Political prisoners and politically motivated persecution
Criminal prosecution remains one of the main tools of repression used by the Belarusian authorities since the announcement of the presidential election in May and intensified in the post-election period.
In November, the authorities stepped up repression and intensified criminal prosecution for political reasons, which indicates a deepening of the already profound human rights crisis.
On November 2, the Investigative Committee announced the initiation of a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order). The case reportedly stems from a post-election protest held the previous day in Minsk. Despite the absolutely peaceful nature of the demonstration, 231 people were named suspects in the case.
Both Belarusian and international human rights organizations condemned another wave of repression against peaceful demonstrators.
On November 10, a number of media outlets published a letter from Maryia Kalesnikava, which she sent from a pre-trial prison. The letter described the details of her detention in downtown Minsk on September 7 and subsequent attempts by law enforcement officials to forcibly deport her from Belarus.
In particular, Maryia claims that after being detained by unknown people in plainclothes, she was taken to the office of the head of the Interior Ministry’s GUBAZIK department Mikalai Karpiankou. During a “conversation”, which also involved Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich and the head of the Operations and Analysis Center Andrei Pauliuchenka, the high-ranking officials insulted and intimidated Kalesnikova, including by threatening to kill her if she refused to leave the territory of Belarus.
Following this, Viasna human rights activist Valiantsin Stefanovich wrote to the Prosecutor General asking him to initiate a criminal case against the above officials.
On November 12, several members of the Belarusian Union of Students were arrested in Minsk. Viasna is aware of at least nine detainees. All of them were initially taken to the pre-trial detention center and later charged under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order).
A massive public outcry was caused by the criminal charges against Belsat TV journalists and a tut.by reporter related to the death of Raman Bandarenka.
On November 19, tut.by journalist Katsiaryna Barysevich, who was preparing a story about Raman Bandarenka, was detained in Minsk. In particular, she published the results of Bandarenka’s blood alcohol test handed over to her by medical doctor Artsiom Sarokin, which was negative. This information appeared in the media against the background of Lukashenka's statements that Raman Bandarenka was drunk, and provoked an immediate backlash.
As a result, Barysevich and Sarokin were charged with committing a crime under Part 3 of Art. 178 of the Criminal Code (disclosure of medical secrets, which led to serious consequences). At the same time, there are no victims of the disclosure, and the “serious consequences” of such disclosure, according to the Prosecutor General's Office, were “increasing tension in society, creating an atmosphere of distrust in the competent state authorities.”
Amnesty International issued a special statement in response to the allegations, recognizing Barysevich and Sarokin as prisoners of conscience and demanding their immediate release.
Belsat TV journalists Katsiaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were detained and later taken into custody after the Belsat TV channel covered the rally in memory of Raman Bandarenka. They are charged under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization or active participation in group actions that grossly violate public order).
On November 18, FIDH President Alice Mogwe appealed to the Prosecutor General and the Chairman of the Investigative Committee of Belarus urging them to release all women and minors detained in criminal cases initiated during the election and in the post-election period.
Belarusian human rights organizations insist on the immediate release of political prisoners, considering it a priority step of the authorities towards overcoming the current crisis.
Meanwhile, the number of political prisoners continues to grow and currently stands at 146 people. In total, Viasna is aware of more than 500 individuals suspected or accused in criminal cases. Representatives of the Prosecutor General's Office say that more than 900 criminal cases have been opened, many of which have already reached courts. Viasna has been monitoring court hearings.
Persecution of human rights defenders
On October 30, a member of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and an independent journalist Maryna Kastylianchanka was detained by police in a cafe in Minsk.
Maryna was charged with two administrative offense under Art. 23.34 (participation in an unauthorized mass event) and Art. 23.4 of the Administrative Code (disobedience to lawful demands of a police officer).
The activist was accused of allegedly taking part in an unauthorized picket on October 30, shouting slogans and disobeying police officers.
However, in reality she did not take part in any unauthorized pickets held on that day in the specified location and, accordingly, did not commit any offenses.
Viasna protested against another case of persecution of its members.
On November 2, the Zavodski District Court of Minsk sentenced Maryna to 15 days of administrative detention.
On November 14, after serving her term, Maryna was not released, but was re-arrested for allegedly participating in a rally on October 25. Following a hasty trial, Maryna Kastylianchanka was sentenced to another 15 days in prison.
It should also be reminded that Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service, has been in pre-trial detention for more than two months on charges of committing a crime under Part 3 of Art. 293 of the Criminal Code (training, financing and other preparation of mass riots). Andrei Chapiuk, a Viasna volunteer, is also being held on charges of participating in riots (Part 2, Article 293 of the Criminal Code).
In total, 18 members of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" have been repressed for their human rights activities since the announcement of the presidential election.
UN experts called on the Belarusian authorities to refrain from persecuting women human rights defenders in the context of mass protests in the country. In particular, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights activists Mary Lawlor called to release Marfa Rabkova and to drop the charges she is facing.
Violations of the right to peaceful assembly
Peaceful protests continue in Belarus, which, despite the brutal repression of the authorities, gather a large number of participants. These are weekly Sunday demonstrations, as well as demonstrations by seniors, medics and solidarity pickets.
The March of Medical Doctors was held on November 7 in Minsk. Several protesters were detained, as a result.
Detentions at peaceful protests continued on Sunday, November 8, with more than a thousand people held across the country from midday to midnight. The number of detainees was close to that after the peaceful protests of August 9-13.
On November 23, the March of Wisdom took place in Minsk, which ended in several detentions.
During the month, according to Human Rights Center “Viasna”, the authorities detained more than 4,000 people. Courts held hasty trials to impose fines and terms of administrative detention; several protesters were sentenced to several consecutive terms in prison. Most trials were marred by significant violations of the law. In November, human rights activists received information on more than 2,000 decisions in administrative cases: 1,615 people were sentenced to a total of 20,550 days, 440 fined in the amount of almost 244,000 Belarusian rubles.
Multiple courts across the country opened trials of protesters charged with using violence against police officers and soldiers of the internal troops.
On November 5, the Žabinka District Court heard a criminal case against 17-year-old Yelisei Kuzniatsou, who was accused of throwing a fiery bottle at a police car. He faced charges under Art. 295-3 (illegal actions involving objects whose damaging effect is based on the use of combustible substances) and Art. 364 (threat of violence against law enforcement officers) of the Criminal Code. The incident took place on August 11 in the city park. The youth fully admitted his guilt long before the trial began. He noted in court that he acted under the influence of emotions, wanted to distract the police from dispersing the peaceful protest and detaining its participants. No one was harmed: the bottle fell on the asphalt. The court sentenced him to two and a half years of conditional sentence.
On November 12, the Kastryčnicki District Court of Hrodna sentenced 63-year-old Yuzef Niamera to two and a half years of conditional imprisonment on charges of “organization or active participation in group actions that gravely breach public order” (Art. 342) and violence or threat of violence against a police officer (Art. 364 of the Criminal Code). Niamera took part in a protest on September 6 and defended a woman from riot police. As a result, he pushed one of the policemen. The prosecution insisted on imprisonment.
In Homieĺ, 29-year-old Siarhei Yafimau was sentenced to three years in a general security penal colony for violence against police officers (Article 364 of the Criminal Code). On August 9, Yafimau gassed a riot policeman and struck him on the head. While attempting to escape, he reportedly struck one of the officers “at least nine times in the head and torso.”
A verdict in the criminal case of Yahor Khramenia was pronounced in Babrujsk. Khramenia was accused of violence against a police officer (Article 364 of the Criminal Code). On November 13, District Court Judge Anton Dudal found Khramenia guilty and sentenced him to two years in a general security penal colony. The convict will also pay 1,000 rubles in damages for interceding for a brutally detained teenager and gassing a police officer.
Human rights activists have been analyzing these and other cases, including the trials of Raman Karanevich in Sluck, Anton Lakishyk in Minsk, Ihar and Aleh Bukas in Babrujsk, etc. Viasna will prepare conclusions on the implementation of procedural and constitutional guarantees during court hearings.
In addition, there have several criminal trials on defamation charges.
On October 29, the Lieninski District Court of Mahiloŭ finalized the trial of Stanislau Paulinkovich, who was accused of insulting a judge (Art. 391 of the Criminal Code) in May of this year. Judge Maksim Kurpachanka sentenced Paulinkovich to three years in an open-type penal facility, with one year of imprisonment cancelled by an amnesty.
On November 6, the Lieninski District Court of Brest ruled in the criminal case of Illia Smolski, who was accused of desecrating the state flag under Article 370 of the Criminal Code of Belarus. Smolski was accused of removing a flag from a local government building, as a result of which the flag fell to the ground and Smolski left. Judge Andrei Hrushko found Illia Smolski guilty and sentenced him to one year in an open-type penal facility.
Judge Yuliya Shut of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced 21-year-old Maryia Safonava to two months in prison for spray-painting “Long Live Belarus” and a white-red-white flag on a building and on the pavement near it. The offense was qualified under Art. 341 of the Criminal Code (desecration of structures and damage to property).
On November 12, the Chojniki District Court started hearing the criminal case of Aliaksei Ramanau charged with insulting the president (Part 1, Article 368 of the Criminal Code). The case is considered by Judge Andrei Kardash, who ruled to conduct the trial behind closed doors.
In all cases of violations of freedom of expression, human rights activists will release statements to call defendants in the trials political prisoners, in case they are sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
Violations of freedom of association
On November 12, Belarusian authorities attacked one of the country's oldest youth organizations. Security forces arrested leaders and activists of the Belarusian Union of Students. The activists’ apartments and the organization's office were searched.
In response, human rights organizations adopted a joint statement.
Torture and ill-treatment
On November 5, an OSCE rapporteur published his report prepared under the Moscow Mechanism to describe human rights violations in the context of the 2020 presidential election in Belarus. The OSCE Moscow Mechanism was launched by 17 OSCE participating States on September 17 in connection with reports of human rights violations before, during and after the presidential election. The rapporteur asked the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Belarus to assist in arranging his visit to Belarus and to present the country’s official position on the reports of violations. However, the expert’s request was rejected, and the rapporteur collected information from online sources.
In early October, the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and the Belarusian Association of Journalists in partnership with the World Organization against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH prepared and sent to the OSCE rapporteur a report on human rights violations, including torture reports, in Belarus in the post-election period. The rapporteur used the information in preparing the OSCE report.
There are reports of the first refusals to open criminal investigations into allegations of torture and ill-treatment.
Impunity continues to generate new cases of violence.
On November 12, GUBAZIK police detained blogger and former political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok. A video published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs shows that Dziadok was severely beaten. It was later reported that Mikalai had been tortured.
After the March of Neighbors held on November 29, a video went online showing the “interrogation” of a 30-year-old designer detained at the protest. Presumably, the conversation took place in a police car. According to onliner.by, after his detention the young man was brought to the Lieninski District Police Department of Minsk and later taken away in an ambulance and diagnosed with a concussion, a broken nose and other injuries.
Raman Bandarenka, who was beaten on November 11 in his neighborhood in Minsk, died in hospital the following day. After being beaten, Raman was taken to the Centraĺny District Police Department and later to hospital with severe cerebral edema, closed craniocerebral trauma, subdural hematomas and other injuries. The operation lasted several hours, but the surgeons were unable to save his life.
Multiple video footage of the incident and eyewitness accounts allow us to conclude that officers of special units of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus may have been involved in the crime.
Human rights organizations issued a joint statement and once again demanded that law enforcement officers stopped using violence against civilians, refrained from carrying out knowingly criminal orders and instructions involving disproportionate force, violence, torture and ill-treatment of citizens; from the Investigative Committee - immediate initiation of criminal cases in response to reports of mass torture and the deaths of protesters, objective and impartial investigation of these facts; from the prosecutor's office - engagement of all measures available to stop the clearly disproportionate actions of police officers, objective and fair supervision of the actions of investigators in charge of addressing allegations of torture, investigation of the killings of peaceful demonstrators.
After being subjected to repeated violence in the Pinsk police department in the first three days after his arrest on August 10, political prisoner Viachaslau Rahashchuk still complains of pain and ringing in his head. The prison doctor told him it could be “a hemorrhage, concussion or head injury.” Viachaslau's relatives insist that he needs a full examination, as his health continues to deteriorate.
UN human rights experts believe that the Belarusian authorities should investigate the unlawful actions of security forces during the post-election protests. In a statement of November 19 signed by ten UN experts, including the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Agnès Callamard, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment Nils Melzer, as well as members of the UN working group on arbitrary detention.
Persecution of journalists
Three journalists have become suspects in a criminal case. Belsat TV contributors Dzmitry Soltan (Buyanau), Zmitser Krauchuk and Artsiom Bahaslauski were detained on November 1 during the March Against Terror in Minsk. On November 2, they were called suspects in a criminal case of “mass riots” (Article 342 of the Criminal Code). It is known that Soltan was beaten before being taken to the Kastryčnicki District Police Department. Another detainee, who was released the same day, said that the journalist was “beaten during the detention, beaten in the police van, then beaten on the head with his own camera, and the camera was broken.”