Human Rights Situation in Belarus: March 2021
Summary of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" report:
- in March, the authorities continued to actively prosecute individuals for political reasons. According to the Prosecutor General's Office, criminal cases against 631 people have been filed with the courts; more than 400 protesters have already been convicted. The Human Rights Center "Viasna" knows the names of 999 people who became victims of political prosecution;
- there were 325 political prisoners, as of the end of March, and their number continues to increase;
- detentions of peaceful protesters continue, as well as arbitrary detentions for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. During the month, Viasna received information about the detention of 1,139 people (including 841 in Minsk) and the issuance of 490 court rulings: in 395 cases short terms of administrative imprisonment were imposed, in 82 – fines were ordered;
- on March 10, the Prosecutor General's Office opened a criminal case against members of the Union of Poles in Belarus and the Polish School. The charges under Article 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred) mention “heroification of Nazism” as grounds for prosecution. Later, the leader of the organization, Andżelika Borys, and four representatives of the Union, Andrzej Poczobut, Maria Tiszkowska, Anna Paniszewa and Irena Biernacka, were detained as suspects in the case;
- pressure on human rights defenders continues. In March, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” was targeted in a criminal investigation under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code, which involved numerous searches in the organization’s offices across Belarus and the private apartments of its members, interrogations of human rights activists and other investigative actions;
- the authorities continue to persecute lawyers working on politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. The proposed amendments to the Law on Lawyers further increase the dependence of the Bar on the Ministry of Justice;
- on March 1, a new version of the Administrative Code came into force, which toughened administrative liability for participation in unauthorized mass events, significantly increasing the fines (up to 200 basic values) and the maximum duration of imprisonment for repeated offenders (from 15 to 30 days);
- of particular concern are the proposed amendments to a number of laws expected to increase criminal responsibility for participating in protests and public criticism of the current political regime, as well as rules governing the activities of the media;
- on March 23, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on the human rights situation in Belarus, which, besides expressing concern about the human rights situation in the country, provided the High Commissioner for Human Rights and independent UN experts with the necessary powers to examine allegations of human rights violations in Belarus in order to identify and bring the perpetrators to justice;
- during the month, the human rights situation in the country deteriorated significantly, indicating a further aggravation of the crisis.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
In March, criminal prosecution was actively used as the main form of political repression. Viasna is aware of at least 105 people convicted in politically motivated criminal trials.
According to the Minsk office of the Investigative Committee, from August 2020 to March 2021, in the capital alone, 935 criminal cases were initiated against protesters. Cases against 221 defendants were sent to courts. In two months of this year, 10% of the total number of criminal cases are related to post-election protests.
According to the Prosecutor General's Office, prosecutors have filed 468 criminal cases against 631 people for participating in illegal mass events and acts that grossly violate public order, violence and threats of violence against members of the law enforcement agencies, their public insult, vandalizing property with political graffiti, hooliganism, and desecration of state symbols. More than 400 people have already been convicted.
The Human Rights Center "Viasna" knows the names of 999 people who became victims of political persecution.
As of the end of the month, the number of political prisoners, according to the Belarusian human rights community, was 325 people, and it continues to grow as new information on criminal cases is received and their analysis is carried out.
During the month, a number of high-profile criminal trials in politically motivated cases took place, which caused particular public outrage, both in Belarus and abroad.
On March 2, the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk convicted TUT.BY journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich and medical doctor Artsiom Sarokin, both earlier called political prisoners. They were found guilty of disclosing a medical secret, namely reporting that on the night protester Raman Bandarenka was detained and beaten, he was not drunk and no alcohol was found in his blood (Part 3 of Article 178 of the Criminal Code). Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka sentenced Barysevich to six months in prison and fined her 2,900 rubles. Sarokin was sentenced to 2 years in prison with a one-year suspension and a fine of 1,450 rubles. With over three months spent in pre-trial detention (from November 19), Katsiaryna Barysevich is expected to be released in two and a half months. Artsiom Sarokin was released in the courtroom. Later it became known that the prosecutor of Maskoŭski district filed an appeal to the Minsk City Court, after the prosecutor’s office said that the sentence to Barysevich was too lenient.
On March 5, the Minsk City Court handed down a 10-year sentence to businessman Aliaksandr Trotski, finding him guilty of attempting to kill a police officer (Article 14, Article 362 of the Criminal Code). According to the indictment, on August 12, 2020, in Minsk, he deliberately hit a traffic police officer, Uladzimir Yurau, while driving his car, as a result of which the officer received minor bodily injuries resulting in no health disorders. According to Trotski, his car was unjustifiably stopped by people in dark uniforms and balaclavas, and when he, fearing for his life, refused to get out of the car, the traffic police officer took out a weapon and aimed it at his head. After that, he left the scene. Judge Siarhei Khrypach found that Trotski did intend to kill the traffic police officer and sentenced him to 10 years in a medium-security prison. Prosecutor Anton Tsiumentsau earlier requested 11 years for Trotski.
This is the heaviest penalty handed down in protest-related trials. The court also ordered Trotski to pay 10,000 rubles to the injured traffic police officer to compensate for the moral damage. Human rights activists strongly disagree with the court verdict and believe that the defendant did not intend to kill the traffic police officer and hit him accidentally, trying to avoid confrontation with officers of the Interior Ministry, who surrounded him and pointed a weapon at him, fearing for his life and health.
According to the press service of the Investigative Committee, the authorities completed the investigation of the criminal case against blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski, leader of the opposition group “Narodnaya Hramada” Mikalai Statkevich and several people affiliated with them. According to the investigators, Tsikhanouski faced finally charges under four articles of the Criminal Code: Part 1 of Art. 293 (organization of mass riots), Part 3 of Art. 130 (incitement to social hostility), Part 2 of Art. 191 (obstruction of the CEC’s work) and Part 1 of Art. 342 (organization of actions that grossly violate public order). Thus, Tsikhanouski is facing up to 15 years in prison. It was also reported that Art. 191 of the Criminal Code (obstruction of the CEC’s work) was used to charge another political prisoner, Siarhei Sparysh.
On March 10, the prosecutor's office opened a criminal case under the Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement to hatred) against representatives of the Brest Forum of Polish Local Initiatives and the Polish School in connection with the “heroification of Nazism” and “justification of the genocide of the Belarusian people.” The initiation of a criminal case and searches of the premises of Polish national minority organizations in Hrodna, Brest, Vaŭkavysk and Lida led to another aggravation of Polish-Belarusian relations, the expulsion of Polish diplomats from Belarus and Belarusian diplomats from Poland. All these actions of the Belarusian authorities take place against the background of aggressive anti-Polish propaganda on state television, as well as Lukashenka's statements about the existence of territorial claims by Poland to the Republic of Belarus.
The leader of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Andżelika Borys, and four activists of the organization, Andrzej Poczobut, Maria Tiszkowska, Anna Paniszewa and Irena Biernacka, were detained as part of the criminal case. The Belarusian human rights community expressed extreme concern over the pressure and persecution of members of the Polish national minority amid anti-Polish hysteria in the state media, and called for the immediate release of all persons detained in the criminal case, calling them political prisoners.
Persecution of human rights defenders
On March 1, Dzmitry Salauyou, a human rights activist and a member of the Board of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was detained in Minsk. Salauyou was taken to the Investigative Committee’s office, where he was interrogated as a suspect in a criminal case under Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (training or other preparation of persons for participation in group actions which grossly violate public order, and also financing or other material maintenance of such activity). After interrogation, Salauyou was released, but remained under travel restrictions.
During the nation-wide attack on human rights activists and journalists on February 16, riot police and GUBAZIK officers broke into Salauyou’s house near Minsk, searched the premises and confiscated IT equipment and documents. The search was part of a criminal case under Art. 342.
The human rights activist was detained after the search. He was beaten during the detention and in a minibus on the way to the detention center.
On February 18, Dzmitry Salauyou was sentenced to 12 days in prison under Art. 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offenses. The charge stemmed from an image of the Pahonia coat-of-arms on the wall of his house, which Judge Anzhalika Kazlova of the Minsk District Court found to be picketing. On February 28, he was released from a temporary detention center.
As it became known later, the Main Department for Investigation of Crimes in the Sphere of Organized Crime and Corruption of the Central Office of the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case to investigate the activities of the Human Rights Center "Viasna".
This criminal case was instituted under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order). At the moment, active investigative actions are taking place as part of the case, including searches in Viasna’s local offices and in the apartments of its members, summonses for interrogation and other procedural actions.
According to the investigators, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" allegedly provides funding and other material support for illegal mass events, whose participants seek to violate public order.
Earlier, human rights activists and volunteers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapiuk, Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsiana Lasitsa, were taken into custody on similar charges. Meanwhile, the state-controlled television channels are engaged in a propaganda campaign alleging Viasna’s involvement in terrorist activities.
The Board of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" made a statement to condemn the attacks on its members and the criminal case investigating the activities of the organization as a whole.
Both Belarusian civil society organizations and international human rights organizations supported the Human Rights Center "Viasna" and human rights activists of Belarus. Concern over the persecution of Belarusian human rights defenders was also expressed by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Mary Lawlor.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly
On March 1, the new versions Code of Administrative Offenses and the Procedural and Executive Code of Administrative Offenses came into force. The new Administrative Code tightened sanctions against participants in peaceful assemblies held without the permission of the authorities: the maximum fine is set at 200 basic units (5,800 Belarusian rubles), and the maximum term of administrative imprisonment – 30 days.
Viasna’s human rights activists informed the UN Special Rapporteurs about repeated administrative convictions and terms of imprisonment imposed on Anastasiya Peravoshchykava, a resident of Homieĺ, for participation in peaceful protests.
The persecution of the woman began in late January, and she has been tried at least six times since then, with the total duration of her imprisonment reaching 90 days. Peravoshchykava’s home and her grandfather's house were searched, and all IT equipment was confiscated. According to her mother, the persecution was prompted by Anastasiya’s role in designing the flag of the Navabielica district of Homieĺ. As a result, the woman was accused of participating in at least 10 peaceful protests.
Mass detentions of activists took place in Belarusian cities on the eve of Freedom Day and on March 25. Viasna knows the names of 176 persons detained during the day. The Interior Ministry reported that it had detained more than 200 people. Another 250 people were detained on March 27, after a protest was announced in Bangalore Square in Minsk. Meanwhile, the Investigative Committee said that it had opened a criminal case on charges of “gross violation of public order” (Article 342 of the Criminal Code) for calls in Telegram channels to join the illegal events on March 27.
According to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", in March, the courts considered more than 490 cases against activists and protesters. As a result, judges imposed 395 terms of administrative imprisonment ranging between 3 and 30 days and 82 fines ranging from 2 to 200 basic units. 1,139 politically motivated detentions were documented, of which 841 were in Minsk. 76 people were detained in the Brest region. It is also known about 36 detentions of journalists.
Lawyers and analysts of Viasna prepared and published another report, “Politically Motivated Administrative Trials: Standards and Reality in Modern Belarus”.
Violations of freedom of expression
The Belarusian authorities continue to indiscriminately persecute people for expressing their views on the processes taking place in the country, including those removing or tearing down state flags, which have become a symbol of repression for them.
A court in Viciebsk sentenced a man to one year in an open correctional facility for removing a state flag from a government building and throwing it to the ground, damaging the top of the flagpole. The act allegedly caused property damage of 21.77 rubles.
On March 24, the Brest District Court ruled in a criminal case against Aliaksandr Palivoda, a resident of the village of Vieĺjamovičy, for insulting state symbols (Article 370 of the Criminal Code). According to the indictment, in January 2021, the 21-year-old man removed a state flag from the local school building and threw it away nearby. Judge Pavel Hlavatski found Palivoda guilty and sentenced him to one year in an open penal institution.
Courts continued to imprison people for statements addressed to police officers, reactions on social media featuring protest and insulting content.
On March 11, the Saviecki District Court of Minsk handed down a verdict in a criminal case against Yury Drek under Part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism) for spray-painting a phrase allegedly insulting employees of a government-owned newspaper on the fence of a construction site. Judge Aliaksandr Volk sentenced the man to one year in an open penal facility.
Uladzimir Akorkau was found guilty by the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest under two articles of the Criminal Code (Articles 369 and 188). He was sentenced to three years in an open penal facility for two comments on social media allegedly insulting Tatsiana Nichyshyna, dean of psychology and pedagogy faculty at the Brest State university of BrSU and member of the Brest City Council of Deputies, and Uladzimir Sushkevich, an investigator at the Investigative Committee’s local office.
Violations of freedom of association
On March 5, unknown individuals in masks disrupted the founding conference of the League of Student Associations. Participants in the event were detained, many were taken to various police departments. Viasna knows the names of 25 people detained at the event. Some of them were later sentenced to short terms of administrative imprisonment.
On March 18, Volha Zalatar, a mother of five in the town of Ždanovičy near Minsk, was detained by GUBAZIK officers. Her house was searched and the woman was remanded in a detention facility. Later the same evening, her husband Siarhei Hankevich was summoned for questioning and eventually detained. The following day, Volha Zalatar was placed in pre-trial detention center No. 1 as part of a criminal case, and her husband was sentenced to 10 days in prison for displaying a white-red-white flag in the window of his house. Their five minor children remained under the care of their grandmother. The press service of the Minsk regional police reported that the woman was detained for “active protest activity”, as she was the administrator of a local chat and organized unauthorized mass events: tea parties, walks, and concerts. On March 22, it became known that the woman was a suspect in a criminal case under Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for action aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus).
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
Defendants in criminal trials related to the post-election protests of summer and fall of 2020 continue to testify in court that they were subjected to torture and other ill-treatment.
Vadzim Dzmitronak told the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk that he had been tortured by police officers. The officers reportedly hit him on various parts of his body and gassed him with pepper spray at close range. This resulted in severe pain in the chest area, which the man says is still an issue four months after the incident. He also complained about dizziness and a problem with his eyes after the use of pepper spray. The defendant said that he could not open them during the initial interrogation. After the lawyer’s arrival, no investigative actions were taken against him due to his health condition and the man was taken to hospital. Traces of beatings on the face and the general condition of the detainee were documented on the video shared by the police.
During the consideration of a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them) at the Saviecki District Court of Minsk, the defendant Kiryl Paulavets said that he was beaten by police officers after his arrest. The man said that he was forced to sign a confession. “I was worried for my life, no one read me my rights, no lawyer was provided. Naturally, when a person is in stress and in fear, he agrees to any testimony. They beat me again when I was transported to the detention center,” Paulavets said.
The case was considered by Judge Maryna Fiodarava, who did not take any measures to arrange an investigation into the torture report.
Yauhen Barouski, Ivan Zianko and Aliaksei Droba, who are accused of violence or threat of violence against a police officer (Article 364 of the Criminal Code), and the organization of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them (Article 342 of the Criminal Code), said during a hearing at the Frunzienski District Court of Minsk that they were subjected to torture after detention. Police officers reportedly beat them and threatened them with rape.
These cases are all marked by absence of full-fledged investigations into acts of illicit treatment and the impunity of persons who acted in an official capacity on behalf of the state involved in their commission.
Pressure on lawyers
The authorities continue to put pressure on defense lawyers, as the announced changes to the law "On the Bar and Lawyers" are expected to strengthen the already excessive state control over these institutions. According to Deputy Minister of Justice Mikalai Staravoitau, “the role of the state represented by the Ministry of Justice in regulating the work of lawyers in our country will be strengthened.”
On March 3, a qualification commission at the Ministry of Justice revoked the licenses of three more lawyers: Andrei Bartashevich, Mikalai Yotka and Alena Shynkarevich.
The International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI) and the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) strongly condemned the new wave of repression against the legal profession in Belarus.
Lawyers Uladzislau Filipovich and Siarhei Zikratski also failed to qualify, which will deprive them of the opportunity to continue working as lawyers.
All these lawyers were involved to some extent in the defense of protesters, civic activists and politicians.