Human Rights Situation in Belarus: May 2021
Summary of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" report:
- in May, the authorities continued to actively prosecute people for political reasons. According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, since August 2020, more than 3,000 criminal cases have been opened for violating the procedure of holding mass events and protests;
- according to the Human Rights Center "Viasna", during the month, the courts convicted at least 109 people in politically motivated criminal trials. The monitoring of the trials conducted by volunteers and lawyers of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" revealed numerous violations of the principles of fair trial and procedural rights and guarantees of the accused;
- there are 454 political prisoners as of June 1 and their number continues to increase;
- detentions of peaceful protesters continued, as well as arbitrary arrests for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private homes and territories. In May, the Human Rights Center "Viasna" obtained information about the detention of 332 people (257 of them in Minsk) and the issuance of about 240 court rulings: in 160 cases, short terms of administrative imprisonment were imposed, in 77 – fines;
- on May 18, officers of the Department for Financial Investigations searched the offices of TUT BY MEDIA LLC (including the portal’s editorial office), as well as the residences of several key employees and journalists. On the same day, the Ministry of Information blocked access to the TUT.by website. As a result of this special operation by the Belarusian security forces, 15 employees of the company and journalists were detained, including the widow of TUT.by’s founder Yuliya Charniauskaya. Viasna assesses this criminal prosecution as another attack on independent journalism, aimed at destroying one of the most popular and influential news resources;
- on May 24, as a result of the forced landing of a Ryanair plane at the Minsk National Airport with the involvement of a Belarusian Air Force fighter, Belarusian special services detained blogger Raman Pratasevich and EHU student Sofia Sapega, a Russian citizen. These actions of official Minsk led to a harsh response from the EU, the U.S., the UK and Ukraine, which resulted in a ban on flights to Belarus and through the airspace of Belarus, as well as a ban on flights of the Belavia national airlines to the EU and other negative consequences;
- many cases of ill-treatment of people detained and administratively imprisoned for participating in peaceful assemblies are still a matter of concern. The inhumane conditions of detention for this category of detainees, deliberately created by the administrations of detention facilities, are regarded by experts of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" as torture. Vitold Ashurak, a political prisoner, died in a correctional colony in Škloŭ under unknown circumstances;
- during the month, the human rights situation in the country continued to deteriorate significantly.
Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution
Political persecution remains the main form of repression and is becoming more and more widespread.
According to updated data from the Prosecutor General’s Office, since August 2020, prosecutors have submitted 667 criminal cases against 944 people for their “participation in riots, acts of gross violation of public order and non-compliance with the lawful demands of the authorities,” as well as “violence and threats of violence against law enforcement officers, their public insult, vandalizing property, hooliganism, and mockery of state symbols.” 682 of them have already been convicted.
Viasna is aware of at least 109 convicts in politically motivated criminal trials that took place during the month.
The number of political prisoners as of June 1 was 454, and the number continues to increase.
May was marked by a number of notable group trials against protesters and members of the political opposition.
In particular, as a result of a closed trial at the Mahilioŭ Regional Court chaired, Judge Iryna Lanchava sentenced Pavel Seviarynets, co-chair of the BCD party, activists of the European Belarus opposition group Yauhen Afnahel, Pavel Yukhnevich, Maksim Viniarski, and Andrei Voinich, blogger Dzmitry Kazlou and community activist Iryna Shchasnaya, to long terms of imprisonment on charges of organizing mass riots (Part 1 of Article 13 and Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code).
On May 4, the Čyhunačny District Court of Homieĺ sentenced several members of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s campaign to imprisonment on charges of participating in riots (Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code) and seizing buildings and structures (Article 292 of the Criminal Code). Yury Ulasau (also convicted under Part 1 of Article 369 of the Criminal Code) was sentenced to six and a half years in prison, Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, Dzmitry Ivashka and Aliaksandr Shabalin – to six years in prison each.
On May 21, the Lieninski District Court of Brest sentenced thirteen defendants to imprisonment under Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (participation in mass riots). Two of them are minors. They were sentenced to three years in a juvenile facility and taken into custody in the courtroom.
On May 14, the Saviecki District Court of Minsk opened the trial of eleven students and a university lecturer on charges of organizing and actively participating in group activities grossly violating public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code). All the accused have been in custody since last November.
Opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich, and bloggers Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Ihar Losik were transferred to Homieĺ ahead of a scheduled trial.
The most notable events of the month included the arrest of journalists and employees of the country's most popular independent information portal TUT.by and the detention of blogger Raman Pratasevich and EHU student Sofia Sapega at the Minsk National Airport.
The detentions of journalists and employees of the TUT.by portal on May 18 were accompanied by searches both in the editorial offices in Minsk, Brest and Homieĺ and in the offices of other organizations and outlets affiliated with TUT.by (av.by, hoster.by, etc.). The homes of the detainees were searched, too.
Simultaneously, the Ministry of Information blocked access to the TUT.by website due to alleged violations of media law, namely posting information about the activities of the unregistered BYSOL initiative.
The grounds for the arrests were a criminal investigation under Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion in a particularly large amount) against officials of TUT BY MEDIA LLC.
As a result of this special operation by the Belarusian security forces, fifteen people were detained, twelve of whom are currently in custody, and three, including the widow of TUT.by’s founder Yury Zisser, Yuliya Charniauskaya, were placed under house arrest.
The detentions of journalists and TUT.by employees provoked a backlash from Belarusian and international journalistic and human rights organizations, as well as the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the EU and the United States. The fifteen detainees were recognized as political prisoners by Belarusian human rights organizations. Ten days later, none of the detainees was released, which suggests that they faced formal charges. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that the detainees’ lawyers signed non-disclosure agreements and have therefore been unable to provide any details on the charges.
It is known that the editor-in-chief of TUT.BY, Maryna Zolatava, and journalist Alena Talkachova are accused of complicity in tax evasion in a particularly large amount (Part 1 of Article 16, Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code). The charges provide for up to 5 years of restricted freedom or 3 to 7 years of imprisonment.
On May 24, as a result of the forced landing of a Ryanair commercial flight at Minsk airport, Belarusian security services detained well-known blogger Raman Pratasevich and his companion Sofia Sapega.
The plane was heading from Athens to Vilnius and had to deviate from the route after a fake bomb threat report from the Minsk airport operators. The jet was forced to land in Minsk, as a result. A MiG-29 fighter of the Belarusian Air Force was scrambled to escort the civil aircraft after personal orders from Lukashenka.
No explosive device was found during the search of the plane, passengers and luggage after landing in Minsk, while Raman Pratasevich, a Poland-based journalist wanted by the Belarusian government as a “terrorist”, and Sofia Sapega, his travel companion, were detained.
It later became known that Protasevich and Sapega were taken into custody and placed in pre-trial detention on charges of organizing mass riots (Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code), group actions violating public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and Part 3 of Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (incitement to social hatred).
The forced landing of the plane with the use of a combat aircraft to detain two opposition journalists provoked a severe negative reaction from the EU, the U.S., the UK and Ukraine, which, among other things, led to a ban on flights over Belarus and to and from the country. The EU also announced the preparation of a fourth package of sanctions against the Belarusian leadership, including possible economic sanctions.
Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly
Criminal and administrative prosecution of peaceful protesters continues.
On May 3, the Pieršamajski District Court of Minsk sentenced 18-year-old Matsvei Budnitski to two years of restricted freedom in an open correctional facility, after Judge Anastasiya Kulik found him guilty under Article 342 of the Criminal Code. Budnitski was convicted of attending a protest on October 4, 2020, in Minsk. He allegedly “acted jointly and in coordination in group actions, using a loudspeaker.” According to the indictment, this caused disruption of transport and businesses.
On May 7, the Maskoŭski District Court of Brest convicted fourteen more defendants in the “dancing protest case” under Part 1 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code for participating on September 13, 2020 in a rally in central Brest, when protesters were dispersed by a water cannon. Judge Ina Klyshpach found them all guilty and sentenced the defendants to terms ranging between 18 months of restricted freedom to one year in prison. The case already involves over 70 defendants, being one of the biggest political cases in Belarus. Brest courts have already convicted 32 people in this case.
On May 21, the Lieninski District Court of Brest sentenced thirteen local residents in a criminal trial of the post-election “riots” (Part 2 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code). Judge Andrei Hrushko sentenced eleven political prisoners to three and a half to five years in prison, and two minors to three years in a juvenile facility. In March, nine people were convicted in a similar trial. A total of 22 people have already been imprisoned in connection with the August “riots” in Brest. More trials in the case will be held in the coming weeks.
Judge Viktoryia Shabunia of the Centraĺny District Court of Minsk sentenced Siarhei Kapanets, a political prisoner and a member of Viktar Babaryka’s presidential campaign, to five and a half years in prison for his role in the events of August 9-11 in Minsk. Kapanets was accused of helping opposition bloggers Stsiapan Putsila, Raman Pratasevich and others to “organize riots” by sharing information about the deployment of police forces on August 9, 2020. The activist also distributed protest leaflets, which he earlier received from former political prisoner Yury Vaskrasenski, and “coordinated the movement of people to the administration of the city’s Pieršamajski district after polling stations closed on August 9. Kapanets was also convicted of participating in two more protests held on August 10 and 11 in Minsk.
Police officers continue to detain representatives of various professions and social groups, searching their homes and interrogating the detainees. The authorities are stepping up various forms of pressure and repression on people for their active civil stand and dissatisfaction with the actions of the government. The courts of Minsk and the regions continue to hear administrative cases against numerous people detained for displaying flags and stickers on their windows, possessing white-red-white flags and other symbols, as well as other forms of protest or expression.
A total of 332 people were detained in May (257 in Minsk). About 240 people were convicted: at least 160 were sentenced to short terms of administrative imprisonment, and at least 74 (in at least 77 cases) – to a fine (of which 24 people were fined 2,900 rubles and two – 5,800 rubles.
Violations of freedom of expression
On April 26, the Orša District and City Court sentenced Lidziya Papova to one year and six months of restricted freedom in an open penitentiary, finding her guilty no defamation charges (Article 188 of the Criminal Code). Papova allegedly slandered Tatsiana Alantsiyeva, chair of a local election commission. Judge Yuliya Viarshynina sided with the prosecution’s case claiming that the accused had posted a photo and a text in a Telegram chat, which accused the official of signing a rigged voting protocol. The defendant pleaded not guilty, saying that she was forced to testify under psychological pressure. The judge concluded that the published information undermined “trust in the electoral system of the Republic of Belarus as a whole.”
On May 4, Judge Siarhei Katser of the Maskoŭski District Court of Minsk sentenced Andrei Tsemianouski, a technician at the Institute of Meat and Dairy Industry, to 2 years of restricted freedom (home confinement) under Art. 369 of the Criminal Code for insulting riot police commander Dzmitry Balaba in the Telegram channel “Punishers of Belarus”. The victim estimated the moral damage at 1,000 rubles. The court also issued a private ruling to the defendant’s employer, which, in the opinion of the court, failed to carry out “sufficient pre-emptive and explanatory work” to prevent employees from “committing crimes and offenses.” An aggravating circumstance in the case was “political and ideological hostility” as a motive for the crime.
Courts across Belarus continued to convict individuals for posting negative and offensive comments on social media targeting police officers in connection with their role or alleged participation in the crackdown on peaceful protests. Most defendants in the trials convicted during the month were sentenced to terms of restricted freedom in open penitentiaries.
In Pružany, Judge Vadzim Mazol sentenced 53-year-old Liudmila Kuzniatsova to one year in prison for insulting Aliaksandr Lukashenka (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The woman was arrested in the courtroom, and about 80 of her pets remained unattended. According to the charge, on August 12, 2020, Kuzniatsova posted a message in her husband’s Vkontakte account with negative remarks addressed to Lukashenka.
On May 31, Judge Yuliyana Shcherba of the Baranavičy District and City Court sentenced 47-year-old Viachaslau Kulba to two years of restricted freedom (home confinement) on charges of publicly insulting the president (Part 1 of Article 368 of the Criminal Code). According to the indictment, on November 20, 2020, Kulba “intentionally, with the aim of publicly insulting incumbent President A.R. Lukashenka, being aware of the humiliating nature of his statement, hoping that in the future the post would be accessible to an indefinite number of people, in the book of comments and suggestions of a gas station, made an entry containing insulting information. “No complaints. I don’t understand the staff of your gas station, which supports the regime of usurper Lukashenka,” the message read.
On May 7, the Minsk Regional Court convicted five defendants in the trial of the Telegram channel “Army Together with the People”. Siarhei Sparysh, an activist of the Narodnaya Hramada party, Antanina Kanavalava, a member of the Country for Living movement, bloggers Siarhei Yarashevich, Siarhei Korshun and Yauhen Pryvalau were all found guilty of preparing to take part in mass riots and of preparing riots. Sparysh was also found guilty of obstructing the work of the Central Election Commission. Judge Siarhei Yepikhau sentenced them to four and a half to six years in prison.
On May 14, the Supreme Court sentenced Dzianis Urad to 18 years in a medium-security penal colony on treason charges. He was also deprived of his military rank. The trial was held behind closed doors. The verdict is final and is not subject to appeal. According to pro-government media, on March 14, 2020, Urad, a Captain at the Armed Forces’ General Staff, took a photo of a secret letter from the Minister of Internal Affairs to the Minister of Defense about the use of the military in suppressing protests and sent it to the Telegram channel Nexta. Earlier, human rights activists called Urad a political prisoner, emphasizing, like the UN Human Rights Committee before, that it is a violation of paragraph 3 of Art. 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to refer to laws on treason and similar acts relating to national security, professional secrecy and the fight against subversion, in order to withhold or conceal from the general public information of legitimate public interest that does not threaten national security, and to prosecute journalists, researchers, environmentalists, human rights defenders, or others for disseminating such information.
These and other cases indicate the continuation of the practice of repression for expression on social media and other forms of expression.
Pressure on journalists and the media
According to the BAJ, 34 journalists were in prisons, as of the end of May.
Journalists were regularly arbitrarily detained, searched and imprisoned for their profession.
In places of detention, journalists are subjected to additional pressure through solitary confinement, unbearable conditions of arrest or detention. The authorities artificially create an information vacuum around victims of persecution for political reasons: correspondence is arbitrarily restricted, lawyers are forbidden to disclose the most basic information about the fate of their clients, e.g. the essence of the charges, the place of detention, etc.
Dzianis Ivashyn, an independent journalist and political prisoner who has been cooperating with the Novy Chas newspaper, has been in prison in Hrodna since March 12, 2021. In early May, information was published that the journalist was in solitary confinement and was banned from receiving parcels and seeing his lawyer. Specializing in investigative journalism, Ivashyn recently exposed former Ukrainian police officers being employed by the Belarusian police. Relatives and colleagues believe that Ivashyn’s detention is linked to the publication. The journalist was arbitrarily charged under Art. 365 of the Criminal Code, “interference in the activities of law enforcement officers.”
Journalists Aliaksandr Burakou and Uladzimir Laptsevich were convicted in Mahilioŭ on May 15. They were detained on May 12 near the Mahilioŭ Regional Court building, on the day it hosted the first session of a criminal trial involving key opposition activists. The reporters were then sentenced to 20 days in jail each. According to the Telegram channel MAYDAY, Aliaksandr Burakou said at his court hearing that he was being tortured and inhumanely treated in the city’s pre-trial detention center. The detainee was not allowed to sleep for several nights, subjected to regular checks, stripped naked in the hallway, and was not allowed to receive parcels from his family.
Narodnaya Volia, one of the country’s last surviving independent newspapers, is still unable to resume its work, as the printing houses of Belarus refuse to print the newspaper.
The Prosecutor General’s Office issued a warning to the editor-in-chief of the Novy Chas newspaper. The warning was received for three publications of February 26 and April 9.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
The International Accountability Platform for Belarus (IAPB) said that it was working on forwarding the evidence on recent cases of torture in Belarus for further investigation under the auspices of the United Nations. The IAPB was established to collect, verify and store data on serious human rights violations in Belarus before and after the 2020 presidential election, and then to use it for an independent criminal investigation and punishment of the perpetrators. The platform brings together human rights organizations, mainly from European countries, and is led by the Danish Institute against Torture DIGNITY.
Defendants in the politically motivated trials continue to report torture used by law enforcement in order to obtain information and confessions and to coerce detainees to appear in propaganda videos in which they confess to the crimes and repent. Detainees and convicts in administrative trial describe the shocking conditions of imprisonment in detention facilities.
Political prisoner Vitold Ashurak died in the Škloŭ penal colony on May 22. On January 18, he was sentenced to 5 years in a penal colony in a closed trial in Lida. In an attempt to refute the claims of the violent nature of the prisoner’s death, the Investigative Committee published a comment and video footage of prison security cameras, which shows that the prisoner lost consciousness and collapsed in the cell shortly before his death, but failed to receive timely and adequate medical care. This was explained by the Investigative Committee by the prisoner’s refusal to be hospitalized.
The death penalty
On May 4, the Supreme Court heard an appeal by Viktar Skrundzik, who was earlier sentenced to death. The Board for Criminal Cases dismissed the appeal. Now the convict has one last chance to escape the capital punishment by requesting clemency from Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
On June 30, 2020, the Supreme Court overturned the initial sentence in Skrundzik’s case. The case was sent to the Minsk Regional Court, which, despite Skrundzik’s acquittal in one of the murder counts, again sentenced him to death.
Guarantees of a fair trial
In response to the numerous violations of procedural rights and guarantees of the accused and their lawyers in politically motivated criminal cases, the leading human rights organizations of Belarus issued a statement. In particular, it condemned the recent practice of hearing criminal trials behind closed doors without sufficient grounds.
On May 5, the trial of four administrators of the Telegram channel “Drivers 97” opened at the Zavodski District Court of Minsk. The accused in the case are political prisoners Dzianis Hutsin, Hanna Vishniak, Viktoryia Kulsha, and Tatsiana Sh., who is not in custody. They are charged under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organization of group actions that grossly violate public order, and preparation or training for such activities). According to the charges, all of them, acting in a criminal conspiracy, deliberately called for rioting and blocking roads in order to protest election fraud. Even before the trial started, the judge ordered to hold the hearings behind closed doors.
A new criminal case under Article 411 of the Criminal Code (malicious disobedience to the requirements of the penitentiary institution) was instituted against Artsiom Anishchuk, who was earlier sentenced to two years in prison for damaging a police officer’s car. The new charges allege that the convict violated prison rules by twice refusing to clean up his cell. Meanwhile, for several weeks now, neither the family nor the lawyer has been able to contact the prisoner.