The overview reflects the main trends in the use of the markers “extremism” and “terrorism” in Belarus from January to March 2023. We examine the publications of state media, pro-government Telegram channels, independent media and human rights organizations.
This review does not cover the analysis of the practice of using separately “protest” (“mass riots,” “actions that grossly violate public order”) and most “defamation” (crimes related to “insult” and “slander” against regime representatives) articles of the Criminal Code, which are also part of the “anti-extremist” legislation.
When we publish statistics on cases under a particular article, we mention the total number of sentences (even if several people were convicted under one sentence) and the number of new prosecutions (arrests and new charges). Due to the fact that many people are charged under several articles of the Criminal Code at once, the authors of the review attempted to determine which article is the “main” one in the accusation and on this basis to assign the case to one or another section of the review. For example, pro-government sources spoke of the detention of a “freshman Nazi,” who “adheres to right-wing radical, neo-Nazi views,” but the charge was brought simultaneously for “inciting enmity” and “rehabilitation of Nazism.” Based on the contents of the report, it is obvious that the main reason for the prosecution of this person was “rehabilitation of Nazism,” and therefore we include this case in the statistics, and it appears as one case only under Article 130-1 of the Criminal Code.
Note that the statistics is based almost entirely on reports from open sources. The practice of applying “extremist” legislation is broader than the cases documented in the report. Repressions under the label “combating extremism” are ubiquitous in Belarus – state agencies do not publicly report on the majority of cases, and human rights activists become aware of many cases of persecution only after a person has been put on an “extremist” or “terrorist” list. In addition, the de facto authorities’ interpretation of the “anti-extremist” legislation is so arbitrary that it is often difficult to understand whether or not the authorities consider a particular crime to be a manifestation of “extremism.”
During the analyzed period, amendments to the Criminal Code entered into force, enshrining the possibility of the death penalty for officials and the military for “high treason” and introducing new corpus delicti – “propaganda of terrorism” and “discrediting the armed forces.” The period was also marked by the creation of a special commission to consider appeals of citizens wishing to return to Belarus, but fearing prosecution for committing “political” crimes and offenses in the past.
Despite a comparative decrease in the activity of the pro-government agenda due to the blocking of large Telegram channels close to the security services, as well as less public activity of law enforcement agencies in general, we recorded an increase in the number of prosecutions on “extremist” grounds. Over the past three months we are aware of at least 201 new criminal cases, 58 sentences and 123 administrative offenses on “extremist” grounds, not including cases involving “protests” and “insults” (in the previous period – 129 new cases, 89 sentences and 127 administrative offenses). During the analyzed period, the maximum recorded punishment for “extremism” was 22 years of imprisonment.
Until the end of February 2023, the number of “extremist cases” tended to decrease, but after the incident with airplane bombing in Machulishchy on February 26 and on the eve of the Freedom Day on March 25 the activity of law-enforcement bodies increased dramatically. Law-enforcers organized daily “raids” in regional cities, which were accompanied by mass arbitrary detentions and phone searches of dozens of people previously noticed as disloyal to the regime. All detentions for “political” offenses are conducted by special units in full armor and with the use of force. The law enforcers increased their attention to people with tattoos bearing the “Black Sun” emblem, previously recognized as Nazi symbols. For the first time in the history of observation, criminal convictions were handed down for displaying “Nazi” tattoos.
The practice of detaining acquaintances and relatives of volunteers fighting on the side of Ukraine has expanded. The practice of criminal prosecution of people who succumbed to the provocations of pro-government activists and security officials has expanded: dozens of people were detained for registering in fake Telegram bots of opposition initiatives controlled by security officials, as well as for criticizing the Belarusian regime and the Russian army during chat-roulette conversations with provocateurs who presented themselves as citizens of Ukraine.
Courts issued a number of harsh sentences against independent journalists – dissemination of any information about the socio-political situation that contradicts the official position of the authorities was interpreted by courts as “incitement of enmity.” For the first time, the professional activities of a lawyer in providing services to opponents of the current regime were equated with “harm to national security.” We continue to register cases of retroactive effect of “anti-extremism” legislation in practice – the number of prosecution of administrators of opposition channels and people who donated to solidarity funds, long before such channels and funds were recognized as “extremist,” has increased. Also, for the first time an informal practice of stopping criminal prosecution for donations was recorded in case a person sends the amount of donation tenfold to the accounts of state institutions and foundations. It is known about the detention of 20 people in the case of the incident in Machulishchi for “attempted terrorist acts” – for the first time in the history of observation, detainees for “attempted acts of terrorism” can face the death penalty.
Courts began to recognize as “extremist materials” opposition articles in print media published many years ago and individual messages in Telegram channels. The number of decisions to recognize as “extremist” books, including those critical of the Soviet regime, as well as personal pages in social networks of users who published information critical of the state policy increased many times. The list of “extremist formations” was supplemented by another human rights organization, as well as other independent media and opposition structures.
1. Legislative changes
The chairman of the House of Representatives Vladimir Andreychenko announced that “in Belarus there is a reliable barrier for terrorists and extremists of various kinds,” and “this year it is necessary to redouble efforts in order to fully update the legal framework within the framework of constitutional reforms and organize the electoral campaign by the beginning of 2024.” It is likely that in the near future we should expect the adoption of even more repressive regulations, which will be used to repress civil society before the presidential elections in 2024.
On March 24, 2023, the law “On Amending the Codes on Criminal Responsibility” came into force, introducing new “extremist” crimes into the Criminal Code and expanding the grounds for the application of the death penalty. The law introduces the possibility of punishment in the form of life imprisonment or death penalty for “high treason” (Article 356 of the Criminal Code) committed by an official holding a public office or a person who has the status of a serviceman. Obviously, this measure is intended to intimidate employees of the public sector and to counteract any form of disloyalty, including cooperation with democratic initiatives.
The law also introduces a new article 289-1 into the Criminal Code, which provides liability for “propaganda of terrorism or its public justification.” The law clarifies that “propaganda of terrorism” should be understood as “dissemination in any form of materials or information in order to form commitment to terrorist ideology or recognition of terrorist activity as acceptable by an individual and indefinite circle of people.” The maximum penalty under this article is 7 years in prison. We assume that this article will become the main one for prosecuting people who comment in a positive manner on sabotage against the regime, call for forceful methods of resistance to the authorities, and disseminate information on cases and methods of such resistance.
Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code (“discrediting the Republic of Belarus”) was amended with an addition that establishes liability for disseminating knowingly false information discrediting the Armed Forces of the Republic of Belarus, other troops and military formations, and paramilitary organizations of the Republic of Belarus. According to the lawyer, the wording of the article is extremely vague and allows the security services to punish people not only for criticizing the Belarusian army directly, but also for negative references to any structures that act as allies of the current regime (for example, to the “Union Group of Forces,” which includes Russian servicemen). Similarly to the Russian experience, this article can become the basis for “war censorship” in the case of participation of Belarusian troops in an armed conflict, as well as be used to suppress criticism of actions of the Russian army in Ukraine.
According to the new amendments, a person can be exempted from criminal responsibility for preparation of sabotage (Article 360 of the Criminal Code) or attack on the institutions enjoying international protection (Article 125 of the Criminal Code) in case of timely refusal to commit a crime and assistance in its prevention. Also, the law increases tenfold the maximum amount of fines that can be imposed as an additional punishment for a number of “terrorist” and “extremist” articles of the Criminal Code – now the amount of the fine can be set in the range from 500 to 50.000 basic units (about $732.000). In particular, such a fine could be imposed for “mass riots,” “high treason,” “conspiracy,” “calls for sanctions,” “establishment of an extremist formation,” “financing of extremism” and other “political” crimes. The lawyers point out that the fine does not replace the punishment under these articles (restriction or deprivation of liberty) and is an additional measure, which allows to recover money and property from the convicted person in an expedited manner without lengthy calculations of “damage.”
On January 5, 2023, Alexander Lukashenko signed a law amending the Law “On Citizenship,” which will allow deprivation of citizenship of Belarusians, even if they acquired it at birth. Grounds for deprivation of citizenship are a sentence for involvement in “extremist activities” or causing “serious harm to the interests of the Republic of Belarus,” as well as the fact that such a person is abroad. The law will come into force in July 2023. Read more about this bill in our previous review. Pro-government sources state that these norms “will sober up those citizens who may not yet be on the path of treason, but somewhere, without understanding, support one or another destructive activity.”
On February 6, 2023, Alexander Lukashenko signed a decree № 25 “On consideration of complaints from citizens of the Republic of Belarus, located abroad, regarding the commission of offenses.” The decree creates a special commission, to which citizens of Belarus “who have committed administrative offenses or protest crimes since January 1, 2020, and who are afraid to return to the country because of their possible involvement in such offenses or crimes” may apply. This wording is contradictory: its first part states that people “who have committed” unlawful acts can apply to the commission, however, the second part of the sentence speaks only about people “possibly involved in committing them.”
According to the decree, a person who has applied to the commission, must notify it of his readiness to return to Belarus to comply with the Constitution and laws, “to respect the state symbols and traditions,” and “consciously and actively perform his civic duty.” Moreover, such a person would have to express “sincere remorse for what he has done, readiness to publicly apologize” and to compensate for the damage. Also, in the appeal the person must describe the reasons why he believes it is not safe for him to return to Belarus.
After an appeal has been sent, the commission has the right to request information about the applicant from various government agencies, after which it makes one of the following decisions by majority vote:
● inform the applicant that no criminal case or administrative proceeding has been initiated against him or her as of the date of the petition;
● on the advisability of canceling the preventive measure chosen for him or changing it to a milder one;
● on the appropriateness of terminating criminal or administrative proceedings against the applicant;
● notify the applicant of his or her procedural status in a criminal or administrative case.
The lawyers point out that the decree does not provide for informing a person about the existence of materials of operational and investigative activities against him, which can be used to convict a person upon his arrival in Belarus. Also, the decree does not stipulate that the Commission’s decision is binding on the prosecution authorities, while any procedural decisions in respect of the people arriving is possible only with the consent of the Prosecutor General, indicating that the final decision about the fate of the person is not up to the Commission, but directly to the security forces. Moreover, law enforcement officials can use facts from people’s appeals to gather information on unsolved cases and use them for reprisals against such a person post factum.
The commission consists entirely of security officers, officials, propagandists, and representatives of pro-government public structures. Thus, the commission includes Chairman of the Investigative Committee Dmitry Gora, Head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) Ivan Kubrakov, Chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB) Ivan Tertel, Senator Dmitry Baskov (who is suspected of murdering protester Raman Bondarenko), and odious propagandists Grigory Azernok, Andrei Mukovozchik, Marat Markov and Vadim Gigin.
Alexander Lukashenko noted that the authorities are ready to meet people, but only those who, upon their return from abroad, “will be “ябатьками” (note: supporters of the authorities) even more than those who surround us today.” Prosecutor General Andrei Shved said that the “extremist-minded people” will be treated differently – “there was no mercy for them and there won’t be any.” Also, the prosecutor’s office noted that one shouldn’t expect “leniency” in case of committing crimes against “the constitutional order, against the interests of national security and the interests of the Republic of Belarus.” At the same time, if a “less serious” crime is committed, the commission may consider the replacement of the criminal penalty to another measure of responsibility.
On March 9, 2023, the Prosecutor General’s Office created a working group to prepare a draft law to determine the procedure for criminal proceedings against deceased persons involved in crimes against peace and security of humanity (“Nazi criminals”) on the territory of Belarus during World War II. According to an official of the prosecutor’s office, this measure will allow to start criminal proceedings against those involved in “genocide of the Belarusian people” and hold accountable people who, due to the policies of individual countries, have not been brought to justice. The Prosecutor General stated that there is information about 400 alive “SS members,” most of whom are Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians.
During the period under analysis, Alexander Lukashenko, together with representatives of the Security Council, discussed updating the National Security Concept. It is noted that it will be a response to “aggressive nationalism, extremism and neo-fascism,” among other things, and the authorities call “traitors and saboteurs who by their actions or inaction directly harm military security” as well as “terrorist organizations that advocate unleashing civil war on the territory of Belarus” the main sources of threats. At the same time, the Security Council approved the draft law “On the people’s militia” concerning the brigades created locally, whose members will be given weapons under the guidance of the MIA to “ensure security.”
2. “Extremism” and war in Ukraine
2.1. Criminal cases involving Belarusian units fighting on the side of the Armed Forces of Ukraine
The analyzed period was marked by the continuation of repressions against people accused of having ties to the Kalinovsky Regiment, which is a part of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), which is often referred to in pro-government sources as “terrorist,” despite the absence of formal recognition of it as such. Pressure on the Regiment continues in various formats: initiation of criminal cases against relatives of the unit’s fighters, harassment of potential volunteers, and suppression of any material assistance. The unit is also increasingly mentioned in state propaganda and reports of state bodies, which believe that its members may carry out an attack on Belarus.
Reprisals against potential volunteers are carried out under Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code (“participation on the territory of a foreign state in an armed formation or armed conflict, military actions, recruitment or training of persons for such participation”), which provides for a maximum sanction of up to five years in prison. According to the prosecutor’s office, in 2022, courts issued guilty verdicts against seven citizens of Belarus who tried to take part in combat operations in Ukraine as part of the Regiment – in all cases they were punished with imprisonment. In 2023, we record a continuation of this prosecution trend.
Thus, on January 9, 2023, the Homel regional court sentenced a local resident Vladislav Yatsenko to five years in a strict regime penal colony for calling to join the Kalinovsky Regiment and “Azov” battalion in his Instagram account, as well as for transferring 21 euros to the Regiment’s account. On January 30, 2023, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” (HRC “Viasna”) reported on the sentence against a resident of Dokshitsky District, who had filled out a Telegram form to go to Ukraine to fight against the Russian troops – he was sentenced to 4.5 years in prison under a number of “political” articles.
It is also known about continuing detentions. In January, a citizen of Georgia, Georgy Zirakashvili, who was detained in Minsk for attempting to go to fight on the side of the Ukrainian army, was shown on state television – it is unknown whether a criminal case has been opened and whether any sanctions have been taken against him. On February 6, 2023, a resident of Mostovsky district was detained for launching a Regiment chat-bot and expressing his desire to go to Ukraine. On March 18, 2023, KGB officers detained an 18-year-old resident of Babruisk who was suspected of intending to join the Ukrainian territorial defense and of administering three Telegram channels that posted pictures of Ukrainian soldiers from the Azov battalion. On March 20, 2023, the MIA announced the initiation of special criminal proceedings (in absentia) against Pavel Shurmey, a resident of Grodno Region, who has been fighting in the Regiment since March 2022.
On March 14, 2023, officers of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) stated that they were “checking” relatives and acquaintances of people fighting in the Belarusian paramilitary formations on the territory of Ukraine. According to the security forces, such “connections” can form “hidden cells of assistance to criminal activity and recruitment of citizens to participate in hostilities.” Employees of the GUBOPiK conduct up to 20 searches a day in the homes of people suspected of “aiding and abetting extremist organizations and criminal groups.” Another criminal case, this time under Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code, was initiated against the mother of the dead fighter whose call sign was “Volat.” Also, law enforcement officers conducted a search in the house of the father of the volunteer, who fights on the side of Ukraine – in the video filmed by law enforcement officers, the man says that he agrees with the position of his son and would go to fight in Ukraine himself if possible. On March 21, 2023, pro-government sources published a video with the father of the Regiment member Denis Urbanovich, in which he asks his son to “capitulate” and “return home to serve his ten-year sentence.” Urbanovich himself stated that his father was actually being held hostage by the security forces and that the security forces repeatedly came to search not only his father but also his classmates, friends and cousins in order to find out whether they had any connection with the Regiment fighter. On March 31, 2023, law enforcement officers detained a “sleeping cell of extremists” in a garage cooperative – 4 people were accused of having “foreign relations” with the Belarusian volunteers in Ukraine. On the same day a 29-year-old man was detained in Minsk – the security forces said he would serve a 15-day arrest while they searched for his connections to the security services of Ukraine and Poland.
Persecution under Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code (“financing of extremist activity”) continues against people who donated to the Regiment and provided other material assistance. Thus, on January 12, 2023, officers of the Special Purpose Police Unit (OMON) detained a resident of Gomel Yury Tashkinov, who, according to law enforcement officers, provided material assistance to “private terrorist organizations involved in military operations in Ukraine” – the way the law enforcement officers interpreted the assistance to Ukraine as donations through the “BYSOL” fund. In his social networks, the man spoke out against Russian aggression in Ukraine and posted reports on humanitarian aid.
2.2. Cases of “acts of terrorism” for sabotage of infrastructure
Courts continued to hand down extremely harsh sentences against “rail guerrillas,” people accused of damaging railroad tracks in order to slow down the movement of Russian military equipment on the territory of Belarus. In almost all cases the actions of damaging the transport tracks were interpreted by law enforcement officers as an act of terrorism (Article 289 of the Criminal Code), despite the fact that some of those convicted did not commit any practical actions of damaging the transport tracks. None of the cases of track damage caused human casualties or accidents.
Thus, on February 8, 2023, Homel regional court sentenced the “rail guerrillas” from Mozyr: Sergey Pleshkun was sentenced to 16 years in prison, while Yuri Selvich – to 14. According to the case materials, Pleshkun and Selvich were buying ingredients for the production of “Molotov cocktails” and explosives to commit acts of sabotage, as well as discussing the possibility of damaging the rails. On February 10, 2023, Mahiliou regional court sentenced three residents of Babruisk who had previously been detained with firearms on charges of sabotage on the railroad – Dmitry Klimov and Vladimir Avramtsev were sentenced to 22 years in prison on charges of “an act of terrorism,” “participation in a terrorist organization” and “high treason.”
On February 26, 2023, representatives of the BYPOL, initiative of former security forces, claimed that “Belarusian guerrillas” used drones to seriously damage a Russian A-50 airborne radar aircraft based in Belarus at the Machulishchy airfield. In response to the sabotage, the security forces began detaining people living near the airfield who had previously been convicted of “political” offenses. It is known that at least six people were detained in Fanipol and Dzerzhinsk, and 20 people in the villages adjacent to the airfield, as well as people whose hobbies are associated with shooting (for example, participants in shooting competitions). The security forces conducted intensified searches of people at the border and vehicles passing near the airfield. It was also reported that KGB officers monitored social networks to identify people who spoke positively about the bombing of the plane.
On March 7, 2023, pro-government sources published a video of the detention of Ukrainian citizen Nikolay Shvets, suspected of committing an act of sabotage. On the same day, the KGB announced the opening of a criminal case under Article 289 of the Criminal Code for “attempting to commit an act of terrorism,” in which 20 people were detained, including the direct executor Shvets, who is described as an agent of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU). It should be noted that due to the recent amendments to the Criminal Code in 2022, the above-mentioned individuals may face the death penalty for attempted “acts of terrorism.” On March 14, 2023, human rights defenders reported that KGB officers detained the assistant to the chairman of the board of the Eurasian Economic Commission, Dmitry Shadko, who knew some of the detainees in the case of sabotage in Machulishchy, but 10 days later he was released. On March 28, 2023, Maxim and Liudmila Lopatiny were detained as part of the “act of terrorism” charges – according to the prosecution, Lopatin drove the suspect in the sabotage in Machulishchy from Minsk to the gardening community Birch Grove-1 of Borovansky rural council, where he was detained by law enforcement officers.
2.3. Arrests for provocation in chat rooms
Since the beginning of January 2023, officers of GUBOPiK have detained at least 15 people for criticizing the authorities, being negative toward Russians, and supporting Ukraine in online chat-roulette (a website that allows anonymous communication with random users via video). The videos of pro-government blogger Yuri Komar on Youtube played the key role in the detention of these people – in the relevant videos Komar accesses the website, searches for people who criticize the Belarusian authorities and support Ukraine, provokes them to make harsh statements posing as a resident of Ukraine, and then publishes recordings of conversations online, which then become grounds for the detention of such people by officers of GUBOPIK. All detentions were accompanied by beatings and the publication of “repentant videos” in which detainees apologize for supporting Ukraine under pressure. The following cases of detentions are indicative in this regard:
● Vital Polovinsky, a resident of Mahiliou, was detained for expressing the opinion that Russia would most likely lose the war and that a revolution could start in Belarus after that;
● Vitaliy Lobach was detained for saying that he treated the Russians “like fascists” and for showing support to the Ukrainian army, which the security forces interpreted as “calls for foreign aggression and intervention”;
● Dmitry Lagutenko, a resident of Rogachev, was detained along with his friend for asking Ukraine to give them weapons to use against supporters of the authorities during conversations with the blogger. After the detention, officers of GUBOPIK put flags with opposition symbols on the heads of the detainees, and then forced them to wash the floors with them.
● Sergei Tereshkov, a resident of Kobrin, was detained for saying that in the event of mobilization “he would never go to kill Ukrainians, but would use weapons to fight the “occupants””;
● a Russian resident of Belarus was detained for “insulting the presidents of the Union State of Russia and Belarus.”
In early February 2023 it became known about another provocateur in chat-roulette – the pro-government blogger Igor Konyushyk, who used identical provocative tactics, forcing people to confess to participating in opposition activities. At least 5 people were detained because of his actions: for example, a young man who claimed to be a member of the Ukrainian “Azov” battalion, and a resident of Pruzhany, who in a conversation with the blogger criticized Lukashenko and noted that “it was through him that missiles flew to Ukraine.”
2.4. Persecution for condemning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in social networks
The practice of criminal prosecution for “inciting ethnic enmity” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code) against people who criticize online the actions of the Russian Federation in Ukraine, as well as leave negative comments about Russian servicemen or Russians in general, continues. During some detentions, practices degrading to the dignity of the detainees were recorded – for example, one detainee was forced to say on camera “GUBOPIK is the best in the country.” At least 26 detentions and 3 sentences were reported under this article for harsh critical comments on social media, for example:
● Taras Gaponenko, a resident of Rechitsa, was detained after he said that he supported Ukraine and its national heroes and wished it victory;
● Gomel businessman Pyotr Starotitorov was detained for anti-war posts on Facebook, which, according to GUBOPiK, were an “insult to Lukashenko”; a user who created a separate Instagram account in which he posted posts in support of Ukraine was also detained;
● an Internet user was detained, according to law enforcement officials, who left 7,687 messages in opposition chats, among which he “calls to pound the occupiers into cannon fodder” and supports “aggression against Belarus by foreign interventionists.” We also know about his detention for “calling for missile strikes on Belarus“;
● Alexander Chebotar, a resident of Minsk, was detained for a comment in which he stated that “dead Russian soldiers are occupiers in a foreign land, so he doesn’t feel sorry for them”;
● Andrei Russky, a resident of Orsha, wrote some harsh comments, such as: “Who arranges real fascism… it’s already known… Lukashenko and Putin… two murderers and scum… Also, ask the Crimeans how they live and whether they are happy about joining…”;
● a resident of Grodno, according to law enforcement officials, left 1,200 comments in which he claimed that Ukraine has the right to a future “without corrupt Russia,” called on Ukrainians to “beat Moscow’s creeps without question or pity,” and also mentioned that “Putin, Lukashenko and Kadyrov should be liquidated.”
On January 5, 2023, priest Dionysiy Korostelev, who was “denounced” to security forces by a pro-government activist because of a prayer service for Ukrainian soldiers, was detained. In a “confession video,” the priest explained that he had received a note about a prayer service “for the soldiers and defenders of Ukraine” and served it – the security forces perceived these actions as an attempt to incite enmity.
The practice of prosecuting minors for criticizing Russia continues. On January 5, 2023, GUBOPiK staff detained two teenagers aged 13 and 15, accusing them of “Nazism” and “inciting social enmity against the Russian nation” (teenagers appear in pro-government reports as “neo-Nazi embryos”). The grounds for the prosecution were memes on the topics of “ura-patriotism” and neo-Nazism. On March 3, 2023, a 17-year-old was detained for calling Vladimir Zelensky “father” in comments, writing offensive comments about Vladimir Putin and the Russian military, and calling Russians by the word “Russnia.”
On January 4, 2023, it became known that Vitaliy Enarovich, a resident of Minsk, was sentenced to 2 years in jail for insulting comments about policemen, Belarusian and Russian soldiers. Before the verdict, the man was kept in a temporary detention facility (IVS) for about 3 months as part of the extended arrests under “administrative” articles, so this period will not be counted as a term of imprisonment in a criminal case. On February 15, 2023, Pavel Rakotsa, a resident of Gomel, was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for anti-war publications in the Vkontakte network – he called the Russian military “occupiers,” in connection with which his page was blocked at the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation. On March 3, 2023, the prosecutor’s office reported a sentence against a resident of Minsk “inciting ethnic enmity” – he was sentenced to 3 years in prison.
2.5. Passing on information about Russian troops as “promoting extremism” and “high treason”
Courts continue to hand down sentences for sending photos of military equipment to “extremist” Telegram channels that specialize in monitoring military activity in Belarus (e.g., “Belaruski Hayun”). Charges for such actions are brought under Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code (“promotion of extremist activity”).
On January 18, 2023, Vadzim Baranov, a resident of Mozyr, was sentenced to 3 years in prison for making a video of the movement of Russian military equipment and sharing this video online. He explained that he only wanted “to show people how much military equipment we have,” and added that if he had known that it was a crime to take pictures of equipment, he would never have committed such actions. On March 6, 2023, Gomel regional court sentenced local resident Artem Bobkov to 2 years in prison for posting a video on social networks showing the movement of Russian military personnel and indicating their location.
We also know about 6 new criminal cases. For example, on February 19, 2023, the Investigative Committee announced the initiation of criminal proceedings against a resident of Orsha: he filmed an echelon of military equipment on his cell phone and sent the video to an opposition Telegram channel. On January 23, 2023, law enforcers detained a resident of Grodno, who in the first days of the war had sent information to the chatbot channel “Nexta” that Belarusian troops were also preparing to attack on Ukraine. On March 1, 2023, the prosecutor’s office sent a criminal case to court against a resident of Brest who had sent a message to one of the Telegram channels about the movement of military planes. On the same day a resident of Gomel was detained for identical actions.
The law enforcers intensified their fight with the channel “Community of railway workers of Belarus,” which publishes insider information about the movements of Russian troops and military equipment. For the first time, a precedent was recorded when the security forces actually took the relatives of the moderators of the monitoring channels hostage. For example, on January 22, 2023, the Telegram channel “Community of railway workers of Belarus” reported that KGB officers detained the underage brother of one of the channel’s administrators. It is reported that the law enforcers demanded that the channel be removed in exchange for the teenager’s freedom.
There was also information about the verdict against railroad worker Valentin Samosiuk, whose phone had correspondence with the administrator of the aforementioned channel. The man sent to the channel a photo of a train damaged as a result of a collision with a car filled with manure. It is known that the photo was not taken by the man himself and had already been published in the media before the man decided to share it.
Sometimes law-enforcers qualify identical actions (in this case, dissemination of information about military equipment) under different articles of the Criminal Code. Thus, on January 20, 2023, the Gomel regional court sentenced Evgeny Glushkov, a resident of Ziabrovka, to 9 years in prison under Article 356 of the Criminal Code (“high treason”) on charges of “collecting, recording intelligence information about military infrastructure facilities” and “its subsequent transfer to a chat-bot controlled by a foreign organization.” According to “Viasna,” an old photo of the airfield, which he took from a drone, as well as contacts of Ukrainian citizens were found in Eugene’s phone, which was the reason for his detention. Perhaps, the charges were brought under a more “severe” article of the Criminal Code due to the fact that he sent information not to Belarusian initiatives located abroad, but directly to Ukrainian organizations.
On March 9, 2023, Gomel regional court passed a verdict in the case of “agent activity in favor of Ukraine.” Pavel Kuprienko, a citizen of Ukraine, was sentenced to 7 years in prison under Article 358-1 of the Criminal Code (“intelligence activity”); Taras Machinsky, a resident of Gomel region, was sentenced to 10 years in prison under Article 356 of the Criminal Code (“high treason”); Dmitry Solovyanchyk was found guilty under Article 405 of the Criminal Code (“concealment of traces of a serious crime”) and imposed a large fine.
According to the investigation, Kuprienko was engaged in “monitoring of the social and political situation in Belarus” on the instructions of the Ukrainian special services, while Machynski passed the data on the deployment and movement of military equipment in Belarus to Kuprienko, who, in turn, forwarded them to the intelligence.
2.6. Recognition as “extremist materials” of resources that publish information about the war
During the period under analysis, the Republican List of Extremist Materials included all social networks of Ukrainian MP Alexei Goncharenko, who regularly criticizes the Belarusian regime and is also the initiator of the inter-faction association “For Democratic Belarus.” The list also included the largest Ukrainian TV channel “Pryamiy,” the Telegram channel “Dead Russians | Cargo 200,” which publishes photos and videos of the deaths of Russian soldiers, and the Telegram channel “DENI VENDETTI (Mojahed),” apparently owned by one of the Belarusan volunteers fighting on the side of the AFU.
3. Criminal cases
Prosecutor General Andrei Shved said that the number of “extremist crimes” in 2022 has decreased significantly: more than 6 thousand extremist crimes were registered, most of which were committed in 2020-2021. According to the prosecutor, the solvability of such cases is 77%. Since 2020, prosecutors have supported public prosecution in almost 3,000 criminal cases of extremist crimes against 3,645 individuals. Shved also spoke about the decline in the number of drug-related crimes in Belarus, but expressed concern that people involved in the drug business could be used to commit crimes of extremist nature. The Prosecutor General also noted that “courts and prosecutors are taking systematic measures to improve their approach to the imposition of punishment,” while “no leniency is allowed for crimes of extremist orientation.” Later, Shved stated that “in the fight against extremism and terrorism there can be no complacency and temporary indulgences.”
Chairman of the Supreme Court Valiantsin Sukalo stated that courts are receiving more and more cases of “extremist orientation.” At the same time, the head of the public security police Yury Nazarenka reported a “decrease in extremist activity.” Chairman of the Investigative Committee Dzmitry Gora noted that in 2022 criminal cases against 18 “extremists” were investigated in absentia. The State Border Committee said that 52 people “with signs of involvement in extremist activity” were detained when trying to enter Belarus in 2022 (according to “Viasna,” there are 58 such people).
Law-enforcement officers started visiting more often with inspections and conducting searches of the people who previously served sentences for committing “offenses of extremist and protest nature.” During the period from 13 to 17 March 2023 alone “more than 20 criminal cases were instituted against persons who committed extremist crimes based on the results of proceedings by district inspectors.” According to Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs Gennady Kazakevich, about 1,000 Belarusians are wanted on charges of “extremism” or “terrorism.”
Detailed statistics on “extremist crimes” in Gomel region appeared – from August 2020 to March 2023 more than 1.5 thousand criminal cases on “extremist crimes” were opened in Gomel region, most of which were committed in Gomel, Zhlobin, Mozyr, Rechitsa and Svetlogorsk. More than 440 criminal cases were brought for insult of power representatives, 217 cases for insult of “the head of the state,” 154 cases for illegal actions concerning information about private life and personal data and 115 cases for incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord.
3.1 Article 130 of the Criminal Code “Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord”
3.1.1. Leaks of personal data of law enforcement officers
On January 18, 2023, Minsk city court passed sentences in absentia against the creators and administrators of the “Black Book of Belarus” (BBB), an initiative to de-anonymize representatives of the authorities accused of human rights violations. Yanina Sazanovich, Zmitser Navusha, Daniil Bahdanovich, Valeria Zanemonskaya and Volha Vysotskaya were sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment each. All the defendants in the case are abroad. According to the prosecution, “discrediting the government and law enforcement agencies and inciting social enmity against members of the power bloc and government officials are among the main purposes of their activities.” Also, on January 19, 2023, Minsk city court sentenced Viktor Savashevich to 11 years in prison for the creation and maintenance of a Telegram channel “23.34,” which contained information about Belarusian judges.
In addition to harsh sentences against the leaders of the initiatives, repressions continue against the people who directly sent them the personal data of civil servants. Thus. On January 11, 2022 a resident of Minsk Tatiana Kolas was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail – she worked at the Minsk City Executive Committee and had access to personal data of security officers, which she later provided to the Telegram channel of the BBB. Pro-government sources said that the woman herself had come “to surrender” to the department of GUBOPiK, as well as that “she was given credit for remorse and the imprisonment term was reduced by half for full cooperation with the investigation.” An employee of Beltelecom was sentenced to 6.5 years in jail for identical acts, while an employee of BelVEB bank was sentenced to 6 years in jail, and the mother and daughter who worked at MTBank were sentenced to 7 and 6.5 years in jail.
Programmer Mikhail Baudzei was also detained in the BBB case, who clarified for the channel the information about the OMON officer, as well as the resident of Mahiliou Anastasia Ivanova, in whose phone the law enforcement officers found correspondence with BBB about the fact of fining her husband for “political” case. We also know about the detention of journalist Dzmitry Gorbunou and an employee of Gazprom Transgaz Belarus, who made reposts of publications in which the personal data of police officers were posted. On January 9, 2023, the prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case under Article 203-1 of the Criminal Code against “unidentified persons” who had posted photos and personal data of one of the prosecutors in the public domain. On February 20, 2023, the law-enforcement officers detained a person who ran a channel with one subscriber (himself) and saved in it the locations of military units, data and addresses of law-enforcers and members of their families. On March 30, 2023, law enforcers detained a former assistant prosecutor of Glusk district who shared the data of three of his colleagues and also photographed the house of one of them. It is known about the detention of people who leaked data to channels other than the BBB – for example, on March 21, 2023, an employee of the Brest Bureau of Technical Inventory (BTI) was detained for passing data to the channels “Karateli Belarus” and “Brest-97.”
In early March 2023, Vladimir Kadaria was extradited from Kyrgyzstan to Belarus, who, while trying to contest the extradition, appealed to the president of Kyrgyzstan with information that he was prosecuted in Belarus for political reasons for the administration of an opposition channel. The Belarusian authorities stated that the man was charged exclusively with economic crimes, while the extradition request included only an article on the theft of money on a large scale through the modification of computer information (Article 212 of the Criminal Code). Nevertheless, a pro-government channel close to the GUBOPIK claims that “the person who incited enmity and published the personal data of officials back in 2008 will be extradited almost 15 years after, and will face deserved criminal penalties.” Later, the Investigative Committee published a video commentary by Kadaria about the case, in which the accused admits that he “never participated in any political movements, never administered anything and has never been involved in politics,” and the information about political persecution may have been a defense strategy of Kyrgyz lawyers in order to avoid extradition of the defendant.
3.1.2. Comments critical of the security forces
In three months, we know about 8 sentences for harsh critical comments in messengers and social networks against representatives of the authorities and law enforcement agencies as a group. The charges are brought for negative statements against both Belarusian and Russian security services. Such messages are interpreted by law enforcement officers as “inciting other social enmity against a professional group,” and charges are most often brought in conjunction with “defamation” articles of the Criminal Code. Virtually all cases are conducted behind closed doors, and government agencies publish reports on court hearings using extremely vague excerpts from the law, so the specifics of most cases remain unknown.
Also, 33 new criminal cases were recorded. It is known about mass detentions for critical comments in Homel – at least 8 people were detained on March 18, 2023. It is known of criminal cases for calls to “burn paddy wagons,” “hang “supporters of Lukashenko on poles,” “participate in riots using Molotov cocktails,” “go to barricades, derail trains,” “be more radical and stand in human chains,” use hunting weapons against law enforcement officers and “sharpen pieces of rebar,” “not being afraid of being hit with batons by law enforcement officers during protests,” “beat authorities” and “hang government supporters by their feet,“ “pour sewage on the police building,” as well as for comparing law enforcement officers with fascists. The arrests take place both for single critical comments and for regular criticism of authorities on the Internet (for example, according to law enforcers, one of the detained persons left 3,095 comments, and at the end of March it became known about the arrest of a person who had been charged for 20,000 comments). The security forces believe that absolutely all emotional comments containing calls to resist the authorities are “extremist” and are subject to criminal prosecution, while not taking into account the likelihood of practical realisation of such calls and the position of commentators in society in relation to the desired audience of statements.
On 17 February 2023, it was reported that human rights activist Nasta Lojka was additionally charged with “inciting social enmity.” The basis for the latter charge was Nasta’s alleged participation in writing a report on the persecution of the anarchist community in Belarus in 2018. The report provided a critical assessment of the activities of police officers, which the investigators in Nasta’s case qualified as “incitement of enmity against a professional group of police officers.”
3.1.3. The Zeltser Case
As part of the “Zeltser case,” courts continued to hand down sentences under Articles 130 and 369 of the Criminal Code (“insulting a government official”) for insulting comments about the murdered KGB officer Dzmitry Fedosyuk. In three months we know about 5 sentences for negative comments on the Internet, in which people spoke about the incident. On average, people are punished with 2 to 3 years in prison, the maximum sentence in this case – 5 years of imprisonment for a cumulative total of articles. According to HRC “Viasna” from the date of incident until February 16, 2023, 114 people were sentenced in the framework of “Zeltser case,” 99 of whom were sentenced to imprisonment, while 35 were included in the List of people involved in terrorist activities.
Thus, on February 1, 2023, Minsk city court sentenced local resident Gleb Gladkovsky to 5 years in prison. It is known that the reason for the criminal prosecution was his comment “Dimon too-doo-too” under the news about the death of a KGB officer (a musical motif from the movie “Boomer,” used as a meme in dramatic situations). On February 28, 2023, the court of Slutsk district sentenced the father of four children to 3 years of “home chemistry” for his comment about the murdered KGB officer. The charges were brought only under article 369 of the Criminal Code, and it is not known for what reason law-enforcers interpreted virtually identical actions under different articles of the Criminal Code.
3.1.4. Harassment of journalists
On February 8, 2023, Grodno regional court sentenced Grodno journalist and member of the unofficial “Union of Poles in Belarus” Andrzej Poczobut to 8 years in prison on charges of “inciting enmity” and “calls for sanctions.” According to the charges, the corpus delicti included journalist’s statement, in which he called aggression the USSR attack on Poland in 1939, statements in defense of the Polish minority in Belarus, articles in Gazeta Wyborcza about the Belarusian protests in 2020 and the text in Magazyn Polski, written in 2006 and devoted to Anatoli Rodionik, one of the commanders of the Polish anticommunist underground in Hrodna region. This case is an example of how the “anti-extremist” legislation is used by the authorities to ban historical opinions that contradict the official position of the authorities – the authorities interpret as “inciting enmity” any criticism of the communist regime in the USSR, whose successors the representatives of the current Belarusian regime consider themselves
On March 17, 2023, Minsk city court rendered the verdict in the “TUT.by case.” Former editor-in-chief Maryna Zolotava and ex-general director Liudmila Chekina were sentenced to 12 years of imprisonment. Earlier, other employees of the newspaper Olga Loika, Elena Tolkacheva and Ekaterina Tkachenko had their measure of restraint changed and were able to evacuate abroad. According to the prosecution, in addition to committing “economic” crimes, the journalists “were directly related to the materials published on the TUT.by website,” which contained “a deliberately positive assessment of the actions of opponents of the authorities, a deliberately negative reflection of the officials who advocated the preservation of the current constitutional order, hidden coordination of protest activity in society and information aimed at destabilizing the situation in the country and causing harm to the national security of Belarus.” On the eve of the verdict the Belarusian propaganda released a film “Bye-bye Tut.by” which describes the “criminal activity” of the media outlet. The propagandist Ksenia Lebedeva stated that the journalists showed protesters as “bright and joyful,” whereas pro-governmental activists were described as directly opposed to them. Also, the management of the portal refused to close comments on the articles, “thereby maintaining a high degree of heat in society” – according to the propaganda, “such antagonism between citizens of one country is incitement of enmity.” In general, the “journalistic” investigation blamed the staff of the portal in one way or another that their journalistic activities had caused silent protests in 2011, popularization of Euromaidan ideas, people’s indignation at the actions of the authorities in connection with COVID-19 and other upheavals in Belarusian society.
On March 23, 2023, Minsk city court sentenced former journalist of the presidential pool of the state TV channel ONT Dmitry Semchenko to 3 years in prison for posts in Vkontakte and Instagram with a negative reaction to the actions of law enforcement officers and other government representatives. According to the prosecution, “the purpose of the publications was to form a negative stereotype and undermine confidence in law enforcement officers and government representatives, and ultimately – to weaken the current state system.” Also, during the trial, the prosecution noted that the publication of such posts “constitutes a crime against peace and security of mankind.”
On the same day the court sentenced Komsomolskaya Pravda journalist Gennady Mozheika to an identical punishment of 3 years in jail. The journalist was detained in the “Zeltser case” for writing a journalistic article in which an acquaintance of Zeltser was mentioned who spoke positively about his personality. Gennady was also accused of “supporting opposition-minded participants of the rally, campaigning against the current authorities, and violating common human morality” while attending a meeting with voters organized by deputy Valery Voronetski.
Also, on March 24, 2023, the trial against Konstantin Zolotykh, director of the newspaper Belarusians and Market, began – according to HRC “Viasna” he is accused of several episodes of posting offensive comments about officials in social networks.
3.1.5. Incitement of national enmity
On March 29, 2023, officers of GUBOPiK and OMON detained a resident of Vitebsk on charges of “inciting racial and national enmity.” According to the law enforcement officers, he left comments calling for the murder of Jews and transit migrants located on the border of Belarus and the European Union. The man explained his comments by his desire to express his dissatisfaction with the enrichment of Jews and their desire for world power. The law-enforcers also confiscated opposition symbols – in the “confession video” one of the national Belarusian flags was used as a shoe mat.
3.1.6. Complaints about propaganda resources
At the end of January 2023 Homel activist and former political prisoner Ilya Mironau applied to the Investigative Committee demanding to institute a criminal case against the propagandist Grygory Azarenok for “inciting social enmity.” According to the activist, the propagandist “committed acts aimed at inciting enmity and hostility, as well as humiliated the honor and dignity of a group of people on the grounds of belonging to a particular social group” in a video on STV channel titled “Azarenok: a step towards those who want to return – this is a Stalinist step, this is a powerful will of Lukashenko.” In April 2023 it became known that this appeal had been redirected from the Investigative Committee to the MIA.
Also, in early February 2023, Mironov filed a complaint with the Ministry of Information against the pro-government Telegram channel Yellow Plums for a post that was accompanied by offensive comments about the activist. Mironov asked in his complaint to issue a warning to the author of the resource, which, according to the activist, incites enmity in society. The agency denied the activist’s complaint on procedural grounds.
3.2. Article 130-1 of the Criminal Code “Rehabilitation of Nazism”
On January 31, 2023, law enforcement officers detained a student from Gomel. In publications of pro-governmental channels he was called a “juvenile Nazi” and accused of inciting enmity, as well as of “rehabilitating the ideas of Nazi Germany and propaganda of superiority of some nations over others.” The grounds for such accusations were the publication of various neo-Nazi photographs and memes. On March 15, 2023, a resident of Babruisk was detained; he confessed in a “confession video” that he was an adherent of neo-Nazi ideas and skinhead subculture and that he supported the straight edge movement (a philosophy aimed at permanent all-round development and healthy way of life). He is accused of repeatedly posting neo-Nazi materials on the Internet, as well as of displaying tattoos depicting the military of the Third Reich on his body. On March 20, 2023, investigators from Baranovichi brought a criminal case against a local resident for publication of leaflets in the Internet in which the ideology of Nazism and the practice of its application by Hitlerite Germany were “acknowledged as correct and in need of support.”
We also know about one sentence under this article. On March 14, 2023, Gomel regional court sentenced a local resident to 3.5 years in prison for “glorification of collaborators” in the social network Odnoklassniki.
3.3 Article 289 of the Criminal Code “Act of terrorism”
Any actions aimed at forceful tactics against the authorities, including harming property rather than people, have continued to be interpreted by the authorities as manifestations of “terrorism.” Both regime officials and pro-government propaganda sources regularly use belligerent rhetoric against potential “terrorists.” Thus, commenting on the incident with the detention of a “terrorist” in Hrodna, Alexander Lukashenko said: “We do not take anyone prisoner. If you resisted – (go) to God. This was my order…”. The Security Council also stated that the security forces “are ready to suppress any provocation and terrorist threat, no matter where it comes from,” indirectly mentioning that the main threat comes from Ukraine.
The period was marked by a series of exercises “to test the readiness of state agencies to respond and interact to acts of terrorism,” which involved units of the KGB, MIA, State Border Committee, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Emergency Situations and other bodies. It is known that in January 2023 such exercises were held in Minsk and Vitebsk regions, and in February 2023 – in Mahiliou.
On March 6, 2023, the trial over the arson of the house of the pro-government deputy Aleh Haidukevich started. The deputy had earlier reported that during the night of July 10-11, 2021 unknown persons threw “Molotov cocktails” to his house, of which only one caught fire, while no one was injured as a result of the incident. The case involves 18 people, 3 of whom (political activist Vadim Prokopyev, ex-special forces officer Igor Chemiakin and former security officer of the diplomatic mission Denis Khamitsevich) are abroad and will be convicted in absentia. Also in March, GUBOPiK officers recorded a “confession video” address by Chemiakin’s parents, in which they claim, probably under pressure from security officials, that their son is a “traitor” and “enemy” and they “will not feel sorry for him if they have to meet on different sides.”
The other participants of the case are accused of trying to organize a violent conspiracy to seize power through acts of terrorism, explosions and arson. It is known that one of the defendants is accused of preparing explosives in Poland, which were then to be delivered to Belarus by drones, while three other defendants are accused of participating in personal meetings, during which the existence of a “group of conspirators” was discussed. In addition to “conspiracy” and “terrorism,” the defendants, depending on their “role,” are accused of illegal actions with weapons and combustibles, the creation of an extremist formation, the preparation for violence and the threat of violence against an officer of the interior bodies; abuse of power and official authority.
On March 19, 2023, the KGB reported on anti-terrorist measures, during which a foreign citizen was killed in Grodno (later, law enforcers discovered he had a fake Russian passport). According to the agency, during the arrest the suspect resisted with live grenades and a Kalashnikov assault rifle, after which he was wounded by return fire of the assault team and died on the way to hospital. The TV channel “Belarus-1” published excerpts of the KGB shooting, which show the moments of assault, with no footage of the “terrorist” himself. The footage of the preliminary surveillance of the “terrorist” was also published in which he was filmed close-up at arm’s length. TV story mentions that his role was to scout locations of alleged terrorist attacks – KGB building, the place of residence of security officials, the railway station and industrial facilities. On March 21, 2023, Alexander Lukashenko said that “an entire arsenal of weapons and explosives” was seized from the terrorist, which were intended for “high-profile terrorist attacks on citizens and officials.” On the same day the organization of former law enforcement officers “BYPOL” stated that the entire operation was staged and that no terrorist existed in reality – person who appeared in the TV footage was an active KGB officer.
On March 20, 2023, there was information about the detention of a person who had registered in the bot of the informal opposition organization Druzhina People’s Self-Defense (DNS), recognized as “terrorist” on the territory of the Republic of Belarus. Apparently, the bot was a fake one, controlled by the security forces and used to provoke people in order to make them confess their readiness to take active steps to resist the regime. Thus, the bot asked people to answer questions about their participation in protests, as well as to rate “their degree of radicality from 0 to 10.”
On March, 31, 2023, Centralny District Court of Minsk sentenced a former special police officer Maksim Seleznev to 15 years of imprisonment. According to the prosecution, Seleznev was involved in the damage to the kiosk “Tabakerka” and a trash garbage can near the kiosk, as well as the detonation of two explosive devices near the building of the District Department of Internal Affairs (DIA), during which one of the police cars was damaged.
3.4. Article 290-1 of the Criminal Code. Financing of terrorist activities
The security forces interpret any material donations to opposition initiatives recognized as “terrorist” on the territory of Belarus (e.g. “Nexta” “Cyberpartisans,” “BYPOL”) as “financing of terrorist activities.” The sanction under this article provides imprisonment for 8 to 15 years. Thus, during the analyzed period it became known that Minsk citizen Mikalai Vasilevich was kept in the Pre-trial Detention Center №1 under charges under this article. On March 30, 2023, Andrei Baranov, an IT specialist at EPAM, was detained under the same article.
3.5. Article 290-4 of the Criminal Code “Creation of an organization for carrying out terrorist activities or participation in it”
On March 16, 2023, the prosecutor’s office brought final charges against Yana Pinchuk – she had previously been extradited by Russia in connection with a wanted notice in Belarus for her administration of three protest Telegram channels. Yana is charged under five articles of the Criminal Code, including “inciting enmity,” “calls for harm to national security,” “establishment of an extremist formation,” and additionally, “training persons to participate in mass riots” (Article 293 of the Criminal Code) and “activities to create an organization to carry out terrorist activities” (Article 290-4 of the Criminal Code). Human rights activists of the HRC “Viasna” noted that the last two articles were not mentioned in the criminal case file prior to the extradition and, consequently, were not considered during the extradition inspection in Russia. Belarus violated its own guarantees that Pinchuk would not be punished for crimes not covered by the extradition request, which violates the country’s international obligations under the 1993 Convention on Legal Aid.
On February 16, 2023, the criminal case against Raman Pratasievich, Stsiapan Putyla and Yan Rudik for managing one of the most popular opposition channels “Nexta” started being considered under ten articles of the Criminal Code. The case against Putyla and Rudik, who are abroad, will be considered in absentia.
3.6. Article 356 of the Criminal Code “High treason”
KGB Chairman Ivan Tertel said that since the beginning of 2023 more than 10 “traitors” had been detained in connection with the “sharp intensification of all kinds of intelligence activities of the collective West against Belarus.”
On February 17, 2023, Gomel regional court sentenced ten defendants in the case of the opposition initiative “Rabochy Rukh” to terms of imprisonment ranging from 11 to 15 years. According to the investigation, the movement members passed to the U.S. and Lithuanian intelligence agencies the official information about the state-owned enterprises, relating to the “methods they used to circumvent sanctions.” Also, the defendants in the case are accused of cooperating with the headquarters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and planning to block the production activities of the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant and Grodnoazot. In total, the case involves 14 people, 10 of whom are accused of “high treason” and “creation of extremist formations” (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).
The repression of former employees of security agencies, who wished to resign in protest against mass human rights violations, continues. Thus, on March 17, 2023, Hrodna regional court sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment Andrei Shklyar, former inspector of Hrodna Kastrychnitski District Police Department, who submitted his resignation because of his disagreement with the way the system worked. Also, the Investigative Committee sent to court the case against ex-officer of GUBOPiK Stanislau Luponosau within the framework of “special proceedings.”
We also know about another criminal case against a serviceman: Lieutenant Colonel Anton Cheremnykh, deputy commander for ideological work, has been in a detention center since early February on charges of “high treason.” According to his former servicemen, he held an anti-war position in the context of the events in Ukraine, and there were “rumors” about him that he could support the protest movement. Despite the fact that during the analyzed period amendments to the Criminal Code came into force, according to which the death penalty for “high treason” can be applied to servicemen, this sanction does not threaten Cheremnykh – the death penalty can be applied as a punishment for actions that were committed only after these amendments entered into legal force, and people who had already been charged earlier will be tried within the version of the Criminal Code that was in force at the time of their “actions.”
Also, on March 8, 2023, information about the sentence against the former head of the Spanish visa center in Belarus, Ruslan Lobanok appeared – he was convicted of “high treason” and “bribery,” but the exact term of the sentence is not known.
On February 20, 2023, the trial of Pavel Belous, the owner of the national symbols store SYMBAL.BY, began. He is accused of “spreading ideas of Belarusian nationalism,” propaganda of the ideas of “Polish world,” “pumping enmity of the country’s electorate into the state,” as well as “supplying people with protest symbols and coordinating activities aimed at a violent seizure of power.”
3.7. Article 357 of the Criminal Code “Conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing state power“
During this period, the authorities continued to equate the activities of democratic movements with actions committed for the purpose of seizing state power, despite the fact that the prosecuted initiatives promoted non-violent ways of confronting the authorities – peaceful protests and strikes.
On March 1, 2023, Minsk regional court started consideration in absentia of the case against opposition politician Valery Tsepkalo, accused under 12 articles of the Criminal Code. During the trial, the state prosecutor requested a penalty of 19 years of imprisonment.
On March 6, 2023, Minsk city court announced the verdicts in the case of the “Coordinating Council of the Opposition” (CC), which was considered in absentia proceedings. The leader of the Belarusian opposition movement Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison, the head of the People’s Anti-Crisis Department (NAU) Pavel Latushko – to 18 years in prison, the head of the opposition fund “Country for Life” Maria Moroz and members of the CC presidium for the organization to overcome the political crisis Olga Kovalkova and Sergey Dylevsky – to 12 years in prison. Under ten articles of the Criminal Code, depending on the incriminated roles, the opposition politicians are accused of organizing strikes contrary to the law to “undermine the national economy and strengthen the sanctions,” “ensuring the growth of protest sentiments for the subsequent seizure of power,” “high treason,” “conspiracy,” “appropriating the title and power of an official,” “creating an extremist formation” and other “political” crimes.
On March 17, 2023, Minsk city court sentenced Valerya Kostyugova (political scientist, analyst, founder of the expert community website “Our Opinion”) and Tatsiana Kuzina (founder of SYMPA project, researcher in public administration) to 10 years in prison on charges of “conspiracy” and “calling for harm to national security.” The human rights defenders do not know the essence of the charges, but colleagues of the detainees point out that the reason may be related to the professional activities of the experts, and the repression against them is “demonstrative and intimidating sign for the entire expert community in Belarus.”
On March 15, 2023, Minsk city court started hearing the case against Ilya Shapatkouski, head of the “Honest People” platform, which was engaged, among other things, in monitoring the presidential election in 2020 and detecting falsifications. At the time the trial began, Ilya had been held in pre-trial detention for more than two and a half years. According to the investigation, the initiative “promoted incitement of social enmity in society and psychological manipulation of public consciousness using a wide range of political technologies,” and the defendant himself “was careful not to enter into a direct plot to seize power” and at the same time “cultivated and promoted protest moods in society,” and “provided information support to criminal groups.”
3.8. Article 361 of the Criminal Code “Calls for restrictive measures (sanctions), other actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”
The article continues to be used against representatives of independent trade unions. Due to the closed nature of the processes, the essence of the accusations often remains unknown. It is likely that any independent or opposition activity (including the organization of strikes) at state enterprises, which are described in pro-government narratives as “strategically important facilities,” is interpreted by law enforcement agencies as “harmful to national security.”
Thus, on January 5, 2023, Minsk city court sentenced three activists of the independent trade union of workers of the radio-electronic industry (REP). Gennady Fedynich and Vasily Beresnev were sentenced to 9 years in a reinforced regime colony, and Vatslav Oreshko – to 8 years. In addition to “calling for sanctions,” they were also accused of “inciting enmity” and “creating an extremist formation.”
The period marked the first example in the history of our observations, when the professional activity of a lawyer to provide services to individuals who are opponents of the current regime was actually equated to “extremist activity.” On January 10, 2023, the Investigative Committee announced the completion of an investigation against the well-known Belarusian lawyer Alexander Danilevich – in addition to the charge of “calling for sanctions,” he was charged with “promoting extremist activity. The official reports of the body state that the lawyer “supported extremists and adherents of legal nihilism” and “made attempts to politicize sports in Belarus.” According to the investigation, he advised employees of the opposition initiative Sports Solidarity Fund in the context of their activities to promote the cancellation of sporting events in Belarus in connection with massive human rights violations in the country, as well as to impose sanctions against persons from the sports sphere, who carry out such violations. The lawyer is also accused of drawing up letters and documents to the Norwegian company Yara, a major buyer of JSC “Belaruskali” products, in which he described the human rights situation at Belarusian enterprises and urged the company to comply with business and human rights standards.
On February 13, 2023, Hrodna regional court sentenced Smarhon resident Yauhen Buzhynsky to 6 years in a strict regime penal colony for “calling for harm to national security” and sanctions against Belarus, as well as for various “defamation” crimes. The basis for the charges was his 450 different comments of opposition content under the videos on YouTube. For example, in one of the comments, Yauhen appealed to Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to “put the problem to the EU” and “by all means demand tough sanctions against Lukashenko and Russia,” as well as urged Ukrainians to “quickly defeat the bandits and then help Belarus.” Also, on February 16, 2023, Vitebsk regional court sentenced Aleksei Alekseichik to 2.5 years in prison for discussing the political situation in Belarus in 2020 in a professional chat room. On February 27, 2023, the GUBOPiK reported that a man was detained for posting negative things about the security forces and for commenting “I will write a letter on Monday to the U.S. Embassy, asking for stronger sanctions.” On March 10, 2023, Minsk regional court sentenced Raman Jankowski, a resident of Minsk district, to 4.5 years in prison under a number of “political” articles of the Criminal Code for reposting videos that contained “public calls for violent overthrow of the state power and committing an act of terrorism.”
On January 8, 2023, Belarusian authorities detained Nizomiddin Nasriddinov at the request of Tajik authorities while attempting to cross the border from Lithuania into Belarus. Nasriddinov is a Tajik activist for the Group of 24, an opposition political movement advocating democratic reforms in Tajikistan and recognized in Tajikistan as a “terrorist organization.” In November 2017, Tajik authorities put Nasriddinov on an international wanted list after a criminal case was opened against him under Article 307-1 of the Tajik Criminal Code (“public calls for extremist activities”). On February 21, 2023, the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus decided to extradite him to Tajikistan. The decision of the Belorussian prosecutor’s office stated that article 307-1 of the Tajik Criminal Code corresponded to article 361 of the Belarusian Criminal Code. The presence of the same corpus delicti in the legislation of both countries is a formal ground for extradition on the basis of a multilateral agreement on legal cooperation, which includes Tajikistan and Belarus. Nasriddinov appealed the decision, which is expected to be reviewed in the coming weeks. The prosecutor’s office took into account neither his refugee status in Germany nor the serious risk of torture, unfair trial, and politically motivated persecution in Tajikistan. In his appeal, Nasriddinov also stated that one of his relatives was sentenced to long-term imprisonment on political grounds after being forcibly returned to Tajikistan in 2017.
3.9. Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code “Creation of an extremist formation or participation in it”
The article continues to be used to repress any form of self-organization of society that is undesirable to the regime. After the incident with the bombing of an airplane by Belarusian “partisans” at Machulishchy airfield, officers of GUBOPiK intensified “work against citizens involved in the activities of extremist formations and terrorist organizations” by order of Alexander Lukashenko. According to the authorities, the main focus of their work is “detection of hidden cells of extremists and their supporters,” including participants of the opposition initiative “Plan Peramoha.” Only for March 9, 2023, police officers “searched” more than 60 people, 21 of whom were brought to administrative responsibility and 5 people to criminal responsibility. It is also known that in March 2023 law enforcers “checked” more than 30 people for “assistance to extremist formations” – law enforcers in combat uniforms massively detained people subscribed to Telegram channels recognized as “extremist formations.” Thus, for example, it is known about detention of a person subscribed to the “Nexta” channel. Such detentions are arbitrary – for example, on March 15, 2023, law enforcers reported about the detention of “a destructive cell of strikeball players” on the grounds that they were “planning something illegal” and had “foreign connections.”
24 cases of criminal cases are related to the registration in the Telegram-bot “Plan Peramoha.” For example, it is known about the case of detention of a person who received a mailing with a request to confirm participation in the initiative and replied “I’m ready,” which the law enforcement agencies interpreted as “connection with a terrorist organization.” Nevertheless, despite such statements and the recognition of the initiative as “terrorist” on the territory of Belarus, the prosecution of its participants still continues under the “extremist” rather than “terrorist” articles of the Criminal Code. At the same time, when describing many cases, law enforcement officers point out that some of the mailings from the initiative, to which people respond, often turn out to be fake and are actually controlled by law enforcement officers, which means that people are actually accused of a criminal offense only on the basis of direct provocation by law enforcement officers themselves. Detentions of the participants of this initiative of resistance against the authorities are conducted with particular brutality of the security services and are accompanied by humiliation and torture. For example, Vyacheslav Orkotov, detained for registering in the plan, looks severely beaten on the “confession video.”
Severe sentences continue to be handed down against the administrators of opposition local Telegram channels, who are considered by law enforcement officers to be the creators and leaders of “extremist formations.” Due to the fact that the “dzechat” initiative (a map with the location of all opposition Belarusian chats) is recognized as an “extremist formation,” virtually any chat is a structural subdivision of this “extremist formation.” Thus, on February 9, 2023, Brest regional court sentenced former law enforcement officer Alexander Sumar to nine years imprisonment under a number of “political” articles of the Criminal Code, including for the administration of the Telegram channel “Zhyve Luninets.” The next day, the same court sentenced Dmitry Stepanov, the alleged administrator of the “GOBK” chat, to four years in prison. Both channels were recognized as “extremist formations” after the detentions of the accused, in connection with which they could not physically carry out the “leadership of the formation” in any way. This fact once again confirms that the “anti-extremist” legislation in fact has retroactive force (read more in our new article). Also, according to the charges in these cases, the corpus delicti under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code includes the period of channel administration, when channels only had the status of “extremist materials.” This fact is an indicator that, despite formal differences, the concepts of “extremist materials” and “extremist formations” are effectively equated in the context of the law enforcement’s repressive practices. During the analyzed period the administrators of Telegram channels “Narodnaya Volya,” “Ruzhany 97%,” “Pa-Belarusku,” “Serebryanka 97%,” student chat “MGPK,” as well as the administrator of Facebook group “Aktiu Grodno,” as well as the administrator of one of the local chats in social networks and a married couple, also accused of administering chats, were detained. It is also known about two detentions within the framework of criminal cases for subscribing to the opposition channel of the “Chizhovka” neighborhood, which is recognized as an “extremist formation” – law enforcement officers qualified the subscribers of the channel as “participants of an extremist formation” who discussed “extremist actions and agitation.”
On March 30, 2023, Gomel regional court announced its verdict in the high-profile case against Tatsiana Kurylina who was charged under 12 articles of the Criminal Code for administering the network of opposition chats “97%.” She was sentenced to 4.5 years in jail. The woman returned to Belarus within the framework of the pro-governmental program “The Road Home,” in which political emigrants are invited to “return home” and “repent.” Earlier, a man had contacted the woman and offered to come to Belarus, explaining that he was “a former officers with extensive connections” and “learned through his channels that she was not wanted at home.” After she arrived in Belarus, the woman was detained and placed in a detention center.
On February 2, 2023, lawyer Vital Brahinets was sentenced to 8 years in prison under a number of “political” articles, including “creation of an extremist formation.” The security forces suggest that Vital created a professional chat room in Telegram under the name “Belarusian Lawyers,” where lawyers discussed and coordinated their activities. On February 13, 2023, the Homel regional court sentenced to three years of imprisonment the administrator of the community “ZA ADZINUIU DZIARZHAUNUIU MOVU in Belarus!” in the social network Vkontakte, where educational information about the Belarusian language was published (the law enforcement officers interpreted such publications as “cultivation of enmity towards the Russian language”).
It is also known about the beginning of the first trial against people related to “extremist” human rights organizations. Thus, the trial of the volunteer organization “Dapamoga,” which helps repressed Belarusians evacuate to Lithuania, began on March 13, 2023. Two-time political prisoner Anita Bakunovich, who asked the organization to help her cross the border outside official checkpoints, and Nikolai Kuleshov, who cooperated with the organization and helped political refugees, are accused of “participation in an extremist formation.”
On March 20, 2023, a trial began against five Minsk residents who in September 2022 hung large national flags of Belarus and Ukraine on the facade of a house on a busy street in Minsk. Their chat room on the Zello app, which had only five members and in which the action of disobedience was discussed, was recognized as an “extremist formation.” It is likely that law enforcement officers took this step in order to increase the responsibility of the activists, since originally they were charged under Article 339 of the Criminal Code (“hooliganism”), which provides for a milder maximum penalty. This case is also an indicator of the increased repression using “anti-extremist” legislation over time – so, if in 2021 the maximum administrative responsibility could be threatened for hanging opposition symbols on the building, then in 2022-2023 charges are brought under several articles of the Criminal Code for identical actions.
3.10. Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code “Financing extremist activities”
People who have made monetary or other material donations to solidarity funds or opposition organizations recognized as “extremist formations” on the territory of Belarus are prosecuted by security forces under Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code (“financing of extremist activity”). This article provides punishment of up to eight years in prison. People who donated to the funds long before they were recognized as “extremist” are also criminally prosecuted. Chairman of the State Control Committee Vasily Gerasimov stated that in 2022 11 criminal cases related to the financing of extremist formations and terrorist organizations were initiated based on the materials of the body, and 18 people were declared suspects in these cases.
On January 9, 2023, Nasha Niva newspaper reported that KGB officers completed the identification of persons who made donations to the solidarity funds BYSOL and BY_help in 2020-2021. Money transfers to these foundations were interpreted by law enforcers as “financing of extremist activity,” as these foundations were recognized as “extremist formations.” According to media reports, the head of the Belarusian High-Tech Park (HTP) Vsevolod Yanchevsky agreed with KGB officers that IT specialists should not be prosecuted on the condition that they come to the KGB for a “preventive conversation” and transfer the amount of their donation in tenfold to one of the accounts in a state bank. The law-enforcers started sending out lists of people who made donations and who had to come to the KGB in order to avoid prosecution to the management of IT-companies. Despite the fact that the funds were recognized as “extremist formations” only in December 2021, thousands of people who donated money to help repressed people from their Belarusian accounts (including people who made donations long before the funds were recognized as “extremist”) could become subjects of criminal prosecution.
Despite the “gentleman’s agreement” between the head of the HTP and the KGB officers, it is the IT specialists who are the main targets of reprisals for donations. Thus, on March 16, 2023, a criminal case was initiated against Ksenia Alkenova, an employee of a game development company. According to the law enforcers, in 2020-2021 Ksenia donated $425 through Facebook to solidarity foundations. On March 31, 2023, the case against IT specialist Ruslan Zavadich began, and a sentence was handed down against Vitaly Chernousov, a programmer from Lida.
It is known about the detention of scientist Yuri Adamov as part of charges under an identical article. Also, a video of a resident of Glubokoe appeared on the pro-government channels: he came to the department GUBOPiK to confess to having donated to the solidarity fund in the fall of 2020. According to Nasha Niva, in one of the towns of Vitebsk region people were urged to write a statement of remorse for “financing of extremist activity,” transfer the money to state accounts (including the account of an orphanage), after which the Investigative Committee decided not to institute criminal proceedings.
3.11. Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code “Aiding extremist activities”
The analyzed period was marked by an increase in persecution of civil society representatives who gave interviews or comments to “extremist” independent media. There is a tendency to persecute not only prominent representatives of the opposition for interviews, but also ordinary citizens who were asked by journalists to comment on some social and political event. The law enforcement agencies believe that such interviews are “posted online to carry out destructive activities.”
In February 2023 the Investigative Committee opened three criminal cases in Hrodna region against the people who gave interviews. On January 19, 2023, Brest regional court sentenced Darya Losik, wife of political prisoner Ihar Losik, to 2 years in jail. According to the prosecution, Daria gave an interview to Belsat TV channel, in which she “positioned herself as the wife of a political prisoner, reported that her husband had not committed any criminal offenses and had been illegally convicted,” and also “gave a negative assessment of the state bodies whose competence includes criminal prosecution and administration of justice” and “called on relatives of other convicts to follow her example.” On March 10, 2023, Minsk regional court sentenced Natalia Dulina, ex-professor of the Minsk State Linguistic University and representative of the CC, to 3.5 years in prison for “participation in protests” and “giving interview to an extremist resource.” On March 17, 2023, law enforcement officers brought a criminal case against blogger Olga Pavuk for her participation in the TV show of the Belsat channel.
Lawyer Aliaksandr Danilevich was also charged with “aiding extremism” for his interview to the sports publication Tribuna, which was used, according to law enforcement officials, “to create a destructive information agenda.”
The article continues to be used to punish people for any form of assistance to civic initiatives deemed “extremist.” Thus, on January 13, 2023, Brest regional court sentenced local resident Yury Kostyuk to four years in prison. According to the prosecution, while serving his previous sentence for desecration of the official symbols of the regime, he helped other political prisoners and their relatives to receive assistance from solidarity funds by contacting the funds and providing a foreign bank card for payments. On March 2, 2023, Valery Timoshenko from Minsk was sentenced to three years in prison for sending messages to a Telegram channel with “unreliable information” about one of the company’s executives, as well as data about his private life. It is noteworthy that usually such actions are qualified as “inciting enmity” under Article 130 of the Criminal Code, the reason for the charges under the other article in this case is unknown. This fact confirms that the “anti-extremist” legislation in Belarus is extremely broad and can be arbitrarily interpreted by law enforcement agencies for any form of persecution.
On January 18, 2023, a Grodno resident was detained on charges of “aiding extremist activities” for “sharing knowingly false information with an extremist formation.” On March 21, 2023, Hrodna resident Yulia Golovach was detained for sending information to “extremist” chat rooms. At the same time on January 31, 2023, it became known about the detention of a resident of Mahiliou for “leaking information to banned Telegram-channels,” during which law-enforcement officers “explained to the woman a number of articles of the Criminal Code and responsibility for committing extremist crimes.” Why in the context of identical acts in one case the law enforcement officers limited themselves to a “preventive conversation” and in the another case they initiated a criminal case is unknown.
The detention of representatives of the journalist community continues. Journalists Viachaslau Lazarev and Yauhen Merkis, as well as videographer Pavel Podobed were charged under this article. It is possible that charges are also brought for collaboration with independent media outlets. Also, historian and activist Pavel Mozheyko was charged with “aiding extremism.”
4. Cases of administrative offenses
4.1 Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code (“propaganda or public demonstration, production, distribution of Nazi symbols or attributes”)
On March 13, 2023, Homel District Prosecutor’s Office reported the detection of goods with Nazi symbols on the online store Wildberries – pendants, chevrons and stickers with the “Black Sun” emblem, consisting of 12 radial runes “Zig,” similar to the symbols used in the SS emblem, were offered for sale. The prosecutor’s office issued a prescription to the store, after which the site removed all prohibited products from the online catalogue. On March 29, 2023, Minsk city prosecutor’s office reported the detection of pendants and amulets with the “Black Sun” in a large online store and also demanded to remove them from the range.
The law enforcers continued to detain (security officers continued to use the term “denazify”) people for thematic tattoos and distribution of prohibited symbols on the Internet, the number of such cases in January-March has doubled compared to the previous period. During this period law enforcement officers regularly detained people with “Black Sun” tattoos, noting that they “will not spare” even those who had a tattoo with this emblem even before it was included in the List of Nazi symbols. It is known about at least 5 cases of detentions specifically for this emblem. The tattoos of the Azov detachment, which is part of the AFU, also attract the attention of law enforcement officers – two cases of detention for such tattoos under Article 19.10 of the Code of Administrative Offences are known. This emblem is not included in the List of Nazi symbols. A total of 8 cases are known to be initiated on the basis of having forbidden tattoos. On February 1, 2023, the law enforcement officers issued a warning to a resident of Lida because of his tattoo with the national emblem “Pagonya” and demanded to remove it from his body. It should be noted that this emblem is not only not prohibited, but is also included in the State List of Historical and Cultural Values.
Persecution for distribution of Nazi symbols is increasingly common in criminal cases under Article 341-1 of the Criminal Code, which can be used against people who have been prosecuted under Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code twice in a year. For the first time it is known about the sentence under this article for tattoos – so, on February 17, 2023, the prosecutor’s office reported that a resident of Grodno was sentenced to two years in prison for displaying Nazi tattoos on exposed parts of the body. Also, the investigation of the criminal case against a resident of Borisov, who displayed prison tattoos in the form of swastikas on the street, was completed. On March 24, 2023, Pukhovichi district court sentenced a local resident to 2 years of imprisonment for posting on Twitter an image “with Nazi symbols, referring to the period of Nazi Germany (1933-1945) and associated with the ideas of racial superiority.”
It is also known about the detention of four people, mostly residents of the Gomel region, for spreading Nazi symbols on their pages in social networks. The reason for detaining one of them was that he shouted the slogan “Glory to Ukraine” to his neighbor, which is considered “Nazi” by Belarusian propaganda. It is also known about the arrest of a man who forwarded photos of Adolf Hitler in personal correspondence with acquaintances.
4.2 Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code (“distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products containing calls to extremist activity or promoting such activity”)
The prosecutor’s office continues to monitor the assortment of Internet stores in order to identify books offered for sale that are included in the list of extremist materials. On February 27, 2023, Minsk city prosecutor’s office reported that at its request, offers for the purchase of books by V. Suvorov “Shadow of Victory” and V. Deruzhinsky “Forgotten Belarus” were removed from the website of a large auction.
Between January and March 2023, we know about 111 persons detained for distributing “extremist materials,” including in the form of reposting “banned” publications, as well as forwarding them in personal messages and group chats. Due to the fact that practically all independent media and opposition resources are recognized as “extremist materials,” dissemination of virtually any information not acceptable to the authorities can be considered an offense. The vast majority of people are punished under this article for reposting “forbidden” information on their pages on social networks and for forwarding such publications to personal and group chats in messengers. Courts are increasingly punishing people with administrative arrests rather than fines.
According to HRC “Viasna,” from March 15 to 25, 2023, on the eve of national holiday Day of Freedom, at least 166 people were detained in regions for “extremist materials” and “unauthorized picketing” (Article 24.23 of the Administrative Code). District police inspectors actively joined the activity on “visiting citizens who were brought to responsibility earlier for committing offenses of extremist and protest nature” – within their activity only from March 13 to 17, 2023, about 100 people were brought to responsibility under “extremist” articles of the Administrative Code. According to state TV, during March 2023 the officers of GUBOPiK “checked” more than 700 people who earlier “were taken on the pencil for their radical views”: 230 people were held administratively liable, 155 of which “for extremism.”
Systematic “raids” into regional cities continue, during which the devices of local residents previously noticed as disloyal to the regime are searched. Thus, on January 27, 2023, the staff of GUBOPiK with force support of OMON carried out an operation on detention of Lepel residents who were reposting “extremist materials” in the social networks – at least 3 people were detained. On February 16, 2023, a “confession video” with 7 residents of Svetlogorsk accused of “distribution of extremist materials” appeared. The video shows OMON officers breaking the door of one of the participants in the video with a crowbar, and one of the women being forced on camera to tear up flyers depicting Sergey Tsikhanouski and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. On March 17, 2023, at least 3 people were detained in Lyakhovichi – one of them was tortured by OMON in front of his family. We also know about at least 6 trials in Miory and a “judicial conveyor” in the town of Kastrychnitski. Regular raids of law-enforcers also took place in regional centers. In Brest, at least six people were convicted in one day. Mass detentions, accompanied by beatings, were also recorded in Gomel.
The “raids” with phone checks also continued in state institutions. For example, in February 2023, law enforcers detained four employees of Gomeltransneft Druzhba for visiting websites recognized as “extremist materials” from their work computers. We should remind that formally the law does not provide liability for browsing blocked Internet resources or resources recognized as “extremist.” On March 30, 2023, at least 8 employees of the National Polatsk Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve were detained.
There were cases when officers of the GUBOPiK wrote personal messages to people with the offer to remove “extremist materials” without drawing up protocols. In case of refusal, law enforcement officers detained such people and forced them to apologize on camera. During the analyzed period there were repeatedly recorded cases of detention of people on the border: during the intensified searches law enforcers checked people’s phones and detained those who had subscriptions to “extremist” resources or reposts from them. For example, we know about the detention of a resident of Grodno, who was on his way to Lithuania after the incident at the airfield in Machulishchy, and Zmitser Poliszewicz, who was returning home from Poland.
On March 21, 2023, there was a mass detention of representatives of the legal community defending political prisoners. Several of them, including lawyer Inessa Olenskaya, were convicted of “distribution of extremist materials.”
The article continues to be used to put pressure on journalists of independent regional media. On January 20, 2023, journalist Pavel Podobed was punished with 15 days of arrest. On February 24, 2023, a journalist of Intex-press was fined 15 basic units (about 220$) for reposting prohibited publications. On March 15, 2023, the house of Alexander Mantsevich, editor-in-chief of the Regional Newspaper, recognized as extremist material, was searched, and Alexander and his wife were detained. On March 24, 2023, the court punished the Babruisk journalist of the Kommercheskiy Kurier newspaper Dzmitry Suslou with 15 days of arrest.
The practice of prosecuting people for reposting materials made before they were declared extremist did not change compared to the previous period of monitoring. Such offenses are considered by law enforcement officers to be “continuing,” and therefore, under Article 4.6 of the Administrative Code, they are not subject to the standard limitation period for prosecution of two months from the date of the offense – for such cases a period of two months from the date of discovery of the fact of illegal activity applies. For example, a resident of Slonim Ales Masiuk was fined 20 basic units (about $290) for having put the “I like” sign on the Facebook page of the publication Radio Svaboda many years ago, long before it was recognized as “extremist materials.” Read more about the retroactive effect of this article in our article.
Often the law enforcement officers draw up protocols in such a way that each repost constitutes a separate offense, which then allows the courts to punish people with 15-day arrests on virtually an unlimited number of times. This practice is most often used in order to drag out the time and keep a person in captivity while law enforcement officials obtain additional information about the person, which will then allow them to bring criminal charges. In some cases, continued arrests are used to increase the length of punishment for individual activists. For example, lawyer Oleg Shamyakin was punished twice in a row with an arrest for a total of 25 days for “like” on the YouTube channel “Belsat.”
Security forces continue to detain people for tattoos with acronyms included in the republican list of extremist materials. Thus, on February 22, 2023, a man was detained with a tattoo of four letters, symbolizing negative attitudes toward police officers.
On February 6, 2023, law enforcers detained a resident of Svetlogorsk, who posted stickers with QR-code links to “extremist” Telegram channels on the doors of his neighbours – for this activity law enforcers with combat gear broke into the man’s house with a sledgehammer.
On February 22, 2023, a resident of Svetlogorsk was detained for “public demonstration of extremist symbols” – on the plate of his personal car and on his motorcycle helmet was a sticker with the coat of arms “Pagonya,” which was not formally recognized by the courts as “extremist material.”
Details of the trials against the members of the music band Tor band, detained in October 2022, also appeared. Thus, musician Dmitry Golovach was convicted for recording the song “Native Land” and posting it in the Vkontakte group. The song was recorded in 2020 and was included in the list of extremist materials “retroactively” – it appeared on the list right after the members of the group were detained in October 2022, despite the fact that the decision to recognize it as “extremist” is dated August 2022. Consequently, the musician had no way to track down the changes in the list and remove this song. A similar situation was observed with the trial of another band member, Yauhen Burlo – he was convicted for his involvement in the creation of the video “Long live.” Also, according to the court decision, the band’s musical instruments were confiscated “as instruments of offense.”
5. Changes in the Republican List of extremist materials
During January-March 2023 information about 157 new court decisions to recognize materials extremist (146 in the previous period) appeared on the website of the Ministry of Information on the Republican List of extremist materials. A total of 320 information materials fell under the ban (277 in the previous three months), 115 of them are Telegram resources. As of April 1, 2023, there are 3185 materials on the list, including 1135 Telegram resources. With the exception of isolated types of neo-Nazi products, all materials are included on the list on “political” grounds.
Courts continued to recognize as “extremist” local opposition chats (city chats, chats of districts and streets) from all regions of Belarus, but during the analyzed period most additions to the list represent chats of settlements from Minsk region: Kopyl, Bolshevik, Fanipol, Chechino, Kletsk, Ratomka, Radoshkovichi, Ozertso, Stolbtsy, Maryina Gorka, Borisov as well as a large number of chats in Molodechno. Chats in Vitebsk, Salihorsk, Mazyr, Klimovichi and Pinsk also appear in the updates of the list. The practice of recognizing as “extremist” the resources of diasporas, where most often only domestic issues are discussed, is expanding – the list was updated with the chat of Belarusians in Poznan and the Facebook group of Belarusians in the United States. Bans on strike committee resources continue: “BelAZ for Life” and “Community of railway workers of Belarus” were added to the list. For the first time in the history of observation a single a 2.5-year-old message was considered “extremist” in one of Telegram chats: in the chat “Dzerzhinsk, Fanipol” user “Dasha” published an announcement of a peaceful protest action in August 2020.
Internet resources of opposition political movements and initiatives continued to be included in the list: the website and social networks of all branches of the “Narodnaya Gramada” party and politician Nikolai Statkevich, the Telegram channel of politician Zianon Pazniak, the Vkontakte group of the Conservative Christian Party, the YouTube channel “Country for Life,” the Facebook page of the organization “BYPOL,” the Tik-Tok account of “Belaruski Hayun,” and the “Right Alliance” group, inactive since 2019.
The following YouTube resources with opposition rhetoric were deemed “extremist materials”: the account of the opposition blogger Helen Minskaya, another video of the persecuted priest Barok, the investigation “New facts of the murder of Pavel Sheremet” by Belsat. Also some other channels were banned: the channel Alliance of Investigators from Belarus, which publishes investigations about officials and corruption; the channel Dzikaie Palyavanne, engaged in de-anonymization of government officials accused of human rights violations, as well as the websites and all social networks of the Stop Propaganda initiative, engaged in activities to block propaganda resources. Courts have declared “extremist” some 15 personal pages of people who had published materials with opposition content or who were public activists.
The following independent media resources continued to be recognized as “extremist materials”: the TikTok account of the “Zerkalo.io” publication, the website and the TikTok account of the “Ex-press.by,” the Telegram-channel and all social networks of MOST outlet; the Telegram-account, logo and watermark of Novy Chas, Vkontakte groups of Naviny outlet, Grodno Pravda and Regional Newspaper; Facebook group of Kropka, websites of human rights magazine mspring.media, and YouTube and Telegram-channels of Obychnoe Utro. Also, the list was supplemented with VKontakte resources of the Center for New Ideas, an analytical organization known for conducting surveys on social and political topics, as well as the page of its head Rygor Astapenia. Satirical resources continued to be added to the list: social networking resources Tea with Raspberry Jam, Ha-Ha I Live Here, BezLuka, as well as the YouTube channels Zhestachaishy Mult and Butt with Moustache with satirical cartoons on political topics. HRC “Viasna” resources continued to be included in the list: the website “Berastseika Viasna” and the Telegram channel “Vitsiebska Viasna” were found to be “extremist.”
A number of educational projects were banned. Thus, the Telegram channel of the podcast “Public Appeals” about the history of the anti-fascist movement in the former Soviet Union was included in the list: the authors of the channel believe that the reason was the release of the podcast, in which Belarusian activists talked about what Putin and Lukashenko’s policies had in common, why Belarus is a testing ground for repression and how to continue activist activities from abroad. The Historyja channel about Belarusian history was also found to be “extremist.”
The law enforcers are paying more and more attention to books that contain information displeasing the authorities: books critical of the Soviet regime are increasingly being banned. The books of Januszkiewicz publishing house, which is regularly repressed by the authorities and attacked by propagandists, attracted special attention of law enforcement officers. During the analyzed period, 15 books were recognized as “extremist materials:
● “Belarus Above All!” (About the National Belarusian Idea)” by Anatol Taras, which tells about the formation of the Belarusian national identity;
● “The Year 1942 – Training” by Vladimir Beshanov, describing the military campaign of 1942 during World War II, during which the Red Army lost virtually every battle with the Wehrmacht;
● “Forgotten Belarus” by Vadim Deruzhinsky, which exposes myths and misconceptions about the Belarusian past, “which were planted by official institutions, historians and publicists of the tsarist empire and USSR,” and also reveals facts previously concealed for ideological reasons;
● “Notes of the Association of Belarusian Historians named after Vatslav Lastovsky. Challenges of “russian world” and Belarus.” by Anatol Taras, describing the intersections of Belarusian and Russian history;
● “Big Blood: How the USSR Won the War of 1941-1945.” by Sergey Zakharevich, which is an analytical review of the main operations of the Red Army in 1941-1945, whose main conclusion is the view that the USSR won the Second World War only through incredible losses;
● “National and Cultural Life in Belarus during the War (1941 – 1944)” by Leonid Lytsch, which argues that during the German occupation, in contrast to the period of Soviet power, there was a revival of Belarusian culture and language;
● “The Shadow of Victory” by Viktor Suvorov, in which the author criticizes Marshal of the Soviet Union Georgy Zhukov and the actions of other Soviet military commanders;
● “Pages of the Past: Articles on the History of Belarus” by Anatol Taras, a collection on various issues of Belarusian history;
● “Who, How, and Why Killed Wilhelm Kube” by Oleg Usachev, which provides little-known facts from the history of the partisan movement, as well as the activities of the German occupation administration;
● “Transformation of Belarusians’ Mentality in the XXI Century – Materials of the Scientific and Practical Conference”;
● “Problems of Humanitarian Bias in Belarus: Materials of the Scientific and Practical Conference”;
● “Post-Soviet Transit: Between Democracy and Dictatorship: A Collection of Articles” by Anatol Taras;
● “The “Invoked” and the Occupied. The Polish-Belarusian Interaction 1939-1941 in the documents of Belarusian archives”;
● “The Last Book of pan A.” by Algerd Baharevich. According to the plot of the book, a debtor writer publish fairy tales in order to pay off debts, and reads them every evening for a month to “unscrupulous adults,” after which the line between fairy tale and reality becomes blurred;
● “Odyssey of the captain of BNR” by Anatoly Gotovchits, a documentary story about the Belarusian patriot and political prisoner Timokha Vostrikov.
The period was marked by the outlawing of many articles from magazines and newspapers, some of which were published almost 30 years ago. Thus, “extremist” were declared:
● an article titled “Prerequisites for the Belarusian Protest in 2020,” posted in the Russian magazine Molodezhnaya Galaktika;
● a number of issues of the samizdat “Word of Belarusians”;
● a number of issues of the magazines “Arche Pachatak” and “Nasha Gistoriya”;
● issue 115 of Svoboda; October 17, 1997;
● the March-April 1995 issue of the newspaper ZA VOLU;
● six articles from the print newspaper “Info-Kur’er” for the year 2020, in particular, with the headlines “Protests of Belarusians and reaction to elections,” “In fact, genocide of civilians,” “What dialogue can save the country,” “Human rights. Why this is more important to us than ever.”
The attention of law enforcers to musical works is also increasing. During the analyzed period a popular punk anthem of the 1990s called “Our Home is Belarus” was recognized as “extremist materials” – the song contains lyrics about the Chernobyl tragedy and police violence, and in the chorus the line “Lukashenko is our father, but he will be dead.” Also, the list was supplemented with the compositions “Sumarok – Chertsi” and “Dai Darogy – Extremist,” which contain opposition motifs.
Traditionally, the list included single Nazi information products: Telegram stickers “WotanJugend by @fStikBot,” “14/NTSP/88,” and one sticker pack with an image of Hitler. Also list was supplemented with “an A4-size leaflet without information about the publisher with a quote by A. Hitler” – obviously, according to this vague description, it is impossible to understand from the list: for the storage or distribution of which exact products people can be punished.
You can find out more about this list in our new material.
6. Changes in the List of organizations, formations, individual entrepreneurs involved in extremist activities
At the present moment, the List of organizations, formations and individual entrepreneurs involved in extremist activity includes 121 formations, which are recognized as such by the decision of the MIA or KGB. During the three months the list was supplemented with 14 items. All additions to the list were accompanied by criminal cases against the relevant groups of people. For establishment, leadership or participation in an “extremist formation” criminal liability is provided – up to 7 years of imprisonment under article 361-1 of the Criminal Code.
At the end of March 2023 the list included 12 regional media and nationwide online resources. During the analyzed period two more media were recognized as an “extremist formation” – Brestskaya Gazeta and Malanka, as well as volkovysk.by, a news website of Volkovysk. The period was also marked by inclusion of another human rights organization in the list: Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) was recognized by the KGB as an “extremist formation.” During the analyzed period, law enforcement officers began to list the specific “participants” and “leaders of formations” (employees of this or that organization) by name, although previously “formations” were recognized as generalized groups of people “united through social networks.”
This tool continued to be used to persecute opposition organizations. Social networks of the politician Oleg Kozlov were recognized as “extremist formations,” as well as the People’s Anti-Crisis Administration (NAU) headed by Pavel Latushka; the private Telegram channel “Analytics of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya,” “The Office of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya,” “Coordination Council.” According to the security forces, these measures were taken for “public calls for sanctions and the organization of activities to prepare for attacks on the sovereignty and public security of the Republic of Belarus.” The following opposition resources were also recognized as “formations”: the Facebook and Odnoklassniki community under the name “Maya kraina vialika eurapeyskaya Belarus,” professional opposition channel “Community of railway workers of Belarus,” the opposition blog “Twice K,” local Telegram-chat “Klimovichi CHAT.” In January, the KGB gave such status to the Tor band, which consisted of four artists, recognized as political prisoners, and which had previously released popular songs with opposition rhetoric.
Also on 14 February 2023, “Belta” reported that Prosecutor General Shved sent an appeal to the Supreme Court to recognize the foreign organization Belarusian Investigative Center as an “extremist organization.” The organization is known for publishing independent journalistic investigations about corruption and organized crime. The prosecutor’s office suspects the organization of having ties with “Belsat” and also believes that the resource provides information “in order to deliberately increase the level of tension in society, create an atmosphere of rejection of the actions of state power bodies and undermine the authority of Belarus in the international arena.”
You can find out more about this list in our new material.
7. Changes in the List of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, foreign citizens or stateless persons involved in extremist activities
The List of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, foreign citizens or stateless persons involved in extremist activity was first published on March 23, 2022, and since then it has been actively supplemented by hundreds of people, against whom a sentence on “extremist” articles came into force. As of the end of March 2023 there are 2637 people on this list, 374 people added to the list during the last three months (including several citizens of Russia and Latvia). In fact, we can easily consider this list as a list of people convicted on “political” grounds, which is officially recognized by the regime and is regularly updated. It continued to include people sentenced for any form of opposition activity (mostly for protests and critical commentaries), as well as representatives of civil society. Thus, during the analyzed period the list included:
● political analyst Yahor Liabiadok;
● representatives of labour unions Yanina Malash, Artem Zhernak, Alexander Mishuk, and Andrei Khanevich;
● Journalists Dmitry Luksha, Ksenia Lutskina, Sergey Satsuk, Snezhana Inanets, Alexander Lychavko, BelaPAN case defendants Andrei Aliaksandrau, Dmitry Novozhilov, Irina Zlobina and Irina Levshina;
● Country for Life volunteer Anton Stashevsky;
● political activists of the United Civil Party Artur Smolyakov, Andrus Asmalovsky, and Diana Chernushina;
● civil activists Ilya Mironov and Anastasia Kukhta.
Some people were included both in the “extremist” and “terrorist list” at the same time, such as those involved in the “Busly Latsiac” and “Civil Self-Defense Units” cases. People on the list face professional and financial restrictions. It also became known that being on the list may become a reason to prohibit traveling abroad, despite the fact that such restrictions are not spelled out in the law – for example, former journalist Sergey Gordievich was banned from going to Lithuania.
You can find out more about this list in our new material.
8. Changes in the List of organizations and individuals involved in terrorist activities
In three months, the KGB added 50 new people to the List, 49 of whom are connected with Belarus. The grounds for inclusion in the “terrorist list” are similar to the “List of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, foreign citizens or stateless persons involved in extremist activities,” while a person may be included to this list even on the basis of charges, without a corresponding court decision. As of April 1, 2023, the list included 1038 people, including 290 citizens of Belarus. People on the list are actually prohibited from any financial transactions. Thanks to the updates to the list, human rights defenders become aware of the names of political prisoners about whom no information was available before.
In addition to people associated with Belarus, the list includes a citizen of Pakistan, who is the deputy head of the Lashkar-e-Taiba organization, one of the largest and most active terrorist organizations in South Asia. Along with people whose actions could pose a real threat to the security of the region, the Belarusian authorities have listed representatives of the Belarusian opposition and civil society. As before, the grounds for the inclusion in the list of people continued to include not only “acts of terrorism,” but also articles 130 of the Criminal Code (“inciting enmity”) and 361 of the Criminal Code (“calls to cause harm to national security”). Not only people who have committed direct action, but also people who have criticized the authorities on the Internet and left negative comments about government officials are included in the list.
During the analyzed period, the list was expanded by former investigators Nikita Storozhenko and Yauhen Yushkevich, defendants in the “Revolutionary Action” case, including human rights defenders Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chepyuk, Russian citizen Sofia Sapega, accused of administering the “BBB” resource, defendants in cases of “inciting enmity” for critical comments and “leaking personal data of law enforcement officers,” as well as Maxim Yaroshenko, a resident of Gomel, who only recently turned eighteen, making him the youngest “terrorist” on the list. Also, top manager of the company Wargaming Nikolai Katselapov appeared on the list, who, according to media reports, is at large – he was charged with “financing of terrorist activities” (Article 290-4 of the Criminal Code).
You can learn more about this list in our new material.
Disbandment of organizations on “extremist grounds”
On January 16, 2023, the court deprived the publishing house “Yanushkevich” of the right to publish books at the suit of the Ministry of Information. When making the decision, the court was guided by paragraph 1 of Article 33 of the Law “On Publishing Activity,” according to which the registration of the publishing house can be suspended if it has issued printed editions, which contain information that “calls to actions, aimed at damage of external security of the Republic of Belarus, its sovereignty, territorial inviolability, national security and defensive powers, or knowingly false information, which discredits the honor and dignity of the President of the Republic of Belarus, as well as containing information of an extremist or pornographic nature, information that promotes war, Nazi symbols or paraphernalia, the cult of violence and cruelty, or is aimed at inciting racial, national or religious enmity or discord.” As follows from the published text of the suit, the Ministry had questions to the books “Dogs of Europe” by Algerd Baharevich, “Agrarian Policy of the Nazis in Western Belarus: Planning. Safety. Performance (1941-1944)” and the translation of Joseph Brodsky’s poem “Ballad of a small tugboat,” which were also recognized as “extremist materials.”
10. Restricting access to Internet resources
The Russian social network Vkontakte continues to cooperate with the Belarusian Ministry of Information – the administration of the network restricts access in the territory of Belarus to Belarusian resources recognized as “extremist materials.” During the analyzed period, pages of Zerkalo.io, Mediazona, Belsat, Tipichny Borisov, Viasna and other resources were blocked. The network administration refers to paragraph 1.3 of Article 38 of the Law “On Mass Media,” according to which Internet resources are prohibited to disseminate information “containing propaganda for war or extremist activities or containing calls to such activities.”
11. Warnings, flagging and other “anti-extremist” measures
On January 12, 2023, employees of the MIA held a “legal education” among students of the Belarusian State Academy of Arts (BSAA). State sources report that “the participants were told what actions could be considered extremist and warned against falling for the tricks of provocateurs.” Also, the law enforcers “dwelled on the topic of “color revolutions” and informed in detail about the goals and methods of the conspiracy organizers” and “encouraged students to draw analogies with the events that took place in Belarus.”
On January 23, 2023, political prisoner presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka was put on preventive record in the colony as “prone to hostage-taking, aggression and assault on the administration.” The grounds for this were the scratches on the windowsill, which Babaryka left when he was slicing lard.
On March 29, 2023, the MIA instructed the units of the State Automobile Inspectorate (GAI) to take “the toughest response measures in order to suppress gross violations of traffic rules.” Pro-government channels added that “gross violations will also mean all violations of traffic rules, related to extremism.” In particular, “those who have been previously prosecuted for stopping on the roadway, signaling or displaying banned symbols from the car will be taken to a special register and thoroughly checked for the use of vehicles in accordance with the law.”