(Moscow) - Belarusian authorities arbitrarily detained, mistreated, and summarily sentenced hundreds of people arrested in the aftermath of the December 19, 2010 demonstration protesting the election outcome, Human Rights Watch said today. Based on its research in Minsk and new survey findings by an independent group, Human Rights Watch called on the Belarusian authorities to investigate immediately the treatment of all arrested, from the legality of and treatment in detention to violations of procedural rights during their summary trials, and to provide a remedy for the victims.
At least 639 people, according to official statistics, were arrested, and human rights activists believe that the actual number could be significantly higher. Hundreds served up to 15 days in administrative detention. In a report released on February 9, 2011, a coalition of the Legal Transformation Center, a Belarusian nongovernmental organization, and the Independent Observation Mission, a group of nongovernmental activists from several countries, said that the majority of the detainees suffered serious abuses during their arrest, trial, and detention. The group collected and analyzed 205 questionnaires from recently released detainees, all of whom served from 10 to 15 days in administrative detention. Testimony collected by Human Rights Watch in Belarus confirms these conclusions.
"In many cases, security forces beat and humiliated people detained after the protest and held them for hours in the cold with no access to food, water, or a toilet, and the courts then sentenced them in hasty trials with no resemblance of due process," said Anna Sevortian, Russia director at Human Rights Watch. "It was a mockery of justice, from beginning to end."
Of the 205 released detainees who responded to the survey by the Legal Transformation Center and the Observation Mission, 148 reported that the security forces beat them during arrest and pre-trial detention; 57 said they had been beaten with batons. In some cases security forces packed up to 70 detainees in minibuses with a maximum 30-person capacity and held them for hours inside the vehicles. Several detainees told the coalition that once taken inside temporary detention facilities, they were forced to stand with their hands against the wall for up to 5 hours and were beaten when they tried to sit on the floor.
More than 100 of the respondents, as well as witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, said that during the first 10 hours after their arrest they were not given any food or drinking water and were not allowed to use toilets. Security forces also did not allow many of the detainees to inform their relatives of their whereabouts, and in some cases beat those who tried to use mobile phones to call their families. In some cases, the families did not have information about the fate and whereabouts of their detained relatives for several days.
Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch as well as at least 58 of the coalition's respondents, said that police forced them to sign arrest reports that contained false information about the time, place, and circumstances of their detention. Some who refused to sign the report were beaten.
Nineteen-year-old Svetlana S. (not her real name) told Human Rights Watch that when she asked for a lawyer and refused to sign the arrest report, three policemen took her out of the room and started beating her. She said:
"One of policemen held my hands behind my back and the other two were kicking me and beating me with sticks. Other detainees started yelling at them not to beat me, and then they took me into another room and filled in the report. They did not even show it me, saying, 'You won't sign it anyway, but it doesn't matter.'"
Eighteen-year-old Anastasiya A. (not her real name) said that when she refused to give the police her name until they would explain the reason for her arrest, the policemen slapped her, hit her head against the wall, and threatened to rape her if she continued to resist. Police also forced her to sign a paper saying she had no complaints about the treatment she received.
The report by the Legal Transformation Center and the Observation Mission says that most of the trials were held behind closed doors, without defense counsel, and lasted no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. Most of the sentences contained identical language, accusing the defendants of participating in illegal demonstrations and chanting anti-governmental slogans. In many cases defense witnesses were not questioned, and when they were, their testimony was not taken into consideration by the judge. With almost no acquittals, the courts sentenced the defendants to 10 to 15 days of administrative detention.
Two journalists who had been covering the December 19 demonstration told Human Rights Watch that they had asked the court to question witnesses who would confirm that the journalists were not participating in the events but instead were doing their job. The court rejected the motion and sentenced one to 11 days of detention and the other to 15 days.
Anastasia A. told Human Rights Watch that her trial lasted 10 minutes with no defense counsel present, although she explicitly asked for a lawyer. She said:
"There was only a judge, his assistant, and a police officer who questioned me earlier - no lawyer, no witnesses. The decision was identical to everyone else's - they really seemed to cut and paste the language from one decision to the other. I am aware of only one exception - in the case of a fellow arrestee who happened to be mute and deaf. In his case, after the judge eventually realized that he was not pretending, she changed the language in the sentence from "chanted anti-governmental slogans" to "carried posters with anti-governmental slogans."
According to the Legal Transformation Center and the Observation Mission, in at least 100 cases the courts did not explain to the defendants the procedure for appealing the decision and, with the exception of Moskovski District Court, did not provide them with a copy of the decision. Most of the detainees were unable to appeal since under Belarusian law the sentence must be appealed within five days, and at that time they were still in custody.
Abuses in Detention
Respondents to the Legal Transformation Center and the Observation Mission survey and former detainees who spoke to Human Rights Watch all described detention conditions that were inhuman and degrading. Both male and female detainees reported overcrowding in prison cells, with some cells holding almost twice the number of detainees they were intended for. As a result, the detainees had to sleep on the floor, share beds, or take turns sleeping. The majority of detainees also said that at least at some point during their detention the cells were very cold. At least 123 respondents said that during their entire detention they were not provided with drinking water, although they were allowed to receive water in food parcels from their relatives.
Svetlana S, who served her 10-day sentence in the Minskii region temporary detention center told Human Rights Watch:
"There were 13 women in our cell, and only 9 beds and 10 blankets. I had to sleep on the floor. During ten days, they never gave us drinking water or any items for hygiene. There was no toilet in the cell - just a hole in the floor. If the guards liked the girls, they would let them out to use a proper toilet."
There was no proper medical assistance available - a doctor on duty gave everybody aspirin, regardless of the complaint. I went on hunger strike to protest the sentence, the conditions in detentions, and the fact that they refused to give me pen and paper, a ring I use for prayer, and to allow me to call my relatives. Two other young women in our cell went on a hunger strike as well. The authorities at the detention facility simply ignored the strike and our demands. When we told the head of the facility, he responded that it was not serious.
The survey also noted that detention conditions varied among the detention centers and that not all facilities were prepared to receive such a large influx of detainees.
"There is no excuse for such poor treatment and shoddy trials," Sevortian said. "There needs to be a comprehensive, independent investigation into the abuses in detention and during the trials, and those responsible for abuses should be held accountable."
President Alexander Lukashenka was inaugurated for his fourth presidential term on January 25, 2011. He was first elected in 1994 and re-elected in 2001, 2006, and 2010, despite complaints of election fraud from activists, international nongovernmental organizations, and concerned governments, such as the United States and most European Union member states.
In the period preceding the most recent elections, the already dire situation for civil society and independent media in Belarus took a turn for the worse, with Belarusian authorities cracking down on the opposition. Many journalists and civil society activists faced harassment in the form of interrogations, detentions, arrests, and seizure of personal property. Nongovernmental organizations faced unjustified barriers in trying to comply with the country's registration process.
Many independent observers, including the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the European Union, criticized the conduct of the 2010 election, including the lack of transparency during the vote count.
Public demonstrations involving tens of thousands of protesters in Minsk's Independence Square started peacefully on December 19. However, after the Central Election Commission announced that Lukashenka had received 79.67 percent of the vote, some protesters turned to violence, clashed with police, and tried to storm the main governmental building in Minsk, news media reports said. Police responded by arresting and beating protesters, in some cases viciously.
Since January, the authorities have been investigating 38 leaders of the political opposition, including several former presidential candidates, activists and members of civic groups, on charges of instigating and participating in riots (article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code). Most were arrested around December 19 and remained in custody until late January, when some were released on their own recognizance or placed under house arrest. If convicted, they face up to 15 years in prison.