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Belarus: Letter to Prosecutor General and the Ministry of Justice of Belarus regarding detainees held on riot charges

We are writing to express serious concern over the fate of a group of at least 40 political opposition members and leaders who are currently being held in temporary detention facilities on riot charges (article 293, parts 1 and 2, of the Criminal Code of Belarus). The individuals, among whom 2 were candidates in the December presidential elections, are being held in connection with events of December 19-20 in Minsk.

Human Rights Watch researchers who were recently in Minsk spoke with a wide variety of persons who made consistent and serious allegations about violations of these detainees' due process rights.

Specifically, we would like to draw your attention to the following:

1) Detainees are reportedly not being allowed to hold private meetings with their lawyers. Most detainees have been allowed to meet with their defence lawyers only once or twice during three or more weeks of detention. In the overwhelming majority of cases these meetings have taken place during interrogations or other investigative activities, and almost always in a presence of an investigator and other officials. On some occasions, investigative activities were reportedly conducted without a lawyer present.

At least four defense lawyers told us they made regular written requests to hold private meetings with their clients. Some waited for hours in line at pre-trial detention facilities and had to leave without seeing their clients. In all cases the facility administrators and the prosecutor's office informed them that there were no available rooms for such meetings.

Human Rights Watch also received information that defense lawyers were sometimes not provided with copies of essential procedural documents regarding their clients' cases or were not informed about their clients being moved from one detention facility to another. Such actions prevent lawyers from planning and performing effective legal representation of their clients.

The actions described above are a violation of Belarus's obligations under article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Belarus is a party, which states that everyone charged with a criminal offense has a right to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing. The Human Rights Committee has definitively held that when a detainee is not permitted to consult with his lawyer in private, this constitutes a violation of article 14, paragraph 3 (b) of the Covenant (See e.g. Gridin v Russian Federation, No. 770/1997, para. 8.5)

Additionally, such actions violate article 43 part 6 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Belarus and chapter 16, par. 142 of the Internal Operational Guidelines for Investigative Detention Facilities of the Republic of Belarus, which guarantee detainees' right to communicate with their defense lawyer in a private and confidential setting without limitations in time and frequency of meetings. Finally, these actions interfere with the detainees' right to fully exercise their right to legal representation as guaranteed in Article 62 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.

2) Non-governmental groups and defence lawyers have reported instances of unprecedented government pressure on lawyers representing individuals charged in connection with the December events. This pressure for the most part has taken the form of Ministry of Justice warnings to some of the lawyers after they made public statements about being prevented from effectively representing their clients, criticized poor detention conditions, or voiced concerns about the health and well-being of their clients. In such instances the Ministry of Justice ordered the lawyers to either withdraw or amend their statements or face having their licenses revoked for allegedly breaching professional ethics.

3) We received consistent reports about poor conditions in temporary detention facilities where the detainees are being held, such as: insufficient heating in cells, lack of access to natural light, difficulty accessing necessary medical care, and cells that are filled beyond capacity. Reportedly, many detainees have to sleep on make-shift beds made from wooden boards due to lack of sleeping spaces. The majority of cells, including those that hold women, reportedly are not equipped with toilets, and the detainees are allowed to use toilets only twice a day. These conditions do not correspond with international standards for treatment in detention, and are inconsistent with Belarus' obligations under Article 10 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which provides that anyone detained of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and dignity.

4) We are aware of numerous complains that detainees do not receive correspondence from their family members, and that in many case that the staff of the detention centres do not pass on detainees' correspondence to loved ones. On the few occasions when family members did receive letters from detainees, the letters arrived weeks after they were written. The majority of detainees do not have access to newspapers, radio, or television and are held in almost complete isolation from the outside world.

Principle 19 of the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under Any Form of Detention or Imprisonment states that detainees should have the right to be visited by and to correspond with family members and shall be given adequate opportunity to communicate with the outside world subject to reasonable restrictions.

Additionally, Article 78 of the Internal Operational Guidelines for Investigative Detention Facilities of the Republic of Belarus establishes detainees' right to send and receive letters without any limitations in quantity and requires the staff of detention facilities to pass on the correspondence no later than three days after it was handed to them.

Human Rights Watch urges the Prosecutor General's office to ensure that the detainees can fully exercise their rights while in custody by taking the following steps:

  1. Allow the detainees to hold private meetings with their lawyers; instruct staff of detention facilities to facilitate such meetings and provide security and confidentiality as required by international and domestic legal standards;
  2. Ensure that all detainees are held in decent detention conditions and have the opportunity to exchange correspondence with their family members.

We also call upon the Ministry of Justice to eliminate pressure for the defence lawyers so that they can conduct their work in an unimpeded fashion.

We thank you in advance for your attention to these requests and for your cooperation.

Rachel Denber,

Acting executive director,

Europe and Central Asia Division

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