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(Moscow) – Authorities across Belarus arbitrarily detained at least 700 people in March 2017 in connection with peaceful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The majority, including more than 100 journalists and 60 human rights activists, were detained in connection with peaceful protests marking Belarus’ annual Freedom Day on March 25.

Police punched, kicked, clubbed, and otherwise abused many of the detainees. On March 27, courts in Minsk and other cities swiftly sentenced 177 people, including journalists and human rights activists, to fines or detention on fabricated misdemeanor charges. Hours before the March 25 rally in Minsk, riot police raided the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, one of the country’s leading human rights groups, detaining 58 people.

“Belarusian authorities led a shocking, all-out assault on peaceful assembly around the Freedom Day protests,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Belarus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should immediately release everyone who was detained in connection with the protests and investigate allegations of police mistreatment.”
Riot police detain a man during a rally in Minsk on March 25. © 2017 Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed 19 journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, and released detainees and attended court hearings in Minsk.

Freedom Day is an annual event commemorating the anniversary of the proclamation of the Belarusian People’s Republic in 1918. For years, the political opposition has held rallies on March 25 to protest President Aliaksander Lukashenka’s rule. This year’s protests were the largest outpouring of public discontent in years, and the government crackdown was the broadest since police violence against protesters in Minsk in 2010.

In February and March, there were unprecedented mass demonstrations in 13 Belarusian cities protesting a new tax on unemployed people, the so-called “social parasites” tax, which Lukashenka had imposed by decree in 2015. In early 2017 people began to receive notices to pay the tax for the previous year.

An estimated 2,000 people came out to central Minsk on March 25. On March 26, a smaller group protested the detentions of protesters the previous day. Participants in that protest were also detained.

The majority of those detained in connection with the March 25 protests were later released without charge. The rest were charged with offenses such as hooliganism, resisting arrest, or participating in unsanctioned protests.

“There were more detentions of journalists in one day than through all of last year,” Andrei Bastunets, head of the Belarussian Association of Journalists, an independent group, told Human Rights Watch, referring to journalists detained while covering the March 25 rally.

One journalist was detained three times in as many days, and several told Human Rights Watch that the police had beaten them. Authorities repeatedly harassed another journalist, including threatening twice to take away her child unless she stopped covering protests. A human rights activist with Viasna had to be hospitalized for a concussion he sustained due to police mistreatment.

“The authorities brazenly prevented journalists and human rights monitors from simply doing their job covering the protests,” Gorbunova said. “They made little attempt to hide their contempt for Belarus’ commitments on media freedoms.”

On March 27, the 177 people were fined or sentenced to detention for up to 25 days in swift, pro forma administrative proceedings. Only one person was acquitted. Many did not have timely access to lawyers and could not call defense witnesses.

Belarusian authorities should respect freedom of assembly, Human Rights Watch said. Under international law everyone has an inalienable right to take part in peaceful assemblies, assemblies should be presumed lawful, and no person should be held criminally or administratively liable just for organizing or participating in a peaceful protest, even if the authorities deem it unlawful. International standards provide that the right to peaceful protest should not require prior authorization, and that any prior notification procedure should not function as a de facto request for authorization. Failure to notify authorities of an assembly does not make it unlawful, and should not be used as a basis for dispersing the assembly, or imposing sanctions such as fines or imprisonment on organizers.

Physical assaults, including punching, kicking, or using batons on detainees are never a legitimate use of force and violate the prohibition against torture and inhuman treatment. When policing assemblies, the use of force by law enforcement should be exceptional, and assemblies should ordinarily be managed with no resort to force. Any use of force should be the minimum necessary in the circumstances and only directed at individuals using violence or to avert an imminent threat.

The crackdown drew condemnation from the European Union, which in 2016 had lifted human rights-related sanctions previously imposed on Belarus, as the government and the EU sought to realign their relationship following Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Belarus’ international partners, including the EU and its member states, should make clear to President Lukashenka that greater political cooperation between Belarus and the EU would be conditioned on the government making systemic changes, including allowing critics to freely express themselves in Belarus. The EU should also work for the renewal of the mandate of the UN special rapporteur on Belarus at the June 2017 session of the Human Rights Council.

“None of Belarus’ international partners should be under any illusions about any real change in the government’s contempt for its human rights commitments,” Gorbunova said. “They should keep up the pressure on Belarus to release detainees and respect fundamental freedoms.”
A woman detained during a protest on March 25 in Minsk.  © 2017 Vasily Fedosenko/Reuters

Freedom Day Arrests and Police Mistreatment
Two of Belarus’ leading human rights groups – Viasna and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee – told Human Rights Watch that the Minsk city authorities did not respond in time to the organizers’ request to hold the March 25 rally in central Minsk. At the last minute, the authorities suggested an alternative site, which the organizers rejected. On March 24, the mayor announced that any gatherings on March 25 would be considered unlawful.

On March 25, large numbers of riot police blocked off the area around the Academy of Sciences on Independence Prospect, the planned rally site. Police brought water cannons, prisoner transport vehicles, armored vehicles, and other equipment for dispersing crowds.

The Minsk rally was scheduled for 2 p.m. Between 12:30 and 4 p.m., riot police arrested hundreds of people, including peaceful protesters, journalists, and passers-by who were either in the area or tried to approach it beforehand. “They were arresting everyone in sight, even people who were just standing or simply walking by –young, elderly – didn’t matter,” one witness told Human Rights Watch. A British journalist who witnessed detentions near Victory Square, 2.3 kilometers from the Academy of Sciences, and was later himself detained, said, “It looked as if these riot squads were literally “people hunting” – these men were not motivated, they were possessed; randomly grabbing and throwing people, anyone, that came their way, into police vans.”

Police on Independence Prospect used a loudspeaker to order the crowd to disperse, but there was no way for people to leave because the entire area was blocked off. A third witness said: “They told us to get out, but there was nowhere to go – the only way out was into the police vans, which were everywhere.”

Numerous witnesses reported seeing police beat people during arrests, in police transport, and at police stations.

Valery Schukin, 75, said that five riot policemen arrested him on the street about a kilometer from the rally and ordered him into a police van. When he refused, they hit him on the leg with a baton and threw him into the van, which already contained about 100 people. The police took them to the Zavodskoi police station, where they were ordered to stand for several hours facing the wall. Shukin said that he saw policemen hitting and kicking men who tried to turn around or sit, and refused detainees’ requests to use the bathroom. Schukin refused to stand and was forced to sit on the cold, wet pavement for three hours. After he started feeling sick, he was taken to a hospital, where doctors said his blood pressure had spiked. He said he had trouble walking for three days afterwards because of the pain in his leg.

Court Hearings
Viasna said that the majority of people detained on March 25 and 26 were later released without charge, leaving 177 to face trial on March 27. Of 144 defendants in Minsk, 56 were sentenced to up to 25 days of administrative detention, 80 were fined, and one was acquitted. Two cases are ongoing, and human rights defenders were unable to confirm the outcomes of five. In the regions, 18 people were sentenced to detention, 13 were fined, and activists were unable to confirm the outcome of two cases.

Many detainees were unable to see their lawyers until very shortly before hearings, Viasna reported. Anastasiya Loika, a human rights lawyer who monitored trials in Minsk, said that the police and courts either refused to provide information, or provided unclear or contradictory information about which police stations people had been taken to or where hearings would be held. As a result, defense lawyers were often unable to reach detainees in time or were able to see their clients only minutes before their hearings. Judges denied most defense motions, including requests to call witnesses.

For example, court staff posted accurate information about the location of a hearing for Ales Lahvinets only at the last minute. He was able to meet his defense lawyer only 10 minutes before the hearing and his family was able to get there only minutes before it started. Despite the lack of timely public information, the judge refused to allow the defense to call witnesses who were not already present in court during the hearing. During the March 27 court hearing, two policemen who detained and beat Lahvinets testified that Lahvinets caused the injuries to himself by “banging his head against the car seat.” The judge found Lahvinets guilty of a misdemeanor for allegedly swearing in public and sentenced him to 10 days’ detention.

“The courts were simply rubber-stamping the decisions,” Loika said.

Harassment, Beatings, Detention of Journalists
Authorities detained, beat, harassed, and issued official warnings to at least 107 journalists, both foreign and domestic, in the lead up to and during the Freedom Day protests. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, police beat seven journalists and in three cases damaged or destroyed their photo and video equipment. Eight journalists were sentenced to up to 15 days in detention on charges of participating in an unsanctioned gathering and hooliganism. One was fined and more are awaiting trial.

On March 26, police also detained journalists who covered the smaller demonstration on Oktyabrskaya Square, among them Belsat journalist Ales Zalevsky. Traffic police stopped the car from which Zalevsky and his cameraman were live-streaming the protest and ordered them out. Minutes later, riot police arrived, forced them into a police van and took them to the Maskauski district police station. Zalevsky said:

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).

Police raid the Human Rights Center "Viasna" in Minsk on March 25.  © 2017 Stéphane Doulé/Frontline Defenders

Police Raid at Viasna, Arrests of Rights Defenders
On March 25, police raided the office of the Viasna and detained 58 people, mostly Belarusian human rights activists, as well as journalists and a protection coordinator from the international group Frontline Defenders. Aleh Hulak, the chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was also detained.

Aliaksei Loika, a Viasna staff member, told Human Rights Watch that at around 12:30 p.m., 12 armed and masked riot policemen came to the office. They threw Loika on the concrete floor face down, causing him to hit the right side of his head, which caused a concussion, for which he was later hospitalized. A policeman then put his booted foot on Loika’s head and ordered him not to move. Loika said:

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.

Criminal Case
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.

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