Justice Belarusian style: five years for paedophilia, nine for marijuana
On 28 December 2016, a former employee of the Presidential Administration received a five-year sentence for paedophilia. The news led to a widespread outcry among both citizens and human rights defenders.
Belarusian courts continue to measure out harsh punishments for drug-related and non-violent crimes. Minor crimes, such as inappropriate social media posts, lead to lengthy incarceration, while murder and paedophilia can result in relatively trivial sentences.
This discrepancy between a nine-years sentence for drugs and five years for paedophilia, along with many other examples, makes the logic of the Belarusian judicial system seem paradoxical.
However, there are several explanations for this phenomenon. Such seemingly arbitrary sentences may stem from non-transparent and ineffective work on behalf of courts and investigative committees. On the other hand, such disproportionate decisions may be due to poorly-written legislation.
Moreover, instead of introducing harsher sentences, legislators would do well to think more about preventative measures to deter criminals from the outset.
A social media post or paedophilia: which is more dangerous?
On 12 January, a Hrodna court sentenced a woman to two years in prison for saving a picture to her social media account. Dziana Selvanava found a picture with erotic elements on a VK page (a popular social network) and decided to save it to her public album.
As Dziana reported to Hrodna.life, when she saved the picture on her phone, she hadn't noticed anything inappropriate about it. In September, when she had already forgotten about the saved picture, the police came to her house armed with an expert opinion that the picture portrayed abusive and unaesthetic scenes with pornographic elements.
The final proceeding on 12 January resulted in a two-year sentence, a roughly $350 fine, and confiscation of the phone. The case of Dziana Selvanava provoked many discussions in Belarus and neighbouring countries, and many media outlets warned VK users to be cautious.
A few weeks before, a high-profile paedophile case had ended in a surprising court decision. Viačaslaŭ Davydovič, a former employee of the Presidential Administration and the police received a five-year sentence for multiple instances of illegal contact with underage teenagers. The offender, however, denies the charges.
Andrej Mahanko, a representative of the NGO Ponimanie, has stated that Davydovič’s case should be reviewed because the length of imprisonment hardly corresponds to the nature of the crime.
The human rights defender highlighted that in 2014 the court uncovered a large network of paedophiles going by the name of ‘cyclists’. The ‘cyclists’ lured young boys into their houses and offered to help them improve their skills in cycling and football. The network is suspected in 8,000- to 10,000 (!) instances of child rape in Belarus. In 2013, the police detained the ‘cyclists’, including Davydovyč, in a house registered under his name.
However, according to human rights defenders, these facts were not brought up during the prosecution of Davydovyč. Ponimanie created a petition and appealed to the Prosecutor General to review the sentence. The petition based its argument on the suspicion that the court was pressured into softening the sentence for Davydovyč.
The case caused indignation on social and online media. However, the state press is apparently trying to cover up the proceedings of the former employee of the Presidential Administration hoping not to harm the reputation of the Belarusian police.
Are drugs the most serious crime?
At the same time, the courts actively punish drug users and prosecute drug dealers without due process. For instance, in December Belarusian reggae musician Klim Malažavy received a nine-year sentence for drug-trafficking. According to friends of the musician, however, the investigation based its arguments on the testimony of a single individual. At the time of his detention, Malažavy and several friends possessed 40g of hashish and 17g of marijuana. However, Malažavy claims that the drugs were not for sale.
In March 2016 there was a similar case. A Minsk court sentenced Arciom Barodzič, an actor at the Yanka Kupala theatre, to five years in prison after finding 26g of marijuana in his apartment. Although the evidence linking Barodzič to drug trafficking was weak, the verdict was serious.
Later, in September, the story of a 25 year-old woman who received a 12-year sentence for drug-trafficking attracted a large amount of media attention. The courts doled out this harsh punishment for possession of a tablet and a half of ecstasy which the woman had brought back from her vacation in Turkey.
It might come as a surprise that drug-related crimes can lead to such harsh sentences compared to more serious offences. However, it is important to understand the context of the law. In 2014, victims of a new drug called 'spice' increased significantly and many deaths were reported. As a response, in December 2014 Lukashenka signed a tough decree against drug-trafficking. Following the decree, which aims to combat the dangerous drug, the punishment for drug-related crimes could be as high as 25 years of imprisonment.
According to Aliena Krasoŭskaja, head of the human rights defenders centre Region 119, although sentences for drug dealers have become unprecedentedly strict, courts are not ultimately to blame, as they are simply following the drug decree.
So who is to Blame?
Decisions of the Belarusian courts over the last several months have provoked heated public debates on the nature of the Belarusian judiciary system. The verdicts often call into question the work of courts and the entire legislation. This leads to two main observations.
First, investigations and court proceedings have become increasingly non-transparent to the public. Sometimes, verdicts are based on evidence from a single individual or are generally dubious. The state continues to prosecute citizens for socially harmless crimes, such as pictures saved to social media accounts. At the same time, the system is implicit in covering up cases of criminals with connections to the authorities.
Secondly, the courts are simply acting according to legislation. The drug decree, which aimed to protect the lives of citizens, could in turn lead to serious sentences for non-serious criminals. When they modified the drug legislation, the authorities forgot to ensure that dangerous criminals, such as Davydovyč, are also punished and isolated.
However, making punishments harsher does not necessarily deter criminals. Policy makers would do well to focus on more efficient law enforcement instead.
Migration centres, relations with Sudan, Paliessie cruises, beaver sausages – Belarus state press digest
The EU provides €7m to finance the construction of migrant facilities in Belarus to combat irregular migration. Aliaksandr Lukashenka visits Sudan with a delegation of Belarusian officials to discuss bilateral economic potential.
Belarus launches a 550-km-long cruise route in the Paliessie region. In 2016, Minsk breaks its record for housing sales. Belarusian food industries plan to produce sausages and canned meat from beavers.
This and more in the new edition of the Belarus state press digest.
Politics and foreign policy
The EU provides €7m to finance the construction of migrant facilities in Belarus. The project aims to combat irregular migration to the EU via Belarus, informs Belarus Segodnia. It will finance the modernisation of migrant centres, production of informational materials, training for specialists, and other related expenses.
The centres will only handle migrants detained on the territory of Belarus, as well as those who entered the EU through Belarus under the readmission agreement. The agreement does not impose obligations on Belarus to take in refugees from Europe. The project will allow Belarus and the EU to move forward in visa facilitation procedures.
Lukashenka: Sudan has become one of Belarus's most important partners on the African continent. On 16-18 January Aliaksandr Lukashenka visited Sudan with a delegation of Belarusian officials, reports Zviazda. The Belarusian leader held talks with the President of Sudan Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir and addressed the Sudanese parliament about Belarus's place in the modern world, its foreign policy, and perspectives for the countries’ bilateral relations.
Business circles from the two countries discussed partnership prospects at a Belarusian-Sudanese business forum. The Belarusian delegation included more than 30 representatives of large and medium-size industries, including MTZ, MAZ, BelAZ, Amkador, Homsielmaš, Belšyna, Dziaržynski, and others. Belarus and Sudan also discussed the possibility of Belarusian companies participating in exploration and development of Sudanese oil and gas fields. The total economic impact of the contracts came to more than $40 million, and Minsk expects it to multiply within a year.
Tourism companies need to develop their services more actively after introduction of the visa-free regime. Belarus Segodnya criticises the Belarusian hospitality industry for its inability to take advantage of new opportunities. When asked about the potential impact of the visa-free regime on their business, a number of large tourism companies responded that they have no idea how to take advantage of the situation.
For years, the tourism industry has raised concerns that visas are an obstacle to inbound tourism in Belarus. But now that the state has liberalised its visa policy, companies continue to complain about various issues: tourists should be able to enter the country not only via the airport, they should have the right to stay more than 5 days, and so on. The newspaper writes that these companies should stop relying on the state and use the available chances to develop and promote their products independently.
Belarus launches a cruise ship in the Paliessie region. The first cruise route 'Pearls of Paliessie', with the motor ship Belaja Ruś, will begin 29 April 2017, writes Holas Radzimy. The tour is designed for eight days and will run via the Buh River, the Dniepar-Buh Canal and the Prypiać river, 550 kilometres in total. The ship will sail mostly at night.
During the day, tourists will be able to go ashore and explore the sights of the cities of Brest, Kobryn, Pinsk, Turaŭ, Mazyr, as well as some famous villages. Belaja Ruś is the first and only cruise ship to be built in Belarus. It will resemble a three-story hotel with 16 cabins, restaurants, shops and a pool. The price for the cruise will be all inclusive and can host nearly 40 passengers.
Minsk breaks its housing sale record. In 2016 more than 15,000 apartments were sold in Minsk: 14% more than in 2015. This became an all-time record for the Belarusian capital. Due to the economic recession, housing prices fell in USD, while market supply remains high. Belarusians are most likely to buy apartments in buildings built in the 1970's to late 1990's, which dominate on the market. One third of buyers sought the cheapest apartments, such as one-bedroom flats for $30,000.
In contrast to Minsk, apartment sales in the regions have fallen for the third consecutive year. Not including Minsk, 31,426 flats were sold in Belarus in 2016; this is 13% less than in 2015 (36,149 flats). Compared to 2014, when over 38,000 apartments found new owners, the fall exceeded 17%. This trend will continue in the future, experts predict.
54 men enlist in alternative civilian service. The Law on Alternative Civilian Service came into effect in Belarus 1 June 2016. It allows those who cannot serve in the military due to their religious beliefs to work in civilian organisations instead. Military service is mandatory in Belarus for all men. Those enrolled will have to serve 36 months if they do not possess higher education or 24 months if they do, while those in the military serve 18 and 12 month respectively.
These citizens will receive a monthly salary of $200, which is raised after the 13th and 25th month of service. According to the Ministry of Labour and Social Welfare, alternative servicemen will be able to serve in 371 organisations around the country. Currently, 27 men already work in social and health care, housing, agriculture, and forestry organisations, while the rest will be employed by 7 February 2017.
Belarusians will make sausages and canned meat from beavers. In 2016-2017, hunting services will need to gather a stock of 1,750 animals for this purpose, informs Gomelskaya Pravda. According to the Head of the Hunting Department of the Ministry of Forestry Siarhiej Šastakoŭ, many manufacturers have already expressed their interest in this idea.
Beaver meat is rich in protein, selenium, vitamin C, and phosphorus. It also contains more iron than any other type of meat. There are currently over 50,000 beavers in Belarus, but the optimum number is 2.5 times fewer. They build dams on reclamation channels, flooding large parts of the forest and the yards of private farms.
The state press digest is based on review of state-controlled publications in Belarus. Freedom of the press in Belarus remains restricted and state media convey primarily the point of view of the Belarusian authorities. This review attempts to give the English-speaking audience a better understanding of how Belarusian state media shape public opinion in the country.