By Viachaslau “Slava” Bortnik
On August 22, Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenka issued an order “based on the principle of humanism” to release six political prisoners, including Mikalai Statkevich and Yury Rubtsov, recognized as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.
Mikalai Statkevich was one of six opposition presidential candidates who were imprisoned in connection with a largely peaceful demonstration that took place on December 19, 2010. Tens of thousands of Belarusians gathered in central Minsk to protest against unfair elections. The demonstration was mostly peaceful, but when a violent incident broke out at the doors of Government House, riot police moved in to disperse the crowds. Over 700 people were detained, the overwhelming majority of whom had been peaceful participants and bystanders. Most of the detained were charged with administrative offences and sentenced to 10 to 15 days in prison. Many who were sentenced for participating in the demonstrations were released after they agreed to sign a confession for organizing or taking part in “mass disorder.” Mikalai was sentenced to six years.
During my trip to Belarus earlier this year I met Mikalai’s wife Marina Adamovich who told me about numerous restrictions imposed against her husband in prison, including limited visits (twice a year, lasting two hours at a time) limited phone calls (once a month), and censored correspondence.
Yury Rubtsou, an activist from my home town of Homiel, has undergone a nightmare judicial scenario where he continued to face new prison sentences. Yury was originally detained for 25 days of administrative detention for swearing and wearing a t-shirt that said “Lukashenka, leave!” during a commemoration of the Chernobyl disaster. During the trial, he appeared bare-chested as his t-shirt had been confiscated. The court refused to provide a new t-shirt or even the eyeglasses he needed to familiarize himself with the case materials. At this trial, he called the judge a “villain” and the trial a “mockery” which resulted in new criminal changes and a sentence of two and a half years, a sentence that was later reduced by one year under an amnesty law. However, he was recently given another two year sentence to be served in addition to his 18-month sentence.
Belarusian human rights groups and the U.S. State Department have welcomed the release of political prisoners. Similar statements were made by EU officials. However, the conditions of the release of the six former political prisoners do not provide for the restoration of their civil and political rights, as their convictions have not been removed from official records. This fact allows the authorities to exercise control over their lives and their social and political activities and, under certain conditions, can be used for their further isolation. The unserved sentences deprive each of them of the right to run in elections at all levels.
Former POC Mikalai Statkevich is subjected to preventive supervision for eight years, and the same measure of control is prescribed for Yury Rubtsou, for a period of two years.
At the same time, youth activists Vadzim Zharomski and Maksim Piakarski are currently held in custody in a Minsk jail for political graffiti. According to the leading Belarusian human rights watchdog Viasna, these charges are politically motivated.
In Belarus civil society activists who try to organize to make their concerns public must operate within the framework of highly restrictive laws, which are applied in ways that violate their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association and expression. Civil society organizations face closure and individuals face prosecution if they criticize the authorities. Any form of public protest, even a one-person picket, requires express permission from the authorities, which is rarely granted, and peaceful demonstrators face fines or several days in detention. Civil society activists are subjected to administrative sanctions when they violate the stringent requirements for public meetings, and also face frequent administrative prosecutions as a form of harassment. The Administrative Code includes vague misdemeanors such as petty hooliganism, swearing, disobeying police orders and ”violation of the order for public meetings or pickets” which are frequently used by the Belarusian authorities to intimidate and persecute civil society activists.
The release of Belarusian political prisoners comes just a few months before the presidential election which will be held on October 11.
In order to prevent repetition of the events of December 19, 2010, the Belarusian government should:
- Ensure that everyone can exercise their right to freedom of expression and association in conformity with Belarus’ obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- Ensure that peaceful demonstrators are not imprisoned, harassed or ill-treated by police for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly;
- Review the Law on Public Events and bring it into line with Belarus’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
- End the pattern of obstruction, harassment and intimidation of civil society organizations directly and indirectly engaged in the promotion and defense of human rights, including trade unions, environmental groups, LGBTI groups, and human rights groups;
- Immediately abolish Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code which criminalizes activities by non-registered organizations;
- End harassment and persecution of human rights defenders and ensure that those who engage in human rights work are able to exercise their rights to freedom of expression, association and movement, including for the purpose of seeking, holding, freely publishing and disseminating information about human rights violations in Belarus.
Viachaslau “Slava” Bortnik is the chair of the Eurasia Coordination Group and a country specialist for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine at Amnesty International USA.