Review of the fight against “extremism” in Belarus for November-December 2020

Human Constanta
5 February 2021

The last two months of 2020 brought us the first two “terrorists” with the Belarusian citizenship in the “List of organizations and persons involved in terrorist acts”, the final criminalization and the label “extremism” on the activities of the Coordination Council of the Opposition, as well as the initiation of criminal procedures against those citizens of Belarus who actively help protesters from abroad. Prosecution for publishing various content on social networks is ongoing, and for the first time in a long time, an administrative arrest was ordered for publishing an image by a famous artist on a social network. 

We get information for this review from public sources, as well as from the people mentioned in this text.

Criminal prosecution under “extremist articles”: it only got worse

In the previous review for July-October 2020 we wrote that the practice of using “extremist” articles of the Criminal Code to suppress dissent and to repress for political reasons has intensified.

In comparison with the information from the previous review, the situation has worsened even more in the following aspects over the last 2 months:

— the number of people being prosecuted for “mass riots”(Article 293 of the Criminal Code) has increased. Now it is known about 180 persons being prosecuted under this article (previously 157). Human rights activist Maria Rabkova and others are still imprisoned, and detentions in the regions continue (three more people were imprisoned in Brest in late November). 

On 5 November it became known, that the Minsk Investigative Committee brought in absentia charges against the editors of the prohibited opposition telegram channel Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich under three now often practiced articles of the Criminal code: “mass riots” (part 1 as an organization and part 3 as aiding to article 3 of the Criminal code), “group actions violating public order” (article 342) and “inciting enmity or hatred” (article 130). Both are currently outside of Belarus.

— )  3 persons (Maria Kolesnikova, Illia Salei and Maxim Znak) were charged with art. 361 – “calls for actions against national security of the Republic of Belarus”, and on 21 December, the General Prosecutor’s office officially reported the initiation of a number of cases against members of the Coordination Council of the Opposition: the main opponent of Lukashenko Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova, Maxim Znak, driven out of Belarus Pavel Latushko, Olga Kovalkova, Sergei Dylevsky “and other persons on the fact of creation the extremist groups and guiding it, i.e. the crime, under part 1 of article 361-1 of the Criminal Code” and “part 1 of article 357 of the Criminal Code – conspiracy to seize State power by unconstitutional means»;

— the same official report also says that a criminal case has been initiated against the co-founder of the By_help Foundation (an initiative that helps with the payment of fines for participating in protests) Alexey Leonchik, who is also abroad, “in connection with the financing the activities of an extremist group under Article 361-2 of the Criminal Code.”

— It became known about new criminal cases under article for “Inciting racial, national, religious or other social hostility or discord, rehabilitation of Nazism” (Article 130 of the Criminal Code). Still, the blogger Pavel Spirin stays in custody, the same charge remains for Sergei Tikhanovsky, and now it concerns Roman Protasevich and Stepan Putilo. And on December 18, 2020, the Press Office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in its official report wrote about the detention of a man who allegedly “adheres to nationalist views and is an active member of the unregistered group “Skinheads ” and “since the summer of 2019 the man posted on his page on the Internet the materials aimed at inciting social hostility and discord. He also called for violent actions against militiamen and their family members.” This report clearly violates the presumption of innocence, and the assessment is given only to some characteristics of the author’s personality without analyzing his impact on the audience.

Also, from the updates – as part of an article about “inciting enmity or discord”, the Youtube channel of a Catholic priest from Rossony, Vyacheslav Borok, has become a suspect in a case of the Polotsk Investigative Committee. An examination of his video content is being conducted.

Thus, we can notice an increase in the practice of using “extremist” articles of the Criminal Code. More and more people are becoming victims of excessive prosecution for political reasons, including even in the case of voluntary or forced emigration from the country.

Cases of administrative offense

During this period, we will talk about three cases of administrative offenses under “extremist” articles, as an example of what people are prosecuted for:

  1. On November 21, in Gomel, activist Ilya Mironov was charged for posting a photo in a T-shirt with a skull for administrative offence under Article 17.11 of the Administrative Code (“Distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products containing calls for extremist activities or promoting such activities”). The protocol says that from September 8, 17.00 and to the present time Ilya by means of the social network “VKontakte” publicly demonstrates and distributes the composition in the form of the SS emblem of the times of the 3rd Reich in the form of a skull with crossed bones.” However, Ilya claims that this composition is a branded production of the musical group “Knyazz”. Moreover, in his words, the T-shirt does not depict an extremist symbol, but “Jolly Roger”, which can often be seen in films and children’s cartoons. On December 11, the court of the Sovetsky district of Gomel began consideration of the case. Despite the available examination results from the defense, the court sent the materials for revision on procedural grounds (not sufficient explanation of the essence of the offense when drawing up the protocol).
  2. On December 3, a priest from Rossony, Vyacheslav Barok, was sentenced to 10 days´ administrative arrest for publishing a drawing by an artist Vladimir Tsesler on his Facebook page. The publication included an image of a swastika depicted on a black background, made in the red and green colors of the National Flag of the Republic of Belarus, in the center of which is the State Emblem of the Republic of Belarus. This post had the caption: “Stop lu****zm! Amazing art from Vladimir Tsesler”. According to the statements of the Priest Vyacheslav and the artist Vladimir Tsesler himself, the drawing had an anti-fascist orientation. Nevertheless, the court claims that it constitutes an administrative offense, but not for “distribution of Nazi symbols or paraphernalia” (Article 17.10 of the Administrative Code), but for the distribution of extremist materials (Article 17.11 of the Administrative Code), which excludes the possibility of demonstration for cultural purposes. Moreover, the court did not evaluate the actions according to the criteria of the Rabat Action Plan of the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, but also issued an excessively harsh decision with prolonged administrative detention, that is extremely rare and looks more like politically motivated prosecution for speaking out.
  3. Olga P., a resident of Bykhov, was convicted on two “extremist” articles of the Administrative Code for two publications on a social network: a picture with statistics of those repressed in the Third Reich and in the Republic of Belarus and a swastika in the background , as well as links to the news from the prohibited telegram channel (the channel fully is included in the list of extremist materials). Olga was fined 15 basic units (about 130 euros).

As we can see, the practice of formal prosecution ignoring criteria and international standards continues.

Adding to the list of extremist materials

The Republican list of extremist materials was expanded twice during two months by the decision of the Court of the Zheleznodorozhny district of Gomel: on November 17, the Court decision was announced to add audio files under the names ” Shaved and Happy! – Shaved heads” and “Hypothalamus-Skinheads”, posted on the social network “VKontakte”. It is assumed that these audio files have nationalist and racist themes, and contain calls for violence against members of the black race.

By the decision of November 23, 2020, a video called “The beauty of the security forces and the stupidity of the protesters #7” was added to the list, as well as a video hosting YouTube channel called “Vasya Seroshtan”, or “We are not Serfs”, where the abovementioned video was posted. This channel belongs to the well-known Bobruisk blogger and lawyer Oleg Zhelnov. The description of the channel says that it was created in order to improve the legal literacy of both law enforcement and protesters. The decision to block the entire channel looks like an excessive restriction of the blogger’s right to a free expression of opinion.

What else from the updates

In accordance with Belarus’ international obligations, the State Security Committee maintains a “list of organizations and individuals involved in terrorist activities” on its website. Previously, this list included 724 people and 394 organizations, mostly recognized as terrorist ones according to the list of the UN Security Council and other international organizations. 

In November 2020, two Belarusian (for the first time ) citizens were included into the Belarusian list: the editors of the prohibited opposition Telegram channel Stepan Putilo and Roman Protasevich. The column “Grounds for inclusion” states that they are “Accused in a criminal case under Article 293 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus”. What exactly the young people have done to deserve such a title is unknown, as well as it is not clear why the rest of the accused under this article weren’t included into this list. By the way, according to the Decree of the Council of Ministers from 30 December 2014 No. 1256 “On approval of the Regulations on the procedure for determining the list of organizations and individuals, including individual entrepreneurs, involved in terrorist activities, for appealing the decision to include organizations, individuals, including an individual entrepreneur, into such a list and for considering other appeals by these organizations, individuals, including individual entrepreneurs, for bringing this list to the attention of persons carrying out financial transactions and of a financial monitoring body”, all the people from our section about criminal prosecution can get on this list. At the same time, that´s enough even not only a court verdict, but a decision to bring as the accused under Article 361, 130 or 293 of the Criminal Code, that, in our opinion, greatly restricts the right to the presumption of innocence. 

The second place in our summary is taken by the changes to the Law “On Citizenship of the Republic of Belarus“. On December 10, 2020, the changes were published and are to come into force in 6 months, and yes, there are words about “extremist activity”. Also, it is reported that the Belarus citizenship “could be lost in relation to having entered into legal force of the verdict of a Court of the Republic of Belarus, a judicial decision in a criminal case of a foreign state, a verdict or other decision of the international Tribunal (court), a mixed Tribunal (court) confirming this person’s involvement in extremist activity or infliction of grave harm to the interests of the Republic of Belarus”. But this applies only to those who acquired, registered or restored citizenship not by birth. Despite the fact that similar provisions exist in the legislation of many countries, this means that if such people are being legally prosecuted, including under “mass riots” and other articles of the Criminal Code from our review, they may become stateless and be at risk of expulsion, given the frequent violation of the right to a just trial and the presence of political prisoners.

Illustrations by @krsvk_mlvn

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