Police brutality in Belarus
On 26 November 2016, a 36-year old woman was killed in a car accident as she was crossing the road in the village of Darava in the Brest region.
The drunk driver responsible for the accident turned out to be the head of the Baranavičy road police.
Alcohol is only one of many problems tarnishing the public perception of the police forces. Arbitrariness, a lack of integrity, and insufficient transparency all undermine the reputation of the police.
Police brutality still remains a serious problem in Belarus. In 2016, the number of cases involving abuse of power by the police in Belarus continued to rise.
Drunk and dangerous
Andrej Vaukavycki, the head of the Baranavičy road police who caused the accident, is currently undergoing investigation. The media have already confirmed that on the day of the accident he was driving his personal car with a blood alcohol concentration of nearly three promille.
According to eyewitness accounts, the victim, a mother of two, was killed instantaneously. Vaukavycki's career is certainly over, and he faces up to seven years of prison time. Alcoholism is widespread among police officers, and Vaukavycki was not the first officer caught driving drunk.
On 20 February 2016, a couple from Viciebsk stopped the car of the Head of the Regional Department of Internal Affairs, Siarhej Sarokin, suspecting that the driver was intoxicated. The road police later detected two promille of alcohol in Sarokin's blood. Eventually, he was fined approximately $1,200 and his driving licence was suspended for five years.
Is there a limit to arbitrariness?
The death of a pedestrian forced the Ministry of Internal Affairs to react with an official statement. But instead of apologising to the victim's family, minister Ihar Šunevič condemned Vaukavycki as a 'disgrace' to the police forces. The minister also reassured the public that delinquent officials would lose their jobs immediately.
In addition to having alcohol problems, police officers in Belarus often act with impunity. On 4 August 2016, a group of masked police officers broke into the apartment of Dzmitry Serada, a Minsk paediatrician. Without any warning, they started to break the front doors and balcony, beating the doctor and frightening his child and pregnant wife. Later, police admitted that they made a mistake, but so far no one has been punished.
In summer 2016, a SWAT team detained two underage youths, beating them up and urinating on one of them. Threats of sexual abuse followed. However, the youths themselves were later accused of attacking the police. On 1 November 2016, one of them, the 17-year old Aliaksandr Haruta, was sentenced to two years of house arrest for allegedly beating up the SWAT officer.
Statistical data from the Ministry of Internal Affairs reports 123 criminal cases involving accusations against police officers in 2016. However, Minister Šunevič has avoided detailing any specific long-term plan to address police arbitrariness. Earlier this year, the minister categorically denied any evidence of professional ineptitude in the police force and threatened to prosecute those who criticised it.
The police vs civil society
Other issues plaguing the Belarusian police include deficient personnel recruitment policies and training and lack of public access to police force oversight. Another point of criticism is the persecution of politically active citizens.
According to human rights defender and former investigator Aleh Volčak, Belarus is in need of a 'complete overhaul of the police force.' In his opinion, the police's only mission at the moment is to protect the current political regime.
Juras Hubarevič, head of the movement 'For Freedom', claims that political persecution now extends to ordinary citizens rather than just leading figures of the opposition. Even though the number of criminal cases has gone down, members of the opposition now commonly face administrative measures and fines, which can be a heavy burden for the population in conditions of economic crisis.
In response to such allegations, Šunevič has taken a defensive position, claiming that any attempts to criticise his ministry are evidence that certain forces intend to discredit the current political regime and destabilise the political situation in Belarus.
More skeletons in the closet
Authorities are reluctant to admit to the existence of problems. For instance, they repeatedly deny independent observers access to temporary detention facilities, infamous for their brutal conditions. Reportedly, the detained are often packed in tiny cells and do not have access to drinking water. But the real situation in these facilities remains obscure.
Officially appointed inspection commissions showcase the positive aspects of detention facilities, sometimes exaggerating them to the point of absurdity. For instance, media reports about the recent visit of Belarusian pop-singer Iryna Darafeeva to a prison in Mahiliou highlighted her amazement at the quality of prison food, which she compared to a 'restaurant.'
Another worrying trend is that police in the provinces are less accountable than in the capital. A few weeks ago, a youth in Polack remarked that a police car was parked in a disabled parking place. Policemen forced him to come to the local police precinct in order to 'ensure his identification.'
The numerous cases of police arbitrariness have prompted Belarusian civil society to launch an initiative against abuse of power by the police. Within two weeks in November, more than 4,000 people signed a petition demanding that Šunevič either take responsibility or resign.
Although some police officials are aware of the issues in the police force and are trying to resolve them, the majority are not yet ready to come forward and share their concerns with the public. However, in order to improve the situation and avoid further damage to the reputation of the police, a public discussion regarding the role and responsibilities of the police must take place.