The forced landing of a Ryanair flight in Minsk and the arrest of Raman Pratasevich, a Belarusian blogger and journalist, has brought the spotlight back on the worsening state of human rights in Belarus.
Raman’s family learnt about his detention pretty much like the rest of the world: from the news on Sunday May 23. The 26-year-old has not been allowed to contact them. If his parents are lucky, they might be able to see him in person at his trial. Usually though, when the criminal prosecution is politically motivated, not only are family meetings forbidden during the investigation phase – which can last for months – but most trials are held behind closed doors.
On May 25, a group of political prisoners was sentenced to between four and seven years in prison. Their relatives were only allowed inside the courtroom during the 10 minutes that it took to read the sentence. The relatives of one of them, Pavel Severynets, said it was the first time they were able to see him since he had been detained, in early June 2020.
There is no ombudsperson in Belarus and no independent bodies to monitor places of detention. The prosecutor decides on arrests and lawyers can appeal the arrest in court. Lawyers become thus the only ones who can visit a detainee whom the authorities have decided to isolate from family and friends.
A clampdown on independent lawyers
Inessa Olenskaya, an independent lawyer hired by Raman’s parents, was allowed to see her client once, on May 28. At the same time, the authorities have published a video on May 24, the day after the arrest, in which Raman confesses to organizing ‘mass riots’ – a ‘confession’ that appears extracted under duress. This seems to indicate that Raman has been interrogated without the presence of his lawyer. A State appointed lawyer is probably present, but such lawyers totally lack independence.
Lawyers have been among the victims of the Belarusian government’s onslaught against independent voices. Since the August 2020 presidential election, at least 17 lawyers who were working on politically motivated and human rights cases have lost their licenses. Several have been imprisoned and some, such as Maksim Znak, are still behind bars. On May 28, President Lukashenka signed new legislative amendments placing bar associations and lawyers under the total control of the Ministry of Justice.
In today’s Belarus, taking a human rights case comes with great professional risks. A fact Inessa Olenskaya is certainly aware of.
Disappearance and torture
The ‘disappearance’ of political prisoners during the first days of arrest is another common practice in Belarus. It is a time when law enforcement uses physical of psychological pressure, or even torture, to force confessions and information. Raman Pratasevich’s face appeared swollen in the video released by officials, and there were bruises on his forehead and neck.
On May 18, Yulia Chernyavskaya, one of the owners of the independent media house TUT.BY, was detained as her office was searched. Her daughter Evgeniya and her lawyer immediately asked for access, but it’s only two days later that that the authorities acknowledged detaining Yulia and allowed the lawyer to attend the interrogation. On May 28 Yulia was charged with a criminal offence, however both she and her lawyer are prohibited from publicly disclosing the accusations and even the article of the Criminal Code under which she is charged.
On May 25, the State Investigative Committee finalized the investigation on activist Mikola Dziadok, who was detained on November 2020 and severely tortured during that night. There was no official reaction to the complaint filed by a lawyer about the torture suffered and Mikola remained under arrest while the investigation continued.
Torture remains widespread in Belarus, with at least 2000 cases documented since August 2020 by human rights organisations. Not one single torture investigation has been initiated. Quite the opposite: it is the victims of torture who are prosecuted.
On March 5, 45-year-old businessman Aliaksander Trotsky was sentenced to 10 years for the attempted murder of a policeman. Aliaksander testified in court that on August 12, 2020, he had been stopped by a group of masked men in civilian clothes carrying weapons, which they pointed at him and seemed about to shoot. Scared, he drove away, with someone shooting at his car. He didn’t remember if he had hit anyone in his panic. He wanted to report the incident to police but, when he stopped the car, another group of masked armed men set upon him, beating him until he lost consciousness. Later it turned out that both groups were policemen.
Raman Pratasevich suffers from heart disease, and his mother fears that his health might deteriorate in prison. Medical care is another serious problem in Belarusian settings where people are deprived of liberty. It is either not provided at all or provided very late – and remains substandard. A recent example is that of 50-year-old Witold Ashurok, an activist who died in prison on May 21. According to the prison administration, he fell, hurt his head and didn’t ask for medical assistance. This version has been met with widespread skepticism.
The last country in Europe applying the death penalty
Raman has been accused of organising mass riots and group actions that violate public order, and of incitement to social discord. These charges carry a possible sentence of 15 years. However, if Raman was to also be charged with terrorism, he would face the death penalty. Belarus is the only country in Europe that still applies the death penalty, with more than 300 executions since its independence in 1991. Only twice were the accused pardoned. All information on the death sentences remains classified. The bodies of those executed are buried in secret locations, depriving families of a place where they could grieve.
The operation to arrest Raman Pratasevich, with the regime brazenly forcing a plane flying between the capitals of two European Union member States to change route and land in Minsk, might seem like an aberration. But for many in Belarus, it is entirely in line with the witch-hunt against civil society activists that the authorities started in late 2020, once mass street protests had subsided in the face of below freezing temperatures. While the persecution of dissidents, independent journalists, bloggers and human rights defenders has been regular in Belarus since 1996, it has now reached the level of State policy.
Journalists and human rights defenders in prison
As of today, 34 journalists remain under arrest, with 23 among them facing criminal prosecution. May 2021 was also marked by the shutdown of the country’s leading independent media, TUT.BY, and the arrest of around 20 staff members. In 2020, many journalists – including those working for international media - were deprived of their accreditations, with 480 detained, mostly for brief periods of time.
To this date, at least six human rights defenders are imprisoned or under house arrest on politically motivated charges. This includes Marfa Rabkova, the coordinator of volunteer services at the Human Rights Center Viasna, Tatsiana Lasitsa and Andrey Chapuk, Viasna volunteers, Siarhei Drazdouski and Aleh Hrableuski, respectively director and legal counselor at the Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Leanid Sudalenka, a lawyer at the Homieĺ branch of Viasna. A number of human rights defenders and journalists have been named witnesses in criminal investigations or are under a travel ban. Human rights organisations, such as our partner the Human Rights Сenter Viasna , are subjected to criminal prosecutions. Altogether more than 2000 criminal cases have been initiated against men and women who participated in peaceful protests or are involved in civil activism. Human rights organisations have recognized 450 people as political prisoners.
Recent changes in legislation have further boosted the powers of law enforcement agents and entrenched impunity. The regime is increasingly acquiring features that are typical of a totalitarian State. Anything can become a reason to be charged with an administrative or criminal offence, from wearing white and red – the colours of an ancient Belarusian flag that have come to symbolize protests – to comments on social media.
This growing atmosphere of terror has recently claimed the life of an 18-year-old orphan, Dzmitry Stahouski. The boy was charged with participation in ‘mass riots’ on August 9-11, 2020. On May 25, following an interrogation, he committed suicide. He left a note saying that the State Investigative Committee is guilty of his death. ‘If I was not pressured morally, I would not do such as terrible thing as commit suicide. But I am exhausted.’ The last line reads ‘Be more kind overall. Stay positive.’
It’s not only the young who are targeted. Ludmila Khlusevich, a pensioner who has been charged with insulting a policeman on social media, wrote at the end of last week that the authorities would be guilty of her death, as she suffers from cancer and her health has seriously deteriorated during the criminal prosecution. After the publication of her story in the media, Ludmila was summoned for another interrogation.
At the end of 2020, the government closed land borders, under the pretext of the Covid-19 pandemic. Belarusians are now only allowed to leave the country for business trips, medical treatment, to study, for family emergencies or if they have residency in another country. With the recent decision by many Western States to cancel international flights to Belarus, in response to the forced landing of the Ryanair plane, the country becomes de facto locked from the outside world (except Russia).
Some 10 million Belarusians now live in an open-air prison, in the geographical heart of Europe.