7 October 2021
Human rights organizations in the Republic of Belarus remind that Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights of 1966 (hereinafter – the Covenant), ratified by the Republic of Belarus, guarantees every person the right to freely hold to their opinions and the right to freedom of expression. Equivalent obligations are listed in Articles 33 and 34 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus.
Expressing opinions on the events of 28 September was met with a disproportionate repressive response from the Belarusian authorities. On this day, 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.” In the course of one of such operations, Andrei Zeltser and employee of the KGB of Belarus Dmitry Fedosyuk were killed as a result of gunfire.
The incident caused public outcry in the Belarusian society and raised many heated discussions offline and online, producing a number of rather harsh and emotional comments regarding the incident posted on social networks. The comments became the ground for mass repressions by Belarusian law enforcement agencies: on 7 October 2021, the Minister of Internal Affairs Ivan Kubrakov claimed that more than 200 people were detained for publishing comments in messengers and on social networks.
Based on media reports, detentions for comments on the Internet took place mainly within the framework of Articles 130 and 369 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus (hereinafter – the Criminal Code) (“incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or hatred” and “insulting a government official,” respectively). Moreover, it was announced that the Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case under Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code against two anarchists, Roman Khalilov and Yevgeny Zhuravsky, for a demonstration in support of Zeltser near the Belarusian Embassy in Warsaw. The accusations against them include, among other things, “glorification of terrorist activities,” despite the fact no such crime is stipulated in either the Criminal Code or the Law on Countering Extremism. Within the framework of Part 3 of Article 130 and Article 369 of the Criminal Code, a journalist of “Komsomolskaya Pravda” newspaper Gennady Mozheiko was also detained, while the Ministry of Information of Belarus blocked access to the newspaper’s website of the media.
According to part 3 of Article 19 of the Covenant, the right to freedom of expression may be limited in order to respect the rights and reputation of others and to protect national security, public order, health, or morals of the population. However, paragraph 35 of the General Comment No. 34 states that when a State party invokes a legitimate ground for restriction of freedom of expression, it must demonstrate in specific and individualized fashion the precise nature of the threat, and the necessity and proportionality of the specific action taken, in particular by establishing a direct and immediate connection between the expression and the threat. Moreover, the need for a comprehensive assessment of each individual statement that is a subject to restrictions is provided for by such authoritative documents as the Rabat Plan of Action on the prohibition of advocacy of national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, the Johannesburg Principles of National Security, Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, and the Camden Principles on Freedom of Expression and Equality. Despite the fact that we do not know the exact content of all comments and other forms of expressing opinions on the subject mentioned above, in all cases known to us, we are not aware of any detailed assessment of such statements performed by law enforcement agencies, determining the need to restrict the freedom of speech in each specific case. In this regard, we believe that the numerous cases of prosecution for expressing opinions online expression represent a disproportionate restriction of the freedom of expression and cannot serve as a ground for criminal prosecution.
Taking into account the aforementioned facts, we demand from the authorities of the Republic of Belarus to:
- Immediately release all those detained for expressing their opinions on the incident involving the death of a KGB officer and Andrei Zeltser;
- Take measures aimed at decriminalizing defamatory offenses in the Criminal Code used to suppress the freedom of expression, namely Articles 130, 188, 367, 368, 369, 369-1, 370 of the Criminal Code, and terminate all previously initiated criminal cases under the aforementioned Articles.
Human rights organization Human Constanta
Belarusian Association of Journalists