“Extremism” in wartime – review of the fight against “extremism” in Belarus for January-March 2022

Human Constanta
25 April 2022

In the period from January to March 2022, Belarusian authorities continued to useanti-extremist laws to suppress dissent: state bodies reported on the fight against “extremism”, state media wrote articles and made films on this topic, courts issued a new record number of decisions on recognizing materials as “extremist,” the authorities published a list of “extremists” and introduced responsibility for the “denial of the genocide of the Belarusian people.” More on these and other trends – in our review. 

Persecution for “extremism” in connection with the war in Ukraine

Russia’s military aggression in Ukraine has greatly affected Belarusian society: on the one hand, Belarusian de facto authorities  provided the territory of Belarus as a platform for Russian military aggression, on the other hand, people in Belarus spoke out in various ways against such actions and the war in general: Belarusians went out to anti-war protests, reported the movements of Russian troops, sabotaged the railway movement of Russian weapons to Ukraine, expressed solidarity with Ukraine and shared relevant true information on the Internet. Such actions are actively suppressed by law enforcement agencies: about 1,500 people were detained for participating in peaceful protests against military actions, and anti-extremist laws began to be used to suppress any form of disobedience to the official position of the authorities in the context of the war.

Detentions for expressing opinions about the parties to an armed conflict

Article 130 of the Criminal Code (hereinafter – the Criminal Code) “Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord” has been actively used since the end of March 2022 to punish people for criticizing the Russian military, as well as supporting Ukrainian servicemen in their fight against the Russian invasion. On March 22, 2022, a resident of Minsk was detained for allegedly “deciding to support followers of neo-Nazi views and leaving offensive comments to the Russian military.” On March 24, 2022, information about the detention of a man who insulted police officers and “composed laudatory odes about the exploits of national battalions in Ukraine” appeared. In addition to article 130 of the Criminal Code, the man was also charged with article 369 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting a representative of the authorities”).

Cases of “terrorist attacks” for damage to railway tracks

The review period was marked by a particularly large number of detentions of so-called “rail partisans” under article 289 of the Criminal Code “Act of terrorism” for attempts to damage railway tracks in order to slow down the advance of Russian military equipment and resources on the territory of Belarus. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, from February 28, 2022 to March 1, 2022, three facts of destruction of signaling equipment, blocking of railway tracks were recorded on the territory of Mogilev, Gomel, and Minsk regions, which the agency regarded as “acts of terrorism”.

On the night of March 1 to March 2, 2022, two residents of the Stolbtsy were detained for setting fire to logs on railway tracks in order to prevent the movement of trains with Russian equipment through Belarus to participate in the offensive against Ukraine. On March 2, 2022, information about the detention of a resident of Zhodino, who also tried to damage the railway tracks appeared. On March 4, 2022, three residents of Svetlogorsk were detained, who, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, poured flammable liquid and set fire to the relay cabinet of the signal installation, which caused the railway equipment to become unusable. On March 6, 2022, a resident of Vitebsk was detained for preparing for an act of terrorism, who, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, intended to disable the railway safety systems. On March 22, 2022, a resident of Osipovichi was also detained for preparing for an attempt to damage the railway.

Also, on March 17, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case against Alexei Arestovich, adviser to the Office of Vladimir Zelensky, under article 361 of the Criminal Code (“Calls for restrictive measures (sanctions), other actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus”) in connection with the publication of a video in which he spoke about “rail war” in Belarus and Russia as a means to stop the Russian army.

Persecution for transmitting information about troop movements

On March 9, 2022, information about the initiation of a criminal case under article 361-4 of the Criminal Code (“Assistance to extremist activities”) against a teenager from the Gomel region who photographed the movement of Russian military equipment and sent it to one of the “extremist” Telegram channels appeared. On March 21, 2022, it became known about another case under this article against a resident of Pinsk, who, according to the Investigative Committee, photographed military transport and forwarded it to the administrators of a Telegram channel recognized as an “extremist formation.”

On March 16, 2022, the Telegram channel “Belaruski Gayun” was recognized as an extremist formation by the decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The channel publishes information about the movement of Russian troops on the territory of Belarus, combat aircraft takeoffs and missile launches on the territory of Ukraine. Now sending information to this resource can be interpreted as “participation in an extremist formation” and punished under article 361-1 of the Criminal Code.

Punishments for participation in the armed conflict on the side of Ukraine

During this period, a case under article 361-3 was opened (“Participation in an armed formation or armed conflict, military operations on the territory of a foreign state, recruitment or preparation of persons for such participation” ). On March 14, 2022, it became known about the detention of a resident of Dokshitsy, who filled out a questionnaire in Telegram to go to fight in Ukraine against Russian troops. In addition to this article, the man is also charged with “inciting hostility” (article 130 of the Criminal Code). On March 22, 2022, a video was published in pro-government resources with a beaten resident of Minsk, who, under pressure, admits that he was going to go to war on the territory of Ukraine against Russian troops. On March 26, 2022, Deputy Head of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (hereinafter – GUBOPiK) Mikhail Bedunkevich announced the initiation of a criminal case against members of the Kastus Kalinouski battalion, consisting of Belarusians fighting against the Russian army on the side of the Ukrainian troops. He also noted that GUBOPiK actively interacts with Russian security forces in the exchange of data on Belarusians participating in this unit.

On March 21, 2022, the Brest Regional Court sentenced a resident of Pinsk to 2 years and 6 months of imprisonment in a general regime colony for taking part in military operations on the territory of the Donetsk region of Ukraine from March to October 2021. The court also ordered the defendant to pay the state about 10 thousand BYN as “income obtained by criminal means.” Despite the fact that in pro-government SOURCES resident of Pinsk is repeatedly referred to as a mercenary, he was tried under the same article 361-1, and not under another “extremist” article 133 (“Mercenary”).

Previously, 138 people who fought not only from Ukraine were prosecuted for participating in hostilities on the territory of Ukraine: only in 2016, 138 people were held under article 133.

Blocking of Ukrainian media for “extremist materials” 

Since the beginning of the aggression of the Russian authorities against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, 6 sites of Ukrainian independent media were blocked on the territory of Belarus: on March 1, 2022, it became known about the blocking of the resources of “Gordo” and “Obozrevatel’,” on March 3, 2022, information appeared about the blocking of the resources of RBC-Ukraine and InfoResist, and on March 6, 2022 The websites of the Novoye Vremya and Focus publications were blocked. The reason for the blocking was the announcement of independent Ukrainian media as “extremist materials.”

Changes in legislation 

The main legislative change was the introduction of a new article 130-2 in the Criminal Code “Denial of the genocide of the Belarusian people” – this article appeared in Law № 146-Z of January 5, 2022 “On the Genocide of the Belarusian people.” In fact, this law imposes a monopoly on the interpretation of the historical events of 1941-1951 with a liability of up to 10 years in prison, which violates the standards of the right to freedom of expression.

State bodies continue to propose the adoption of various legislative measures that simplify and expand the scale of repression for oppositional manifestations: on January 13, 2022, the head of the presidential administration, Igor Sergeenko, said that “quite a lot of citizens” and law enforcement officials spoke about the need to revoke the citizenship of extremists and “other fugitives who harm the Belarusian state and society by their actions.” Sergeenko proposed to abolish in general part 2 of article 10 of the Constitution, which prohibits the deprivation of Belarusian citizenship. However, this proposal did not find practical application in the final draft of the new constitution submitted to a referendum. Recall that the current legislation on citizenship provides for the deprivation of citizenship on the basis of committing a crime under a number of “extremist” articles only if a person acquired it not by birth. For more information, see our review at the link.

On February 16, 2022, representatives of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) signed a joint position on countering terrorism and extremism. The document is essentially declarative and enshrines only broad norms on the relevance of the problem of terrorism and extremism, as well as the importance of cooperation in order to counter such, without delving into any norms on specific methods.

On February 23, 2022, the head of the Investigative Committee, Dmitry Gora, said that the department had developed a draft law on amendments and additions to the criminal procedure legislation, which provides for the introduction of the institute of correspondence proceedings. This innovation would make it possible to consider criminal cases on “extremist crimes” against the accused who are abroad. It is proposed to compensate for losses by applying to the state’s income the financial assets of convicts who remained on the territory of the state.

Also during this period, the pro-government Telegram channel “GUBOP” created two special chatbots, the first of which allowed to voluntarily refuse to participate in the “extremist organization” “Plan Peramoga,” and the second, called “Chance,” offered to turn themself (?) in, leave them contact details and thereby without serious consequences “to renounce all forms of participation in extremist and terrorist activities against Belarus.” The bot could be contacted if a person had ever written to the feedback bots of opposition channels, performed any tasks from such, provided or distributed extremist materials, or simply was in opposition chats without committing real crimes. However, these bots have ceased to be available due to the blocking of the channel by the Telegram administration.

Criminal cases

Article 130 of the Criminal Code “Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord” 

This article is one of the most popular tools for suppressing freedom of expression on social networks against people who leave publications or comments with harsh rhetoric against law enforcement officers or other officials. We believe that this practice violates international human rights standards. Actions to deanonymize the security forces and calls for resistance often also fall under the scope of this article.

It is also known about new detentions in the “Zeltser case”: GUBOPiK employees in the Gomel region, within the framework of part 3 of article 130 of the Criminal Code, detained local residents for allegedly insulting comments to the murdered state security officer and other police officers. At the same time, on January 10, 2022, the court of the Leninsky district of Mogilev sentenced a local resident to 2 years of imprisonment in a general regime colony for insulting comments to the murdered employee of the State Security Committee (hereinafter – KGB) Dmitry Fedosyuk, but under article 369 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting a representative of the authorities”). The accused was also ordered to pay a fine of 3,200 BYN.

The article also continued to be used to punish people for expressing opinions about any high-profile events and incidents related to law enforcement agencies. During this period, arrests were made primarily for comments on the departure of the Belarusian contingent of peacekeepers by the Collective Security Treaty Organization (hereinafter – the CSTO) to Kazakhstan during the protests in this state. The pro-government Telegram channel GUBOP reported that commentators will be attracted specifically under article 130 of the Criminal Code. On January 10, 2022, information appeared on the Telegram channel of the Ministry of Internal Affairs about the detention of two Minsk residents allegedly for “cynical” comments about the situation in Kazakhstan. The first man is charged with writing a comment “we need to extinguish these inhumans in uniform,” and the second man on the so-called “penitential” video admits to writing a comment “Men, these are real men, and the Belarusian cattle are looking for excuses that we don’t have weapons.” Another man was detained for the comment “Cool, Kazakhs are great, we need them.” It is also known about the detention of residents of Minsk and Slonim.

On February 8, 2022, the Minsk City Court sentenced two ex-employees of Beltelecom to 11 years in a high-security penal colony for “draining” the personal data of more than 200 security forces, civil servants and pro-government journalists into the opposition Telegram channels, “who were then bullied.” During the arrest, the men were seriously beaten, as can be seen on the corresponding “penitential” videos with their participation. In addition to the article for “inciting hostility,” the men were charged with seven more articles, including the threat of violence to officials, internal affairs officers and judges, as well as unlawful possession of computer information, illegal actions with respect to information about private life and obstruction of the legitimate activities of a journalist. The trial was held behind closed doors.

It is also known about two extremely strict sentences for “information leaks.” On March 15, 2022, the Minsk City Court sentenced a resident of Minsk to 7 years of imprisonment with serving in a high-security colony, as well as deprivation of the special rank of “lieutenant colonel of justice” in reserve. On the same day, a Minsk IT specialist was also sentenced to 7 years in a strict regime colony for transmitting data to the opposition channel “Chernaya Kniha Belarusi” (“Black Book of Belarus”), recognized as extremist. In almost all identical cases, article 130 was almost always applied together with article 203-1 (“Illegal actions with respect to information about private life and personal data”), since, according to the logic of the security forces, the transmitting of personal data of civil servants automatically entails various forms of aggressive behavior against officials. At the same time, the practice of qualifying the same actions is different: thus, one resident of Minsk is suspected of “draining” personal data in two of the above-mentioned articles at the same time, while an employee of Belagaprombank and a software engineer from Minsk are charged only with article 130 of the Criminal Code, and an “unknown person” who distributed the personal data of the assistants of the prosecutor of the Mozyr district and their relatives is charged only with article 203-1 of the Criminal Code, however “threat of violence” and “insult” were added to the charge. It is also known about the detention of the head of the department of the mobile operator “Life” .

On January 6, 2022, the Grodno Regional Court sentenced a local resident to 6 years in a high-security colony. In addition to participating in protests, the basis for such a verdict was messages in the Telegram channel “Grodno 97%,” recognized as extremist. Among the sane comments: “By the way, you can start by setting fire to the “Tabakerki,” there are no cameras there, like” and “Yes, and trample their hands so that they can no longer take the baton in their hands.” In the interrogation protocol, the accused recorded the fact of beatings by the police. On March 22, 2022, the Brest Regional Court passed a sentence against a man who posted 4 comments of unknown content in the Pinsk opposition chat – 2 years of imprisonment in a general regime colony. Also, according to this article, it is known about the detention of the creator of the YouTube channel “Third Region of Belarus,” a resident of Gomel, a Belarusian who returned from Poland, as well as a certain “radical.”

The article on “incitement of enmity” 130 of the Criminal Code continued to be used against officials of foreign states who allowed harsh criticism of representatives of the Belarusian regime, and also proposed replacing the official Belarusian state symbols with historical ones.

Thus, on February 1, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a criminal case on inciting “ethnic hatred and social discord” against the judge of the District Court of Warsaw, Dariusz Łubowski. The reason for the attention of the Belarusian authorities was the statement of the Polish judge during the process on the extradition of the founder of the NEXTA channel Stepan Putilo that “you can’t extradite a person just because a psychopathic dictator wants it.”

On February 10, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office also opened a criminal case against the mayor of the city of Dnipro (Ukraine) Boris Filatov for replacing the state flag of Belarus, located near the city hall building, with a white-red-white one. The Prosecutor’s Office stated that Filatov abused the “historical and cultural relic,” thereby “humiliating the national honor and dignity of the Belarusians.” Filatov himself said that the replacement of the flags was a “people’s initiative.”

On March 16, 2022, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced blogger and activist Pavel Vinogradov to 5 years in prison. The basis of the verdict was an emotional post on Facebook, in which he criticized the idea of ​​a protest on May 9, and the court saw in the post a call for unauthorized actions. In addition to “inciting hatred,” Pavel was accused of slandering the president and actions grossly violating public order. The trial was held behind closed doors.

On January 14, 2022, information appeared that the Grodno Regional Court would soon consider the case against the Russian national Sophia Sapega. Sophia is charged under seven articles of the Criminal Code, including articles on inciting hatred and discord and disseminating information about private life. She may face up to 6 years in prison, but Sapega entered into a pre-trial agreement with the investigation and fulfilled the necessary obligations under it.

Under this article, as well as under the article on gross violation of the order, ex-prosecutor Yevgeny Babak, who began to be tried on March 11, 2022, is being tried.

On February 2, 2022, it became known about the detention of ex-investigator Nikita Storozhenko, who resigned in protest after the elections. He is charged with incitement of hostility by a group of people for passing on to one of the opposition chats the contacts of two employees of the GUBOPiK and the deputy head of the Investigative Committee for Minsk. Nikita is also accused of fraud for cooperating with solidarity funds.

On March 15, 2022, the Brest Regional Court sentenced a local resident to 2 years in a penal colony for comments in which he suggested “resisting the special-purpose militia detachments like in Pinsk in 2020 with bats and rebar,” and also wished Lukashenko “very bad health” (for which he also received charges under article 368 of the Criminal Code). On March 21, 2022, the same court sentenced a local resident to 3 years in prison in a strict regime colony for comments in which the man wrote “to ambush the special-purpose militia detachments” and “look for tihars [militia officers in plain clothing], beat them in a crowd.” In these comments, the court saw calls to violence.

It is known about the detention of a resident of Cherikov, who “distributed information aimed at promoting armed resistance to government officials and law enforcement officers”; a resident of Gomel for thematic videos on Tiktok “containing calls for a coup d’état,” as well as a resident of Minsk for “calls on social networks for a guerrilla war and the assassination of the president.”

On January 14, 2022, in the village of Teryukha, security forces searched the home of a local resident and detained him because the villager wrote a letter to the “Mayak” regional newspaper about discussing a new draft Constitution and proposed creating a dialogue platform. It is known that in the search warrant it was written: “he spoke unpleasantly against the All-Belarusian National Assembly.” The man was taken into custody and is being held as a suspect under the article on “inciting hatred.”

On March 22, 2022, the GUBOPiK reported on mass detentions in Mozyr – a dozen anti-fascists and members of various countercultural musical groups were searched. As part of criminal cases, Kristina Cherenkova (article 130 of the Criminal Code – “inciting social discord” for several posts on Instagram) and Anna Pyshnik (article 361-4 of the Criminal Code – “propaganda of extremist activity,” probably for anarchist stickers) were detained.

On March 30, 2022, the Minsk City Court passed a sentence against the famous Belarusian artist and performer Ales Pushkin. He was tried for placing at an exhibition in Grodno a portrait of an anti-Soviet underground figure Yevgeny Zhikhar and for a performance with state symbols in Kyiv on March 25, 2021. The trial was held behind closed doors, so more detailed information is not available. According to the court schedule, he was accused of desecration of state symbols (article 370 of the Criminal Code) and of inciting racial, national, religious or other social hatred or discord (part 3 of article 130 of the Criminal Code). At the same time, state media write that he was convicted for the “rehabilitation of Nazism” under article 130-1 of the Criminal Code.

Article 130-1 of the Criminal Code “Rehabilitation of Nazism”

After the adoption of an amendment to the Criminal Code in May 2021, the offense of “rehabilitation of Nazism” was separated from the article for inciting hatred (article 130 of the Criminal Code) and formed a separate article. The first known practice of applying this to us dates back to January 5, 2022 – employees of the GUBOPiK lured from the territory of the Russian Federation and detained a resident of Vitebsk, who was accused of “praising the ideas of Nazism” and “glorifying collaborators who destroyed the Belarusian population during the years of fascist occupation” using the Internet . It is reported that since 2018 the man kept neo-Nazi materials on his page on the VKontakte social network, and during the search Nazi symbols and attributes were found on the man. It is worth adding that earlier in August 2021, the man’s page was included in the Republican List of Extremist Materials.

In March 2022, the GUBOPiK announced the arrest of a 15-year-old teenager who was allegedly found to have fascist symbols on his phone. According to law enforcement, “the young man was also found to be creating Telegram channels promoting white supremacy and leading a group of fascists made up of his classmates.” It is not known what measures were taken against the child.

On March 15, 2022, the GUBOPiK also published information about the detention under article 130-1 of the Criminal Code of a “fan of the football team “Molodechno,” a participant in the mass riots in August 2020.” GUBOPiK representatives report that “he kept weapons, cartridges, attributes and symbols associated with fascism at home, and wrote angry posts on the Internet and filmed videos for social networks aimed at inciting enmity and discord, praising Nazism.” On March 25, 2022, information appeared about the detention of another person under the article for “rehabilitation of Nazism” – according to the GUBOPiK, the detainee “spread Nazi ideas on the Internet.” In addition, he is charged with article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (“Creation of an extremist formation or participation in it”), probably for subscribing to the Peramoga Plan Telegram channel.

Article 289 of the Criminal Code “Act of terrorism”

The Ministry of Internal Affairs continues to state that in Belarus “the threat of extremism and terrorism remains, including from self-radicalized citizens.” The Security Council of the Republic of Belarus notes a large number of successful disclosures of “terrorist cases,” although in the examples given by the security forces (for example, the case of the “Autukhovich group”), the defendants have not yet been convicted, and not everyone is accused of an “act of terrorism”: political prisoner Olga Mayorova was cleared of terrorist charges in February 2022, but she continues to be charged under five other articles (incitement of hatred, causing harm to national security, participation in a criminal organization, illegal actions with weapons). Vladimir Gundar was also cleared of terrorism charge, but he was charged under articles on the creation of a criminal organization (article 285 of the Criminal Code) and an attempt to seize power by unconstitutional means (article 357 of the Criminal Code). It is worth noting that Vladimir Gundar disappeared from the List of persons involved in terrorist activities, unlike Olga Mayorova, since, despite the withdrawal of charges of terrorism, the charges under the remaining articles against her present enough grounds for inclusion in the list. At the same time, many defendants with similar articles were not included in this list, which indicates the selective nature of law enforcement practice.

On January 11, 2022, a man was detained on charges of organizing an explosion of a police car (without people inside) near the building of the Central Police Department of Minsk. He is also accused of setting fire to the Tabakerka store (under article 289 of the Criminal Code). The man is also suspected under the article on damage to property in a generally dangerous way – article 218 of the Criminal Code).

On January 20, 2022, the Court of the Polotsk region and the city of Polotsk sentenced a resident of Novopolotsk to 11 years in a high security colony under Part 1 of article 289 of the Criminal Code because he scattered “hedgehogs” and metal spikes on the path of the pro-government rally “For a United Belarus,” as a result of which 4 cars punctured tires (the total amount of damage caused was 63 rubles and 51 kopecks) . The man was also found guilty of attempted damage to railway tracks (part 1 of article 14 and part 1 of article 309 of the Criminal Code) because he tried to damage the signaling system on the railway tracks with a wire.

In February 2022, as part of a raid on political prisoners undergoing a temporary measure of restraint of liberty (“chemistry” is a colloquial local term for such measure) Snanislav Pavlinkovich was detained under article 289 of the Criminal Code. 

On March 10, 2022, information appeared about the detention of two residents of Mozyr “for preparing for terrorist attacks”: according to the investigation, the men planned to destroy the military equipment of the Russian Federation as it moved through the territory of the Mozyr region, and for this purpose they prepared 10 Molotov cocktails.

On March 11, 2022, it became known that a criminal case had been opened against a resident of Borisov for the fact that, according to the investigation, the man had burned two BelToll toll collection systems on the roads. In addition to the “act of terrorism,” he is also charged under part 1 of article 295-3 (illegal manufacture and storage of items whose destructive effect is based on the use of combustible substances) and part 2 of article 295 (illegal acquisition, storage, transportation and carrying of ammunition).

It became known for what reason the former special-purpose militia detachment officer was detained in October 2021 as part of a terrorism case – the man is charged with participating in the arson of the house of deputy Gaidukevich using a cylinder with a combustible mixture. In September 2021, an entire family from Borisov was detained in the same case, but under article 359 (“Act of terrorism against a statesman or public figure”).

Article 361 of the Criminal Code “Calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus”

This article is employed to introduce accountability for a variety of forms of expressing one’s opinion (videos, leaflets, comments on the Internet). When considering cases under this article, the courts do not attempt to analyze the likelihood of the practical implementation of a particular call, as well as the extent of its radical nature. It seems almost impossible to distinguish the scope of application of this article from the scope of application of the article “for incitement to hostility” (article 130 of the Criminal Code).

On January 14, 2022, the Minsk City Court sentenced two Minsk residents to 4 years of imprisonment in a standard regime colony for spreading leaflets and newspapers containing “articles inciting to commit actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus,” as well as for participating in Sunday marches. The trial was not publicly accessible, including due to “the criminal case involving materials inciting to extremist activity.” One of the defendants was the director of a printing company printing newspapers of an oppositional nature, whose content, according to investigators, contributed to the spread of “extremist ideology” and “weakening of the sense of patriotism in society.” These newspapers were distributed throughout the country with the help of couriers.

The second male defendant was an admin of the local Telegram channel “Atolino,” in whose car thousands of copies of the underground printed media were found.

The application of this article also had to deal with repressions against journalists – on January 14, 2022, the house of journalist Boris Vyrvich was searched pursuant to the provisions of four articles of the Criminal Code at once, one of which is ” Calls for actions aimed at harming the national security.”

It became known that a local resident was arrested by GUBOPiK employees in the Vitebsk region. The arrest was grounded on the comments left in opposition Telegram chats, some of which, according to law enforcement officers, contain calls for the seizure of administrative buildings and, consequently, approve the actions of protesters in Kazakhstan.

On March 4, 2022, the Prosecutor General’s Office commenced another criminal case against Svetlana Tikhanovskaya pursuant to part 3 of article 361 of the Criminal Code. The ground was one of the videos placed on her official resources, which, according to the prosecutor’s office, contained public calls to commit an act of terrorism, sabotage and treason to the state. Earlier, the ex-president and the leader of the Belarusian opposition had already been accused under Article 361, as well as article 292 of the Criminal Code (preparing to seize buildings and structures), article 293 of the Criminal Code (“mass riots”) , article 289 of the Criminal Code ( “act of terrorism” ), article 357 of the Criminal Code  ( “conspiracy to seize power” ) and article 361-1 of the Criminal Code ( “the creation of an extremist formation”).

In March 2022, a man, engaged in the “Peramoga” Plan opposition initiative and participating in protest actions in September 2020, was reported to be arrested under the mentioned article. It is worth noting that such actions usually serve as grounds for the application of other articles, including article 361-1 of the Criminal Code.

Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code “Creation of an extremist formation or participation in it”

Repressions of the civil society under this article proceed within two major realms: persecution of admins of opposition initiatives in Telegram and persecution of people engaged in the “Peramoga” Plan initiative, recognized as an extremist formation.

This way, GUBOPiK employees claim that they got access to the merged database of people engaged in the “Peramogа” Plan initiative and began to carry out searches of these people under part 3 of article 361-1 of the Criminal Code. So called “penitential videos” relating to 11 essentially identical detentions were posted on pro-government media resources. For example, on March 4, 2022 and March 17, 2022, a resident of Svetlogorsk and a resident of Grodno were detained due to participation in such initiative.

On January 10, 2022, it became known that three anarchists Evgeny Rubashko, Alexander Belov and Artem Solovyov, as well as another Artem Solovyov, were charged with “participation in the extremist formation “Pramen.”In summer of 2021 they were detained for gross violation of public order (article 342 of the Criminal Code). Court trial relating to their case commenced on March 29, 2022, but the case was heard behind the closed doors at the request of the prosecutor. One of the grounds was that “the case materials contained information recognized as extremist.”

Besides, the case of ten anarchists, members of the organizations “Revolutionary Action,” “People’s Self-Defense” and “Revolutionary Action” (“Revolutsiina Dia”) (all of them recognized as extremist formations), was handed over to the prosecutor for referral to a court hearing. These persons are charged under 10 articles at once, including articles on the creation and participation in a criminal organization (article 285 of the Criminal Code) and the creation of an extremist formation (article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).

It became known that the philosopher Vladimir Matskevich, who in February declared a hunger strike due to the fact that no investigative actions with regard to his case were carried out, was charged under article 361-1 of the Criminal Code: one of the pro-government media published a photo of a statement on ending the hunger strike signed with Matskevich’s name, at the top of which the articles he was charged with were indicated – gross violation of public order (article 342 of the Criminal Code) and the creation of an extremist formation (article 361-1 of the Criminal Code), although previously it was reported only about the accusation under the first medntioned article. Presumably, this ground may deal with the “Gathering” (“Skhod”) platform, recognized as an extremist formation. On March 23, 2022, sociologist Tatiana Vodolazhskaya was also detained in relation to this case. She had previously been held as a suspect in this case and was held under her own recognizance not to leave the country.

On March 6, 2022, it was reported that GUBOPiK employees in Mogilev region, with the support of riot police officers, detained a resident of Osipovichi, who was suspected of preparing for sabotage operation on the railway. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the man allegedly collaborated with the organization “BYPOL” and was registered in the chatbot of this organization, from which he then received instructions to block the railway tracks. A criminal prosecution with relation to the male suspect was commenced on the ground of “participating in an extremist formation with the aim of committing extremist crimes.”

It was also reported about the searches conducted on the basis of this article: on February 15, 2022, the security forces searched the house of mother of Marina Kosinerova, the founder of the media resource dissident.by, collecting information about political prisoners. Marina is officially registered in her mother’s apartment, despite the fact that since 2020 she has been working abroad.

Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code “Financing extremist activity”

This article continues to be applied as part of law enforcement bodies’ attempt to combat various opposition financial initiatives and funds committed to assisting those affected by repression.

On January 6, 2022, the Prosecutor’s Office of the Grodno region referred a criminal case to a court hearing . The case concerned a local resident indicted on nine articles of the Criminal Code at once: starting from “inciting hostility” and “insults,” ending with “illegal actions in relation to weapons” and “creating conditions for organizing mass riots.” The man was also suspected an alleged transfer of 0.28 and 0.004 bitcoins to the administrators of Telegram channels to “finance extremist activities” under article 361-2.

On February 23, 2022, the State Control Committee (hereinafter referred to as the KGK) initiated a criminal case against the creators and leaders of the BYSOL and BY_Help initiatives, Andrei Strizhak and Alexei Leonchik, as well as “other persons who participated in their financing.” Authorities claim that the funds the organizations receive are used to support “extremist activities.” It is important to note that an identical criminal case against Andrey and Alexey under this article was already initiated on April 12, 2021 based on the fact of financing “strike committees of enterprises, destructive yard communities, so-called medical, sports and cultural solidarity funds.” Based on the official reports, it is impossible to perceive the difference between these two cases. Presumably, the latter criminal case may deal with the message of the KGC press service about discovering a certain vehicle for financing extremist activities with the use of cryptocurrency, in which the BY_Help foundation acted as on of the contributors.

Nevertheless, the precedents in the application of this article to counter the financing of protest activity are quite controversial. For example, activist Yulia Goryachko was assisting convicts of “extremism-related” cases in paying fines and covering legal services expenses and was on these grounds charged not with financing extremism, but with gross violation of public order (article 342 of the Criminal Code). According to the Prosecutor General’s Office, by making donations, Yulia “contributed to the formation of these individuals’ activity and desire to subsequently participate in illegal group actions that grossly violate public order, provoking a sense of impunity and permissiveness in them, undermining the principles of the inevitability of punishment and personal culpable responsibility.”

Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code “Promotion of extremist activity”

On January 28, 2022, the Novogrudok District Court sentenced a local resident to a 3-year imprisonment in a standard regime colony for leaving a comment “OK, it’s time to take up weapons. LIVE BELARUS! (“ZHYVE BELARUS!”) under a video in a local opposition chat displaying an unknown man using a weapon and shouting various slogans. According to the prosecutor, such a comment “encouraged other citizens to violent illegal actions, including the use of weapons”

Cases concerning administrative offenses

During the period January-March 2022, one case under article 19.10. of the Code of Administrative Offenses (hereinafter – the Administrative Code) (“Propaganda or public demonstration, production, distribution of Nazi symbols or paraphernalia”) was reported – in Polotsk, employees of the Vitebsk GUBOPiK department arrested a local resident for distributing Nazi symbols via social networks and messengers.

At the same time, the number of precedents of applying article 19.11 of the Administrative Code (“Distribution, manufacture, storage, transportation of information products containing calls for extremist activities or propagandizing such activities”) has increased – 55 cases were publicly mentioned (40 court hearings over the past period). The absolute majority of persecutions under this article are grounded on spreading “extremist materials” in the personal correspondence via Telegram messenger. It was reported about the cases relating to the distribution of posts published by NEXTA, MotolkoPomogi, “My country Belarus” (“ Maja Kraiina Belarus”), Belarus of the Brain (“Belarus golovnogo mozga”) and many others.

This article continues to be applied as a ground for persecution for actions in social networks. This wat, a resident of the Cherikovsky district was subject to a fine of 320 rubles and a confiscation of a phone and SIM card which served as means of committing an offense in a form of a repost in Odnoklassniki social network, and a resident of Bobruisk was sentenced to 15 days of arrest for leaving “Like!” (“Klass!”) mark under one of the publications. The punishment may also be grounded on the publication of prohibited materials in Instagram stories – a resident of Minsk was detained for 14 days for making a post on Liberty Radio (“Radio Svoboda”). It was reported about cases when, for some reason, the security forces interpreted the action of leaving comments on “extremist” resources as the dissemination of extremist materials: a resident of Ostrovets was punished with 10 days of detention for leaving comments on the NEXTA page in VKontakte social network, and several “I like” marks to someone else’s comments were considered proof of his guilt.

Court hearings under this article may revolve around materials containing a watermark of a media resource, listed as “extremist materials”: a resident of Bykhov was fined for posting a photo with the NEXTA logo, and a resident of Lida was detained for 15 days for distributing logos of publications “TUT.by,” “Belsat” and “Charter’97.”

The application of this article for the purpose of suppression of independent journalists also remains a concern. For instance, the journalist of “People’s will” (“Narodnaya Volya”) Mikhail Kornevich was fined 800 rubles for making a repost in social networks. A protocol was drawn up against the editor of the Baranovichi newspaper Intex press for storing an electronic version of Adolf Hitler’s book on a computer seized by the KGB during a search in July 2021. According to the journalist, he had been using this computer since 2013 or 2015, but the file with the book dated back to 2007; the man denied the protocol and stated that he was not aware of how the file appeared on his computer. According to this article, the founder of the media resource, Vladimir Yanukevich, was also fined. The owner of “The First Region” (“Pershy Regiyon”) website, Sergei Bagrov, was fined 11,200 rubles.

The practice of holding people accountable for reposts materials made even before they were recognized as extremist continues. In that way, a resident of Bridges was fined 640 rubles for a repost of the Belsat online publication made in 2019, despite the fact that the resource was listed as an extremist material only in July 2021. According to the security forces’ reasoning, people to delete all materials right after listing such as prohibited, regardless of the date of publication, otherwise such actions will be interpreted as a “continuing offense.”

There were reports about three cases of termination of administrative cases launched on the grounds of security forces’ protocols drawn up due to one’s subscription to “extremist” resources. In this connection, the judges of the Lida district, Lepel district and Leninsky district in Brest found that subscribing to extremist channels does not prove the defendants’ guilt in distributing or storing prohibited materials. Nevertheless, it was also reported about 3 cases initiated under this article against people who did not forward or repost any materials, and were held accountable due to subscription to “extremist” channels alone. Political prisoner Romuald Ulan, who is serving an open regime sentence, was detained for 14 days for subscribing to one of the “extremist” channels, and two residents of Smorgon were detained for three days each for subscribing to “NEXTA” and other channels. Thus, it can be noted that the practice of applying this article is inconsistent.

Unlike punishments in the form of fines and detentions of ordinary citizens, such measures do not apply to government officials or employees of state media who resorted to dissemination of materials recognized as extremist. “Extremist materials” could have been increasingly noticed on the websites of the authorities which made citizens apply to law enforcement agencies in order to bring the perpetrators to justice, however, no penalties were enforced under the legislation on administrative offenses. In most cases, responsible persons replied to citizens with no real answers telling that no prohibited materials were detected on the respective websites, and all links to prohibited resources were inactive. Earlier, in October-December 2021, the relevant authorities held “education conversations” with pro-government media related to the prevention of violations of the legislation, but such measures are no longer observed.

“Extremist materials”

In January-March 2022, the courts issued the largest number of decisions on the recognition of materials as “extremist” and their inclusion in the Republican List of Extremist Materials (hereinafter – the list) made available on the website of the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Belarus. 188 of such court decisions were issued (compared to 165 over the past three months). According to our calculations, in just three months 470 materials were recognized as “extremist” (compared to 227 in the last three months). 151 of them are Telegram resources. 5 media resources were mentioned for the first tome (“Vitebsk Courier,” “Regional Newspaper” (“Regiyanalnaya Gazeta”), “6tv.by,” “DW Belarus,” “Radio Racyja”). Other listed materials include many resources on social networks and media resources’ websites whose Telegram accounts were earlier recognized as “extremist materials.”

The resources of independent trade unions (Praca.by.info, “Workers of Rukh”), student initiatives (“Salidarny BDTU,” “Megaphone of BDMU/ Megaphone of BGMU” (“Rupar BGMU/ Rupar BDMU”), “Free BrDTu” (“Volny BrDTU”), “Football and volleyball in BSTU 97%”), factories (“MAZ,” “Naftan OJSC,” “Velazavod”) continued to be listed as extremist. All the public pages of the foundation “BYPOL” of the initiative “Honest People,” the Youtube channel “Vadim Prokopyev,” the accounts of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” were also recognized as “extremist materials.”

Most of the court decisions related to the recognition of local channels and chats of people’s self–organization as “extremist materials.” This time the list includes such cities as: Berezino, Novolukoml, Gantsevichi, Lida, Mogilev, Bobruisk, Kostyukovichi, Glusk, Shklov, districts of Minsk, Mozyr, Gomel (and distric), Ivye, Grodno (and district), Ruzhany, Orsha, Svetlogorsk, Brest (and district), Shumilino, Malorita, Dyatlovo, Birch, Pinsk, Sennitsa, Borisov, Vileika, Soligork, Ostrovets, Lepel, Krupki, Kamenets, Lyakhovichi, Zhabinka, Liozno, Buda-Koshylev, Lelchitsy, Yukhnovka, Gorodishche, Dokshitsy, Braslov, Baranovichi, Dubrovno, Zhitkovichi, Begoml.

Out of all the decisions, the one that lists the Internet community with the “neo-Nazi” name “From the Heart To the Sun” in VKontakte social network stands out.

In total, 786 court decisions on the recognition of 2048 materials as “extremist” were included in the Republican List of extremist materials to date. Most of them are materials of an oppositional nature. The list includes more than 30 independent media and 648 Telegram resources (32%).

“Extremist formations”

At the moment, the List includes 42 formations recognized as “extremist” by the decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the State Security Committee (KGB). In three months, the list has been supplemented with 16 positions. During this period, chats of opposition nature of various scales were included in the List: starting with one of the most popular opposition chats “Motolkopomogi” with more than 120 thousand subscribers and ending with the chat “Two Musketeers and a beauty,” which cannot be accessed via regualr search. The list was replenished with local city chats of Vitebsk, Mogilev, Bobruisk, Osipovichi. According to the decision of the KGB, the chat “Community of Railway Workers of Belarus” was also recognized as an extremist formation, which is probably due to the active response of the security forces to the activity of “rail partisans.”

The list also encompassed another independent media “Nasha Niva,” which became the 5th media resource listed, the independent blogs “The Third Region Belarus” (“Treci Regien Belarus”) and “Real Belarus” (“Realnaja Belarus”), as well as the initiative devoted to identifying electoral fraud “Honest People.” The “Belaruski Gayun” channel , whose purpose is to monitor military activity on the territory of Belarus, was also included in the list.

It is worth to expressly indicate the Telegram chat “Volleyball on weekends,” recognized as an extremist formation. Many political prisoners, serving sentences in the form of open regime imprisonment, were subject to searches as suspected of participating in this chat. Reportedly, the chat was created to discuss the court sessions on one of the criminal cases, and the state of affairs of those sentenced to an open regime imprisonment.

In this connection, we must recall that the creation of, leadership in or participation in an “extremist formation” entail criminal liability in a form of imprisonment of up to 6 years under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code.

People involved in “extremist activities”

The list of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, foreign citizens or stateless persons involved in extremist activities was first published on March 23, 2022, although the provisions instructing on how it shall be drawn up, were introduced into the Law “On Countering Extremism” in May 2021, and the specific process of managing the list was fixed in the Resolution of the Council of Ministers No. 575, adopted by in October 2021.  The inclusion in the list of individuals may be grounded exclusively on a court decision related to the commission of actions that are “extremist activity” that has entered into force. At the same time, the legislation does not provide for an exhaustive list of such activities that would correspond to the criminally liable acts under the Criminal Code provisions.

As of the end of March 2022, the list include 140 persons, , including popular oppositionist Pavel Severinets, members of the Coordinating Council Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, administrators of opposition channels Artem Boyarsky and Vladislav Martinovich, bloggers Sergey Petrukhin and Alexander Kabanov, anarchist Nikolai Dedok, as well as people who participated in protest actions or left critical comments on the Internet. Most of them were recognized as political prisoners and are serving sentences under “extremist” articles. It is obvious that there are many more persons convicted under “extremist” articles and this list will be regularly updated.

Most of those listed were convicted under article 369 of the Criminal Code “Insulting a representative of the authorities” (58 people). Also, the list includes those convicted under the complete range of defamatory articles: article 367 of the Criminal Code (“Slander of the President of the Republic of Belarus”), article 368 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting the President”), article 391 of the Criminal Code (“Insulting a judge”). The list includes those convicted under articles 293 of the Criminal Code “Mass Riots” (36 people) and 342 of the Criminal Code “Actions grossly violating public order” (20 people), as well as several people convicted under articles establishing liability for “an act of terrorism,” “conspiracy,” “creation of an extremist formation.” Besides, the list includes those convicted under articles 130 of the Criminal Code (“incitement to hostility”) and 361 of the Criminal Code (“calls to harm national security”).

The list includes people convicted under article 203-1 of the Criminal Code (“Illegal actions with respect to information about private life and personal data”), article 341 of the Criminal Code (“Desecration of buildings and damage to property”), and 370 (“Abuse of state symbols”) which are not classified as “extremist activity” by the Law “On Countering Extremism.”

According to article 18 of the Law “On Countering Extremism,” people included in the list are prohibited from engaging in activities related to trafficking in narcotic and psychotropic substances, weapons and ammunition, explosives, pedagogical and publishing activities, as well as holding public office, military service for five years after the expiry or cancellationl of a criminal record. Also, the financial transactions of these people are subject to special control. For foreigners, inclusion in the list may serve as a ground for refusal to issue a visa or allow entry into the Republic of Belarus. 

Those involved in “terrorist activities”

Over the period concerned, three persons were included in the list of organizations and individuals involved in terrorist activities. One of them is a Belarusian resident Egor Mikhailov. His inclusion in the list was grounded on a legally effective court decision on finding him guilty of a crime under article 289 of the Criminal Code (“The act of terrorism”). Egor was sentenced to 10 years in a reinforced security regime colony back on July 26, 2021 in connection with the case of arson of a T-72 tank at a railway station in Slepyanka with the use Molotov cocktail. The other two people are foreigners and are included in the list on the basis of a UN Security Council Resolution (one of them is a high–ranking member of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the other is a Somali citizen who is a spokesman for the terrorist group Al-Shabab). 

On March 24, 2022, in pro-government sources it was reported that the Prosecutor General of the Republic of Belarus, Andrei Shved, lodged an application to the Supreme Court to recognize NEXTA and its structural units NEXTA Live and LUXTA as terrorist organizations. The application was grounded on the law “On Combating Terrorism” and was lodged at the initiative of the chairman of the KGB. The Prosecutor General’s Office stated that the channel “educated on how to manufacture the explosives and explosive devices, weapons, as well as resist the security forces,” and sometimes resorted to materials of the “Oppostion” (“Supraciu”) organization, recognized as a terrorist. Also, according to the prosecutor’s office, “detailed planning and cheduling of terrorist and other extremist actions” were organized in closed NEXTA chats.

Besides, during this period, we became aware of the fact of restriction of the possibility of money transfers to persons on this list, despite the fact that financial restrictions are not directly established in the relevant Resolution of the Council of Ministers, regulating the process of managing the List, and in the Law “On Combating Terrorism.” This way, on February 17, 2022, a human rights activist Nasta Loika attempted to organize an electronic money transfer to a friend in jail who was included in the List, but due to the fact that the recipient of the money was on the List, Nasta’s data was referred for additional verification in connection with an alleged acy “financing terrorist activities,” and the transfer was refused.

Liquidation of organizations

On March 18, 2022, the environmental organization “Ahova ptushak Batskayshchyny” was liquidated by the decision of the Supreme Court. The application filed by the Ministry of Justice in February 2022, stated several grounds for the liquidation at once: “the organization expressed the idea of maintaining protest activity among people, using the expression “Ptushki to the people,” posted photos of a destructive nature and calls for actions that grossly violate public order in its social networks, and employees of the organization were brought to administrative responsibility under article 24.23 of the Administrative Code.”

According to the human rights organization Center for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend), 382 Belarusian non-profit organizations were liquidated or are in the process of liquidation since July 2021.

Blocking Internet resources on the ground of “extremism”

The Ministry of Information proceeded to block the websites of independent media and human rights organizations. Unlike listing materials as extremist, the measure of direct blocking of resources takes effect on a non–judicial ground – by the decision of the Ministry of Information. Once the decision is taken, the resource is included into the List of restricted access of the State Telecommunication Inspectorate of the Ministry of Communications and Informatization (BelGIE), which is not publicly accessible – one may get acquainted with it only when trying to visit the website using a Belarusian IP.

The period January-March 2022 was marked by blocking not only Belarusian media, but Ukrainian and Russian ones as well. On December 31, 2021, on the basis of the decree of the prosecutor of the Brest region, the website of the independent “The First Region” (“Pershy Regien”) media resource was blocked. According to the prosecutor’s office, blocking was caused by “radical messages inciting hostility and discord on political and ideological grounds,” as well as “information that clearly discredited the activities of state and law enforcement agencies.” On February 7, 2022, it was reported about the blocking of the “Slonimskaya Newspaper” for posting “information the dissemination of which is prohibited.” Presumably the case concerned the “extremist materials,” since in June 2021 the media resource had already been fined for their distribution.

On February 9, 2022, the Russian media resource TJournal was blocked for posting information recognized as “extremist materials.” The Ministry of Information stated that access may be restored at the request of the founder after the removal of prohibited information.

Civil society and human rights organizations’ media resources continue to be affected by blocking measures. On January 13, 2022, by virtue of the decision of the prosecutor of the city of Minsk, the website of the human rights organization “Human Constanta” was blocked. The ground for the blocking was indicated as “unreliable information aimed at spreading destructive sentiments in the society, undermining the authority of the current government and security forces” and “radical messages that incite hostility and discord.”

To our knowledge, several websites were blocked in Belarus in connection with the referendum held on February 27, 2022. The Prosecutor General’s Office described the underlying grounds for blocking websites as “false information” about the planned constitutional referendum and “calls for spoiling ballots during voting,” which, based on the rhetoric of law enforcement agencies, also refers to the manifestation of “extremism.”

Warnings, registration for “extremism” and other trends

Law enforcement officers continue to resort to various kinds of “warnings” in accordance with the legislation on countering extremism as a tool to exert pressure on civil society. For example, the eco-activist Leonid Platonenko, after being interrogated with regard to a criminal case concerning “insulting someone on the Internet,” was instructed to sign a document stating that he commits “not to participate in extremist activities and actions that violate public order.”

It became known that in Mogilev, in the run-up to the referendum, some housing and utilities agencies began to hold preventive conversations with citizens to warn them “about the inadmissibility of participation in extremist formations.”

The practice of registering political prisoners “as prone to extremist activities and other destructive activities” proceeded, which further affects the conditions of detention of such people and causes discriminatory attitude on the part of the administration of places of detention. According to the human rights center “Viasna,” over the period concerned, political prisoner activist Pavel Vinogradov, who is being held in Zhodino prison, was subjected to the mentioned registration.

“Extremism” is increasingly becoming the basis for restricting public access to court hearings – for example, the trial of anarchists in Minsk on March 29, 2022 was held behind the closed doors, when the prosecutor filed such a petition and argued, among other things, that “the case materials contain information recognized as extremist.”

 Illustrations: @krsvk_mlvn

Enter the correct e-mail address
You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter