Belarus: Crackdown on Political Activists, Journalists

 
Arrests, Criminal Charges, Police Beatings Ahead of August 9 Presidential Vote
 

(Berlin) – Police in Belarus have arbitrarily arrested journalists, bloggers, and political activists ahead of the August 9, 2020 presidential election and pressed charges against two potential candidates, Human Rights Watch said today.

The arrests raise concerns about interference with and violations of rights to freedom of expression, particularly media freedom and political speech, and freedom of assembly. Many of the arrests seemed timed to keep those detained locked away until at least after the elections.

“Belarusian authorities are using flimsy pretexts to silence journalists and critics, which should never happen, but that has even more damning consequences for citizens’ rights in an election period,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The international community should not ignore such serious flouting of human rights obligations.”

On July 15, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), which methodically monitors elections in the region, stated that for the first time, it would not monitor the vote, citing the authorities’ failure to deliver a timely invitation.

The authorities pressed criminal charges against two opposition presidential hopefuls, one of them a top candidate, and refused to register the candidacy of another top candidate. From May through July, police arrested at least 1,100 people for gathering peacefully on issues related to the election. Courts sentenced nearly 200 people to detention for up to 15 days, with some sentenced to multiple terms. They fined more than 300 others.

Police arrested journalists and bloggers as they were reporting from peaceful public gatherings, in some cases using excessive force. Human Rights Watch interviewed several journalists after their release. Some were released shortly afterward without charges. Others were charged for participation in unsanctioned public gatherings and/or resisting police orders and were fined by courts, despite their assertions that they were covering the events on assignment. Some said the police beat them.

On July 16, police arrested Viktar Babaryka, who had gathered a record number of signatures supporting his presidential candidacy. They also arrested Babaryka’s son, Eduard, who was his father’s campaign manager. The Babarykas are in pretrial custody, facing charges that include tax evasion.

Siarhei Tsikhanouski, a blogger who had intended to run for president, is also being held. After police arrested him several times on misdemeanor pretexts, Tsikhanouski’s wife, Sviatlana, announced she would run for president, and Siarhei became her campaign manager.

But on May 29, police arrested Siarhei Tsikhanouski in Hrodna, when he and other activists were gathering signatures for his wife’s candidacy. Two unidentified women attempted unsuccessfully to pick a fight with Tsikhanouski. When police officers rushed in, one officer fell to the ground. Although videos of the event show that he was not hit or pushed, the authorities claim he was injured. They opened a criminal investigation into “organizing group actions that grossly violate public order” and violence against the police.

The authorities have turned the events in Hrodna into a large criminal case alleging mass joint criminal behavior and have since detained 18 other bloggers and political activists in the case. Sixteen, including Tsihanouski, are in pretrial custody. If convicted, they face up to three years in prison.

Police arrested one of the activists, Siarhei Sparysh, while he was self-isolating at home because he had been in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient. Locking him up while he was self-isolating risked recklessly exposing other people to Covid-19, Human Rights Watch said.

On July 30, authorities announced they opened new criminal charges against Tsikhanouski and another opposition politician, Mikolai Statkevich, on “preparation for mass riots.” They also opened a new investigation against Tshihanouski on charges of incitement to violence against police.

Valer Tsapkala, Belarussian ambassador to the United States from 1997 to 2002, had also sought to run for president, but the Central Election Commission (CEC) refused to register his candidacy, claiming that over 50 percent of the 160,000 signatures he had gathered were invalid.

Belarus’s CEC did confirm Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy on July 17, and she is now backed by campaigns of both Babaryka and Tsapkala. In July, citing telephone threats, Tsikhanouskaya sent her children abroad for their safety. Tsapkala left Belarus with his children, also citing concerns for their safety.

Other candidates, in addition to Alexander Lukashenka, Belarus’s president since 1994, are Andrei Dzmitrieu, of the opposition Tell the Truth movement; Anna Kanopatskaya, who until 2019 was a member of parliament, one of two independent members; and Siarhei Cherechen, a young businessman and leader of the Social Democratic Party.

From May through mid-July, police detained people who gathered peacefully in a variety of settings and arrested and beat journalists covering these events. Some of these events were to collect signatures for presidential hopefuls. Although Belarusian election law allows such gatherings, law enforcement deemed them unsanctioned assemblies. At least 195 people were detained at these events from May 6 through 31 alone.

On July 15, hundreds in Minsk lined up to file complaints about the CEC’s refusal to register opposition candidates. After 7 p.m., police started arresting participants. Police violently detained Anton Trafimovich, a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) covering the event, breaking his nose. Trafimovich told Human Rights Watch that the authorities are pressing charges against him, most likely to justify injuring him.

After news of the arrests and beatings of protesters and journalists spread, Lukashenka called on his cabinet to expel foreign journalists, contending that they are biased and falsely stating that they have called for “mass disturbances.” In June, Lukashenka accused Telegram social media channels of spreading “fake news” and inciting public protests. Interior Minister Yuri Karaeu told Parliament that these “people are ... attempting to make a street revolution.”

Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of expression and assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Belarus has an obligation under international law not to unduly prevent journalists from doing their job, including reporting on unsanctioned protests. Under international law, everyone has a right to take part in peaceful assemblies, assemblies should be presumed lawful, and nobody should be punished for participating in a peaceful protest, even if the authorities deem it unlawful. Journalists should be allowed to cover these events without undue police interference.

The European Union and its member states, the United Nations, and other bodies should closely monitor developments in Belarus and stand ready to call out abuse in the lead up and aftermath of the vote, Human Rights Watch said.

“Election periods should be a time when governments scrupulously respect political rights, including freedoms of expression and assembly,” Williamson said. “Sadly, this has not been the case in Belarus. Belarus’s leaders should know that the international community will take notice.”

For additional details and accounts of arrests and abuse, please see below.

Detention, Beating of Journalists

According to the Belarus Association of Journalists (BAJ), on June 19 and 20 alone, the police detained at least 14 journalists at peaceful public gatherings they were covering for their media outlets. Most were wearing jackets and badges identifying them as press and carried valid press cards. Police beat at least three of them.

The BAJ reported that on June 20 in Gantsevichi, 180 kilometers south of Minsk, the police arbitrarily detained and beat Aliaksandr Pazniak and Siarhei Bahrou, reporters with Hancavicki Čas, a local independent newspaper.

Bahrou was detained as he was livestreaming and taking photographs at a public gathering in support of the attempted candidate Viktar Babaryka, whom the police had arrested the day before. Bahrou told Human Rights Watch that he had spoken with the local police chief, identifying himself as a journalist, several hours before the gathering. When the police moved to detain some of the protesters, they ordered Bahrou to move away “for personal security reasons” and attempted to block his camera. Bahrou’s video, which Human Rights Watch viewed, also shows one of the officers discussing with his superior by phone that Bahrou was live-streaming from the site and saying that his device should be seized. Bahrou said:

Two police officers forcibly took my phone away. One hit me in the face when they dragged me into the police van. They also roughed up my colleague, Aliaksandr Pazniak. One of the policemen held Aliaksandr’s head against the asphalt with his knee, and when we were both in the van I saw that Aliaksandr had a black eye.

The black eye is visible in an interview Pazniak recorded two days later, in which he said police “brutally beat him” and “pulled [him] by the hair.”

The police held the two journalists overnight. The next day, Bahrou said, their lawyers tried to visit, but the police denied them access. On June 22, the police drove Bahrou and several of the detained protesters to a court in Baranovichi, 73 kilometers away, without explaining why their hearings would not be held in Gantsevichi. The court sentenced Bahrou to 15 days on charges of participating in an unsanctioned public gathering and disobeying police orders. The other detainees, including Pazniak, were fined. Bahrou unsuccessfully appealed his sentence.

On July 5, police released Bahrou and returned his camera, with all the photographs deleted from the memory card.

The BAJ also documented at least 15 detentions of journalists, including those working for foreign media outlets, covering peaceful public gatherings throughout Belarus on July 14 and 15. In some cases, the police told the journalists they weren’t being arrested but rather taken into custody to check their identity and affiliation. However, the circumstances of the round-ups indicate that the authorities aimed to prevent them from reporting on the gatherings.

On July 15, police in Minsk detained Anton Trafimovich, an RFE/RL correspondent, and Violeta Savchyts, from BelaPAN media agency, as they were reporting on the mass gathering there. Trafimovich said the detaining officers broke his nose.

He said that a van drove up to them, and 6 or 7 men, 2 in riot police uniform, ran up to them and violently grabbed them without explanation or identifying themselves. Trafimovich said:

They just twisted my hands behind my back. One of them hit me ... on my nose, and another one pushed his fist into my mouth to prevent me from screaming. They threw me into the van, forced me on my knees and handcuffed me. My nose was bleeding badly, the blood was dripping on the floor of the van and on my clothes.

Police threw Savchyts into the same van, drove them to a police station, and kept them there for an hour, then released them without charge. Trafimovich immediately sought treatment at a hospital, where he was diagnosed with a nose fracture. Afterward, Trafimovich filed a criminal complaint against the police for interfering with the media (article 198 of the criminal code). The Minsk police press service issued a statement claiming that Trafimovich was injured while resisting arrest.

On July 17, Trafimovich said, a stranger approached him next to an official forensic office, where he intended to process a record of his injuries. He forcibly took Trafimovich to the same police station where he had been held, and officers issued him a charge sheet for allegedly disobeying police orders on July 15. Trafimovich refused to sign the charge sheet without a lawyer. Police released him two hours later. Trafimovich said that he viewed the charges as an attempt to justify the unlawful violence against him and intimidate him and other journalists.

RFE/RL’s leadership stated that five of their journalists, including Trafimovich, have been assaulted as part of “a campaign of aggression targeting the power of the independent press” before the election.

On June 19, police in Bobruisk detained Siarhei Latsinski and his wife Alesya, both journalists with the local online outlet Bobr.by. Siarhei Latsinski is also registered as a local election observer.

June 19 was the last day to collect signatures for presidential candidates. Siarhei Latsinski told Human Rights Watch that in the evening, a crowd of local residents formed a “solidarity chain” in support of Babaryka and Tsikhanouski. He and his wife were reporting on the event, wore press badges, and stood 20 to 30 meters away from the chain. Two police officers approached them and told them to leave. When Latsinski asked them to explain why, the officers forcibly put both in a police van, where they were joined by another seven arbitrarily detained people.

Alesya Latsinskaya was released the same day, charged for allegedly participating in an unsanctioned public gathering.

Police kept Siarhei Latsinski and several other detainees in custody pending their court hearings. On June 22, a local court sentenced Latsinski to 10 days in detention for allegedly participating in an unsanctioned gathering. When Latsinski’s temperature was found to be one degree higher than normal, officials released him to get medical treatment for what proved to be a mild respiratory infection. He told Human Rights Watch that he will appeal his sentence.

Arrests of Opposition Candidates and Politicians

Siarhei Tsikhanouski and the ‘Hrodna Incident’


Siarhei Tsikhanouski runs a social media project, Country for Living, which deals with social justice and political issues. On May 5, Tsikhanouski announced that he would run for president.

On May 6, the authorities arrested Tsikhanouski in connection with a 15-day jail sentence he had received in January for participating in a peaceful protest.

After his release, Tsikhanouski dropped his presidential run and started running his wife’s presidential campaign. However, on May 29, police detained him again at a signature-collection event in support of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s candidacy, the Belarusian human rights group Viasna reported. The detention followed an unsuccessful attempt by several unidentified women to provoke Tsikhanouski into a physical conflict, calling out at him and grabbing at his clothes as he kept walking away. Police officers rushed in. One officer fell to the ground, and although videos of the events show that he was not hit or pushed, officers rounded up Tsikhanouski along with at least 15 others.

On May 30, police transferred Tsikhanouski and seven other detainees from Hrodna to a temporary detention center in Minsk, and released the rest. On the same day, the Internal Affairs Ministry stated that two police officers suffered bodily harm at the protest and that an investigation into “violent actions against officials” was ongoing.

From June 3 to 4, law enforcement officials carried out three searches at Tsikhanouski’s summer cottage. Although they found nothing during the first 2 raids, during the third raid they supposedly discovered US$900,000. By June 8, the authorities indicted Tsikhanouski and six others – Dzmitry Furmanau, Andrei Novikau, Aliaksandr Aranovich, Artsiom Sakau, and Uladzimir Navumik, all members of Tsihanouski’s nomination team, and Vasil Babrouski, a passerby, on charges of “organizing group actions, which grossly violate public order and are linked to evident incompliance with legitimate orders by officials” (article 342 of the criminal code). They also indicted Viarhili Ushak, who was hired to film the protest. Two other participants in the protest in Hrodna were indicted on charges of violence against police (article 364 of the criminal code).

On June 16, the Belarusian chief investigation agency opened another criminal case against Tsikhanouski, on charges of interference with the election process and meddling in the work of the CEC. The commission chair told the media that Tsikhanouski threatened the commission, without disclosing the nature of those alleged threats, and that “Tsikhanouski’s group was attempting to destabilize the situation using the collection of signatures with the objective of changing the government.”

On the same day, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya made a video statement about a phone call she received from an unidentified person who warned she would be imprisoned and her children would be put in an orphanage if she continued collecting signatures. In July, Tsikhanouskaya stated that she sent her children to a “safe country” because she feared for their safety.

On July 30, authorities announced they opened a new criminal investigation against Tsihanouski, on charges of incitement to violence against police and planning mass riots. Others named in the latter investigation are Mikolai Statkevich and 33 alleged Russian private military contractors.

Viktar and Eduard Babaryka

The former head of Belgazprombank, Victor Babaryka, announced his intention to run for president on May 12. Belgazprombank is an offshoot of Russia’s Gazprom Bank. Babaryka resigned his position to join the race. By June 19, the deadline for signature collection, Babaryka’s team had filed 283,000 signatures, a record number for an opposition candidate in Belarus.

On June 11, the authorities opened a criminal investigation into Belgazprombank, detaining 15 of its staff, including some top managers. They also arrested four members of Babaryka’s campaign team on tax evasion charges, Viasna reported.

On June 18, security officials arrested Babaryka and his son Eduard and put them in the security services’ pretrial detention center in Minsk. Their lawyers had no access to the Babarykas for over 24 hours. Their lawyers told the media they could not reveal the nature of the charges, citing non-disclosure agreements prohibiting them from sharing any information about the case.

On July 2, during an appeal hearing on pretrial custody, the charges against Babaryka became known: repeated money laundering, tax evasion, and accepting bribes. Eduard Babaryka was indicted on charges of tax evasion. Belarus’s prosecutor general stated that the case against the Babarykas directly involved the country’s national security.

On July 14, the election commission refused to register Babaryka’s candidacy, citing alleged omissions in his declaration of income and assets and referencing the money laundering charges.

The timing and the circumstances of Babaryka’s arrest and the arrests of his son and campaign staff, and the initial atmosphere of secrecy around the case, give strong grounds for concern that the arrest and prosecution are politically motivated and intended to eliminate a key presidential contender from the race.

Mikalai Statkevich

Mikalai Statkevich, leader of the Belarusian National Congress and chair of Narodnaya Hramada, an unregistered opposition party, ran for president in 2010 and was imprisoned for nearly five years afterward on bogus “mass rioting” charges in relation to post-election protests. The CEC refused to register his candidacy for the 2020 vote, citing his criminal record. On May 31, police detained him in Minsk, and the next day, a court sentenced him to 15 days in detention for allegedly violating public assembly rules for participating in a peaceful gathering in Minsk a week earlier.

On June 15, when Statkevich’s sentence was to end, a court sentenced him to another 15 days over a post published on his Telegram channel with information about a meeting of “protest candidates.”

On June 29, an investigator informed Statkevich’s wife, Marina Adamovich, that Statkevich had become a suspect in the Hrodna case and would be transferred to a pretrial detention facility. On July 8, he was indicted. Statkevich denied the allegations, asserting he had not visited Hrodna since autumn 2019.

On July 30, authorities announced they opened a new criminal investigation against Statkevich on planning mass riots, in the same new case that has been opened against Tshikhanouski.

Pavel Seviarynets

Pavel Seviarynets, co-chair of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy, ran in the 2010 presidential election and served a three-year sentence for his participation in post-election protests. Although he did not try to register as a candidate for the 2020 ballot, Seviarynets participated in opposition public events. On June 7, police detained him in Minsk when he was on his way home from a signature-gathering event, Viasna reported. On June 8, he received a 15-day sentence for participating in that “unsanctioned public gathering.”

Meanwhile, a court in Minsk handed Seviarynets 4 more 15-day sentences over his alleged involvement with unsanctioned public gatherings, extending his total sentence to 75 days.

Bloggers, Opposition Campaigners, Activists

Since June 15, Belarus authorities have arrested at least nine bloggers, most on suspicion of involvement in the Hrodna case. Most have been indicted.

Two of them, Siarhei Piatrukhin and Aliaksandr Kabanau, are popular bloggers from Brest, who publish political commentaries on the YouTube channels People’s Reporter and Youtube Deputies.

Kabanau also volunteered to be press secretary for Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya’s presidential campaign. Police arrested him on June 15, when he was on his way to a medical appointment. Police officials charged him with allegedly calling for participation in an unsanctioned, peaceful protest in Brest on May 7. A court in Brest convicted him and sentenced him to 15 days in detention on June 17.

Kabanau began serving the sentence at the Leninski District Police Department, but on June 20 disappeared from there, and the authorities refused to provide his family any information regarding his whereabouts, Viasna reported. On June 25, law enforcement officials searched Kabanau’s parents’ home in the village of Zubachi and told his parents that Kabanau was being held at the Zubachi Temporary Detention Center. After the search, the authorities transferred Kabanau to a pretrial detention facility in Minsk. He remains there, indicted in the Hrodna case.

On June 16, police arrived at Piatrukhin’s summer cottage in the Brest region, where Piatrukhin was recovering from Covid-19 after testing positive for the virus in May. Police took him to the Kobrin Police Department to serve an administrative arrest sentence he had not served in May because of his illness. It took Piatrukhin’s family five days to locate him in custody.

On June 25, police transferred Piatrukhin to a facility in Minsk. On July 7, Viasna reported that he had been indicted in relation to the Hrodna case, and also for two public insult charges that, according to Viasna, pertain to incidents that happened in 2018.

On June 25, police in Minsk arrested Siarhei Sparysh, an activist with Narodnaya Hramada, who also runs several political Telegram channels. Marina Adamovich, the wife of the opposition politician Mikalai Statkevich, told Human Rights Watch that when he was arrested, Sparysh was self-isolating at home because he had been in contact with a confirmed Covid-19 patient. Several officials in civilian clothing forced their way into his apartment without explanation or identifying themselves. They handcuffed Sparysh and dragged him down the stairs and into a police vehicle. Sparysh was then transferred to a detention facility to serve a 15-day arrest sentence issued in May for participating in an unsanctioned public gathering. In July, Viasna reported that the authorities indicted Sparysh in the Hrodna case. He is in custody in Minsk.

On June 25, police in Baranovichi searched the home of Ihar Losik, who runs a popular Telegram channel Belarus Madness, covering political and human rights developments in Belarus. After the search, Losik was arrested. He is being held in Minsk, indicted as a suspect in the Hrodna case, RFE/RL reported.

Uladzimir Niaronski, a Tsikhanouski supporter who runs Slutsk for Living, a YouTube channel linked with Tsikhanouski’s Country for Living platform, was also detained on May 6, on the outskirts of Minsk. He was returning from a meeting of Tsikhanouski supporters in Mahilyou, which the authorities deemed to be an “unsanctioned public gathering.” A court sentenced Niaronski to 10 days in detention for “organizing” it. Throughout the next month, Niaronski received several more sentences for participating in other peaceful gatherings, with his sentences adding up to 40 days.

Niaronski’s last sentence was due to end on June 15. Instead of releasing him, the authorities transferred him to a pretrial detention in Minsk, where he remains on charges related to the Hrodna incident and also charges of “publicly insulting a government official.” The second charge pertains to a series of critical videos he published in February 2020.

On June 9, police officials in Minsk detained Uladzimir Tsyhanovich, who runs MozgON YouTube channel and, among other things, has commented extensively on the election campaign. Police dragged him out of his car, took him to a police station, and then transferred him to a detention facility to serve a 15-day sentence that had been handed down in March for posts about a protest against the February increase in gasoline prices. On June 15, Tsyhanovich was sentenced to another 15 days for participating in an unsanctioned public gathering in Minsk on May 31. On June 26, Viasna reported that the authorities transferred Tsyhanovich to a pretrial detention facility in Minsk for alleged involvement in the Hrodna incident.

On June 26, police in Vorsha detained Aliaksandr Andreyeu, who runs a Telegram channel, Vorsha for Living, linked with Tsikhanouski’s Country for Living project, when he was on his way back from a meeting with the speaker of the Belarusian parliament’s lower chamber. At the meeting, Andreyeu asked the speaker why President Lukashenka deemed it acceptable to publicly insult his political opponents. On June 29, a court in Vorsha sentenced Andreyeu to 15 days in detention for participating a June 19 “solidarity chain” in support of arrested presidential candidates.

Dzmitry Kazlou, who runs Grey Cat YouTube channel, was serving 20 days in detention for participating in an unsanctioned public gathering and expecting to be released on June 30 when the authorities transferred him to a pretrial detention facility in Minsk. On July 8, his lawyer informed the media that Kazlou had been indicted in the Hrodna case, and would remain behind bars pending trial.

Dmitry Popov, a moderator with Tsikhanouski’s Country for Living project, was reported missing on the evening of June 4. Several days later, his colleagues and family members found out that he was serving a 15-day sentence in Minsk. Instead of releasing Popov at the end of his sentence, the authorities transferred him to a pretrial facility in Minsk. On July 10, Viasna reported that Popov became the nineteenth person indicted in the Hrodna case. According to his family members, his health has deteriorated in custody.