Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
During the year there were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings and no reports of deaths from torture.
During the year there were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were no developments in the reportedly continuing investigations into the 2000 disappearance of journalist Zmitser Zavadski and the 1999 disappearances of former deputy prime minister Viktar Hanchar, businessman Anatol Krasouski, and former interior minister Yuri Zakharanka. There was evidence of government involvement in the disappearances, but authorities continued to deny any connection with them.
In May 2016 a Minsk court suspended the civil suit of Zakharanka’s mother asking for the court to recognize Zakharanka’s death until the criminal case regarding his disappearance was closed. The lawyer for Zakharanka’s mother told the court, “given the fact that for 16 years the investigation has produced no results, it deprives the citizen the opportunity to realize her rights. In fact it is a denial of justice.”
In August 2016 a Minsk city court refused the request of Zakharanka’s mother to declare her son deceased. In order to obtain access to case materials and his property, Zakharanka’s mother has repeatedly asked authorities to declare him dead, suspend the investigation, or both. In June authorities extended the investigation into Zakharanka’s disappearance to December 24.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the Committee for State Security (KGB), riot police, and other security forces, often without identification and in plain clothes, beat detainees on occasion. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. Police occasionally beat persons during arrests.
Human rights advocates, opposition leaders, and activists released from detention facilities reported maltreatment and other forms of physical and psychological abuse of suspects during criminal and administrative investigations.
On March 25, special police forces raided an apartment in which 58 human rights observers, experts, and foreign journalists gathered in advance of unauthorized protest in Minsk. According to eyewitnesses, when a doorbell rang and human rights advocate Aliaksei Loika opened the door officers assaulted Loika, who was hospitalized and diagnosed with a concussion the same day. On August 28, a Minsk district investigative committee turned down Loika’s request to investigate his beatings because it stated law enforcement officers did not apply excessive physical force.
On March 29, a court in Minsk sentenced Mikalai Dziadok, an anarchist and opposition activist, to 10 days in administrative detention for resisting police and participating March 25 in unauthorized protests in Minsk. Dziadok was hospitalized after his detention with a concussion and minor facial and head injuries. In court he claimed that a police officer hit him in the head a number of times. Police testified that Dziadok shouted political slogans and resisted police during his detention, requiring officers to apply physical force. Dziadok’s father filed a complaint asking investigators to look into his son’s beating, but authorities turned it down.
There were numerous reports of cases of hazing of conscripts into the army that included beatings and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Some of those cases reportedly resulted in deaths. For example, on October 13, a senior official from the Investigative Committee announced a criminal investigation into alleged hazing and violence that preceded the discovery October 3 of the body of a 21-year-old soldier, Aliaksandr Korzhych, in the basement of his military barracks near Barysau.
On October 16, the government also confirmed that soldier Genadz Sarokin died on September 2 while assigned to a military unit in the Brest region and that his case was under investigation. In a separate case, authorities reopened the investigation into a purported suicide on March 31 of another soldier, Artsiom Bastsiuk, at military grounds in the Barysau region. On October 12, Bastsiuk’s family received notification that his death was not the result of a criminal act, but the family continued to maintain that he was psychologically abused and harassed during his service.
Authorities reported isolated cases of prosecution of suspected military offenders. For example, on May 30, a district court in Brest sentenced an army sergeant to three years restricted freedom, a form of house arrest, for abusing his powers and beating a younger soldier. The offender was also to pay 4,000 rubles ($2,050) in moral damages.
PRISON AND DETENTION CENTER CONDITIONS
Prison and detention center conditions remained poor and in many cases posed threats to life and health.
Physical Conditions: According to local activists and human rights lawyers, there were shortages of food, medicine, warm clothing, and bedding as well as inadequate access to basic or emergency medical care and clean drinking water. Ventilation of cells and overall sanitation were poor, and authorities failed to provide conditions necessary for maintaining proper personal hygiene. Prisoners frequently complained of malnutrition and low-quality uniforms and bedding. Some former political prisoners reported psychological abuse and sharing cells with violent criminals. The law permits family and friends to provide detainees with food and hygiene products and to send them parcels by mail, but authorities did not always allow this.
According to a May 26 report by independent survey organizations that questioned 130 individuals detained between March 15 and April 19 on charges related to unsanctioned demonstrations, approximately 79 percent of respondents stated that authorities failed to inform their families of their whereabouts, and 83 percent stated prison authorities had not properly informed them of their rights, obligations, and the detention centers’ regulations. Approximately 17 percent complained of a lack of medical care and 27 percent said they were denied access to lawyers. More than 50 percent of the detainees complained of unsanitary conditions. Only 21 percent of those surveyed were not impeded by prison authorities from appealing their sentences.
Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities, and prisons generally, was a problem. For example, individuals who were held for short periods in a holding facility in the town of Dziarzhynsk reported that they had to take shifts to sleep, as there were more inmates than beds in the cell.
Authorities allowed persons sentenced to a form of internal exile (khimiya) to work outside detention facilities. These individuals were required to return at night to prison barracks, where they lived under strict conditions and supervision.
Although there were isolated reports that police placed underage suspects in pretrial detention facility cells with adult suspects and convicts, authorities generally held juvenile prisoners separately from adults at juvenile penal colonies, arrest houses, and pretrial holding facilities. In general conditions for female and juvenile prisoners were slightly better than for male prisoners.
According to human rights NGOs and former prisoners, authorities routinely abused prisoners.
On March 23, a Minsk district court ruled in the case of the death of 21-year old Ihar Ptichkin that the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of holding facilities, should pay 20,000 rubles ($10,300) in moral damages to his mother, 10,000 rubles ($5,150) to his sister, and 6,000 rubles ($3,100) to cover the costs of his funeral. These damages were one third of what the family requested in a suit contesting his death in custody. After an alleged beating Ptichkin suffered a heart attack and died in a pretrial detention center in Minsk in 2013. In October 2016 a Minsk district court convicted prison doctor Aliaksandr Krylou, who was involved in Ptichkin’s case, of negligence and sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment.
Credible sources maintained that prison administrators employed inmates to intimidate political prisoners and compel confessions. They also reported that authorities neither explained nor protected political prisoners’ legal rights and excessively penalized them for minor violations of the prison rules.
In view of poor medical care, observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons. In 2014 a senior tuberculosis control officer reported that tuberculosis infection in prisons was quadruple the national average but claimed that only up to 4 percent of the 7,400 tuberculosis patients across the country were in prisons.
Human rights NGOs reported that prison inmates and individuals held in internal exile often complained of lack of employment opportunities or low pay. In August 2016 the head of the Interior Ministry’s Corrections Department, Siarhei Daroshka, stated that of the average 510 rubles ($205) salary, inmates would get only 10 percent and the rest would go to cover the costs of their imprisonment and to repay any debts or damages ordered by the court.
Administration: As in the previous year, authorities claimed to have conducted annual or more frequent investigations and monitoring of prison and detention center conditions. Human rights groups, however, asserted that such inspections, when they did occur, lacked credibility in view of the absence of an ombudsperson and the inability of reliable independent human rights advocates to visit prisons or provide consultations to prisoners. In July authorities approved the application of Aleh Hulak, chairperson of the human rights group Belarusian Helsinki Committee, to join the Ministry of Justice’s commission on prison conditions monitoring. In August the ministry organized a visit to a high security prison in Hrodna. The visit reportedly was closely monitored by the head of the prison administration. The commission, mainly composed of the ministry’s officials and representatives of progovernmental NGOs, failed to produce any comprehensive reports.
Prisoners and detainees had limited access to visitors, and denial of meetings with families was a common punishment for disciplinary violations. Authorities often denied or delayed political prisoners’ meetings with family as a means of pressure and intimidation.
Although the law provides for freedom of religion, and there were no reports of egregious infringements, authorities generally prevented prisoners from holding religious services and performing ceremonies that did not comply with prison regulations.
Former prisoners reported that prison officials often censored or did not forward their complaints to higher authorities and that prison administrators either ignored or selectively considered requests for investigation of alleged abuses. Prisoners also reported that prison administrators frequently refused to provide them with copies of responses to their complaints, which further complicated their defense. Complaints could result in retaliation against prisoners who spoke out, including humiliation, death threats, or other forms of punishment and harassment.
Corruption in prisons was a serious problem, and observers noted that parole often depended on bribes to prison personnel or a prisoner’s political affiliation.
Independent Monitoring: Despite numerous requests to the Ministries of Internal Affairs and Justice, government officials refused to meet with human rights advocates or approve requests from NGOs to visit detention and prison facilities. In its 2015 response to Paval Sapelka of the human rights NGO Vyasna, the head of Interior Ministry’s Corrections Department claimed it would be “inexpedient” for him to visit detention facilities and monitor their conditions.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law limits arbitrary detention, but the government did not respect these limits. Authorities arrested or detained individuals for political reasons and used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after protests and other major public events.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The Ministry of Internal Affairs exercises authority over police, but other bodies outside of its control, for example, the KGB, the Financial Investigations Department of the State Control Committee, the Investigation Committee, and presidential security services exercise police functions. The president has the authority to subordinate all security bodies to his personal command and he maintained effective control over security forces. Impunity among law enforcement personnel remained a serious problem. Individuals have the right to report police abuse to a prosecutor, although the government often did not investigate reported abuses or hold perpetrators accountable.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
By law police must request permission from a prosecutor to detain a person for more than three hours, but police usually ignored this procedure and routinely detained and arrested individuals without warrants. Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges and for up to 18 months after filing charges. By law prosecutors, investigators, and security service agencies have the authority to extend detention without consulting a judge. Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities frequently suppressed or ignored such appeals. The country has no functioning bail system.
Arbitrary Arrest: Authorities detained opposition and civil society activists for reasons widely considered politically motivated. In isolated cases authorities used administrative measures to detain political activists before, during, and after planned demonstrations and protests, as well as other public events.
From February through April, authorities fined, detained, or arrested more than 950 protesters in Minsk and other cities. Protests largely stemmed from a presidential decree requiring Belarusian nationals, foreigners, and noncitizens permanently residing in the country who officially work less than 183 calendar days per year to pay an annual tax. Charges ranged from participation in an unsanctioned demonstration to minor hooliganism and resisting arrest. Of the detained, human rights groups estimated that authorities issued approximately 259 jail sentences of up to 25 days. At least 10 journalists were arrested and four were fined for working without accreditation, minor hooliganism, and participating in an unsanctioned demonstration. All those arrested were released by year’s end.
For example, on March 28, courts in Minsk, Babruisk, Barysau, Brest, Vitsyebsk, Homyel, and Polatsk convicted 177 individuals (144 in Minsk and 33 in other cities) on various charges, including participation in unsanctioned demonstrations on March 25-26, minor hooliganism, and resisting police. Of the 177 individuals detained March 25-26, 74 were sentenced to between two and 25 days of detention and 93 were ordered to pay fines between 46 rubles ($25) and 1,840 rubles ($970).
On March 27, Mikalai Statkevich, a former political prisoner and 2010 presidential candidate, stated that police apprehended him at a friend’s apartment in Minsk on March 23 and transported him to KGB detention facilities. Police reportedly had a warrant for his arrest and claimed that he and a group of unidentified individuals were suspects in a criminal case of preparing mass riots. Statkevich explained in his interview that while officers showed him some papers and accused him of plotting mass riots since 2011, they did not give him any documents nor allowed him to make telephone calls to his family or lawyer. Statkevich refused to answer questions or testify at holding facilities. Throughout the year Statkevich and Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, another 2010 presidential candidate, opposition activist, and former political prisoner, were arrested repeatedly and placed in administrative detentions, usually in connection with unauthorized gatherings and demonstrations.
Pretrial Detention: Authorities may hold a criminal suspect for up to 10 days without filing formal charges. Prior to being charged, the law provides detainees with no access to their families or to outside food and medical supplies, both of which are vital in view of the poor conditions in detention facilities. Police routinely held persons for the full 10-day period before charging them.
Police often detained individuals for several hours, ostensibly to confirm their identity; fingerprinted them; and then released them without charge. Police and security forces frequently used this tactic to detain members of the democratic opposition and demonstrators, to prevent the distribution of leaflets and newspapers, or to break up civil society meetings and events.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Detainees have the right to petition the court system regarding the legality of their detention, but authorities frequently suppressed or ignored such appeals. By law, courts have 24 hours to issue a ruling on a detention and 72 hours on an arrest. Courts hold closed hearings in these cases, which the suspect, a defense lawyer, and other legal representatives may attend. Prosecutors, suspects, and defense lawyers may appeal lower court decisions to higher courts within 24 hours of the ruling. Higher courts have three days to rule on appeals, and their rulings may not be challenged. Further appeals may be filed only when investigators extend the period of detention.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. Observers believed corruption, inefficiency, and political interference with judicial decisions were widespread. Courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges brought by prosecutors, and observers believed that senior government leaders and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials.
As in previous years, according to human rights groups, prosecutors wielded excessive and imbalanced authority because they may extend detention periods without the permission of judges. Defense lawyers were unable to examine investigation files, be present during investigations and interrogations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court. Lawyers found it difficult to challenge some evidence because the Prosecutor’s Office controlled all technical expertise. According to many defense attorneys, this power imbalance persisted throughout the year, especially in politically motivated criminal and administrative cases. Courts did not exonerate criminal defendants except in rare circumstances.
By law, bar associations are independent, and licensed lawyers are permitted to establish private practices or bureaus. All lawyers must be licensed by the Ministry of Justice and must renew their licenses every five years.
In September a Ministry of Justice standing commission, which reviews lawyers’ performance, found that prominent independent lawyer Ana Bakhtsina had “insufficient professional skills” to be a defense lawyer. According to Bakhtsina, the template she used for concluding contracts with clients differed slightly from the ministry’s recommended one, and the commission also identified grammar mistakes in its review of her documents. On September 26, Bakhtsina appealed the commission’s decision revoking her license but her appeal was dismissed. Additionally, at least seven more defense lawyers were due to retake their bar exams within six months following the ministry’s determination that their professional skills were only “partially insufficient.”
The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, but authorities occasionally disregarded this right.
The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, state media practice of reporting on high-profile cases as if guilt were already certain, and widespread limits on defense rights frequently placed the burden of proving innocence on the defendant.
The law also provides for public trials, but authorities occasionally held closed trials frequently in judges’ chambers. Judges adjudicate all trials. For the most serious cases, two civilian advisers assist the judge.
The law provides defendants the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf, but authorities did not always respect these rights.
The law provides for access to legal counsel for the defendant and requires courts to appoint a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. Although by law defendants may ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, most judges and prosecutors were not fluent in this language, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in Russian. Interpreters are provided when the defendant speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian. The law provides for the right to choose legal representation freely; however, a presidential decree prohibits NGO members who are lawyers from representing individuals other than members of their organizations in court. The government’s attempts to disbar attorneys who represented political opponents of the regime further limited defendants’ choice of counsel. The government also required defense attorneys to sign nondisclosure statements that limited their ability to release any information regarding the case to the public, media, and even defendants’ family members.
Courts often allowed statements obtained by force and threats of bodily harm during interrogations to be used against defendants. Some defendants were tried in absentia. For example, on January 9, a court in the town of Svislach notified three For Freedom movement activists that they were fined in absentia for participating in an unsanctioned ceremony in October 2016 commemorating the 1863-64 anti-Russian uprising, during which Belarusians, Poles, and Lithuanians rebelled against Russian rule. The movement’s leader, Yuri Hubarevich, received a fine of 525 rubles ($260); an activist from Brest, Yuri Kazakevich, 210 rubles ($105); and an activist from Vitsyebsk, Vadzim Babin, 63 rubles ($32).
Defendants have the right to appeal convictions, and most defendants did so. Nevertheless, appeals courts upheld the verdicts of the lower courts in the vast majority of cases.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
Local human rights organizations reported several different lists of political prisoners in the country. These included individuals who were facing criminal charges and others who were already incarcerated. Leading local human rights groups, including Vyasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, either recognized these individuals as prisoners of conscience or noted serious due process violations that merited, at the very least, a retrial.
After President Lukashenka’s March 21 comments that some 20 militants were arrested for seeking to stir up unrest, KGB officers began detaining dozens of individuals across the country and charging them with such separate matters as training or preparing for participation in mass, potentially violent riots, or creating an illegal armed organization. Detainees were connected with the White Legion group (a now defunct radical opposition organization active in the 1990s); the registered “Patriot” educational and training camp for youth; or the Malady Front opposition youth group. Police searched their residences, and the KGB reportedly confiscated rifles, guns, grenades, and other weapons that, according to the KGB, were to be used during the March 25 demonstrations. Some families of the arrested individuals told the press that defense lawyers were denied meetings with detainees at KGB holding facilities.
On April 11, a KGB spokesperson confirmed that 20 individuals were charged with the creation of an illegal armed formation and could face up to seven years’ imprisonment if convicted. The KGB spokesperson also confirmed that 17 individuals were charged with preparing a mass riot and faced up to three-years’ imprisonment if convicted. The official, however, did not specify how many of those detained faced multiple charges. The KGB confirmed 18 other suspects were also being investigated in connection with the case, four of whom were in custody. Some state media published articles concerning the criminal cases, describing suspects as members of extremist nationalist groups, and stated that the investigation began on March 21.
On November 30, the Investigative Committee Chairman Ivan Naskevich announced that both charges and criminal proceedings against all those involved in the case had been dropped and that the investigation was now closed. Naskevich said the actions of the individuals involved posed no danger to the public or a threat to the constitutional order.
On June 9, the Prosecutor General’s Office rejected a request filed by Ales Byalyatski, the chair of the human rights group Vyasna, to investigate allegations of torture made by some of the individuals detained in the White Legion case. Byalyatski highlighted the treatment of former head of the White Legion group Miraslau Lazouski, who was allegedly beaten during his arrest and had blood and bruises on his face when he appeared in a state television “documentary” regarding the White Legion. Byalyatski also stated that several individuals charged in the case were forced to take psychotropic drugs while in custody. In its reply the Prosecutor General’s Office called those reports mere allegations not supported by evidence or formal complaints from the detained or their lawyers.
Former political prisoners released in August 2015 continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights at year’s end. For example, in July 2016 the Central Electoral Commission refused to register the initiative group supporting the candidacy for parliament of former political prisoner and 2010 presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich because any individual in prison or with a criminal record is prohibited by law from being a candidate.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
The law provides that individuals may file lawsuits seeking damages for a human rights violation, but the civil judiciary was not independent and was rarely impartial in such matters.
To date, there are no laws providing for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II and the Holocaust on its territory. The country also has no legislative regime for restitution of communal property or of heirless property. The government reported that, in the last 10 years, it did not receive any requests or claims from individuals, NGOs, or any other public organization, either Jewish or foreign, seeking compensation or restitution of any property.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, but the government did not respect these prohibitions. Authorities used wiretapping, video surveillance, and a network of informers that deprived persons of privacy.
By law persons who obstruct law enforcement personnel in the performance of their duties may be penalized or charged with an administrative offense, even if the “duties” are inconsistent with the law. “Obstruction” could include any effort to prevent KGB or law enforcement officers from entering the premises of a company, establishment, or organization; refusing to allow KGB audits; or denying or restricting KGB access to information systems and databases.
The law requires a warrant before, or immediately after, conducting a search. Nevertheless, some democratic activists believed the KGB entered their homes unannounced. The KGB has the authority to enter any building at any time, as long as it applies for a warrant within 24 hours after the entry.
Security forces continued to target prominent opposition and civil society leaders with arbitrary searches and interrogations at border crossings and airports. For example, on March 14, border officials detained Ihar Barysau, a Mahilyou leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party Hramada, for three hours upon his arrival from Germany at the national airport in Minsk. A law enforcement officer searched his belongings and confiscated his flash drives.
While the law prohibits authorities from intercepting telephone and other communications without a prosecutor’s order, authorities routinely monitored residences, telephones, and computers. Nearly all opposition political figures and many prominent members of civil society groups claimed that authorities monitored their conversations and activities. The government continued to collect and obtain personally identifiable information on independent journalists and democratic activists during raids and by confiscating computer equipment.
The law allows the KGB, the Ministry of Internal Affairs, special security services, financial intelligence personnel, and certain border guard detachments to use wiretaps. Wiretaps require the permission of a prosecutor, but the lack of prosecutorial independence rendered this requirement meaningless.
On March 12, Belarusian Christian Democracy cochair Paval Sevyarynets filed a complaint that the state Belarus 1 television channel illegally broadcast recordings of his private cell phone conversations in a news show. On September 12, police responded that the television channel received the tape from “an anonymous source,” and that the channel’s administration “did not make any deliberate effort” to obtain such information. Additionally, on September 26, the Ministry of Information claimed that the channel used materials from open sources as well as from law enforcement agencies, and did not interfere in Sevyarynets’ private life.
The Ministry of Communications has the authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate telephone contracts, which prohibit the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order.
Authorities continued to harass family members of NGO leaders and civil society and opposition activists through selective application of the law.