Human rights organization Human Constanta continues to collect information and analyze trends in the application of laws on countering “extremism” in Belarus from the standpoint of international human rights standards. In this review, we have collected new trends and practices in the application of anti-extremist laws over two months in connection with an increased number of important events that occurred in April and May 2021 (the previous review covers the period from January to March 2021).
Over the two months analyzed, anti-extremism laws have been amended to expand the term “extremism” (it now covers any acts of disagreement and dissent) and toughen the penalties for its manifestation. On May 23, 2021, after the forced landing of an Athens-Vilnius plane in Minsk, blogger Roman Protasevich, one of the first Belarusians included in the “list of terrorists” and former editor of the largest opposition Telegram channel, was detained. Prosecution of commentators on the Internet and trials of civil society activists continued, as well as other forms of repressions and retaliatory measures for expressing opinions. For the first time Belarusian authorities initiated a case against foreign politicians and fined the author’s for the way his signature looked in Mogilev. They also expanded the Republican List of Extremist Materials and confiscated the books of famous Belarusian writers for examination.
The good news: the list of terrorists has not been expanded in two months (see Human Constanta’s special review on this topic), and one case for “distributing extremist materials” was dropped.
On March 1, 2021, a new version of the Code of Administrative Offenses (hereinafter referred to as the CAO) entered into force. New administrative offenses were added, liability for a number of actions under “opposition” articles was increased. Besides the CAO, several other documents were amended during the spring session of the Parliament:
- Law On the Countering of Extremism has undergone major changes.A list of actors and forms of “extremist activity” has been extended, the List of Extremists was introduced, and the liability for violating the law became tougher – more details about the amendments to this law can be found in the detailed review;
- New elements of “extremist” crimes have appeared in the Criminal Code (see detailed review from the Center for Legal Transformation and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee). Liability for some of the existing norms under the code has toughened. The new version of the code introduces liability for not only insulting a state official, but also his or her relatives, as well as for spreading false information about Belarus. It is not only the creation of an extremist group, but participation in it that is now punishable under criminal law (these norms are likely to be used against online chats of neighbours). According to the Code, several crimes will be considered a manifestation of extremism, if they are committed with the an aim of inciting hatred against a group;
- A new Law On Preventing the Rehabilitation of Nazism was adopted. It is closely related to the topic of extremism. Now the law defines terms “Nazi criminals” and “accomplices of Nazi criminals”, and provides for measures to prevent and punish the rehabilitation of Nazism. There are fears that this law will provide ground for persecution of people who hold opposition views for using national symbols (the white-red-white flag and Pogonya coat of arms), which the authorities want to recognize as “Nazi” because of certain collaborationist organizations during World War II.
These changes cause deep concern of the human rights community in connection with the further restriction of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.
Criminal cases for «extremism»
We are seeing many new criminal cases of “inciting hostility”, “threatening national security”, creating “extremist groups” and even “conducting a coup d’état”.
During the analyzed period, information appeared about 12 new charges (in the last review, there were 18 of such cases) under article 130 of the Criminal Code (“incitement of racial, national, religious or other social hostility or discord”), as well as about one detainee from the search database with such a charge:
- On the 23rd of May 2021 the Belarusian authorities landed an international flight from Athens to Vilnius in Minsk to detain the administrator of the Telegram channel “Belarus of the Brain” and the former editor-in-chief of the Telegram channel Nexta, Roman Protasevich. In November 2020, the Investigative Committee charged Roman with three offences under the Criminal Code: part 3 of Article 130 (“committing intentional acts aimed at inciting social hostility on the basis of professional affiliation”), article 342 (“organizing group actions that grossly violate public order”) and article 293 (“organizing mass riots”). The accusation under the latter article became the basis for Roman’s inclusion in the List of people involved in terrorist activities. In recent years Roman lived in Poland and Lithuania;
- Together with Roman Protasevich, his girlfriend, a citizen of the Russian Federation, Sofia Sapega, was detained on the plane from Athens to Vilnius. On 25th of May it became known that she was also recognized as a suspect under part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (actions committed by a group of people or entailing serious consequences), as well as under articles 342 and 293, which are also imputed to Roman. Sofia is charged with the administration of the Telegram channel “Black Book of Belarus”, which published the personal data of law enforcement officials. Only under this article she faces up to 12 years in prison;
- On April 16, 2021 the Investigative Committee reported that a criminal case against a 24-year-old resident of Polotsk, is being investigated in Vitebsk. According to investigators, the accused was inciting social hostility by leaving negative comments about state officials on the social network Vkontakte. Forensic examinations showed that the comments left by the accused contained calls for violence against state officials, the government of the country, as well as a group of people whose activities are related to the functioning of the state. Interestingly, the man is being held accountable for a comment that was left on the May 9, 2020 – that is, before the start of widespread protest activity;
- A case of inciting social hostility has also been initiated against a 45-year-old individual entrepreneur from Homel. According to law enforcement officers, the man is suspected of calling for pogroms, arson, destruction of property, violence and armed resistance to government officials;
- It is also known that a case has been initiated under Article 130 against a 23-year-old resident of Petrikov, who works in a local barbershop, for an Instagram post. On 20 May, 2021 the man was also punished for an administrative offense – the court of the Moskovsky district of Brest fined him 290 Belarusian rubles for publicly displaying Nazi symbols. In addition to the fine, the investigators issued a warning and opened a criminal case for inciting social hostility, based on the negative comments about the police officers;
- According to the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, on the May 20, 2021 the Minsk City Court found Mia Mitkevich, a 29-year-old social and cultural manager and art director of the Nuestro Amor event agency, guilty under part 1 of article 130 of the Criminal Code and sentenced her to three years in a penal colony for comments on the social network “Vkontakte”. The woman is charged with actions motivated by ” political and ideological hostility related to the electoral campaign of Belarus and various political views»;
- Earlier, we were aware of the accusation of blogger Sergei Tikhonovsky under Article 130 of the Criminal Code, and on April 28, 2021 the Investigative Committee announced the transfer of his criminal case together with the cases of his supporters: against Artem Sakov (operator of “Country for Life”), Russian citizen Dmitry Popov (SMM employee of “Country for Life”), as well as Igor Losik (administrator of the channel “Belarus of the Brain”) and Vladimir Tsyganovich (blogger) part 3 of the article also appears. 130 of the Criminal Code (“incitement of social hostility and discord against representatives of the authorities and law enforcement agencies committed by a group of persons»);
- On the May 31, 2021 it became known that anarchist political prisoner Alexander Frantskevich was charged with additional charges under part 3 of article 130 of the Criminal Code;
- A new practice has been the initiation of criminal proceedings against officials of a foreign state: on the May 28, 2021, the Prosecutor General of Belarus, Andrei Shved, opened a criminal case against the Mayor of Riga, Martins Stackis, and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Latvia, Edgard Rinkevich, “for committing deliberate actions aimed at inciting national hostility on the basis of nationality”, in accordance with part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code. This step was taken in connection with the situation when the mayor of the Latvian capital in the center of Riga publicly replaced the official state flag of Belarus with white-red-white.
Among other criminal cases under “extremist” articles, it is worth noting a new criminal case under Article 357 of the Criminal Code (“conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing state power”). On April 11, 2021 employees of the Belarusian State Security Committee (hereinafter referred to as the KGB) detained political scientist Alexander Feduta and lawyer Yuri Zenkovich, who practices in the United States of America. In Belarus, the head of the Belarusian People’s Front (BPF) party, Grigory Kostusev, was detained in the same case. On April 27, 2021 the Belarusian state channel showed the film “Kill the President”, where it is alleged that these people were preparing an armed coup d’etat, the purpose of which was to eliminate the main persons of the country, including the president and his family. According to the authors of the film, the group was associated with a former security officer Igor Makar, a member of the Seimas of the BPF party Vitaly Makarenko, as well as living in the United States of America ex-security officer Pavel Kulazhenko, psychiatrist Dmitry Shchigelsky and scientist Alexander Perepechko. The US special services were named as the direct curators of this operation. On May 6, 2021 information appeared in the media about the detention of a 35-year-old truck driver from Naroch, Denis Kravchuk, who is being held in the status of an accused in this case. The alleged role of Denis Kravchuk in the “conspiracy” is unknown. The procedure of “kidnapping” coup d’état suspects on the territory of a foreign state, bypassing the extraction standards, is a gross violation of their rights.
Despite the fact that one of the KGB officers claimed the uniqueness of the coup case in an interview, in May, the final charges were brought against Maxim Sign and Maria Kolesnikova, including, in addition to the article on “conspiracy to seize power by unconstitutional means”, part 3 of Article 361 (“calls to action against national security”) and part 1 of Article 361-1 (“creating and leading an extremist group”) – they face up to 12 years in prison.
Article 361 of the Criminal Code (“calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus») now it is used as a tool of pressure on the media – for the publication of an interview with Svetlana Tikhonovskaya in April 2021 a criminal investigation began in the against the editor of the Baranovichi independent newspaper Intex-press, Vladimir Yanukevich. The interview was deemed “extremist”, and the editor of the publication received an administrative fine. The Ministry of Information also issued a warning to Intex-press for violating Article 38 of the Law “On Mass Media”.
On April 22, 2021 the Investigative Committee declared Alexandra Gerasimenya and Alexander Opeikin, the founders of the Belarusian Sports Solidarity Fund, to be defendants in a criminal case. They are charged with violating part 3 of Article 361 (“calls to commit actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus, committed using the mass media and the global computer network Internet”).
On 25th of May 2021 the Investigative Committee completed an investigation into the case of anarchist Nikolai Dedok. Mikalai was charged under part 1 of Article 342 (“active participation in actions that grossly violate public order”), part 2 of Article 361 (“distribution of materials with calls to commit actions aimed at harming the national security of Belarus, using the Internet”), part 1 of Article 295-3 (“illegal actions against objects, the damaging effect of which is based on the use of flammable substances») the Criminal Code.
On March 29, 2021 Olga Zolotar, a mother of five children, was charged under part 1 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (“creating an extremist formation or leading such a formation or a structural unit that is part of it”). Olga was detained for “active protest activity”, as well as for the fact that she was allegedly the administrator of the Telegram neighbours’ chat in Zhdanovichi. Earlier, the Investigative Committee stated that the administrators of such Telegram chats will be criminally liable under this article. The woman was recognized as a political prisoner. According to “Viasna” Human Rights Center, on April 16, 2021, after 25 days of administrative arrest for participating in an unauthorized meeting, a student of the Belarusian State University, Artyom Boyarsky, was detained and placed in a pre-trial detention center. He is suspected of committing a crime under part 1 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (“creation of an extremist group”) and, according to the investigation, is the administrator of the TG channel “My country Belarus”.
“Extremist” cases of administrative violations
In April-May 2021, we became aware of four cases of distribution of Nazi symbols (Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code) and four cases of distribution of “extremist materials” (Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code):
- On April 26, 2021, in Mogilev, a woman was brought to justice in the form of a fine for the author’s signature: back in March, police officers held a “preventive conversation” with a Mogilev resident about preventing violations of the law. After the conversation, she was given an official warning form, which she signed: the same ones, as in her passport. The police considered that the signature of the woman resembled an abbreviation consisting of four letters and four dots, which some understand as criticism of police officers. In 2018, this abbreviation was included in the Republican list of Extremist Materials. Two weeks later, a report was drawn up on a resident of Mogilev on an administrative offense for “spreading extremist materials” under part 2 of Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code;
- On May 18, 2021 the state media reported on the case of an administrative offense against a Minsk resident, who, according to the employees of the Main Department for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (hereinafter referred to as GUBOPiK) “was reposting information from a Telegram channel recognized as extremist”. In addition to the administrative charge, he was given an official warning;
- On April 21, 2021 pensioner Adam Shpakovsky was detained. The police said that the 65-year-old pensioner administered the Telegram chat of the Uruchye district. The reason for the searches and detention was the complaint of neighbors that Adam “annoyed everyone with his Belarusian language”. He was sentenced to 15 days of arrest. On May 12, 2021 it became known that he was sentenced once again to 12 days of arrest – this time for distributing ” Nazi symbols»;
- On April 28, 2021 the administrator of the popular Telegram channel of the political satire “Soviet Belarus”was detained. In the Frunze district court, he was convicted of disobeying the police and for publicly displaying Nazi symbols. According to the protocol, the man posted an image of the SS coat of arms in the Telegram channel “Imp of the Concept”, as well as in another little-known channel;
- On May 9, 2021 the Bobruisk journalist Vladimir Repik was detained and then fined 10 basic units (290 Belarusian rubles). The reason for the trial was a video posted several years ago, where several guys beat a Nazi in a T-shirt with a swastika;
- On May 29, 2021 31-year-old stand-up artist Terenty Marinich, who filmed a pro-government rally in Uruchye on April 25, 2021, was discussed for the third time. In total, he will spend 45 days in captivity. One of the protocols, for which Terenty received 15 days on May 10, 2021, was drawn up for ” propaganda or public demonstration, production, distribution of Nazi symbols or paraphernalia»;
- On May 30, 2021 security forces came to the editor-in-chief of Hrodna.life, Alexey Shota, and later to the editor of special projects, Irina Novik, for allegedly re-placing products recognized as extremist. A protocol was drawn up on Alexey under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code. According to Alexey, an article was published on the portal, one of the images in which there was a very pale watermark of the Telegram channel, which was recognized as extremist. This article was published by one of the employees of the publication. When Alexey noticed the watermark, he deleted the image, but it took several hours for the security forces to take a screenshot and draw up a report on an administrative offense;
- We learned about one closed case for “storage of extremist materials”: Yegor Starovoitov was accused of storing the “extremist” book “Belarusian National Idea”, but on May 7, 2021 the case was dismissed, as the deadline for bringing to administrative responsibility expired. The last meeting was held on April 9, 2021: the judge took a break to read a book, and sent the case for revision.
On April 26, 2021 it became known about the detention of two women in Minsk. When searching the girls ‘ phones, the policeman saw a subscription to the Telegram channel of Belarusian doctors “White Coats” and said that the channel was recognized as “extremist”, although at the time of the events described, the channel was not on the list. However, the women were convicted of “unauthorized picketing”.
Updating the list of extremist materials
In April and May 2021, Belarusian courts issued 27 decisions on recognizing materials as extremist and including them in the Republican List of Extremist Materials (in the past three months, there were only 18 such decisions). These solutions include 35 new Telegram channels.
As in the last analyzed period, most similar decisions were made by the court of the Zheleznodorozhny district of Gomel. The detailed statistics are given below:
- Zheleznodorozhny district court of Gomel – 5 decisions;
- Railway district court of Vitebsk – 4;
- Leninsky district court of Mogilev – 3;
- Central district court of Minsk – 3;
- Leninsky district court of Brest – 2;
- Oktyabrsky district court of Minsk – 2;
- Leninsky district court of Grodno – 2;
- Sovetsky district court of Minsk – 1;
- Partizansky district court of Minsk-1;
- Lida district court – 1;
- Smorgon district court-1;
- Volkovysk district court – 1;
- Baranovichi district court and Baranovichi city court – 1.
The following Telegram channels were included in the Republican list of extremist materials for April and May 2021:
- “Mogilev 97%”, “Bobruisk 97%”, “Osipovichi for Life” and “Nepokorennykh Boulevard”;
- “Grodno 97%”;
- “Belarus of the brain”;
- “PALCHYS” – Telegram channel of political prisoner Eduard Palchys (Eduard was charged on November 6, 2021 under part 1 of Article 293 of the Criminal Code (“organization of mass riots”);
- “Baranovichi 97”;
- Telegram-channel of the initiative of the former security forces of BYPOL (this decision was the basis for blocking the Ministry of Information of the victim assistance site Probono.by);
- “Orsha 97%”, “Novopolotsk and Polotsk 97%”, “Vitebsk_yug”, ” Lida 97%” ” Baranovichi-97%”, “Partisans”;
- The “Black Book of Belarus” and the “daughters” of the channel in the regions (Brest and the Brest region, Vitebsk and the Vitebsk region, Gomel and the Gomel Region, Grodno and the Grodno Region, Mogilev and the Mogilev region);
- “Smargon CHAT”, “Flyers 97% “and” Flyers chat”, as well as a group in “Vkontakte” called ” #PLOSCHA”;
- “Bobruisk Online”, “Fatina Chat”, “Byalynichi chat” / Belynichi chat”, “Bykhov_live”, “Kazimirayka 97%”, “Mogilev for life”;
- “Volkovysk for life”;
- “OUR HOUSE”, “Igor Makar / Official Channel” and “OUR HOUSE TV”, as well as Youtube channels “OUR HOUSE TV” and ” Igor Makar”;
- “My Zhabinka ♥ ♥ ♥ “.
According to BelTA, the channel “Ostrovets for Life” is also recognized as extremist, but it is not on the list as of May 31, 2021.
During the analyzed period, books with Islamist content were also considered extremist; as well as videos of executions by members of the “Islamic State”; a page of an unknown user “Vkontakte”; a page with the name “Skinheads Nationalists”; a video of a song performed, presumably by students of one of the Polish schools; an anti-Semitic book; a book of a Slavic-Aryan character, as well as an interview in one of the regional newspapers with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.
It is worth noting that on April 11, 2021 the journalist of the pro-government newspaper Andrei Mukozvonchik said: “The book of the “infamous Lukashuk” has been recognized as extremist. Next up is Baharevich. Next loom Martinovich, Severinets and Alexievich”. It should be noted that the book of Zmitser Lukashuk “Belarusian National Idea” is not currently displayed in the Republican list of extremist materials. However, it became known that the book “Dogs of Europe” by Algerd Baharevich was seized by customs and sent for examination – most likely to conduct an expertise on whether it can be considered extremist. Based on the words of the publicist of the pro-government publication, in the future we can expect reprisals against the books of other authors mentioned above.
Other trends in the application of anti-extremist legislation
On 20th of April 2021, the trial of the “Center of Garadskoga Zhytsya” institution for its liquidation began in Grodno. The reason for the persecution is the exhibition of political prisoner Ales Pushkin, who is held in custody for creating a portrait of the historical character Yevgeny Zhikhar. The expert commission called Zhikhar a member of the collaborationist movement during the Second World War and saw signs of “rehabilitation of Nazism in his portrait “. The investigation against the artist continues, but on May 12, 2021 the court decided to liquidate the organization.
On May 10, 2021, representatives of law enforcement agencies came to the Vipra enterprise in Gomel, where almost 60 people with hearing disabilities work. All of them had their mobile phones confiscated to check for “extremist” chats. Citizens were also threatened with prosecution.
Official warnings continue to be issued in accordance with Article 10 of the Law “On Countering Extremism”. On April 12, 2021, it became known that in Gomel “the administrator of the district telegram chat “Belitsa Chat 97%” was identified. According to her, on the “confession video”, the woman called on subscribers to participate in protest actions, indicated the time and place of the gathering, as well as the direction of movement. She was given an official warning. On April 15, 2021, a warning was also issued to young people aged 17 and 19, who, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were administrators of the Telegram chat of the Gomel college, in which they posted calls to participate in mass riots and hooliganism. and on April 23, 2021, a warning was issued to a 33-year-old woman and a 65-year-old man from Minsk, who were administrators of one of the local chat rooms.
On April 13, 2021, the secretary of the main board of the unofficial Union of Poles and Andrzej Pisalnik was summoned to the prosecutor’s office and warned about the prevention of statements that may contradict the requirements of the laws of Belarus on national minorities and on countering extremism. The prosecutor’s office considered that Andrzej’s statements about the situation of the Polish population in Belarus were aimed at inciting ethnic hatred. On April 29, 2021, it was announced that the March editor-in-chief of Tut.by the way, Marina Zolotova was summoned to GUBOPiK and presented with a similar warning. The reason was a banner that was displayed as part of a partnership with the Yandex and Google advertising networks – that is, a banner that the editors of the online publication could not even have foreseen.
Warnings were issued not only to individuals, but also to the media. So, on May 31, 2021, the Prosecutor General’s Office reported that the editor of the newspaper “Novy Chas” was officially warned about the inadmissibility of violating the law. The prosecutor’s office said in a statement that the authors used expressions and figures of speech that contributed to inflaming tension in society, and incited hatred and hostility against government officials. Among such articles were, for example, an article about a possible International Criminal Tribunal for officials, as well as an interview with Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. The warning to this newspaper was issued for the second time, which threatens the closure of the publication.
Information continues to be received about the registration of those convicted under “political” articles as prone to extremism. On April 15, 2021, the well-known oppositionist Pavel Sevyarynets was also registered as an “extremist”, and on May 1, 2021, the Human Rights Center “Viasna” reported that the human rights defender Marfa Rabkova, who has been in the Pre-trial Detention center No. 1 in Minsk for eight months, was also registered. It is assumed that Marfa received this status after she celebrated Freedom Day together with her cellmates on March 25, 2021, wearing white clothes and weaving white-red-white paper flowers in her hair.