More Political Prisoners Released – Politics and Civil Society Digest
Eleven more released last week, but the most important political prisoners – three former presidential candidates and a leading human rights activist, are still in jail. On the civil society front, the most visible events relate to promotion of European values and the new wave of Belarusian political immigration abroad.
Eleven more political prisoners released. On 14 September, Lukashenka pardoned eleven more activists convicted in the mass riot case of the Ploscha events on 19 December 2010. They are Paval Vinahradau (“Tell the Truth” activist), Aliaksander Klaskouski Jr. (a former policeman), Uladimir Loban, Dzmitry Novik, Fiodar Mirzayanau, Aleh Fedarkevich, Dzmitry Bulanau, Aliaksandr Malchanau, Aliaxandr Atroshchenkau (Sannikov’s press-secretary), Ilya Vasilevich and Mikita Likhavid (“For Freedom” movement activist). Most of the these individuals declare that they did not write pardon petitions to Lukashenka.
This was the third wave of releases. On 11 August, nine participants of the Ploshcha events were pardoned and on 1 September four more people. At the moment at least four people are serving their prison terms following conviction for participation in the Ploscha events on December-19, including ex-presidential candidates: Andrey Sannikau (5 years), Mikolay Statkevich (6 years), Dmitriy Us (5.5 years).
International support of Ales Byalyatsky. On 11 August, Amnesty International called on Belarusian authorities to release a prominent human rights activist, whose pre-trial detention on charges of "serious tax evasion" is believed to be politically motivated. On 15 September, the European Parliament in Strasbourg adopted a resolution calling on the Belarusian authorities to release human rights activist Ales Byalyatsky and other political prisoners and condemned the crackdown on opposition and civil society in Belarus.
Ministry of Justice continues to pressure lawyers. On 2 September, Aliaksandr Pylchanka, Chairman of the Minsk City Bar, made an application to resign from his position following a request from the Ministry of Justice. Pylchanka is known as a strong proponent of the independence of lawyers in Belarus. He was directly elected as Chairman by a general meeting of Minsk City Bar Association. At that meeting the Ministry of Justice candidate was not supported.
Meeting for the National Platform. On 26 September, Delegation of the European Union will hold a meeting for organizations of the National Platform CSF Program "Eastern Partnership". The event will take place in Minsk, at the hotel "Europe". The purpose of the meeting is to inform the members of the National Platform about the upcoming summit of the Program EaP in Warsaw and about the "Towards a European community of democracy, prosperity and stronger civil society” conference, which preceded and accompanied the summit.
European Club in Brest. Regional Development Agency "Dzedzich" together with the "For Freedom" movement establish The European Club in Brest. The purpose of the Club is promotion – especially among young people – of the European way of life and European values. The project has already published the first issue of its "Euroclub" paper, distributed among students of Brest universities.
"Tell the truth!" plans to build "SuperBelarus". The "Tell the truth!" campaign, led by ex-presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, is launching a "SuperBelarus" strategy. The strategy is based on conducting social oriented activities which should lead to a positive Belarus, worthy of the pride of its citizens.
4th Congress of the new Belarusian Diaspora. On 14-18 September, the Congress of the new Belarusian Diaspora in Europe and the US was held in Tallinn (Estonia). Organizers are Belarusian NGO "Third Way", the Estonian NGO «Valgevene Uus Tee», etc. About 50 participants came from different countries, including Ales Mikhalevich, Sergei Chaly, Victor Malishevsky, Natalya Radina, Ales Zarembyuk, and Pavel Marinich. During the event participants visited sessions in the Estonian parliament, discussed the situation after the last election, and discussed the new wave of political exiles and joint projects.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. This digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. It often goes beyond the hot stories already available in English-language media.
Show Trial of Alleged Belarusian Terrorists
Every month of this year was filled with stories from Belarus about predominantly closed trials of political opposition activists, rally participants, human rights defendants, and journalists. This week’s show trial seems different.
In the court cage are Vladislav Konovalov and Dmitry Kovalyov, suspected in the Minsk subway bombing on April 11, which left 15 people dead and 200 wounded. Konovalov pleaded guilty and acknowledged committing four other terrorist attacks since 2005. Kovalyov, his alleged accomplice, withdrew his earlier confession. However, while unprecedented in its own right, the trial shares some features with many other Belarus trials.
To be sure, Kovalyov and Konovalov did get the right to a public hearing unlike many political defendants. By law the content of a trial can be withheld only to avoid revealing state secrets or to protect privacy in cases of rape and offenses committed by minors, but the Belarusian authorities like to sue the opponents of the regime behind closed doors to avoid public scrutiny. This trial was open to the public, perhaps to demonstrate the prowess of Belarus security services or to divert attention from the economic crisis. (Though one cannot help wondering how two young Belarusians, teenagers at the time of first alleged violation, were able to evade the KGB for so many years.)
Like most other Belarusians in the hands of the domestic justice system, however, Kovalyov and Konovalov were denied the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, which is crucial for ensuring a fair trial, and could have been pressured into confession.
Article 16 of the Belarus Criminal Procedure Code states that anyone accused of a crime “is considered innocent until his guilt has been proved in the way provided in this code and until a court judgment has come into effect.” This was not the case for Konovalov and Kovaliov, who in multiple statements by various and sunder officials were branded as terrorists since April. On September 15, the Belarusian official TV channel announced the trial by naming them “the first terrorists in Belarus”.
The TV channel suggested Konovalov’s confession meant that all those criticizing the trial were defending terrorists by attempting to make them into the regime victims. However, forced confessions are extracted on a regular basis in Belarus, and Konovalov and Kovaliov were hardly exceptions. One can even feel sorry for the investigators charged with solving the crime as they must have been under a no less intense pressure from the government. They succeeded, as the President announced that the suspects confessed only days after the attack. At any rate, coercion could well explain why Kovalyov asked to withdraw the evidence as “delivered under pressure”. He also said he was afraid of being executed.
According to independent TV channel Belsat, the eloquent prosecutor called Kovalyov’s actions a “conscious resistance to society, a willingness to commit a crime, actions based on fake superiority, and a conscious terrorizing of society and destruction of public order”. With such hefty accusations, Kovalyov is likely to receive a death sentence if convicted.
And unlike all criminals in Europe and the post-Soviet region, he stands a strong chance of being executed. Belarus is the only European country that did not abolish or impose a moratorium on capital punishment. Among the petitions to the court this week there was one asking to postpone the trial until the abolition of the death penalty.