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Human rights in Belarus: arrests decrease, fines increase

Amid the Belarusian presidential election in 2020, it is unlikely that significant steps will be taken towards political liberalisation. After the lifting of Western sanctions in 2016 against Lukashenka and several Belarusian officials, there has been no improvement in...

Amid the Belarusian presidential election in 2020, it is unlikely that significant steps will be taken towards political liberalisation. After the lifting of Western sanctions in 2016 against Lukashenka and several Belarusian officials, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in Belarus. The authorities are likely to maintain pressure on independent online resources (TUT.by and others).

Nevertheless, after the change of geopolitical situation in 2014, the annexation of Crimea by Russia, and the war in the east of Ukraine, it became even more important for the West to prevent Belarus from losing its independence. The dialogue with Minsk was intensified. Lukashenka was invited to visit a few EU capitals, including Paris, Vienna, and Riga. As a result, Belarusian authorities replaced brutal arrests with more sophisticated methods of punishments of civil society activists such as fines and employment ban.

As the number of arrests decrease, fines increase

After the lifting of EU sanctions, there was no change in the attitude of the authorities towards the opposition and civil society. As before, Lukashenka often speaks of them as “fifth column”. On 24 August 2017, he even spoke about “children of the fifth column” and “our, ordinary children.” More than once he claimed that BRSM (the state-run Belarusian Republican Youth Union), veterans’ associations and trade unions –  the organisations fully controlled by the authorities – were a civil society. Lukashenka often stated that human rights were the rights to life and to work and that the human rights situation in Belarus was no worse than in the West.

Only one aspect has changed – the government has modified somewhat the methods of pressure on the opposition and civil society. Since spring 2016, there have been fewer cases of arrest of opposition activists, independent journalists and people protesting the authorities’ actions. However, the number of fines has sharply increased.

According to the database of human rights activists, in 2017, activists and protesters were detained over 600 times. According to the courts’ decisions, they paid more than 200,000 rubles (about $100,000) in fines. In many regions of Belarus, a monthly salary of $200-300 is seen as a good salary.

According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), in 2017, the courts issued 69 fines under Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code (illegal production and distribution of media products). Journalists paid 52,923 rubles in fines (the equivalent of about $26,500). In the current year, the courts have already handed down 106 sentences to pay fines for the total amount of 92,316 rubles (about $46,000). According to preliminary data, the participants in the actions in 2018 will pay fewer fines issued by courts than in 2017. However, this in no way means a softening of the political regime.

Employment ban as a means of punishment

The government still widely uses the employment ban against leaders and the best-known activists of NGOs, as well as civil society activists, in whose activities the government sees political overtones. KGB officers make sure that a “black-listed” person cannot get a job at a state enterprise or agency. In a large city, one can still get employed at a private enterprise. However, it happens that the employer then starts to have problems with various government agencies, such as the tax inspection, the sanitary-epidemiological service, and the fire inspection.

Hienadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, the leaders of the independent trade union movement. Source: tut.by

In a town with the population below 50,000 people, such persons will not even find a temporary employment: they are known, and a business owner does not want to get into trouble. The maximum that they can count on is informal, casual earnings from an acquaintance. Or they will be offered the most unskilled, low-paid job – a janitor or a cleaner in a store so that whoever sees them learns a lesson.

The fate of an opposition-minded high-school history teacher, who was dismissed for having organised a campaign in his district to collect signatures for one of Lukashenka’s opponents, serves as an example. This person was the leader of the largest NGO in the district, which organised and held meetings with Belarusian historians, local history experts and cultural figures. He also wrote several history books. Nevertheless, his repeated attempts to get a job were unsuccessful as he remains blacklisted.

Politically motivated lawsuits and pressure against NGOs

Politically motivated lawsuits against Belarusian activists were also initiated. There was a possibility that political prisoners would reappear in Belarus. Thus, on 14 June 2018, officers of the KGK’s Financial Investigation Department searched the apartment of Ales Lipaj, a poet, renown independent journalist, founder and director of BelaPAN news agency, for seven hours. Criminal proceedings were instigated against him under Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code (large-scale tax evasion). On 23 August, Ales Lipaj died. He was only 53 years old.

Ales Lipaj Source: naviny.by

On 24 November 2011, under the same article, also for an alleged large-scale tax evasion, the court sentenced Ales Bialiatski, a renown human rights activist, to four and a half years in a medium-security correctional facility and to the confiscation of property.

On 30 July 2018, Hienadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, the leaders of the independent trade union movement, were put on trial. They were charged with large-scale tax evasion (Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code). After two months of trial, they were sentenced to four years of restraint and fines.

Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code, which provides for criminal liability (imprisonment for up to two years) for activities on behalf of an unregistered organisation, is yet to be repealed. Many Belarusian NGOs were denied state registration, or they are not able to obtain state registration under the current conditions. Their activists still face the risk of this article being used against them.

As before, there is information from the province that KGB officers have been having “preventive” conversations with businessmen, warning them about big troubles in the case of providing financial and material support to civic activists and initiatives. Therefore, it is unlikely that the authorities will ease the pressure on the opposition and civil society and take noticeable steps towards political liberalisation in the period preceding the presidential election.

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Andrei Liakhovich
Andrei Liakhovich
Andrei Liakhovich directs the Center of Political Education in Minsk.
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