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(Minsk) – Police in Belarus arrested and beat an opposition activist Ales Lahvinets, causing him to be hospitalized for three days with multiple injuries, before a court sentenced him on March 27, 2017, to 10 days’ detention on fabricated hooliganism charges, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should immediately free Lahvinets, and promptly investigate allegations of ill-treatment of Lahvinets and his son in custody.

Police cracked down violently during several weeks of protests and in advance of the “Freedom Day” rally on March 25, arresting hundreds of people, including journalists and human rights activists.

“We are deeply concerned about Ales Lahvinets’ safety,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Belarus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The false charges and beating are completely outrageous and sadly emblematic of the latest vicious government crackdown in Belarus.”

Ales Lahvinets holding his son in the court room before his hearing on March 27, 2017.  © Yulia Gorbunova for HRW

A Human Rights Watch researcher attended Lahvinets’ March 27 court hearing in Minsk and interviewed him before the trial began.

Lahvinets is an outspoken opposition activist, former member of the opposition movement For Freedom and a regular critic of President Aliaksandr Lukashenka. He was one of many people whom police detained in the lead-up to the March 25 rally.

Lahvinets said that on March 23, at 12:25 p.m., five riot policemen in civilian clothing stopped him and his son Anton, 22, near their apartment building. Without identifying themselves, the men shoved both men toward a minivan parked nearby. When Lahvinets refused to go with them, the men forced him into the van.

“It was in the middle of the day, with lots of people out and about,” Anton Lahvinets told Human Rights Watch. “Dad and I started screaming that we were being kidnapped and for someone to call the police. Turns out, this was the police.”

The police forced Ales Lahvinets to lie face down on the van’s floor and pushed his son into a seat. A policeman sat on Ales Lahvinet’s back and punched him twice in the head. Lahvinet’s son saw his father’s glasses had fallen onto the floor and tried to give them back to him. One of the police shouted at Anton to stop and handcuffed him. The police also yelled at the men: “You sell-out bastards. You never learn.” When Ales Lahvinets tried to speak, one of the policemen threatened, “Be quiet or I’ll stop the car and really beat you the way I should.”

Ales Lahvinets said the police stopped the van at some point during the 20 minute ride, told his son to leave because they had “no order” to detain him, and drove off.

At about 1 p.m., the police took Lahvinets to the Maskouski district police station, where the policeman who had beaten him in the van instructed another policeman to handcuff him as tightly as possible. He hit Lahvinets several more times and told him: “I can beat you up so badly that you will piss yourself.” The police then forced the activist to lie face down on the ground for 15 minutes, searched him, took away his phone, and said that he was being charged with “hooliganism,” for allegedly swearing in public.

At about 3 p.m., the police took Lahvinets to the Maskouski district court for a hearing. Lahvinets started to feel dizzy and, suspecting he might have a head trauma from the beatings, demanded an ambulance. He was taken to a hospital, where doctors diagnosed a head injury, a fractured nose, and multiple bruises to his upper body, right arm, and knee.

During the three days Lahvinets spent in the hospital, two of the policemen who detained him remained with him, followed him to medical procedures, sat outside his ward, and insisted on being present during visits from his family.

Anton Lahvinets said that as soon as he was released from the van, he rushed to the nearest police station to file a report about his father’s detention. The police refused to register his complaint, contending that they had not taken his father into custody. They told him: “We didn’t do it. Other authorities did.”

During the March 27 court hearing, two policemen who detained Lahvinets testified that Lahvinets caused the injuries to himself by “banging his head against the car seat.”
Ales Lahvinets’ supporters and family members outside Maskouski district court in Minsk, Belarus before his hearing on March 27, 2017.  © Yulia Gorbunova for Human Rights Watch

Lahvinets’ son, who was allowed testify in court, said his father didn’t have access to a defense lawyer until 10 minutes before the hearing. At the hearing, the judge denied all defense motions, including requests to call witnesses to the men’s initial detention and introduce evidence to rebut police testimony. After a short recess, the judge found Lahvinets guilty of a misdemeanor for allegedly swearing in a public and sentenced him to 10 days detention under article 17.1 of the administrative code.

“The charges against Lahvinets were patently fabricated, but that did not seem to be an issue to the judge, nor did he question the incredulous claim that the injuries were self-inflicted,” Gorbunova said. “It was a sad demonstration that the Belarus courts can’t be relied on to protect people’s rights.”

In February and March, mass protests, sparked by the government’s decision to impose a “social parasites” tax on those officially unemployed for six months, swept through Minsk and several other Belarusian cities. In early March the government announced that it was postponing the tax for a year, but the protests continued.

Since mid-March, riot police and security services have detained, often violently, several hundred people, including at least 100 journalists and 60 human rights activists, in connection with the Freedom Day rally. The peaceful anti-government protest was held on March 25, the anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Some were released without charge, and many were charged with various offenses, such as hooliganism, resisting arrest, or participating in unsanctioned protests. At least 120 people have been fined or sentenced to detention for up to 25 days. Court hearings are ongoing.

On March 20, President Aliaksandr Lukashenka attributed the demonstrations to a “fifth column,” which he accused of acting with the support of “Western funds and foreign security services,” to “escalate tensions” in Belarus.

“Instead of addressing genuine public grievances, Belarusian authorities are responding to peaceful protests with a brutal crackdown,” Gorbunova said. “The authorities should immediately release all those held in connection with the peaceful protests, hold police and security services accountable for unjustified violence, stop interfering with professional activities of journalists, and respect the freedoms of assembly and speech.”

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