Human Rights Situation in Belarus: September 2020
- during the month, the authorities actively applied criminal prosecution for political reasons. Seventy-four political prisoners continued to be held in detention, and the number continues to grow. The total number of citizens held in criminal cases during the electoral and post-electoral periods has reached 242;
- the authorities continued to use illegal practices of forcible expulsion from the country of opposition figures. In particular, on September 7, Maryia Kalesnikava, a member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council, was abducted in central Minsk and later forcibly taken to the Ukrainian border. Having torn up her passport at the border crossing, Maryia thwarted the security forces’ plans to forcibly expel her from the country;
- on September 9, lawyers, members of the Coordination Council Maksim Znak and Illia Salei were detained. Later, they, together with Maryia Kalesnikava, were officially charged under Part 3, Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus) and taken into custody;
- the authorities continue the practice of using violence, riot gear and arrests of participants in peaceful protests that continued both in Minsk and other cities of the country. During the month, representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs detained at least 3,500 people for participating in demonstrations, of which at least 2,700 were taken to detention centers;
- the persecution of independent journalists continues, as well as the practice of blocking independent Internet resources by the Ministry of Information. During demonstrations, the practice of disrupting mobile Internet was observed;
- on September 17, the employees of GUBAZiK (the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) detained activist of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” Marfa Rabkova, who was later charged under Part 3 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (training and other preparation of riots, as well as financing of such activities) and taken into custody for two months. Viasna views this fact as direct pressure on the entire organization;
- the Prosecutor's Offices and the Investigative Committee have yet failed to open a single criminal case to investigate systematic and widespread torture of protesters detained on August 9 to 12. Thus, the Republic of Belarus continues to ignore its international obligations to properly investigate all facts of torture, provide the victims with effective remedies and restore their violated rights;
- in general, Viasna experts note the intensification of repression and the further aggravation of the human rights crisis in the country.
Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Criminal prosecution of citizens continues to be one of the main types of repression used by the Belarusian authorities, which testifies to the continuation of the acute phase of the human rights crisis in the country.
During the month, the authorities actively applied criminal prosecution for political reasons.
The investigating authorities continue to open criminal cases under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting). It is worth recalling that experts of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” have repeatedly disagreed with the qualification of the demonstrations that took place on August 9-12 as mass riots, since the demonstrators did not perform actions that constitute the disposition of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code: arson, destruction of property, or armed resistance to police officers.
On September 1, a co-founder of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party and political prisoner Pavel Seviarynets was charged under Part 2 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting).
Seviarynets was detained by police officers on June 7. After that, he was sentenced to at least three consecutive terms of administrative detention for participating in election pickets and calling to join the events.
In September, the authorities continued to use the practice of forcibly expelling opposition figures from the country, which they first used against presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya in August.
In particular, on September 6, it was reported that Volha Kavalkova, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council, who was then serving a term of administrative detention under Art. 23. 34 of the Administrative Code (organization or participation in an unauthorized mass event) in the Center for the Confinement of Offenders in Minsk, left the territory of the Republic of Belarus. As Kavalkova later told at a press conference in Warsaw, she was forcibly expelled from the country.
According to her, during her stay at the detention facility, she was visited by representatives of a law enforcement agency, who threatened her with lengthy imprisonment in case she refused to leave the country. Kavalkova was forced to lie on the back seat of a car, wearing a mask and a hood over her head, and taken to a border crossing near Hrodna. Then she crossed the border on her own.
The Ministry of Internal Affairs, however, said that they had released Kavalkova “for health reasons.”
On September 7, Maryia Kalesnikava, a member of the presidium of the Coordination Council, was abducted in central Minsk. An eyewitness says that unknown persons in civilian clothes grabbed Kalesnikava and ushered her in a minibus.
On the same day, Coordination Council press secretary Anton Radniankou and executive secretary Ivan Krautsou were detained.
As it later became known, the three opposition leaders were forcibly brought to the Ukrainian border to be expelled from the country.
However, having torn up her passport at the border crossing and jumping out of the car, Maryia Kalesnikava thwarted the special operation organized by the Belarusian security forces. After that, nothing was known about the Kalesnikava’s whereabouts for 24 hours.
Later, after she was taken to a pre-trial detention center, Kalesnikava complained to the Investigative Committee about her abduction and death threats during the failed attempt to forcibly expel the politician from the country.
On September 9, members of the presidium of the Coordination Council, lawyer Maksim Znak and Illia Salei, were detained; searches were carried out in their apartments.
On the same day, the Investigative Committee officially announced that Kalesnikava, Znak and Salei were detained as suspects in a criminal case under Part 3 of Art. 361 of the Criminal Code (calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus). Later, they were formally charged and their pre-trial detention was ordered.
These repressions against Coordination Council members caused a wide public response, not only in Belarus, but also abroad. The Belarusian human rights community issued a statement calling Kalesnikava, Znak and Salei political prisoners and demanding their immediate release.
On September 11, four arrested PandaDoc employees, chief accountant Yulia Shardyka, director Dzmitry Rabtsevich, product manager Viktar Kuushynau and HR Uladzislau Mikhalap, were charged under Part 4 of Art. 209 of the Criminal Code (fraud committed by a group of persons or on an especially large scale).
It should be noted that Mikita Mikada, the founder of PandaDoc, openly condemned political repression in Belarus. Immediately after the events of August 6-11, Mikada and his business partner Barysiuk launched the Protect Belarus initiative to help law enforcement officers who lost their jobs after refusing to carry out criminal orders. Since then, the initiative received more than 500 applications for such assistance, and some of these stories received a wide public response.
The human rights community recognized all the defendants in this criminal case as political prisoners.
The total number of political prisoners in Belarus continues to grow steadily as new information emerges about persons involved in politically motivated criminal cases.
According to Viasna, the total number of persons targeted in criminal cases opened during the electoral and post-electoral periods is 242 people, most of whom are in custody.
Persecution of human rights defenders
On August 31, officers of GUBAZiK (the Interior Ministry’s Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) detained Viasna’s volunteer Pavel Harbuz on suspicion of committing a crime under Art. 293 of the Criminal Code and placed him in pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk.
Ten days later, he was released and gave a detailed interview to Viasna’s website, in which he told about the pressure he faced from GUBAZiK, including threats to the coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service Marfa Rabkova and the organization in general.
On September 17, in Minsk, GUBAZiK officers detained the coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers Marfa Rabkova. Together with Marfa, her husband Vadzim Zharomski was also detained, who was later released.
Their apartment was searched, and IT equipment, personal money and belongings were seized.
During the arrest, Rabkova was informed that she was detained in the framework of a criminal case under Part 3 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (training or other training of persons to participate in mass disorders, or financing of such activities). Marfa was then placed in a temporary detention facility. On September 19, it was reported that the activist was transferred to pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk.
Together with Viasna volunteers, Marfa Rabkova monitored peaceful assemblies, took an active part in the independent election observation initiative “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”, and participated in documenting evidence of torture and other ill-treatment of detained protesters.
It should be noted that throughout the presidential election campaign and after the elections, Viasna members faced pressure and persecution from the government, including attempted criminal prosecution, administrative arrest and detention. On Election Day, August 9, seven members of Viasna’s local branches were arbitrarily detained in connection with their human rights activities.
On September 25, Marfa Rabkova was officially charged under Part 3 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code and her pre-trial detention for two months was ordered.
Representatives of the Belarusian and international human rights community condemned the persecution of Marfa Rabkova and demanded her immediate release, as well as an end to pressure on the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
Amnesty International called Marfa Rabkova a prisoner of conscience.
Viasna stresses that the criminal prosecution of Marfa Rabkova is pressure on the entire organization.
Violation of freedom of peaceful assembly and expression
In the first days of the month, university students demonstrated in several cities of Belarus to protest the rigged elections and the brutal dispersal of post-election rallies. More than 150 people were detained, 55 of them ended up in detention before standing trials. Their charges were heard on September 2, including via videoconference.
Judges Akavitaya, Shabunia, Liaukouskaya, Zapasnik, Astapenka, Osipchyk, Cherepanava, Kaptsevich, Blizniuk, Yerokhina, Pisarevich, Halaukova, Volk, Akhmetava, Niaborskaya, Tsarykau, Niakrasava, Yankouski, and Shatsila from the district courts of Minsk punished the protesters with heavy fines and short terms of administrative detention.
These and other Minsk judges, including Kochyk, Leikouskaya, Aleinikava, Zhukovich, Katser, Trusevich, Petrash, Kalubaka, Khvainitskaya, Rudzenka, and Kulik, continued to be involved in routine repressions against participants in peaceful assemblies.
Many protesters in the regions were also convicted. Judges Kazlou, Salouski, and Kaubenia from Homieĺ, Kalina from Brest, Litvina and Ratnikava from Mahilioŭ, Trusevich from Hrodna ordered heavy fines and terms of detention. Judges in district cities were more restrained, although some tried to keep up with their colleagues from bigger cities: Kaliadau from Viliejka and Katsuba from Rečyca ordered to imprison participants in peaceful assemblies, while judge Maksimovich from Pastavy compensated for the small size of fines with the great amount of convictions.
Every Sunday of the month was marked by major protests attended by thousands of people.
On September 6, the March of Unity was held in Minsk and the regions; on September 13 — the March of Heroes, which was marred by the highest number of detentions during the month, 774 people; on September 20 — the March of Justice; and on September 27 — the People’s Inauguration. These weekly protests involved hundreds of thousands of participants.
On September 5, 12, 19 and 26, Minsk hosted Women’s Marches, which were attended by several thousand protesters, hundreds of whom were detained by the police.
Peaceful protests were also held in other cities of Belarus.
Protests also took place after the secret inauguration of Aliaksandr Lukashenka.
Also in September, small local protests and peaceful gatherings of citizens continued in various districts of Minsk and in other cities: people hang out national symbols, made protest drawings and graffiti.
In total, in September, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, at least three and a half thousand protesters were detained, about 2,700 of them were subjected to lengthy administrative detention. On several occasions, physical force and riot gear were used against the protesters, including tear gas and water cannons, as well as warning shots in the air.
Simultaneously, the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported the conduct of several pro-government rallies “in support of peace, security and tranquility in all regions of the republic,” which, according to the authorities, were attended by “more than 50 thousand people.” There is no information, however, about any detentions at these events.
Persecution of journalists
On September 2, the court of the Kastryčnicki district of Minsk heard the administrative charges against several journalists who were detained during the student protests held on Knowledge Day, September 1. The hearing was held via video conferencing, i.e. without the defendants and key witnesses. TUT.BY journalists Aliaksei Sudnikau and Nadzeya Kalinina, Komsomolskaya Pravda journalists Mikita Dubaleka (Nedaverkau), Maryia Eliashevich and Siarhei Shchohaleu (Sviataslau Zorki), and BelaPAN journalist Andrei Shauliuha were accused of participating in an unauthorized protest under Art. 23.34 of the Administrative Code. The judges found serious flaws in the case files that hindered the consideration of the administrative cases, and returned the cases to the police department for revision. The journalists who had spent more than 24 hours in the police department were transferred to the Center for the Confinement of Offenders.
Two days later, on September 4, judges Aliaksandr Rudzenka and Volha Niaborskaya, in violation of fair trial standards and procedural legislation, on the basis of contradictory testimonies of witnesses in masks with classified information, sentenced the journalists to three days of detention each, thereby justifying their arbitrary detention and imprisonment for their professional activities.
On September 7, the court of the Centraĺny district of Minsk heard the case of freelance journalist Anastasiya Zakharevich. The testimony of witness Tsitou (police officer of the District Department of Internal Affairs) did not coincide with the protocol and the report signed by his name, but this did not prevent judge Viktoryia Shabunia from punishing the journalist with 7 days of detention under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code.
Torture. Cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment
UN human rights experts called on Belarus to stop torturing detainees and to bring to justice the police officers who reportedly humiliated and beat demonstrators in places of detention with impunity.
They also called on the authorities to fully respect basic safeguards — immediate registration, judicial oversight of detention, and notification of family members as soon as a suspect is deprived of their liberty — in order to prevent enforced disappearances.
The Human Rights Center “Viasna” and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee sent an appeal to the UN Committee against Torture in the interests of 47 victims of police brutality. The appeal calls to investigate the systematic use of torture in the territory of the Republic of Belarus.
The applicants provide the Committee with evidence that for several days, starting from August 9, throughout the country, law enforcement officers of the Republic of Belarus in various institutions of the law enforcement system (both during the arrest and detention of protesters) committed actions that intentionally inflicted on citizens severe pain, as well as physical and mental suffering, expressed in causing bodily harm of varying severity and causing psychological trauma.
Meanwhile, local offices of the Investigative Committee have not made any procedural decisions to initiate criminal proceedings against the perpetrators, who, from 9 to 14 August, carried out torture and other acts of prohibited treatment against detainees for political reasons. The applicants are informed of the suspension of probes; often the reason for the suspension is the reported lack of examination of bodily injuries. Viasna's human rights activists consider this state of affairs unacceptable and urge to appeal against the actions of the investigators. Meanwhile, it is quite obvious that in reality the authorities do not conduct any probes, while top officials approve of criminal actions aimed to suppress protests at any cost and to instill an atmosphere of fear in society.