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Human Rights Situation in Belarus: April 2021

(May 3, 2021)


Image: Members of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign on trial in Homieĺ. April 12, 2021


Summary of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” report:

  • during the month, the authorities continued to actively apply criminal prosecution for political reasons. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, since August 2020, more than three thousand criminal cases have been initiated for violating the procedure for holding mass events and protests;
  • according to the HRC “Viasna”, in April, the courts passed sentences against at least 98 people in politically motivated criminal cases. Monitoring of trials conducted by volunteers and lawyers of Viasna revealed numerous violations of the principles of fair trial and procedural rights and guarantees of the defendants;
  • 360 political prisoners were held in prisons, as of the end of April, and their number continues to increase;
  • detentions of participants in peaceful protests continued, as well as arbitrary detentions for the use of white-red-white symbols, including in private premises and territories. In total, in April, the HRC “Viasna” possesses information about the detention of 304 people (253 of them in Minsk) and the issuance of more than 210 court orders: in 131 cases terms of administrative detention were imposed, in 68 fines were issued;
  • on April 17, in Moscow, officers of the Russian FSB, in cooperation with the KGB of Belarus, detained a citizen of Belarus and the United States, Yury Ziankovich, and Aliaksandr Fiaduta, a political analyst and literary scholar. Later, the state media of Belarus reported on the detention in Minsk of Ryhor Kastusiou, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front Party, and Volha Halubovich, an aide to Ziankovich. A criminal case was initiated against the detainees under Part 1 of Art. 357 of the Criminal Code (conspiracy and other actions to seize power). These processes are accompanied by active and aggressive propaganda rhetoric of the official Minsk and Moscow about the alleged involvement of the U.S. special services in the preparation of a coup d’etat in Belarus and the assassination of Lukashenka and his family members;
  • pressure on human rights defenders continued. During the month, there were searches and detentions of representatives of a number of human rights organizations, as well as active investigative actions against members of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”;
  • of extreme concern are the numerous facts of cruel treatment of individuals detained and subjected to administrative detention for participating in peaceful assemblies. The inhuman conditions of detention deliberately created by the administrations of detention facilities for this category of detainees are regarded by the HRC “Viasna” experts as torture;
  • the human rights defenders deplore the amendments adopted by the parliament to a number of laws and the Criminal Code aimed at increasing criminal liability for participation in protests and public criticism of the current political regime, as well as those related to the work of the media;
  • during the month, the human rights situation in the country continued to deteriorate.

Political prisoners and politically motivated prosecution

In April, the authorities continued to actively use criminal prosecution as the main form of political repression. Human Rights Center Viasna is aware of at least 96 convicts in politically motivated criminal cases during the month.

According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, over the period from August 2020 to April 2021, more than three thousand criminal cases were initiated related to the organization and conduct of illegal mass events and protests. It also reported over 750 facts of alleged desecration of buildings and damage to property, about 600 insults to government officials, and more than 300 cases of violence or threats of its use against police officers.

The Human Rights Center “Viasna” knows the names of more than 1,000 persons prosecuted for political reasons.

The number of political prisoners reached 360 at the end of the month and continues to grow as information about criminal cases is received and analyzed.

New trends have emerged in the politically motivated criminal prosecution, as the authorities are increasingly blacklisting local opposition chats and Telegram channels as extremist and accusing their administrators of creating extremist organizations, respectively. According to Viasna experts, these trends in law enforcement practice are due to the adoption by the National Assembly of amendments and additions to the Law “On Countering Extremism”. These changes criminalize almost any public criticism of the government, both in general and its individual representatives.

In particular, on March 18, a community activist from the village of Ždanovičy near Minsk, mother of four children Volha Zalatar, was detained. On March 29, the woman was officially charged under Part 1 of Art. B, Art. 361-1 of the Criminal Code (creation of an extremist formation) and remanded in a pre-trial facility. On April 2, the country’s human rights community “Politically Motivated Criminal Prosecutions. Belarus 2020-2021”. Based on the results of monitoring criminal cases in courts and evaluating the investigations, the human rights defenders concluded that the criminal proceedings against dissidents, including in the courts, are marred by widespread violations of both domestic laws and constitutional and internationally recognized standards of a fair trial. Disregard for human rights and gross violations have fundamentally eroded trust in the rule of law, as well as trust and respect in the judiciary.

Human rights activists note the deterioration of the situation with the transparency and openness of the consideration of criminal cases, as several more trials against protesters and opposition activists were held behind closed doors without a valid reason. The case of Pavel Seviarynets and activists of the European Belarus opposition group will be considered in a closed session. It should be noted that the participants in such hearings, except for the defendants, have no right to disclose information they learned during the trial under the threat of criminal punishment.

The defendants in criminal cases and their lawyers have repeatedly noted the facts of opposition to the implementation of the defense: visits of lawyers and clients are arbitrarily limited, suspects and accused are often interrogated in the absence of a defense lawyer, judges do not provide legal assistance in administrative proceedings. In some cases, suspects are not informed in a timely manner about the reason for the detention and the charges they are facing.

On April 28, the government-owned TV channel ONT published a video of a conversation between Siarhei Tsikhanouski and his lawyer in the pre-trial prison in Minsk. Thus, the authorities openly admitted to a gross violation of the right of the accused and the defense attorney to confidential communication, predetermining the assessment of compliance with the guarantees of a fair trial not only in relation to Tsikhanouski, but also to other political prisoners.

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