In the period of October-December 2021, new trends in the field of «extremism» emerged:
– After the adoption of the relevant resolution of the Council of Ministers, 27 groups were recognized as «extremist formations», including 3 independent Belarusian media. The term «extremist formation» is arbitrarily defined in Belarusian laws and is used to persecute dissidents. There are the first detainees on charges of participating in an «extremist formation». In addition, cases are recorded when additional charges of participating in «extremist formations» are brought even when such formations are recognized as extremist already at the time of the prisoners’ detention, although such laws should not be retroactive;
– In October 2021, a conference was held in Nuremberg, Germany, where many used the term «terrorist» in relation to the de facto president of Belarus. In our opinion, the term «terrorist» as well as «extremist» are not clearly defined in international law, and therefore should not be misinterpreted, while other ways todescribe the situation might be applicable;
– The narrative that any dissent can be regarded as «extremism» and «terrorism» continued to spread in the official media, for example, the opinion of a pro-government philosopher stated: «… everyone should think before publishing certain ideas that run counter to the ideology of the Belarusian state now». This approach effectively undermines the right to freedom of expression;
– The topic of «extremism» has become very popular in the statements by pro-government political scientists (who mistakenly refer to similar norms in European countries where the term «extremism» is not defined in the legislation), political observers, deputies, prosecutors;
– At the same time, news came from Germany that a group of neo-nazis was going to go to the border of Poland with Belarus in order to «prevent illegal migration». In the news they are called «right-wing extremists», which is a non-legal term – there is no such concept in German legislation. At the same time, the term «extremism» is often applied specifically to neo-nazi groups, while in Belarus it is often used to target political dissenters;
– From the end of the year, criminal liability for calls for sanctions (up to 6 years in prison) comes into force. Additionally, Belarusian authorities have made threats to expand the subjects for the loss of citizenship on the grounds of committing «extremism» – including when acquiring it by birth – all this we regard as a continuation of the escalation of the situation on the part of state bodies;
– Prison terms from 11 to 18 years were imposed upon well-known bloggers and activists (read more in the overview);
– The largest sentences for political prisoners – up to 20 years in prison in the case of the «Polesie partisans» under several Criminal Codearticles, including«an act of terrorism» for protests near government buildings;
– More than 200 people were detained for statements in support of the murdered Andrei Zeltser – human rights organizations have adopted a corresponding statement about the inpermissibility of such persecution;
– Lists of extremist materials were extended – mainly by adding Telegram resources, including channels of human rights organizations and independent media;
– A record number of trials were held on recognizing products as «extremist materials», as a result of which the list of extremist materials was supplemented by human rights information resources, independent media, and three printed publications.
Read more in the review.
On October 12, 2021, the Council of Ministers adopted Resolution № 575 «On measures to counter extremism and prevent rehabilitation of nazism» (hereinafter – the Resolution), regulating the procedure for implementing the provisions of a number of May amendments to the Law «On countering extremism» (hereinafter – the Law). The document regulates the procedural aspects of the implementation of the norms enshrined in the Law: forms for maintaining a list of people, individual entrepreneurs, formations, and organizations involved in «extremist activities» (within the mandate of the Ministry of Internal Affairs). Immediately after its adoption, the first «extremist formations» were identified by the authorities. In addition, the resolution renamed the name of the Commission that decides on the presence or absence of signs of extremism in information products (the words «on the evaluation of symbols and attributes» were added), a new composition of the Republican Commission was approved (it now consists of parliamentarians and representatives of state bodies). The resolution also obliges the subjects of countering extremism and preventing the rehabilitation of nazism to send information about their «anti-extremist activities» to the Ministry of Internal Affairs at least once every six months.
On December 31, 2021, amendments to the Criminal Code came into force – in particular, to Article 361, which criminalizes calls for sanctions (in the new edition «Calls for restrictive measures (sanctions), other actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus»). The maximum sentence was also increased from 7 to 12 years in prison.
In December 2021, it was reported that only in Minsk, since July 2020, «investigators have sent to court 454 criminal cases against more than 531 accused on 772 episodes of criminal activity related to extremism. Investigators are currently working on about 250 criminal cases. After the amendment of the Law «On countering extremism» since the beginning of summer 2021, the list of actions that are now considered «extremism» has expanded even more. This legislative approach is an abuse of the term «extremism» for political purposes.
In our reviews, we do not consider cases under Articles 342 («Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them») and 293 («Mass riots») of the Criminal Code, as well as all examples of the use of defamatory articles (insults of officials, etc.), since all these cases are politically motivated and do not require additional evaluation.
In this regard, we draw attention to more specific articles related to national security, extremist groups, incitement of hostility, acts of terrorism, as well as examples of their use.
At the moment, we receive basic information about such cases from the websites and Telegram channels of government agencies. Posts on such topics clearly violate the presumption of innocence – all publications report that people have committed crimes, despite the fact that many cases have not even held court hearings. Often, under threats of torture and pressure, people are forced to give «confessions» on camera.
An important feature of this period was the appearance of the first cases for «participation in extremist formations» (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code) and the manifestation of greater attention to «harm to national security» (Article 361 of the Criminal Code), as well as more severe sentences – up to 20 years in prison.
At the same time, we see different approaches to «extremist organizations» in our region – in October 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office refused to extradite a representative of Jehovah’s Witnesses to Russia, who is accused of extremism in his homeland – this is the second similar case in recent times.
Article 130 of the Criminal Code
«Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord»
This article continues to be mainly used to suppress freedom of expression on social networks against people who leave publications or comments with harsh rhetoric against law enforcement officers or other officials, in violation of international human rights standards. We are aware of hundreds of detainees and six sentences under this article.
On November 23, 2021, the head of the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (hereinafter – GUBOPiK) stated that they had calculated more than 300 commentators on the incident with the death of military pilots on May 19, 2021, as well as the murder of an employee of the State Security Committee (hereinafter – the KGB) (the «Zeltser case»). Specifically on the «Zeltser case», the Ministry of Internal Affairs reported that 200 people had been identified who had left negative comments about the deceased KGB officer, and human rights activists were aware of 119 detainees in this case. Detainees in these cases are held under Articles 130 and 369 of the Criminal Code («Insulting a representative of the authorities»). The main wave of detentions occurred at the end of September 2021, but continued throughout October 2021. On October 4, 2021, an employee of the Belarusian IT company EPAM and his father were detained for comments about this incident. It is known about specially created inhuman conditions of detention for the accused in this case, which can be qualified as «torture» (inability to deliver food packages, receive letters, conduct meetings with lawyers).
Another event, followed by a wave of detentions by GUBOPiK, was the death of two Russian paratroopers during military exercises in Grodno: on December 1, 2021, 11 people were detained for «cynical comments».
Two residents of Vitebsk were detained for comments against law enforcement officers (information about the second one), a resident of the Nesvizh district, who were initially detained for possession ofdrugs, and during further investigative actions it turned out that they could also leave harsh posts and comments in Telegram. Under Article 130 of the Criminal Code, a resident of Borisov was also detained, who, according to GUBOPiK, «collected nazi and extremist materials on his VK page, called everyone to the streets», although punishment for such actions is provided only by administrative law. Mogilev actor and director Vyacheslav Sikora was also put on the international wanted list on charges of inciting hostility and insults for publishing videos criticizing the regime, a criminal case was opened against a resident of Kiev of belarusian origin, activist Pavel Vinogradov was charged for a harsh post on Facebook, and an activist from Dubrovno escaped from «chemistry» after finding out about a new criminal case under Article 130 of the Criminal Code against him.
The trend of applying this article continued in relation to employees of telecom operators and banks who transferred personal data of security forces to opposition resources. For these actions, cases are initiated either under Article 130 of the Criminal Code or under Article 203-1 of the Criminal Code («Illegal actions with respect to information about private life and personal data»), and sometimes they are accused of threatening violence. Also, the head of GUBOPiK mentioned the initiation of a criminal case for the transfer of personal data of an employee of his unit under Article 365 of the Criminal Code («Interference in the activities of an employee of the internal affairs bodies»), despite the fact that the composition of the «crime» in comparison with previous examples is almost identical, which indicates the absence of any systematic work of law enforcement officers in this regard.
The journalistic activity of independent media is also considered to be «incitement of hostility». Thus, on October 6, 2021, there information surfaced that the Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case under this article against officials and employees of «TUT BUY MEDIA» and certain «other persons». Also, an investigation is being carried out «for inciting social hostility» against the detained freelancer Andrei Kuznechik, who collaborated with «Radio Svaboda».
Often, investigators additionally began to use Article 130 of the Criminal Code in connection with more specific charges under the articles, for example, about mass riots, actions that grossly violate public order and calls for harm to national security in order to strengthen responsibility. Such trends can be noticed by analyzing the charges in the cases of activist Eduard Palchis, philosopher Vladimir Matskevich, as well as a resident of Minsk (in the case of «Civil Self-Defense Unit», hereinafter – CSDU) and a resident of Grodno, who were charged with inciting hostility in addition to «calls to harm national security» (Article 361 of the Criminal Code). Human rights activist Marfa Rabkova is being tried along with 14 members of an anarchist organization «Revolutionary Action» and was charged under 11 articles of the Criminal Code at once, including for inciting hostility, calls to harm national security and the creation of an extremist formation.
On December 8, 2021, it became known that Sofia Sapieha was also finally charged under Article 130 of the Criminal Code. Sofia is on the same case with former employees of Beltelecom, who leaked the data of law enforcement officers to the «Black Book of Belarus» group, the administration of which is probably imputed to Sofia. Also, the final charge was brought under Article 130 of the Criminal Code to the artist Ales Pushkin for «rehabilitation of nazism» and Eduard Babariko for unknown acts after more than 18 months of his stay in a pre–trial detention center (hereinafter – SIZO).
On October 7, 2021, the Mogilev Regional Court sentenced a resident of Osipovichi to five years in a strict regime colony for comments in opposition Telegram chats and a message threatening the commander of special forces. Among the comments that the man left are «Shame on the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Army», «Bad stuff», «Bullshit <obscene language>, soon I’ll hang you on every twig, you don’t have much time left, the time will come. Read the oath, fascists», «everything is at the limit», «90% must be executed». On November 9, 2021, the same court punished a resident of Petrikov with three years in a general security prison for posting emotional stories on Instagram, which contained such statements as «smash riot police for our sisters» and «drown in blood». The man claimed that such emotions were caused by the news about violence on the part of law enforcement officers and added that he was intoxicated, and sobered up – immediately deleted these publications, which, however, did not save him from punishment.
On November 5, 2021, the court of the Central District of Minsk sentenced a programmer to three years of restriction of freedom («chemistry») for the fact that a man «for the purpose of expressing political views and inciting hostility in society» took part in protests on August 10, 2020. It is important to note that despite the accusations of inciting hostility, the man was convicted only under Article 342 of the Criminal Code («Actions grossly violating public order»).
On December 8, 2021, the Grodno Regional Court sentenced a local resident to 3.5 years in a maximum security colony for comments in a city chat, despite the fact that experts concluded that there were negative assessments in the defendant’s opinion, but there were no grounds to claim that he threatened police officers.
On December 14, 2021, the Gomel Regional Court sentenced the founder of the «Strana dlya zhizni» («Country for living») movement and politician Sergei Tsikhanovsky to 18 years in maximum security prison. Nikolai Statkevich was sentenced to 14 years, Igor Losik (administrator of the Telegram channel «Belarus golovnogo mozga» («Belarus of the brain») and Vladimir Tsyganovich («MozgOn» channel) were sentenced to 15 years, Artem Sakov (administrator of the channel «Strana dlya zhizni» («Country for living») and Dmitry Popov (moderator of the social networks «Strana dlya zhizni» («Country for living») were sentenced to 16 years. On December 17, 2021, the Minsk City Court already passed sentence against blogger Eduard Palchis – he will face 13 years in a maximum security prison.
On December 27, 2021, the Minsk City Court passed sentence against a Russian resident Egor Dudnikov for voicing videos and audio messages in the Telegram channel «CSDU», in which he incited social hostility and discord on the basis of professional affiliation, as well as incited violence and resistance. According to the totality of Articles 130 and 361 of the Criminal Code, he was sentenced to 11 years in a maximum security prison.
Article 289 of the Criminal Code
«Act of terrorism»
In the period of October-December 2021 we learned about 2 sentences and 4 new cases under Article 289 of the Criminal Code. After the resonant events on September 28, 2021, when the employees of the State Security Committee (hereinafter – the KGB) carried out «special operations and inspection in the homes of people suspected of committing acts of terrorism», and in the course of one of such operations, Andrei Zeltser and employee of the KGB of Belarus Dmitry Fedosyuk were killed. In connection with this event, the state bodies kept following the narrative about the process of «neutralizing movements that openly propagandize the ideas of extremism and terrorism»”neutralizing movements that openly propagandize the ideas of extremism and terrorism.” However, the period October-December 2021, was not marked by a large number of known arrests on cases of an «act of terrorism». At the same time, during this period, the first trials under this article had begun, which brought unprecedented terms for imprisonment in «extremist cases».
On December 22, 2021, the Minsk Regional Court, under articles on “the act of terrorism” and illegal trafficking in weapons, passed a sentence upon anarchists Dmitry Dubovsky, Igor Olinevich, Sergei Romanov and Dmitry Rezanovich (the so-called «Olinevich group»): Olinevich was sentenced to 20 years in a colony with a reinforced regime, Rezanovich and Dubovsky to 19 and 18 years accordingly with the same punishment, and Romanov to 20 years in a maximum security colony. The hearing was held behind closed doors. The anarchists were charged with setting fire to cars and buildings, which were the property of law enforcement representatives, as well as with transporting weapons across the border. The case does not include any victims, only property that had been damaged. Human rights organizations recognized them as political prisoners and demanded to reconsider the case. Besides that, during this period some of the defendants from «the Autukhovich group» were recognized as political prisoners as well.
On November 26, 2021, the Mogilev Regional Court behind closed doors began the hearing on the case under Article 289 of the Criminal Code against a local resident of Mogilev who would be charged with throwing a Molotov cocktail at the front door of the Mogilev Institute of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Initially, the case was initiated under «especially malicious hooliganism», «deliberate destruction of the property in a generally dangerous way» and «illegal actions in relation to objects, the damaging effect of which is based on the use of combustible means» articles of the Criminal Code, but later this act was re-classified into a much stricter Article 289 of the Criminal Code. Moreover, during the actual court session, it turned out that he was also charged with «social enmity». At the beginning of December 2021, the court ordered compulsory security measures and treatment in a psychiatric hospital with enhanced supervision (such a punishment is imposed without agreed time frames).
This period was marked by five arrests in the framework of cases on «the acts of terrorism» (A. Lukashenko publicly announced the arrest of seven people who tried to commit terrorist acts). On October 8, 2021, a former inspector of the special training department of the Minsk Special Purpose Police Unit (hereinafter -– OMON) was detained for unknown acts while on duty. On November 9, 2021, the pro-government Telegram channel «Main Department for Combating Organized Crime» (hereinafter – GUBOP) announced the arrest of three residents of Bobruisk, who are accused of arson and laying fake explosive devices at public transport stops and railway tracks. On December 9, 2021, on the «GUBOP» Telegram channel, there appeared the information about the arrest of one of the developers of the «Black map» (a tool to spread personal data of defense and law enforcement employees): it was stated that “he will be subject to Articles of the Criminal Code on terrorism, participation and financing”. On December 11, 2021, a man was arrested, who was named the «chief visual editor» of the videos of the «Supratsiu» movement (recognized as a terrorist organization) for «participation in a terrorist organization». The pro-government Telegram channels say that he was only responsible for «all the visuals», «the very idea, concept, he thought over logos and symbols, developed theory, strategy and tactics» and «personally voiced almost all the terrorist videos». On December 23, 2021, there appeared the information that KGB officers arrested a Russian citizen who damaged 33 trolleybuses in Gomel for «the act of terrorism».
Article 359 of the Criminal Code
«An act of terrorism against a statesman or public figure»
On December 23, 2021, it became known about the arrest of six people who were members of the “Supratsiu” organization and damaged the car of a judge, a pro-government journalist and an employee of the prosecutor’s office. In the framework of this case, people are subject to the Article 290-4 of the Criminal Code (creation of an organization for carrying out terrorist activities or participation in it), which is used only for the second time during the period of our observations (for the first time we found it in the Ministry of Internal Affairs statistics report for the year 2020).
Article 361 of the Criminal Code
«Calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus»
This article is still used to punish both well-known public figures and the most ordinary Internet users: any opposition calls, which sometimes do not even contain any radical narrative, can be interpreted by the law enforcement representatives as an incitement to harm national security. All cases under this Article are most often initiated for systematic and public criticism of the authorities or for simultaneous posting of the large number of negative comments.
In the period October-December 2021, we know of three trials and two new cases.
On November 10, 2021, the Minsk City Court announced the verdict against the well-known Belarusian anarchist and blogger Nikolai Dedok – he was found guilty of calling for actions against national security (part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code), participation in the actions that grossly violate public order (part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code) and illegal actions in relation to flammable substances (part 1 of Article 295-3) and sentenced him to 5 years in a general regime colony. Specifically, Article 361 was charged to Nikolai for administering the “radical Telegram channel”, in which he “by influencing the consciousness of people via the Internet” spread materials “aimed at destabilizing the situation in the country, artificial aggravation of the tension and confrontation in society, and spreading the ideology of extremism.”
On November 15, 2021, the same court sentenced Vladislav Martinovich to 4 years in prison for administering the Telegram channel “White robes”, even though Vladislav himself claimed that he did not know who was administering this channel, and after monitoring his computer, the police admitted that “they got confused and detained the wrong person.” The investigation office claimed that the channel was spreading the ideology of extremism, aggravated the tension in the society, and the channel itself was created with the aim of “influencing the consciousness and will of healthcare workers in the Republic of Belarus, as well as students and teachers of medical educational institutions of the country.”
Criminal cases under this Article for the administration of Telegram channels are initiated mainly against the owners of relatively large or well-known Telegram chats (for example, blogger Anton Motolko), and the administrators of smaller channels are usually prosecuted under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code.
On October 19, 2021, it became known that Natalya Belobekhova, who was charged under Article 356 (“Treason against the State”) in the case of the “Rabochy Rukh” (“The Working Movement”) labor union, which was recognized as an extremist group, was also charged under part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code.
On November 1, 2021, at the request of the Belarusian police, Russian law enforcement representatives detained a resident of St. Petersburg with Belarusian origin: she is accused of libel, illegal actions with personal data, incitement of hostility, creating an extremist group and calling for actions against national security. According to the Investigative Committee, she is involved in the administration of three Telegram channels. At the moment, the Belarusian authorities have sent a request for the extradition of the girl, and she herself is in custody in a pre-trial detention center and has applied for refugee status.
Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code
«Creation of an extremist group or participation in it»
This article is still used primarily against various opposition initiatives in Telegram, as well as their participants and administrators. Necessary to admit that almost all Telegram channels and chats are recognized as «extremist groups» much later than the detention of their alleged administrators exactly for «creating an extremist group». Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code is often used by law enforcement along with Article 342 of the Criminal Code (group actions that grossly violate public order). There is an example of the initiation of a case against the editorial board of the major mass media. During this period, we know about 2 sentences and 6 new cases.
On December 3, 2021, the Minsk City Court issued a verdict against the activist Olga Zolotar. She was found guilty under three Articles of the Criminal Code: part 1 of Article 361-1 (creation of an extremist group), parts 1 and 2 of Article 342 (organization of actions that grossly violate public order), part 1 of Article 16 and part 1 of Article 342 (aiding in the organization of actions, grossly violating public order). The woman was detained for «active protest activities», she was charged with administering a local opposition chat («Zhdanovichi 2020 – Tsoi lovers’ club», which was recognized as an extremist group only on October 22, 2021) and organizing various «neighbour» events (tea drinking, walks, concerts). On December 25, 2021, it became known that, under this Article, another participant in the neighbours chat, a resident of the Kaskad residential complex, was detained for setting fire to tires in 2020.
On November 29, 2021, the trial began against a student and citizen of the Russian Federation Artyom Boyarsky, who was charged with the same charges for allegedly administering one of the largest opposition channels, «MAYA KRAYINA BELARUS» («My country Belarus»). According to the Investigation office, Artyom, «administering the extremist group, formed its membership, distributed roles, monitored the content of the resource and organized the participation of its members in protest activities». The judge granted the prosecutor’s motion to hold the session behind closed doors due to the fact that «the case file contains information about the intimate side of the accused’s life, as well as information from the Telegram channel, which is recognized as extremist», although the consideration of «extremist information» in the case is clearly not one of the cases stipulated in Article 23 of the Criminal Code according to which a court sitting can be held behind closed doors. On December 9, 2021, the court sentenced Artyom to five years of imprisonment in a colony with a reinforced regime.
During this period, it became known about the detention of the alleged administrators of the «Oshmyany» Telegram channel, the «Petrikov-97%» Telegram channel and one of the Polotsk chats. All these people are also accused of the creation of an extremist group.
On November 10, 2021, the Investigative Committee announced that people who registered and are members of the «Peramoga Plan» («The Victory Plan») initiative (a mobilization initiative of the protesters offering each belarusian a specific set of actions) after November 8, 2021(the date the initiative was recognized as an extremist group) will be punished as members of an extremist group, including those who left their personal data in the chatbot of the initiative «to carry out extremist acts on the territory of Belarus at the direction of foreign headquarters». Also, the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case under parts 1 and 2 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code against the participants of the initiative of the former law enforcement representatives «BYPOL» for the direct creation and administration of the “Peramoga Plan”. Earlier, the «GUBOP» Telegram channel had already repeatedly reported on the arrests of the participants of this initiative, but the type of the charges was not mentioned in the channel’s publications. On November 15, 2021, it became known about the first arrest for participation in the “Peramoga Plan” in the framework of the criminal case – a resident of Brest was detained, who mentioned his participation in social networks.
Repressions under this Article are carried out not only against Telegram resources recognized as extremist groups, along with their administrators and participants, but also against the mass media. On November 18, 2021, it became known that the director of the «BelaPAN» news agency Irina Levshina and its former head Dmitry Novozhilov, who had been detained since August 2021 under Articles for gross violation of the public order and tax evasion, were also charged with the creation of an extremist group. It is necessary to admit that charges for «extremist groups» are pressed in the vast majority of cases against people who were members of various organizations of people even before the decision was made to recognize them as an extremist group by the KGB or the Ministry of Internal Affairs, although such decisions should not have retroactive effect in accordance with Part 3 of Article 9 of the Criminal Code.
Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code
«Financing of the extremist activity»
On October 19, 2021, it became known that the Sovetsky District Department of Internal Affairs of the city of Gomel is conducting an investigation against the volunteer Ilya Mironov «on the grounds of committing a crime under Part 1 of Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code». Despite the fact that Ilya’s lawyer does not even have the right to name the number of the Article under which he is accused, this information became available from the police department response to one of the activist’s letter, in which he asked to tell about the fate of his property confiscated during one of the searches. Ilya actively supported political prisoners (wrote over 2,500 letters showing his support and organized dozens of food and clothes deliveries to detention centers). Earlier this year,in July, we described a similar case of «Strana dlya zhizni» («Country for living») volunteers.
Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code
«Aiding extremist activity»
This “extremist” article supplemented the Criminal Code with amendments introduced in May 2021. According to the information of the Investigative Committee on October 6, 2021 for the comment «Ok, it’s time to take out the weapon. Long live Belarus!» under the video with the demonstration of the use of weapons, a resident of Novogrudok was detained. According to the investigation, this comment was left «in support of extremist activities and the use of weapons», which can be interpreted as aiding extremism. The sanction of this Article provides for punishment in the form of imprisonment for up to 7 years.
Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code – 40 court hearings
For the period October-December 2021, we do not know about the cases related to the distribution of Nazi symbols, but Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code was actively used: «Distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products containing calls for extremist actions or promoting such activities». In total, at least 29 people were detained under this Article for reposting or forwarding publications from resources recognized as extremist, 28 people – for subscribing to these resources (in some cases, the subscription was interpreted as “storing extremist materials”), as well as 1 person was detained for sending information or offering news on Telegram channels recognized as extremist («production of extremist materials»). We also know about 40 trials under this Article, during which the accused, in the vast majority of cases, were sentenced to a maximum sentence of 15 days of administrative arrest. Most frequently people were punished for distributing materials from such resources as «NEXT *», «T * T.BY» and «Bels * t». In August and September 2021, there were about 20 of such cases.
On November 5, 2021, the judge of the Frunzensky district, Yulia Bliznyuk, sentenced Olga Kazadoi, an employee of the human resources department of Godel Technologies company, to 15 days of arrest. In the protocol of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, which was the only evidence in the court hearing, it was stated that the woman “kept in her personal account the materials of the «Basta» telegram channel, which was recognized as extremist” – this is the first confirmed case of prosecution precisely for subscribing to the Telegram channel. It is also known about a fine for a subscription to a female resident of Kalinkovichi.
In the “repentance videos” on the «GUBOP» Telegram channel, people often say that they were subscribed to extremist channels on Telegram, but in practice they are often prosecuted within the framework of various articles of the Administrative Code: Article 19.1. of the Administrative Code («petty hooliganism»), Article 24.3. of the Administrative Code («disobedience»), Article 24.23. of the Administrative Code («violation of the procedure for organizing or holding mass events»).
All court verdicts in such cases are based only on the evidence from the prosecution side (police officers’ records and testimonies of the witnesses, who are also the Ministry of Internal Affairs employees), and the process of hearing sometimes turns into a real «conveyor belt». Thus, for example, it took only 3 minutes for the judge of the Novobelitsky district of Gomel, Aleksandr Zinchuk, to find a female resident of Gomel guilty of «distributing extremist materials» and sentence her to 15 days of arrest.
The story of the married couple Anastasia Krupenich-Kondratyeva and Sergei Krupenich, who on November 5, 2021 were sentenced to administrative arrest for the ninth time in a row by the Leninsky District Court of Minsk, caused a great resonance. Anastasia and Sergei spent a total of 112 days of arrest each for numerous messages sent from Telegram channels recognized as extremist, necessary to admit that it happened only in their personal correspondence. Each repost was formally the basis for a new protocol under Article 19.11. of the Administrative Code, and the employees of the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (GUBOPiK) informed Anastasia that the number of those reposts will be enough to continue her administrative prosecution until January 2021. The editor-in-chief of the newspaper “Tsarkva” (“The Church”) also received 12 protocols at once for the fact of each repost from the resource “Bels * t”, which is recognized as extremist material. Journalist Sergei Nerovny was convicted of likes under the publications of «T * T.BY» and «Bels * t» and interpreted it as the «distribution of extremist materials».
Amendments to the Republican List of Extremist Materials
In the period of October-December 2021, the courts proceeded with recognizing new materials as extremist. It took some time for them to be included in the Republican List of extremist materials (hereinafter – the list) available on the website of the Ministry of Information of the Republic of Belarus. The very existence of this list and prosecution for the use of listed materials is an unjustified restriction of freedom of expression, since the background, possible effect of expressing oneself in the respective manner and other important factors are disregarded.
Over three months, 165 court decisions on the recognition of 227 materials as extremist were issued (compared to 84 decisions on 129 materials during August-September 2021).
The court of the Central District of Minsk issued 22 decisions which is the highest number (11 more than in the previous period). The second position was taken by the court of the Borisovsky district of the Minsk region which issued 15 decisions, although previously it issued only sporadic decisions. The third position by the number of decisions was shared by the court of the Railway district of the city of Gomel and the court of the Railway district of the city of Vitebsk (already got listed in the top three in the period June-July 2021) – they issued 13 decisions each. The majority of the decisions were issued by the courts of Minsk (48 decisions), the courts of the Minsk region (41 decisions) and the courts of the Vitebsk region (33 decisions) occupied the second and third positions respectively. As before, the courts of the Mogilev region were the least active in banning information resources – in this region, only the Court of Leninsky district of Mogilev issued 2 decisions.
Once again, Telegram opposition channels and chats became the leading category of resources recognized as extremist– 160 Telegram resources have been included into the list during this period, including 91 channels, 47 chats and 22 groups. A. Parshin – the head of the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime And Corruption (hereinafter – GUBOPiK) – in an interview with the media source mlyn.wu stated: «this year, as a result of «our efforts,» 125 Telegram channels and chats were recognized as extremist». Presumably, this statistics covers only the resources recognized as extremist by the claim of GUBOPiK specifically, since according to our data, within the period from January 1, 2021 to December 31, 2021, 389 Telegram resources were listed.
The channel «Glubokoe dlia zhizni» («Glubokoe for Life») was recognized as extremist twice within a week – on October 1, 2021, by the court of the Glubokoe district of the Vitebsk region and later, on October 6, 2021, by the court of the Zheleznodorozhny district of Vitebsk. Also, «Novopolotsk microdistrict 6 chat» and «Novopolotsk microdistrict 7 chat» were recognized as extremist by virtue of decisions of two courts twice.
Opposition channels and chats of various scales proceeded to be listed as extremist: during this period, both some of the resources largest in terms of the number of participants were recognized as extremist (for example, the channels «Svetlana Tikhanovskaya» with an audience of almost 100 thousand people; «Nick and Mike» having 60 thousand subscribers; «Realnaya Belarus» («Real Belarus») having 50 thousand subscribers), and chats that are not popular at all (for example, the chat «Perezhir97» having 30 subscribers), as well as channels staying inactive for more than a year. It is worth noting specifically the recognition of the extremist news channel of the Golos Platform (more than 80 thousand subscribers), while the popular bot of this platform, designed for monitoring the presidential elections in August 2020 and mobilizing protesters, has not yet been recognized as extremist.
The Telegram channel of independent political analyst Artsiom Shraibman was also recognized as extremist.
Despite the major channels for de-anonymization of the law enforcement officers are already listed as extremist, similar resources of a smaller scale continued to be included in the list. On October 6, 2021, a website collecting data on law enforcement officers, which has been blocked on the territory of the Republic of Belarus since 2017, was recognized as extremist.
For the first time, the resources of human rights organizations were recognized as extremist – the website and social media accounts of the Garadzenskaya Viasna team, a regional unit of the Viasna Human Rights Center were listed, and on December 30, 2021, the Telegram channel of the organization was recognized as extremist («Viasna / Human Rights in Belarus»). Similar to the period of August-September 2021, over three months, oppositional initiatives of workers of such enterprises as Belaruskali, BelAZ, Gomselmash, MTZ were recognized as extremist, the BOR | Belarusian Association of Workers channel and «Community of Railway Workers» were also included in the list. Procedure for banning university chats proceeded – within the analyzed period, the chats of the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics (BSUIR), Yanka Kupala Grodno State University (GrSU), Minsk State Linguistic University (MSLU) and the student movement of Gomel were recognized as extremist. Following the popular group «Chai z malinavym varennem» («Tea with raspberry jam»), other channels with a humorous bias were banned, for example, «Elekhtarat» and «Fifth Column». As usual, anarchist resources have also become the object of the fight against extremism, not only Belarusian ones («Pramen»), but Ukrainian ones as well.
During this period, active application of anti-extremist legislation continued to create obstacles to the activity of independent media. All social networks and the website of the media resource Belarusian Partisan, all social networks of the media resource Nasha Niva, the resources of the Euroradio media resource in Telegram and YouTube, as well as the resources of the regional media Ex-Press, Brest Newspaper, Borisov News and Vitebsk Vestnik were recognized as extremist materials. The analyzed period is marked by the fact of recognition of three printed media as «extremist».
Out of all “extremist materials” of this period, a video entitled “Prayer for Belarus with Vyacheslav Bark 17.07.2021” from the channel «Real Belarus!» stands out. The video is a recording of a live broadcast on which Belarusians hold a prayer in Warsaw together with Priest Vyacheslav Barok, who has previously been held accountable under «extremist» article. The recognition of this video as extremist violates not only the right to freedom of expression, but also the right to freedom of religion enshrined in Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Only 2 «non-political» decisions on recognizing materials as “extremist” were not polically driven – the first one covers the neo-Nazi community in VKontakte, its avatar and a number of posts in this group, and the second one recognizes the Nazi antiques and souvenirs store as extremist, whose media community description indicated that this historical store serves reenactors and collectors, its goods are not aimed at promoting political ideas and are sold in closed packaging without demonstration.
Amendments to the List of Legal Entities, Formations, Individual Entrepreneurs, and Individuals Involved in Extremist Activities
Despite the fact that the concept of «extremist formation» was included in the Law «On Countering Extremism» back in May 2021, the first group of people recognized as such was reported only on September 29, 2021 in the film by ONT channel (where the strike movement “Rabochy Rukh” («Working class movement») was classified «extremist»), and a list of such formations was made available on the website of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on October 18, 2021. Such «delays» might have been caused by the fact that the detailed regulation of the procedure for listing persons on such ground and its maintenance was established by the Resolution of the Council of Ministers No. 575, adopted on October 12, 2021.
As of December 2021, the list of extremist groups included 27 positions – ranging from trade union movements and independent media to anarchist movements and local chats. Over three months, the list was replenished by:
- members of the strike initiative «Rabochy Rukh» («Working class movement»);
-  the initiative of former security forces «BYPOL» and the «mobilization plan «Peramoga» («Victory»), funds «BYSOL» and «By_help» designed for the consolidation of protesters;
- participants of the initiative «Platform of People’s Representatives «Skhod”»(«Union»);
- participants of radical opposition chats «Buslylyatyats», «People’s Self-Defense Militia»;
- subscribers of such major opposition channels as «N*XTA», «N*XTA-Live», «LUXT*», «MAYA KRAINA BELARUS» (MY COUNTRY BELARUS»;
- subscribers of Telegram channels of Cyber-guerrillas;
- some local opposition chats – «Zhdanovichi sennya» («Zhdanovichi today») / «Zhdanovichi 2020-Tsoi’s song lovers club», «Petrikov 97%», «Chat. Gomselmash for a Free Belarus!», «Polotsk Novopolotsk Is A Country For Life Chat Freedom To Sergei Tikhanovsky», «Bulvar Nepokorennykh» («Boulevard of Those Unbroken»), «97% Chausy», «CASCAD».
- Telegram channel with satirical content «Lukamem»;
- independent media – employees of the agency «BelaPAN», as well as subscribers of the Internet resources «Belsat» and «Radio Svaboda»;
- anarchist divisions «Revolutionary action» and «Pramen» («Ray»);
- chats of unknown content «Smail s*ki» and «HIDRA»;
- the website «dze.chat», containing a map with the location of all local opposition chats and diaspora chats abroad.
Despite the fact that both «extremist formations» and «extremist materials» are mostly associated with the outlawing of Internet resources, the procedures relevant for these categories vary significantly. In order to recognize materials as extremist, a court decision is necessary, and handling such materials in various ways (distribution, storage, production) is subject to administrative responsibility. In case of recognizing a group of citizens united via Internet resource as extremist formations, a court ruling is not required – a decision of the Ministry of Internal Affairs or the State Security Committee, which are not made publicly available, is sufficient. Moreover, various interactions with resources managed by extremist formations (subscription to such resources, registration in chatbots) may already become grounds for criminal prosecution on the ground of «participation in an extremist formation» (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).
The list of extremist formations is regularly updated with new formations added to it, but does not include subsections listing organizations, individual entrepreneurs and individuals recognized as involved in extremist activities. The procedure for recognizing individuals differs from the procedure for recognizing other subjects: in order to include a citizen in the list, a court ruling that has entered into force in connection with the «commitment» of an extremism-related crime by the individual is necessary, although the exact list of such articles of the Criminal Code are not provided for in the legislation.
Changes in the List of Organizations and Individuals participating in Terrorist Activities
Replenishment has continued List of organizations and individuals engaged in terrorist activities (hereinafter – List) opposition movements: the informal organization “Supratsiў” was recognized as a terrorist with the initiatives of «Cyber-Guerrillas», «People’s Self-Defense Forces – CSN» and «Busly Lyatsyats» included in it, and therefore these organizations are both extremist and terrorist. This decision was made by the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus on December 1, 2021 at the request of the General Prosecutor’s Office. The body’s report states that “the key purposes of the formation’s establishment and activities are to unite radically minded citizens for subsequent inducement to participate in unsanctioned protests and forcefully oppose law enforcement and terrorist acts; discredit state authorities and administration; and violently change the constitutional order of the republic. According to Mediazon, the anonymous hacker group Cyber-Partisans claimed responsibility for hacking various websites and databases of the government, various videos showing attacks on the property of security forces were published in the «Busly Liats» channel, and the content of the Telegram channel of the People’s Self-Defense Squads as a whole consists only of repostings of other channels.
Between October and December 2021, only 7 people from other countries were added to the List of Individuals Involved in Terrorism, including the head of a detention center in Libya where human rights were violated; military officials of the Yemeni Hussites, two high-ranking members of ISIS, and the head of a paramilitary group in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Liquidation of organizations
According to the Human Rights Center «Viasna», 275 Belarusian non-profit organizations have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation. We consider such actions of the authorities as pressure on civil society and violation of the right to freedom of association, stipulated by Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
One of the most popular reasons for liquidation is «implementation of extremist activity» and «harm to national security». For instance, on October 29 2021 Minsk regional court liquidated Barysau women’s public association Provincia: the liquidation application stated that the organization had been engaged in «propaganda of war or other extremist activity».
Restriction of access to Internet news resources
Repression against independent media in Belarus was not limited to inclusion of their Internet resources in the list of extremist – some of them were blocked by decision of the Ministry of Information without any court proceedings. On October 28, 2021 access to the websites of «Deutsche Welle», «Present time» and «Novy Chas» was restricted by such a decision. The reason for this decision the First Deputy Minister of Information called distribution of hyperlinks to the materials recognized as extremist on these media platforms. The official also mentioned that the Ministry of Information will continue taking decisions aimed at protecting the country’s information space, which, of course, can be interpreted as a prerequisite for further restrictions on freedom of speech by this body as well. Also, during this period the portal «Yezhednevnik» was blocked, as well as the Baranavichy-based publication Intex-press.
On October 19 2021 the prosecutor of Vitebsk region issued a ruling to restrict access to the website «Volnae Hlybokae», which was sent for execution to the State Inspectorate for Telecommunications. The BELTA report states that in addition to posting «extremist materials» the site contained articles that «presented the activities of state bodies as illegal, justified and glorified the perpetrators of offenses and crimes» and «negatively characterized the social and political situation in the country after the election campaign and discredited the work of the country’s law enforcement system».
The approach to taking measures against independent media and state media using “extremist materials” is radically different. So, the staff of the Ministry of Information limited themselves only to conducting an explanatory conversation with the editorial office of the state district publication “Chyrvony Pramen” about the publication of a photo with the logo «T*T.BY».
Warnings and registration for “extremism”
Law enforcement officers continue to use «warnings in accordance with the legislation on combating extremism» as a tool to put pressure on civil society. Such a warning was issued to two residents of Gomel: a man who was found in possession of white-red-white symbols, and a woman for subscribing to opposition Telegram channels.
The practice of registering political prisoners as «prone to extremist and other destructive activities» did not stop: during this period, Olga Gorbunova, a feminist activist and former head of the Radislava institution, which provided assistance to women who suffered from domestic violence, was added to the register.