Belarus

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.

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 2014 a senior Investigations Committee officer informed Zakharanka’s mother that by law it was impossible to apply the statute of limitations in the case unless a suspect was identified and charged, and thus the case of her son could not be closed as she had requested. The committee also refused the mother’s request to study case materials, citing that it was only possible upon completion of the preliminary investigation.

In May a Minsk court suspended the civil suit of Zakharanka’s mother asking for the court to recognize Zakharanka’s death until the criminal case about 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.”

On August 1, a Minsk city court refused the request of Zakharanka’s mother to declare her son deceased. Zakharanka’s mother repeatedly has asked the authorities to declare him dead and/or suspend the investigation, which would allow her access to the case materials and his property. In October authorities again extended the investigation into Zakharanka’s disappearance until December 24.

The law prohibits such practices. Nevertheless, the Committee for State Security (KGB), riot police, and other security forces, often unidentified and in plain clothes, continued to beat detainees occasionally. Security forces also reportedly mistreated individuals during investigations. During arrests police occasionally beat criminal suspects and citizens.

Human rights advocates, opposition leaders, and activists released from detention facilities continued to report maltreatment and other forms of physical and psychological abuse of suspects during criminal and administrative investigations.

On January 12, various media reported that a Hrodna district court sentenced in closed hearings two senior police officers to four years and six years in jail, respectively, for “committing crimes related to violence, torture or abuse of suspects.” Authorities also banned the two from holding any positions in law enforcement agencies for five years after their release from prison.

On January 25, during the opening of the trial in a Minsk district court of three individuals in the so-called graffiti case, authorities detained and then allegedly beat two youth activists, Paval Siarhei and Maksim Shytsik, after they unfolded a banner that read, “No to Political Persecution” and shouted, “Art is No Crime.” Security officers removed the two activists from the courtroom. Paval Dabravolski, a journalist from the news portal tut.by, followed the activists and police from the courtroom. According to accounts from the activists and Dabravolski, police knocked the three to the ground, and punched and kicked them for some 20 minutes. Individuals standing outside the room could reportedly hear the assault. Security officers also removed all the footage from Dabravolski’s media files. Police charged the three with resisting police orders, minor hooliganism, and contempt of court. Ultimately, the court fined the three. One of the unidentified officers who reportedly beat the three testified against them in court.

On February 19, Minister of Information Liliya Ananich claimed that Dabravolski had prevented police officers from performing their duties. The minister added that while the media law affords journalists certain rights, it also requires them to respect the rights and legitimate interests of other individuals and observe regulations. She referred to the Interior Ministry’s claim that Dabravolski interfered with the police officers’ conduct of their professional duties and was subsequently fined for that. The minister urged journalists to comply with the media law, the criminal code, and the norms of professional ethics.

On April 29, the Investigations Committee informed Dabravolski that it had denied his appeal to open a criminal investigation into alleged misuse of force by police officers against him and two opposition activists in the January 25th incident. The committee explained that the police officers’ actions did not constitute elements of a crime and were aimed at “stopping Dabravolski’s illegal actions.” According to the committee, injuries inflicted on Dabravolski and the two activists and the traces of blood on their clothes “objectively fit” the policemen’s testimony of their actions, and the committee’s inquiry did not register any evidence of officers mistreating or using excessive force against the three individuals, who were not subjected “to brutal and inappropriate” treatment. The committee also accused Dabravolski of attacking an officer, refusing to identify himself as a journalist, illegally recording the detention of the two activists on a cell phone camera, and insulting police and threatening them with trouble at work by publishing defamatory information. ‎

As in the previous year, observers reported a few isolated cases of new recruit hazing that included beatings and other forms of physical and psychological abuse. Observers believed there might have been fewer cases because of the government’s increased prosecution of offenders. For example, on August 17, a district court in Brest sentenced a senior army servant to a 18 months of khimiya, a form of internal exile, for extorting money and personal belongings from new recruits, beating, and threatening to kill them. Authorities denied all appeals in this case in October.

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 in 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 bring detainees food and hygiene products and to send them parcels by mail, but authorities did not always allow this.

Overcrowding of holding facilities and prisons continued to be a problem, although an amnesty, which began in June 2015, reduced the number of inmates. Ministry of Internal Affairs officials dismissed reports of overcrowding. 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. In cases of death of suspects or inmates resulting from alleged abuse or torture by prison officials, authorities continued to deny families of suspects or inmates a fair and transparent investigation and prosecution of reported incidents. After an outcry in independent media, for example, authorities in Zhodzina opened an investigation and a criminal case into the death from a reported heart failure of Ihar Barbaschynski, a 37-year-old retired army major, in a local jail on September 20. Barbaschynski’s mother told the press that police originally arrested Ihar and his brother in Slutsk in March while they were walking home from a nightclub. Authorities reportedly accused the brothers of drinking in a public place. The following morning an ambulance took the two men from detention facilities to a hospital with multiple rib fractures and bruises, but they were neither charged nor detained in March. The brothers subsequently filed a complaint about police brutality to the local police department. In May police rearrested them on charges of allegedly using violence against police officers, and Barbaschynski remained in detention until his death in September.

On September 16, a Minsk district court started hearing a criminal case against a doctor, Aliaksandr Krylou, charged with negligence for the 2013 death of 21-year-old prisoner Ihar Ptichkin, who suffered a heart attack after an alleged beating. On October 21, the court sentenced Krylou to three years in jail. In the period 2013-16, Ptichkin’s family filed numerous appeals to bring criminal charges against the prison’s doctors, as well as to challenge multiple denials to investigate the case and bring it to prosecution.

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.

Given the 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. On August 18, the head of the Interior Ministry’s Corrections Department, Siarhei Daroshka, stated that of the average 510-ruble ($205) salary, inmates would get only 10 percent and the rest would go to fund 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, even if they did occur, lacked credibility given the absence of an ombudsman and the inability of reliable independent human rights advocates to visit prisons or provide consultations to prisoners.

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 administration 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 continued to refuse 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 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 continued to arrest or detain individuals for political reasons and to use 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. 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. Under the 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.

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 January through March, scores of market vendors, opposition leaders, activists, and their supporters held unsanctioned demonstrations in Minsk to protest a presidential edict that banned the selling of clothing and footwear without certification of compliance with the Customs Union’s safety requirements. While police did not interfere with the demonstrations, authorities routinely detained various regional activists en route to Minsk to prevent their participation in the demonstrations.

On September 11, the day of the parliamentary elections, authorities arrested Leanid Kulakou after the polls closed and on the next day sentenced him to three days in jail on minor hooliganism charges. Kulakou had monitored voting and tabulation on the day of the election.

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 given 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. For example, on September 8, police detained four opposition activists, including Malady Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich, Volha Mikalaichyk, and Uladzimir Yaromenak, ahead of a planned protest in front of the Russian Embassy to mark the 502nd anniversary of the Battle of Orsha. Dashkevich was reportedly grabbed and beaten by plainclothes police officers in the courtyard of his apartment, while Mikalaichyk was forcefully detained when she approached the Russian embassy. Police released the four activists after several hours without filing charges.

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 can appeal to higher courts the decision of the lower court within 24 hours of the ruling. Higher courts have three days to rule on appeals, and their rulings cannot be challenged. Further appeals can only be filed when investigators extend the period of detention.

The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, but authorities did not respect judicial independence. 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. They also noted a power imbalance between the prosecution and the defense. 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 during the year.

By law bar associations are independent, and licensed lawyers are permitted to establish private practices or bureaus. All lawyers, however, must be licensed by the Ministry of Justice and must renew their licenses every five years.

In the past the justice ministry used disbarment as a tool in political cases; the ministry accused the disbarred lawyers of distorting information about the investigations of their clients, their state of health, and their conditions of detention. During the year there were no new disbarments, but no disbarred lawyers had their licenses restored.

TRIAL PROCEDURES

The law provides for the presumption of innocence. Nevertheless, the lack of judicial independence, the 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 closed trials and frequently held them in judges’ offices, where attendance was limited. 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 detainees and requires that courts appoint a lawyer for those who cannot afford one. Although by law defendants can ask for their trials to be conducted in Belarusian, most judges and prosecutors were not fluent in Belarusian, rejected motions for interpreters, and proceeded in 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 disbarment of attorneys who represented political opponents of the regime further limited defendants’ choice of counsel. The government also required defense attorneys to sign non-disclosure statements that limited their ability to release any information about 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 19, a district court in Minsk fined in absentia Paval Sevyarynets, co-chair of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, 525 rubles ($250) for participating in an unsanctioned demonstration in November 2015. During the demonstration, up to 110 individuals marched from a department store to the Central Election Committee’s building in Minsk to mark the 1996 referendum that stripped the powers of the parliament and expanded the powers of the president.

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 they suggested required, at the very least, a retrial.

On October 12, for example, a Minsk district court convicted Dzmitry Palienka, an opposition and anarchist movement activist and participant of the “Critical Mass” ride on April 29, of using violence against a traffic police officer during his detention and of distributing pornographic images in social media. The judge sentenced Palienka to a two-year-suspended sentence, as well as forced rehabilitation for alcoholism. The activist was released in court. Human rights advocates welcomed the “government’s restraint” in not imprisoning Palienka but recognized him as a political prisoner when he was in pretrial detention.

Eduard Palchys, blogger and editor of the 1863x.com website, was detained in January and charged in June with inciting racial, ethnic, or religious hatred and producing and distributing pornographic materials. The prosecution against Palchys focused on nine articles published on his website that were highly critical of Russia and the “Russkiy Mir” concept. Palchys was also accused of distributing pornographic materials for reposting a Russian-website’s post critical of Belarusian culture and independence, which included a photo of a nude woman. Palchys claimed the post was to demonstrate the amount of anti-Belarusian sentiment in Russia and was not meant to be seen as pornography. His trial was closed to the press and observers. Several domestic human rights groups recognized Palchys as a political prisoner on October 5. On October 28, Palchys was found guilty of inciting racial, ethnic, or religious hatred and distributing pornographic materials, but he was given a suspended 21-month sentence and was subject to a travel ban. Prior to his trial, some human rights groups recognized him as a political prisoner. Human rights groups welcomed his release but noted that the government continued to restrict the freedom of speech.

On August 10, human rights advocates, including the human rights center Vyasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, recognized Uladzimir Kondrus as a political prisoner. Authorities arrested Kondrus on June 14 and charged him under the Criminal Code’s provision dealing with mass protests, which has a 10-year statute of limitations. Kondrus was alleged to have been involved in the postelection demonstrations in December 2010, when he was allegedly seen holding a large piece of wood and breaking windows at the parliament building, as well as attacking riot police officers during the protests. Human rights groups called for his immediate release and the suspension of the criminal prosecution against him, claiming that his actions in 2010 could only qualify as hooliganism, which carries a five-year statute of limitations, and not as a violation of the Criminal Code’s prohibition on mass protests, which has a 10-year statute of limitations. On November 16, the first day of his trial, Kondrus purported to attempt to slit his writs, and the judge ordered him to undergo a psychiatric assessment. On December 26, the court sentenced Kondrus to 18 months of “restricted freedom”; he was released from detention following the hearing. The psychiatric assessment reportedly alleged that Kondrus had a psychiatric condition, and the court ordered him to undergo mandatory psychiatric treatment during his period of restricted freedom.

In August 2015 President Lukashenka released six individuals considered political prisoners by human rights organizations, including 2010 presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich.

During their court hearings, defendants in politically motivated cases reported threats against associates and family members to compel testimony against the defendants, as well as pressure to sign confessions.

Prison authorities often confiscated and censored mail of political prisoners, reportedly to exert pressure by further isolating prisoners and limiting their contacts with families and associates.

Former political prisoners who had been pardoned continued to be unable to exercise some civil and political rights at year’s end. For example, on July 9, 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.

Authorities removed restrictions against several prominent former political prisoners. For example, on February 4, police in Vaukavysk lifted preventive supervision limitations against anticorruption activist Mikalai Autukhovich, who previously was not permitted to travel outside the city without official permission. In a separate case, on March 9, investigators dropped all criminal charges and a subsequent travel ban against former presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich in connection with 2010 postelection demonstrations.

CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES

The law provides that individuals can file lawsuits seeking damages for a human rights violation, but the civil judiciary was not independent and was rarely impartial in such matters.

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 can 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 September 8, border officials detained co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party Vital Rymasheuski and leader of the United Civic Party Anatol Lyabedzka for about an hour at the Belarus-Lithuania border. The two were on their way to a conference in Vilnius, and the border guards seized several dozen election campaign leaflets that Lyabedzka had with him, but eventually authorities let the two proceed and apologized for the delay.

On November 8, customs officers confiscated five copies of a book authored by Andrei Sannikau, 2010 presidential candidate and former political prisoner who lives in the United Kingdom, from his spouse and prominent journalist Iryna Khalip. She was returning to Belarus from Poland with their son and carrying copies of the book My Story: Belarusian Amerikanka or Elections Under Dictatorshipinscribed by the author to various friends and supporters. Officials told her the books would be examined by experts for at least a month before they could be returned to her. The book tells the story of Sannikau’s arrest for participating in the December 2010 postelection demonstration in Minsk, his experiences in prison, his release in 2012, as well as international media coverage of his imprisonment.

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 Ministry of Communications has the authority to terminate the telephone service of persons who violate their telephone contracts, which prohibit the use of telephone services for purposes contrary to state interests and public order. Cell phone providers are banned from selling cell phone cards to customers who do not produce their passports or to foreigners who are not registered with local immigration services.

Authorities continued to harass family members of NGO leaders and civil society and opposition activists through selective application of the law.

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