020, artist Krystsina Paltavets painted numerous artworks in different places of Skidaĺ, as well as at bus stop shelters and on bridges in the Hrodna district, mostly images of storks, cats, girls with white-red-white hair, the Pahonia emblem, and white-red-white Christmas trees. There were also slogans “Long live Belarus!”, “Join!”, “I’m coming out”, and a drawing of Raman Bandarenka. Andrei Apanasovich was accused of driving the artist several times in his car.
On February 1, the court of Orša sentenced Uladzimir Shynkevich to 15 months in prison under Part 1 of Art. 368 (insulting the president). According to the investigation, Shynkevich published an insulting post against Lukashenka in the Odnoklassniki social media. It is unknown what exactly the post contained, as the case was considered behind closed doors.
Persecution of lawyers
The qualification commission at the Ministry of Justice revoked the licenses of lawyers Maksim Konan, Kanstantsin Mikhel, Liudmila Kazak and Mikhail Kiryliuk. Mikhel, Kazak and Konan were disbarred for “administrative offenses”: Mikhel and Konan took part in protests and were prosecuted under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code. Liudmila Kazak was prosecuted for “disobeying a lawful request of a police officer”. In reality, the lawyer was abducted in central Minsk under the pretext of facing administrative charges.
Lawyer Mikhail Kiryliuk was accused of publishing statements containing “rude and tactless expressions against government officials.” In fact, he expressed his views on current political and social processes.
It later became known that Uladzimir Sazanchuk, a lawyer for several opposition politicians and activists, was facing disbarment in connection with his refusal to sign a non-disclosure agreement.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
Belarusian investigation bodies reportedly received 4,644 complaints about the use of physical force and police gear by officers of the Interior Ministry, who dispersed the 2020 post-election protests.
The figure was announced by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, as she was presenting her report on Belarus at the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council. The UN learned about the number of complaints from a background note received from the Belarusian authorities.
Noteworthy is, however, that no full-fledged investigation has yet been conducted into any of these allegations.
In February, the Investigative Committee officially refused to launch criminal investigations into the deaths of protesters Aliaksandr Taraikouski and Aliaksandr Vikhor. A formal investigation was finally launched into the death of Raman Bandarenka. At the same time, the authorities were quick to say that police officers had nothing to do with the protester’s death.
During the criminal trials held in February, many defendants reported torture by police officers. In particular, such allegations were voiced by convicted protesters Mikita Kharlovich, Ivan Krasouski, Aliaksei Lapa, Andrei Pazniak, and Vadzim Hurman. The courts, however, tend to ignore torture reports.