Human Rights and Democracy: The 2012 Foreign & Commonwealth Office Report - Country updates: Belarus

Latest Update: 31 December 2013

The human rights situation in Belarus remains largely unchanged since the last update in October.

Members of opposition parties and civil society continue to get harassed and arrested either for holding unauthorized “mass rallies” even when there is only one person involved, or for distributing leaflets. Other activists have faced “preventative arrests” to ensure that they do not attend rallies or mark significant events.

One political prisoner has been released in the last three months. On 19 October, Pavel Severinets, a co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party, was freed from prison after serving his full term. Rehabilitation will not follow the release: the criminal sentence precludes him from taking part in any future political activity. A former political prisoner has also been re-imprisoned. On 5 December, opposition activist Vasili Parfenkov was sentenced to a year in prison for failing to register with the police and returning to his house after 8pm, which broke the terms of his preventative surveillance regime. On 22 December, another former political prisoner, Zmiter Dashkevich, was told that he would be charged for failing to register with police in late December.  Also on 22 December, it was announced that former political prisoner Alexander Molchanov would stand trial for breach of preventative surveillance.

On 22 October, the Supreme Court reversed the death sentence for a prisoner who had killed a girl in the Gomel region. However, following a further review of the case, the Gomel regional court re-sentenced Aleksandr Grunov to death on 24 December. On 26 November, Eduard Lykov was also sentenced to death for killing five people. There are now four prisoners on death row, a deterioration since October.

On 3 December, Priest Uladzislau Lazar was released from a KGB detention centre, although he is required to register with the police on a daily basis. He had been arrested in July following accusations of providing money to a person suspected of spying against Belarus. The Pope had expressed deep concern upon hearing of the priest’s imprisonment, and met Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, Archbishop of Minsk and Mahilyow, in early October seeking further information on the case.

The LGBT community in Belarus continues to face harassment from the authorities. A number of ‘Minsk Gay Pride 2013’ events organised by the IX LGBT Human Rights Forum were disrupted in December. Ten events had been scheduled to take place between 6 and 12 December, to coincide with Human Rights Day; however, only five went ahead.  Police raided the accommodation of Pride participants, a procession was banned, venues rescinded on rental agreements, and clubs and parties were raided.  The Forum stated that these actions reflected a significant deterioration in the rights of the LGBT community in Belarus.  Representatives from LGBT Human Rights Project Gay Belarus and the IX LGBT Human Rights Forum expressed appreciation for the support of the British Embassy in Minsk, after the Embassy flew the LGBT flag during ‘Gay Pride’ week.

On 29 October, the Council of the European Union extended EU restrictive measures against Belarus until 31 October 2014. They stated that this was because not all political prisoners had been released, no released prisoners had been rehabilitated, and respect for human rights, rule of law and democratic principles had not improved in Belarus.

Update: 30 September 2013

The UK remains concerned about the human rights situation in Belarus, particularly with regards to freedom of expression.

Two political prisoners were released in the period between July and September, leaving at least seven in detention.  Opposition activist Zmitser Dashkevich was freed at the end of his jail term on 28 August, but faces six months of restrictive measures.   Dashkevich, leader of the Young Front opposition group, had been convicted in March 2011 of an assault allegedly carried out the day before the disputed presidential election in December 2010.  He claims that this is untrue and that, as a prominent oppositionist, his detention was preventative.  In August 2012, he had his sentence extended by a year for “deliberate disobedience” in prison.

Aleksandr Frantskevich was released on 3 September, again at the end of his sentence, but was bound to abide by restrictive measures for six months.  The remaining political prisoners reportedly continue to face difficult conditions.  Mikalai Autukhovich cut open his stomach on 19 September in protest against his treatment at the hands of the prison administration.

The suspended sentence of prominent independent journalist Iryna Khalip expired on 19 July, freeing her from strict supervisory conditions, which were as a result of her conviction for taking part in the protests linked to the 19 December 2010 presidential election.  The UK and EU continued to monitor the case of Andrey Gaidukov, Deputy Chair of the Union of Young Intellectuals.  On 1 July, he was sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment for attempting the “establishment of cooperation with the security services of a foreign state”.  The Supreme Court subsequently upheld his sentence on appeal.  On 12 September a Catholic priest, Vladislav Lazar, was charged with high treason, which carries a sentence of seven to fifteen years’ imprisonment.  The authorities have released little information about the case.

The authorities continued to target opposition activists with the use of arrest for low-level administrative offences. On 29 July, three youth activists were sentenced to five days in prison for “swearing in public”.  They were detained as they tried to hang the historic white-red-white flag of Belarus (used as a symbol of opposition to the current regime) in central Minsk.  Human rights activists Tatyana Revyako and Vladimir Labkovich were detained and fined for distributing leaflets about political prisoner Ales Byalyatski in Minsk on 6 August.  On 29 August Nikolay Demidenko was sentenced to twelve days in prison for “showing resistance to the police”.  He was detained trying to attend the news conference following Zmitser Dashkevich’s release.  Activist Illya Dovrotvor was detained on 2 September as he displayed the white-red-white flag on the Minsk metro. He was sentenced to five days in prison, again for “swearing in public”.

Restrictions on freedom of assembly continued in Belarus in the period between July and September. On 7 July, the police entered a performance by the Belarus Free Theatre and took the passport details of all attendees. On 8 July, the authorities fined Belarusian Christian Democracy activist Pavel Prokopovich for organising an unsanctioned mass event.  He had held a protest in which he was the only participant.  On 26 August, Nikoly Gladyshev was sentenced to ten days in prison for protesting outside the Russian Embassy against a proposed Russian airbase in Belarus.  He also protested alone. On 19 September, eighteen participants of a rally in central Minsk were detained, and five of them were later fined.  The event was in memory of Igor Ptichkin, who had died in prison on 4 August.  More positively, rallies in support of political prisoners were held on 4 August in six Belarusian towns. Only one participant was briefly detained during these events.

No death sentences were carried out in the period under review, but on 17 September the Supreme Court upheld the capital sentence against Pavel Seliun for the murder of two people in August 2012.

The Minister for Europe, David Lidington, met Belarusian Deputy Foreign Minister Elena Kupchina on 9 September. Mr Lidington stressed the UK’s continued concern about the human rights situation in Belarus.  He urged the authorities to cooperate with the UN Special Rapporteur, to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners, and to implement an immediate moratorium on the death penalty.  Mr Lidington also pressed for the authorities to tell Liubou Kavaliova where her son, Uladzislau Kavaliou, was buried. Uladzislau was executed in March 2012 for his alleged involvement in the Minsk Metro bombing.

Update: 30 June 2013

The human rights situation in Belarus remained unchanged over the last three months.

At least nine political prisoners remain imprisoned. The UK and the European Union are monitoring the trial of Andrey Gaidukov, Deputy Chair of the “Union of Young Intellectuals”, closely. Mr Gaidukov was arrested in November 2012 and his trial, which is being held in closed court for “treason against the state in the form of intelligence work” began on 12 June. Diplomats, media and human rights activists were not allowed to observe. No details of the hearing were disclosed

Authorities continue to harass opposition and civil society activists. In April, the Supreme Court upheld the decision to deny state registration to the youth wing of Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD). BCD have been denied registration three times – twice in 2009 and once in 2010.

Opposition activist Pavel Vinahradaw was arrested and sentenced to 12 days of detention on 22 April for displaying a prohibited Belarusian national flag and a portrait of political prisoner Mikalai Statkevich over the entrance to an underground station in Minsk.

On 29 April human rights activist Viachaslau Dashkevich was sentenced to 5 days detention for disobeying the police during the Chernobyl Way rally. Another three participants were sentenced to 10 days.

The 2011 Belarus Press Photo contest book was declared to be “extremist material” by the authorities on 5 April. This judgement was upheld on 18 April with the book identified as “illegal printed material subject to destruction”. The book contained images from the December 2010 protests and the April 2011 metro bombing.

Two independent journalists were detained on 26 April as they tried to report on a visit by opposition leaders to a nuclear power plant building site. On 29 April two Radio Racyja reporters sentenced to 3 days in prison after Chernobyl Way rally and on 6 May two journalists of the Belarusian Association of Journalists were sentenced to 10 and 12 days in prison after meeting a group of activists who had just been released from detention following the Chernobyl Way rally.

Three death sentences have been passed down in Belarus since April. On 30 April a man was sentenced to death in the town of Mogilev for killing his prison cellmate. On 12 June a man was sentenced to death by the Hrodna regional court for a double murder in 2012 and on 14 June the Gomel regional court passed the death sentence on a 23 year old man for killing his wife and her male friend in August 2012. The EU has expressed its regret at the sentences.

On 5 June, the Foreign Office Minister for Europe, David Lidington, met Belarus Human Rights Defenders Lyubov Kovalyova and Anastasia Dashkevich. During the meeting he stressed the long term UK policy of opposition to the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle and strongly urged Belarus to introduce a moratorium on executions immediately and work towards the abolition of the death penalty. The Minister also reiterated his call on the Belarusian government to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners

The British Government argued strongly for the United Nations Human Rights Council to extend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus, which it did, with increased international support on 13 June 2013. The Special Rapporteur’s report on the situation of human rights in Belarus, which he presented to the Human Rights Council, described the systemic and systematic restrictions of human rights in Belarus. The UK welcomed the fact that the resolution extending the Special Rapporteur’s mandate included, for the first time, a reference to the death penalty. The UK has urged the government of Belarus to cooperate with the Special Rapporteur.

Update: 31 March 2013

The human rights situation in Belarus remained unchanged.  The authorities have continued to harass the political opposition, civil society and independent journalists and to deny individuals the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Nine political prisoners remain in jail.  One political prisoner, Vasil Parfyankow, was released on 9 February, having completed his most recent six month jail sentence for violating the terms of a preventative supervision order.  Parfyankow was originally given a four year sentence following his participation in protests after the Presidential election in December 2010.  Conditions for the remaining political prisoners remained difficult; former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich was reportedly placed under renewed pressure to request a presidential pardon.

Syarhey Malashenak, an opposition activist from Navapolatsk, was found guilty of acting in violation of regulations governing mass events and fined $290.  He had posted a photograph on a website in support of political prisoner Ales Byalyatski.

In Brest, Vital Kowsh, an activist and former member of the Belarusian Popular Front, was sentenced to four years in prison and the confiscation of his property on 12 March when he was found guilty of helping eight Indian citizens enter Belarus illegally.  His associates have suggested that the case was fabricated in an attempt to attempt to discredit opposition forces: one of the illegal immigrants involved has said he was coerced into accusing Kowsh.

On 20 March three days were added to a twelve day jail term imposed on 22 year old Malady Front activist Uladzimir Yaromenak for allegedly twice violating the requirements of his preventive police supervision.

On 22 January the Belarusian Foreign Ministry rejected an application to extend Pavel Svyardlow’s media accreditation.  Mr Svyardlow is European Radio’s Belarus correspondent. He was sentenced to 15 days detention in 2012 for allegedly using obscene language in a public place.

On 5 March the jail sentence imposed on Belarusian language activist Henadz Loyka was upheld.  He had displayed a banner protesting against the “Russianisation” of the Belarusian education system.  The judge refused to conduct the hearing in the Belarusian language (Belarusian and Russian are both official languages in Belarus).

Valery Usik, a journalist for the privately owned newspaper Mahilyowski Vybar, was charged with disorderly conduct on 11 March.  He had visited a local state agricultural company, SVK Lebyadzyanka, with a Belsat TV crew (Belsat is a Polish-based satellite channel).  In January Mr Usik was charged with libel under the Civil Offenses Code for accusing managers of the company of corruption.

Opposition activist Yuliya Stsyapanava was attacked in Minsk on 13 January.  Her attackers cut off most of her hair and threatened her, mirroring previous attacks against female opposition activists attributed to the Belarusian KGB.

On 13 and 14 January, police raided gay parties at nightclubs in Minsk and Vitsyebsk.  In Minsk, police officers, some wearing civilian clothes, blocked the exit and took down passport details of all those present. In Vitsyebsk, police officers in both regular and riot uniform ordered all the men against one wall and all women against another and filmed everyone there.  Police gave different reasons for the raid, including counter-narcotics operations and a search for draft dodgers. Police also took passport details of everyone at a Belarus Free Theatre performance in Minsk.

On 14 February the Ministry of Justice denied state registration to LGBT rights group Lyambda for a third time and, following an appeal, to Young Christian Democrats, an opposition group. The Information Ministry twice refused to re-register the Belarusian language magazine Arche, alleging administrative errors in their application. In autumn 2012 Belarusian State TV accused Arche of extremism and Nazi propaganda.  Arche’s bank account was then frozen.

On 18 March the Minsk City Executive Committee again denied registration to pro-European group “European Prospect”.  On 23 January the Supreme Economic Court rejected Platforma’s appeal against the October 2012 court order that the organisation be closed down.  Platforma is an NGO which defends prisoners’ rights.   Separately the Central Election Commission dismissed a petition from the opposition calling for public discussion of proposals to amend the Electoral Code.

Minsk City Council granted permission for a Freedom Day demonstration in Minsk on 24 March, but opposition activists were denied permission to hold a concert at the Palace of Culture of Minsk Tractor Works.  The Baranavichy City Executive Committee also rejected an application to stage a Freedom Day demonstration.  Some 2,000 people took part in the Minsk Freedom Day demonstration.  Police arrested eight people, including opposition activists and a journalist.