Human Rights Situation in Belarus: October 2023

As of late October, 1,473 political prisoners were deprived of their liberty in Belarus. Human rights defenders continue to document arbitrary arrests, convictions, torture, and other types of prohibited treatment against protesters, political opponents of the regime, and dissidents, the Human Rights Center Viasna reports.

Political prisoners. Persecution of human rights defenders

As of October 31, there were 1,473 political prisoners in Belarus. One hundred and sixty-three of them are women. In total, since May 2020, almost 2,800 people have been recognized as political prisoners. About 490 of them are women. In October, the country’s human rights community added 30 people to the list of political prisoners.

Members of the Human Rights Center Viasna, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk, are serving their sentences in penal colonies.

The country’s human rights community issued a statement calling for the immediate and unconditional release of human rights defender Nasta Loika. Nasta was transferred to a penal colony. In October, the KGB added her to the “list of terrorists”. As the epigraph of the statement, lines from Nasta’s letter were used, in which she talks about torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading acts against her using a stun gun, etc.

There is still no accurate information about the whereabouts and well-being of several well-known opposition politicians held incommunicado in penitentiaries across the country, including Maria Kalesnikava, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, and Viktar Babaryka. They are deprived of the right to telephone conversations and visits, including the right to see their lawyers. Meanwhile, nearly all political prisoners are significantly limited in correspondence and meetings with relatives and lawyers.

One of the cruellest and most cynical instruments of pressure on political prisoners is the arbitrary extension of their terms of imprisonment on the fabricated charges of “malicious disobedience”, which provides for the possibility of extending imprisonment for up to two years for committing repeated disciplinary offences. In October, political prisoner Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, who was earlier sentenced to three years in prison, was found guilty of “malicious disobedience to the penal colony administration” and was sentenced to another year in prison. At the very first court hearing, the political prisoner reported being beaten while in the penal colony, as her face was bruised and her internal organs were reportedly severely damaged.

A number of political prisoners belong to vulnerable groups, and deprivation of liberty puts their lives and health at risk.

In particular, the prison authorities still refuse to inform Ryhor Kastusiou of the results of his oncology tests. The 66-year-old former leader of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front Party was sentenced to 10 years in prison. While in prison, Kastusiou’s health significantly deteriorated, and he was diagnosed with cancer.

In October, 62-year-old Ala Zuyeva was found guilty of insulting a government official and Lukashenko and was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, although Zuyeva has blood cancer.

Vasil Berasniou, a political prisoner convicted in a trial involving several independent trade union activists, was urgently taken to a hospital after his health sharply deteriorated at the penal colony. Berasniou suffers from pain in his only kidney and may soon need a kidney transplant.

Viasna publishes monthly updates on political prisoners who have been released after serving their sentences or pending trial. According to the latest digest, 52 political prisoners were released in September, including 45 serving full sentences. It is important to note that the persecution of political prisoners does not stop after they are released. The security forces continue to target them even after their release. A dozen former political prisoners are yet again in pre-trial detention in new criminal cases. In addition, most former political prisoners face re-socialization and employment obstacles, which often force them into exile.

Violations of the freedom of peaceful assembly. Suppression of freedom of expression

Political persecution of people for participating in the 2020 post-election protests continues. Individuals are also targeted for expressing opinions and donations online. Freedom of speech in Belarus is pervasively suppressed: the persecution is nationwide and involves a variety of methods of varying severity. Opinions are under constant supervision and when dissent is identified, it is immediately punished.

In October, long prison terms were ordered for the three members of the Tor Band, whose songs became symbols of the 2020 protests. While the musicians were in pre-trial detention, the band’s social media accounts and songs were blacklisted as “extremist content”, and the band itself was labelled as an “extremist formation”, which in turn became the basis for the guilty verdict.

Another form of expression of opinion is monetary support for the repressed in Belarus or the Ukrainian army in its war against Russia. Donations through Facebook are still routinely targeted by the authorities. Individuals are called for questioning en masse, where they are forced to confess and “reimburse the damage” by donating to government-owned or controlled enterprises or organizations, while the amounts many times exceed the original donation.

Violations of rights and freedoms under the pretext of fighting extremism and terrorism

Belarusian authorities abuse anti-terrorist and anti-extremist legislation and continue to purge civil society, suppress freedom of expression, and eradicate political opposition. This was stated by Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation with human rights in Belarus, in her report to the UN General Assembly.

The list of persons involved in “extremist activities” increased by 183 people. In October, Viasna learned about at least 320 cases of arrests for subscriptions to “extremist” social media accounts. Many of these arrests were followed by the forced recording of video confessions, in which people had to admit to participating in the protests of 2020 and other activities.

Violations of the rights of journalists, media workers and bloggers

As of the end of October, 33 journalists and media workers were being held in prisons.

For the authorities, the fight against independent media is part of the fight against freedom of speech. Repressive actions are aimed at limiting access to independent information by canceling the registration of media outlets and designating them as “extremist”, which entails criminal liability for running or quoting such resources.

In October, the Court continued to hear the criminal charges brought against Aliaksandr Mantsevich, editor-in-chief of Rehiyanalnaya Gazeta, the leading independent media of the region. The online newspaper itself was stripped of its license and designated as “extremist” a month after Mantsevich’s arrest.

Persecution of lawyers

In September, the qualification commission of the Ministry of Justice ruled to allow the revocation of licenses of more than seven lawyers. The lawyers were earlier disbarred for “committing actions that discredit the title of lawyer and the legal profession” and “inability to fulfill their professional duties”.

These measures are arbitrary and constitute excessive interference in the activities of the legal profession. It is obvious that the legal self-government bodies, having abandoned the functions of protecting the independence of the legal profession, themselves became an instrument of repression, depriving critical representatives of the legal profession of their right to the profession for political reasons. The process of transformation of lawyers from independent defenders of the rights and freedoms of individuals into a faceless and dependent element of the law enforcement system is given great attention by the supervisory authority, the Ministry of Justice.

Torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and punishment

Torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment are almost universally accompanied by politically motivated persecution and are often self-sufficient political repression, a goal in itself. Freedom from torture is an absolute right: no one can encroach on it under any circumstances. Respect for human rights and freedoms, according to the Constitution, is the highest goal of the state.

The use of torture and other acts of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment continues in Belarusian penitentiaries targeting political prisoners. Confinement to penal cells (SHIZO) has become a specific form of cruel, inhumane treatment bordering on, or even reaching, the level of torture. A former political prisoner told about the conditions of detention and the inhumane treatment of political prisoners in penal colonies. He noted the constant low temperature in the cell, provocations and humiliating personal attitude by the prison staff, lack of bedding, inhumane conditions in SHIZO, lack of opportunity to take a shower, lack of food, psychological pressure, etc.

Particularly violent is the politically motivated criminal prosecution in the case of the Black Book of Belarus, an initiative whose Telegram channels collected and published the personal data of individuals allegedly involved in human rights violations. It is known that some of the defendants were and are still going through beatings and torture during their arrest. At least 32 people were sentenced to imprisonment, with an average of six years in prison. Among them are bank employees, former prosecutors, police officers and investigators, government officials, a lawyer, a former lieutenant colonel of justice, a forensic expert, a musician, and an artist.

Support by the Belarusian authorities for Russian aggression and war criminals, persecution for supporting Ukraine and anti-war position

Units of the Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group are still based in Belarus at the invitation of Alexander Lukashenko. The PMC was provided with the territory and facilities of a former military unit in the Mahiliou region to create a military base. The deployment of mercenaries accused of committing crimes against humanity is an act of ignoring the opinion of the international community and supporting the war crimes committed, confirming the validity of accusations of complicity in Russian aggression against Ukraine, and introducing a new element to security threats in Europe. On the other hand, this jeopardizes the safety of Belarusian citizens and creates a threat to national security and sovereignty.

At the same time, the Belarusian authorities are mercilessly cracking down on representatives of their own people for their anti-war position and support for the struggle of the Ukrainian people and army against the aggressor.

Human rights defenders have documented cases of prosecution for anti-war activities: as of October 18, there were 13 people convicted in Belarus for measures aimed at preventing the movement of trains carrying Russian military equipment towards Ukraine. At least 35 people have been convicted of sharing the photos and videos of Russian troops to the media, and 13 people have been convicted of intending to fight on the side of Ukraine. At least 26 people were persecuted for publicly condemning Russian aggression, donating to Belarusian volunteers fighting in Ukraine and in support of the Ukrainian army. During the first six weeks of the war, more than 1,500 people were detained for anti-war protests held in Belarus. In total, at least 1,630 Belarusians were arrested for expressing an anti-war position. Of these, 79 people were convicted in criminal trials, resulting in prison terms ranging between 1 and 23 years.

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