I saw two more police vans arriving [at the station] right after us, full of people. The police told everyone to face the wall and spread their legs wide. We had to stand like that for three hours. If anyone as much as moved or tried to turn around, the police would hit them. They also kicked and hit those who they thought didn’t have their legs spread wide enough.
After three hours, Zalevsky and his cameraman were released without charge.
Police also detained Zalevsky on March 24 and 25. On March 24, Zalevsky and several other journalists – from France24 television channel, Ukraine’s Novoye Vremya, and Radio Liberty – went to the office of the Green Party, where the families of people detained in connection with the anti-tax rallies could get assistance. The police went to the office, detained the journalists and took them to the Maskauski district police station, where the police checked the journalists’ documents and eventually released them without charge. On March 25, two riot police detained Zalevsky as he was on his way to cover the Freedom Day rally. With no explanation, they threw him into a minivan with several other people. Zalevsky was allowed to leave the minivan before it drove off, after he told one of the riot policemen that he lived nearby and showed his residence registration.
On March 25, riot police detained and beat a British freelance journalist, Filip Warwick, and held him for over six hours. Warwick told Human Rights Watch in a Skype interview that the police threw him into the police van, where a riot policeman kicked him in the thigh and in the head. The police took him to a station, searched him, and checked his documents. In a written communication to Human Rights Watch, Warwick described what happened:
They twisted my arms behind my back, which resulted in great pain, flipped me upside down, threw me onto the floor, stood on my ankles, while one of the men applied his knee onto my spine. This resulted in crushing my rib cage onto the floor, for a couple of seconds I could not breathe, nor catch my breath, and I started to choke. This brought about some considerable laughter among these men. With handcuffs applied they threw me against the wall, kicked my feet aside, and forcefully went through all my pockets.
Warwick was released over six hours later, apparently without charges, and left Belarus the next day.
Catarina Andreeva, a Belsat journalist, was arrested together with her assistant, her cameramen, and another local journalist on March 25. Andreeva said that her cameraman, Alexander Borozenko, was arrested at about 3 p.m. while filming the rally, but that she and her other colleagues managed to walk away. Andreeva, her assistant, and the other journalist – who is her husband – then went to take photographs at Oktyabrskaya Square, where armored vehicles, water cannons, and other security vehicles were parked that day. Four masked men dressed in black and armed with batons immediately surrounded them. The insignia on their sleeves were covered up. Andreeva said:
They literally appeared out of nowhere. They didn’t say who they were, just started grabbing and pushing us. I screamed that I was a journalist and pulled out my press card. One of the men took the press card, rumpled it, threw it on the ground and said: “It’s fake.” Another man yelled: “Drag her! Drag her into the van!”
Andreeva and her colleagues demanded to know if they were being detained, but the police did not respond. Andreeva said she needed to use a bathroom and quickly walked into a nearby public building. Within minutes, two policemen followed her in, grabbed her by the arms and dragged her outside. A policeman wearing metal knee guards kneed Andreeva in the stomach. While two policemen were dragging her outside, she saw another policeman grabbing her colleague by the neck from behind and pushing him on the ground face down. A few minutes later police released them, without explanation or apology.
Police charged the cameraman, Borozenko, with hooliganism, alleging that he was swearing and “waving his arms” in public. During the court hearing, which Andreeva attended, Borozenko’s lawyer said that Borozenko could not have been waving his hands because he was holding a camera. The court found Borozenko guilty and sentenced him to 15 days in detention.
Authorities also pressured and harassed journalists in connection with anti-tax protests earlier in March. On March 17, a court in Homel fined Larisa Shchiryakova, a local journalist, 150 Belarusian rubles (approximately US$80) for participating in an unsanctioned protest, which she was covering as a journalist for Belsat. The next day, police stopped Shchiryakova on her way to another protest, in the city of Mozyr, 144 kilometers from Homel, and detained her for eight hours, she told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview.
On the same day, plainclothes policemen came to Shchiryakova’s parents’ home when she was not at home and warned her parents that authorities would take her 10-year-old son away unless she stopped reporting on the protests. On March 26, an official from the Homel Municipal Department of Children’s Services asked Shchiryakova to meet with him. During their conversation, he told her that she spent “too much time” covering protests and “not enough time” looking after her son, and warned her that social services could take her son away. “They are trying to pressure me in every possible way,” Shchiryakova said.
Police in Orsha, 220 kilometers northeast of Minsk, detained Andreeva, the Belsat journalist, and a Radio Liberty journalist, Galina Abakunchik, on March 12, when they were covering the protest there against the “social parasite” tax. Andreeva told Human Rights Watch that she had spent five hours in a solitary confinement cell at the Orshansky police station without a phone or access to a lawyer. After that, the police charged her with “participating in the work of unregistered media,” under article 22.9 of the administrative code, and transferred her to a pre-trial detention facility. Andreeva spent the night without food or water in a cold cell, sleeping in her coat. At 9 a.m., the police took Andreeva to a court hearing. She first met her defense lawyer minutes before the hearing began. The court found Andreeva guilty and fined her 540 Belarusian rubles (US$287).
I laid still for ten minutes, until my arm, caught under me, became numb. I tried to move and he [the police] hit me in my kidneys.
All detainees were taken to the Pervomayski police station, where the police photographed and searched them and took down their passport details. They were released approximately two hours later without charge.
In Minsk and other Belarusian cities, several human rights activists were detained and in some cases sentenced to administrative detention on trumped-up charges in connection with the March protests:
- Vitebsk: On March 26, authorities detained Pavel Levinau, from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee while he was observing a protest. He has been hospitalized with hypertension under police surveillance. No information about any charges against him has been made available. The same day, authorities arrested Kastus Mardzvintsau and Leanid Svetsik from Viasna, who were also observing the protest. A court sentenced them to 15 days of administrative detention the next day;
- Biaroza: the police charged Tamara Shchapiotkina of Viasna with “conducting journalistic activities without accreditation.” She is awaiting trial;
- Polack: on March 25, authorities in Polack arrested a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Yury Belski, who was on his way to a protest in Minsk. On March 27, a court sentenced him to two days in detention on trumped up hooliganism charges; and
- Molodechno: on March 28, police arrested a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Eduard Balanchuk, in connection with his monitoring peaceful protests in Molodechno on March 10. On March 28, a court sentenced him to 15 days of detention for participating in an unsanctioned gathering.
On March 26 in Minsk, at about noon, police detained Tatsiana Revyaka, a board member of the Viasna, while she was observing the rally on Oktabryskaya Square. Revyaka told Human Rights Watch that riot police detained her and about 20 other people at the square and took them to Minsk Central district police station, where they were forced to stand facing the wall, with arms raised above their head for two hours. Revyaka was then released without charge.
On March 21, 2017, President Lukashenka stated that Belarusian security services detained “literally hours ago” ... about two dozen “fighters,” who were allegedly planning “armed provocations” in Minsk. Starting that evening, and through March 22, authorities arrested 27 people as suspects on criminal charges of “organizing mass riots.”
At least 14 of those arrested are former members of White Legion, a Belarusian nationalist organization that disbanded in 2008. Another six are activists with the Youth Front, an opposition youth movement.
Human Rights Watch is concerned that delays in allowing those arrested access to counsel amount to due process violations that will undermine their right to a fair trial.
Among those arrested is Miroslav Lozovsky, deputy director of a Belarusian-language publishing house Knigosbor and a former member of White Legion.
Human Rights Watch spoke with Nina Shydlouskaya, a social activist and a close family friend and colleague of Lozovsky.
Shydlouskaya said that on March 18, someone set up a fake Telegram account under Lozovsky’s name and used it to send messages to some of Lozovsky’s contacts calling for protests on March 25. Several people who received the messages contacted Shydlouskaya, and she immediately contacted media and wrote on social media that the information was fake, intended to set Lozovsky up.
She said that on March 21 at about 8 p.m. two masked armed men dressed in black uniforms brought Lozovsky to the apartment he shares with his girlfriend, who was home when police arrived. Shydlouskaya, who had spoken with Lozovsky’s girlfriend, said that Lozovsky was handcuffed, his face covered in blood, and had a large red spot on the back of his head that was visible on his shaved head. The police told Lozovsky to sit on the chair facing the wall and searched his apartment. After a two-hour search, they took Lozovsky away. The next day, Belarusian state television STV aired a report allegedly about Lozovsky’s detention. The report claimed that the police discovered an AK-47 in the trunk of his car during a search.
Relatives of people detained told Human Rights Watch that lawyers representing the 27 people held on criminal charges experienced problems with access to their clients. Some had to wait for hours to see their clients in custody. Staff at the facilities where they were being held gave various arbitrary pretexts for the delays. Sometimes lawyers had to leave police/detention facilities without seeing their clients. In several cases, the detention facility staff told defense lawyers they had to wait for additional passes or other signatures from staff who were consistently unavailable. Some lawyers had to attend interrogations at irregular hours.
Lozovsky’s defense lawyer was not able to see her client in the first 24 hours of his detention. The first time she was allowed to be present at an interrogation, it took place in the middle of the night and ended at 3 a.m.
Between March 31 and April 3, authorities released eight of those detained and charged 14 with “organizing mass riots,” (article 293 part 3 of the Criminal Code), punishable by up to 3 years in jail.