Foreign experience of Belarusian judiciary: shock and hunger strikes
On 28 June, Alan Paul Smith, a British citizen incarcerated in Belarus for assisting illegal immigration, stopped his hunger strike after a visit from a British embassy worker. According to Mr Smith’s wife, he initiated the hunger strike to draw attention to violations of his prisoner’s rights in Belarus. In fact, poor treatment and disproportionate prison terms for foreigners mirror the commonplace judicial mistreatment faced by Belarusians.
Significant media attention in Belarus of the trials of Smith and several other foreign visitors has highlighted the persistent problems of the Belarusian judiciary: draconian punishments for minor offences coupled with procedural irregularities. As Belarusian investigative committees, prosecutors, and police frequently work non-transparently and ineffectively, so the courts continue to issue disproportionate prison sentences. Apparently, paedophiles constitute a lesser danger in the eyes of the judiciary than teens possessing marijuana.
Seven years in prison for a souvenir cartridge
The cases of two foreign citizens – a Japanese artist, Daichi Yoshida, and a French shop assistant, Jolan Viaud – once again called into question the nature of the Belarusian legislation. These two well-intentioned foreign visitors could have spent up to seven years in Belarusian prisons if not assisted by their families, diplomatic corps, human rights lawyers, and journalists.
On 23 May, Yoshida left prison after spending two years in custody for illegal transportation of firearms across the Belarusian state border. Ironically, Yoshida even failed to step on to Belarusian soil properly: he flew from Kyiv to Tokyo with connecting flights in Minsk and Abu Dhabi. In his luggage, Yoshida carried various pieces of antique firearms, which he had purchased legally in Kyiv. The security service at Kyiv airport photographed the weaponry and allowed Yoshida to fly, only for Belarusian authorities to detain the transit passenger.
In April 2017, the Minsk district court sentenced Yoshida to four years and six months for the illegal transfer of firearms. While in custody, Yoshida’s physical and mental condition significantly deteriorated. After the two appeals from Yoshida’s parents and the media campaign in his support, the Belarusian president ordered a reduction to his prison term. As a result, the supreme court’s judicial collegium changed the verdict citing “excessive severity of punishment”.
A similar case in 2017 concerned the French tourist Viaud, when the Homiel region court acquitted him of smuggling firearms. When Viaud travelled to Ukraine via Belarus, the Frenchman presented his souvenir cartridge in the “red channel” at Belarusian customs. According to Viaud, the customs officers spoke poor English and consequently misunderstood each other. As a result, the border officers transported Viaud to Homiel prison where he spent about two months. Initially, Viaud faced from three to seven years in prison, although intervention by French diplomats facilitated his release.
Lost in translation?
Criticism bombards Belarusian courts for procedural irregularities during several opposition leaders’ trials. However, the cases of the hunger-striking British businessman, Alan Paul Smith, and a Colombian jewellery maker, Gedilane Giraldo Calderon, show that the non-transparent modus operandi of Belarusian courts and investigative committees also damage the lives of ordinary people, including foreign citizens.
Smith’s case has drawn significant attention both in Belarus and internationally. On 11 July 2017, a court in Glubokoye in northern Belarus sentenced Smith to two years in prison for assisting the illegal immigration of six Iraqi citizens. According to barrister Michael Polak, assigned to Smith by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “Not only was Alan not afforded his rights during the investigation and trial but now he faces terrible conditions which could have a permanent effect on his health.”
In particular, according to Smith’s wife, the Belarusian authorities failed to issue a proper arrest warrant, refused access to an interpreter, and failed to inform the British embassy straight after the arrest. Moreover, the authorities held Smith on remand for ten months before the trial. The Glubokoye court refused to call witnesses in support of Smith’s defence and provided incompetent translators for the Kurdish-speaking witnesses. Smith never admitted guilt and appealed to higher courts. His health also deteriorated due to limited access to medical assistance.
The case of the incarcerated Colombian citizen, Calderon, bears numerous similarities. According to the blogger Alexander Lapshin, Calderon received six years in prison for a violent fight in a Belarusian nightclub. The authorities denied Calderon a Spanish interpreter during the trial. So far, not a single Colombian diplomat has visited Calderon in prison, and his case has erupted in public thanks to the efforts of bloggers and human rights activists. The prospects for Calderon look particularly gloomy due to the absence of diplomatic support from his own country.
What about ordinary Belarusians?
Unlike foreign citizens, especially Westerners with influential diplomatic corps, Belarusian citizens possess fewer opportunities to protect themselves against the injustices of the national judiciary. Some of them follow Smith’s example and go on hunger strikes. So do Belarusian political prisoners and the mothers of convicted teens for possession of soft drugs. Others appeal to higher courts and patiently wait to see whether their verdicts get amended.
Belarusian legislation has a long way to go if it is to improve. Instead of applying harsh sentences for minor drug-related and non-violent offences, legislators should focus on preventive measures. Moreover, the Belarusian public should obtain better control over the work of courts and investigative committees in order to challenge their long history of non-transparency and human rights abuse.
Prison conditions should also improve as prisoners’ treatment in Belarus remains among the worst in Europe. Only humaneness combined with the rule of law will heal Belarus’s historic wounds and clear away the remnants of the Gulags’ legacy.
As for foreigners travelling to or through Belarus, the above-mentioned cases should serve as a warning. The trafficking of antique firearms across the Belarusian border, even via a transit flight, qualifies as a serious criminal offence. Possession of soft drugs for personal use, including marijuana, brings a prison term from two to five years. Engaging in a violent fight could result in a prison term of up to 15 years.
Maradona’s ‘hand of God’ touches Belarusian football
On 15 May Diego Maradona, legendary football player and World Champion in 1986, signed a three-year contract with the Belarusian club Dynama Brest.
Back in 2016 the club announced that the United Arab Emirates-based company Sohra Overseas had become the team’s main sponsor, making Dynama Brest one of the few private football clubs in Belarus. With significantly increased funds the club has brought a number of strong and expensive players to Belarus.
Maradona’s contract with Dynama Brest, along with the failure of the Belarusian ice hockey team at the World Championships 2018 in Denmark, overshadowed all political and economic events in the country for a few days.
Maradona’s appearance at Dynama Brest will unlikely bring significant sporting achievements to the Belarusian championship, however the famous football player may play a role in prising Belarusian sports away from state control.
Dynama Brest and the Dubai connection
Many consider Maradona one of the best players of the 20th century. The 1986 World Cup, which Argentina won, brought him special glory. One of Maradona’s goals in that tournament had been scored by his hand; a violation of the rules. Later, Maradona referred to the winning goal as the “hand of God”.
Following a brilliant career on the playing field, Maradona struggled to find success as a coach. Instead his infamy grew due to regular scandals related to drug use, conflicts with journalists, as well as friendships with politicians such as Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez, and Nicolas Maduro.
Until recently, Dynama Brest had received state support, as do almost all teams competing in the Belarusian football championship. However, the financing had gradually decreased over the years. In 2016, for instance, financial hardship led to the fans collecting money for the players’ kit.
Sohra Overseas’ sponsorship ensured that the funding problems disappeared. Sohra Overseas FZE is a Dubai-based company that sells Belarusian industrial products. Belarusian media often refer to Sheikh Paul Dajer as the company’s owner and the main sponsor of Dynama Brest. However, foreign media seldom mentions Sheikh Dajer and locals in Dubai describe it as a very unusual name for a Skeikh from the United Arab Emirates. Some media, such as TUT.by, suggest that behind the “sheikh” is Belarusian businessman Alexandr Zajtseu; an individual close to Alexander Lukashenka’s son Viktar.
When Sohra Overseas bought Dynama Brest, the team brought in some strong foreign players and good Belarusian players, and soon competed with the traditional favourites of Belarusian football – BATE and Dynama Minsk. This spring Brest won the Belarus Super Cup, and this summer the team will play in the European League.
Maradona has worked at a small football club, Al-Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates, but was forced out after failing to get the team into the top division of the local championship. Following this, Maradona signed a contract with Dynama Brest, where he holds the position of Chairman of the Board for at least three years with the right to end his association after one year. Belarusian media reported the value of Maradona’s contract with FC Dynama Brest as up to $20m. An Argentinian media source, La Nacion, believes the contract exceeds this sum.
Belarusian sports under tight control
The Belarusian authorities repeatedly emphasise that sport in Belarus plays an important ideological role and should demonstrate the achievements of the Belarusian model of society. Various ministries and security agencies directly supervise leading sports. For example, the KGB supervises the biathlon: its chairman Valery Vakulchik serves on the supervisory board of the Federation of Biathlon. The Ministry of the Interior controls ice hockey and recently organised for the production of hockey uniforms and equipment in Belarusian prisons.
Football clubs annually receive benefits in accordance with a special decree issued by Lukashenka. In the early 2000s, when the economy was more stable, Belarusian sport enjoyed a better financial situation than today. Ice hockey and football players received good salaries, while players from neighbouring countries would actively come to the Belarusian championship. The situation has changed dramatically and Belarusian players rarely shy away from opportunities to join the clubs in the Baltic countries, which never attracted them before.
Lukashenka’s love of ice hockey is well known. He finds the time for regular training and his specially formed presidential team tours around the country. The team arranges a Christmas tournament every year, paying a lot of money to the teams of hockey veterans from other countries.
The president’s team usually wins these tournaments. State television always shows packed stands at the tournament, though in reality students and military personnel have been brought in to fill the seats. During his presidency, Lukashenka has promoted construction of dozens of new ice arenas.
Every year the state spends significant amounts to support Minsk Dynama, which plays in the Continental Hockey League. Lukashenka even appointed the former governor of Minsk and Hrodna regions, Siamion Shapira, as chairman of the Ice Hockey Federation. And, despite such a visible role of ice hockey in Belarus, the Belarusian ice hockey team lost all seven of its games at the World Cup.
The promise of Maradona for Belarusian sport
Sports experts have few doubts that the arrival of Maradona in Belarus during this summer will barely affect the performance of Dynama Brest. At the same time, his role could give impetus to reforms in Belarusian sport. So far, the most successful Belarusian football club remains BATE. BATE Borisov regularly wins in the Belarusian football championship and has played in the UEFA European League and Champions League.
The privately-owned Dynama Minsk traditionally provides competition to the famous Belarusian FC BATE, while the teams that wholly depend on public funding tend to become increasingly uncompetitive. If FC Dynama Brest, led by Maradona, retains its place among the leaders of Belarusian football then it can motivate the leadership of the country to turn the sport over to the free market.
The story of Maradona and Belarusian football has so far been only a PR exercise. Whether or not this story can persist will soon become clear: Dynama Brest starts in the European League and plays in the championship of Belarus. Failures in these tournaments, or should Maradona consider the climate “unfavourable” (in his contract, Maradona has a clause according to which he can withdraw from the contract if he does not adapt to the Belarusian climate), could mean that the term of a football legend in Belarus proves very short.
Alesia Rudnik and Vitaut Rudnik
Alesia Rudnik is an analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
Vitaut Rudnik is a founder of the NGO “Center ”The Third Sector”, journalist and football historian.