Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
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 new disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. There were no developments in the reportedly continuing investigations into 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.
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.
There were numerous reports 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, in October 2017 a senior official from the Investigative Committee announced a criminal investigation into alleged hazing and violence that preceded the discovery of the body of a 21-year-old soldier, Aliaksandr Korzhych, in the basement of his military barracks near Barysau. On November 5, the Minsk regional court sentenced three former sergeants to nine, seven, and six years in prison respectively for driving Korzhych to suicide by abusing and maltreating him. Authorities also charged the three with theft, bribery, and abuse of power. The sergeants claimed at hearings that investigators pressured them into testifying against themselves and admitting to the charges.
Korzhych’s former commanders, Senior Lieutenant Paval Sukavenka and Chief Warrant Officer Artur Virbal, were tried separately for abuse of power and sentenced on October 19 to six and four years respectively.
At a press conference on February 14, Defense Minister Andrey Raukou committed to eradicating hazing and said the ministry had opened 48 criminal cases to investigate allegations of mistreatment and bullying in the armed forces. Accepting Korzhych’s case as his “personal fault,” Raukou said that the army registered three cases of suicide in 2017 and four cases in 2016. Raukou said that many of the conscripts involved in hazing had mental and psychological problems, histories of alcohol and drug abuse, criminal records, and lacked motivation to serve in the army.
On July 31, the Supreme Court reported that between January and June courts across the country convicted 28 officers on charges related to bullying, hazing, and abuse of power in the armed forces. Courts convicted 31 officers on similar charges in 2017. For example, on March 30, a district court in Barysau sentenced an army warrant officer to five years in jail for abusing his powers, taking bribes, and beating conscripts.
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 or prisoners with contagious diseases. 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.
On November 15, the Minsk city court dismissed an appeal filed by Alena Doubovik and Maryna Doubina, who were detained for up to 14 days in March 2017 on charges related to unsanctioned demonstrations. The two activists complained that holding facilities in Minsk and Zhodzina did not have female personnel to search them and that the two were deprived of privacy, including for personal hygiene, and were always visible to male officers.
Overcrowding of pretrial holding facilities, and prisons generally, was a problem.
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.
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 prison rules.
Observers believed tuberculosis, pneumonia, HIV/AIDS, and other communicable diseases were widespread in prisons because of generally poor medical care.
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.
On March 15, prison authorities in Horki refused to allow independent observers to meet with Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, cofounder of the prison monitoring NGO Platforma. According to human rights groups, Zhamchuzhny, who was serving a six and a half year sentence on charges of deliberately disclosing classified information and offering a bribe, was subject to mistreatment and inhuman prison conditions, including beatings by a fellow inmate. Human rights groups claimed that prison authorities continued to isolate Zhamchuzhny to punish him for allegedly violating prison regulations. The courts repeatedly dismissed Zhamchuzhny’s complaints of mistreatment.
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, 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 on 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.
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.
On March 21, police arrested former presidential candidate and opposition activist Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, European Belarus activist Maksim Vinyarski, and opposition activist Vyachyaslau Siuchyk. The three supported former presidential candidate and opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich in his plans to lead an unauthorized march in central Minsk to mark the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) on March 25. Authorities sentenced Vinyarski to 10 days of administrative detention for posting an opposition banner in central Minsk in March. Siuchyk was transported to a holding facility to serve five days in jail for participating in a September 2017 protest against the joint Russia-Belarus military exercise ZAPAD. Nyaklyaeu was also placed in a holding facility to serve 10 days for calling in an interview for persons to participate in unauthorized demonstrations in November 2017.
Despite wearing blue vests and badges, which marked them as “observers,” police detained the group of observers on March 25 while they were monitoring a protest in central Minsk. The observers complained police refused to provide them with access to their defense lawyers, kept them outside against the wall of the precinct building without food and water, and failed to ensure access to personal hygiene for up to eight hours before charging them with participating in an unauthorized demonstration and resisting police. On April 13, investigators questioned human rights group Vyasna’s observer Tatsyana Mastykina after she filed a complaint. Authorities dismissed the complaint and dropped all charges against the observers.
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.
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.
No repressive or retaliatory measures against lawyers were reported during the year. In September 2017 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. Bakhtsina appealed the commission’s decision revoking her license but her appeal was dismissed. Additionally, at least seven more defense lawyers were ordered to retake their bar exams within six months following the ministry’s determination that their professional skills were “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 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 past 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.
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. Leading local human rights groups, including Vyasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC), recognized two individuals as prisoners of conscience.
Dzmitry Palienka, an opposition and anarchist movement activist who participated in the “Critical Mass” bicycle ride of April 2016, was sentenced to a two-year suspended term for using violence against a traffic police officer during his detention and for distributing pornographic images on social media in October 2016. He was rearrested and had the suspension of his sentence revoked in April 2017, allegedly for participating in unauthorized mass events. On a judge’s order, he spent 18 months and 13 days (the remainder of the two-year sentence) in prison and was released in October. Local human rights advocates called for his unconditional and immediate release, pointing to the peaceful nature of the “Critical Mass” ride and all subsequent protest events in which Palienka participated.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, cofounder of the now-defunct prison monitoring NGO Platforma, continued to serve a six and a half year sentence. He was convicted in 2015 in a closed-door session for deliberately disclosing classified information, illegally acquiring or making equipment for obtaining classified information, and offering a bribe to an official.
Former political prisoners released in August 2015 continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights at year’s end.
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.
There are no laws providing for restitution or compensation for immovable private property confiscated during World War II and the Holocaust. 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.
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. On March 7, the independent Belarusian Trade Union of Workers of Radio and Electronics Industry (REP) reported that its deputy chair Zinaida Mikhnyuk and youth network coordinator Hanna Dous were briefly detained and searched at the Belarus-Lithuania border. Dous told the media that border officers searched her belongings without giving an explanation or bringing any charges.
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.
The independent election observation group Prava Vybaru (Right to Choose) claimed that the two state-controlled television channels broadcast illegally wiretapped conversations between its activists. According to Prava Vybaru, the channels misrepresented the recording’s content in order to discredit the group before February local elections.
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. Maryna Adamovich, the spouse of opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich, told the press that the tires of their two cars were damaged on the eve of Statkevich’s arrest on March 25. Adamovich filed a police complaint but there were no developments in the case.