Human rights organization Human Constanta continues to collect information and analyze tendencies in the application of legislation on countering “extremism” in Belarus from the standpoint of international human rights standards, primarily from the point of view of the right to freedom of expression. In this review, we describe the events of two months – June and July 2021 (the review for April and May 2021 can be found here).
There is still no clear definition in belarusian legislation of what exactly is considered “extremism” – the Law “On Countering Extremism” includes a wide list of acts from “dissemination of extremist materials” to “terrorism”. Only a part of the actions listed in act entails criminal or administrative liability.
At the same time, the note of Article 19 of the Law “On Citizenship of the Republic of Belarus” contains a separate list of crimes equating to “participation in extremist activities” (for more details, see our special overview). Official state media and accounts of law enforcement agencies call almost any activity related to the expression of alternative opinions “extremism” – even subscribing to a Telegram news channel recognized as “extremist material”. Also, since June 2021, after changes in the legislation, “extremism” is even participation in an unauthorized mass event of any subject and form of holding (including a white sheet of paper posted in the window).
In our overview, we present trends in the application of those articles of the Criminal Code, the Code of Administrative Offenses (hereinafter – the Administrative Code) and those general trends that are associated with violations of the right to freedom of expression, regardless of the motive for such restrictions. We also describe new trends that may be called “extremism” and which require separate comments. You can also find out about a wider range of human rights violations in the monthly overviews from the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
In the period of August and September 2021, there is an aggravation of the confrontation between the active part of society and law enforcement agencies. Dissatisfaction with violence and the political situation causes more and more active rejection among people, and any of their words and actions are a continuation of violence and repressive measures by law enforcement agencies. On September 28, 2021, officers of the State Security Committee (hereinafter – the KGB) carried out “special measures to work out addresses where persons involved in terrorist activities could be located”. During one of these events, a young man began to defend himself from an invasion with weapon in his hands, which led to the death of two people (a KGB officer and himself). This event caused a great resonance in society, which led to retaliatory repression for any “objectionable” comments and even journalistic materials on the topic.
Criminal prosecution continued for “inciting hostility” of people who criticized the authorities and transferred the personal data of law enforcement officers to the public Telegram community. Telegram channel administrators are being prosecuted for “creating an extremist formation”. For the first time, the Republican list of extremist materials (hereinafter – the List) was replenished with a Viber community, a music video of a popular belarusian band and even a mobile app. The state authorities are also discussing the introduction of responsibility for calls for the imposition of sanctions against Belarus. In addition, the adopted legislative amendments established the procedure for depriving pensions for special merits and citizenship of the Republic of Belarus for committing “extremist actions”.
The fight of law enforcement officers against “terrorist” manifestations has also intensified: the belarusian organization was recognized as a terrorist organization for the first time, and under the guise of combating terrorism, preventive conversations with people began to be actively conducted. New criminal cases have been initiated for holding protest actions near the embassies of Belarus in foreign countries.
Read more in our overview.
On August 5, 2021, Alexander Lukashenka signed a decree detailing the procedure for the loss of citizenship for various “extremist manifestations”. This possibility is provided for by the new version of the Law “On Citizenship of the Republic of Belarus”. The procedure for the loss of citizenship for “extremism” can be initiated by the interested state body by sending a letter to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, to which is attached a copy of the court decision confirming the participation of a person in extremist activities or harming the interests of Belarus. The Ministry of Internal Affairs makes its decision, which is then sent to the KGB and the Commission on Citizenship under the President of the Republic of Belarus. The term of consideration of the issue of loss of citizenship should not exceed 6 months. If the Commission considers the arguments of other state bodies sufficient, the President signs a decision on the loss of a person’s Belarusian citizenship. The legislators do not mention the further “fate” of a person after the loss of his citizenship of Belarus. These norms do not apply to people who have received Belarusian citizenship by birth.
On September 1, 2021, the Council of Ministers adopted a resolution according to which, in cases where a citizen receiving a pension for special merits commits a crime or an act that harms state interests or national security, pension payment is terminated. It is worth noting that the document does not contain an explanatory list of articles of the Criminal Code, for acts within which a person can be deprived of a pension for special merits, and therefore it is not entirely clear for which acts it can be lost.
On September 27, 2021, a draft Law of the Republic of Belarus“ On Amendments to the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus” was submitted to the House of Representatives (the lower house of Parliament). According to the official Telegram channel of the House of Representatives, a draft Law provides for strengthening criminal liability under Article 361 of the Criminal Code (“Calls for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus”), including for calls aimed at applying restrictive measures (sanctions) against the Republic of Belarus, individuals and legal entities of the Republic of Belarus. The report says that this measure represents “a legislative barrier to calls for sanctions against our country as one of the elements of a modern hybrid war”.
According to the new information of the representative of the Investigative Committee, more than five thousand cases related to protest actions and “extremism” have been registered in Belarus, which allegedly make up only 5.5% of the total array of criminal cases in the country. However, law enforcement agencies do not provide any detailed statistics on such cases, and various requests from the public are rejected. Thus, for example, a petition demanding to report statistics on cases under Article 23.34 (now Article 24.23) of the Administrative Code “Violation of the procedure for organizing or holding mass events” for the period 2020, was answered that such information could have a “negative impact on the state of law and order in the country, and also used to call for actions aimed at harming the national security of the Republic of Belarus, therefore it refers to information of limited distribution and is not subject to provision”.
As of October 6, 2021, 801 people in Belarus were recognized as political prisoners. Due to the fact that only those who are detained, under house arrest or in prison are recognized as political prisoners, the figure of 715 people is only part of official statistics. Human rights organizations do not have information on all cases, and in a number of cases with violent crimes (damage to property, resistance to police officers, an act of terrorism), a conclusion about political motives for persecution and disproportionate punishment can be made only after a trial.
Article 130 of the Criminal Code (“Incitement of racial, national, religious or other social hostility or discord”)
This article continues to be used by law enforcement officers to punish people who leave comments on social networks and messengers with harsh statements about the current authorities. During the monitoring, we revealed information about at least 10 new cases, 2 courts and one verdict under this article.
Usually, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, such comments allegedly contain calls for reprisals against law enforcement officers, destruction of their property, aggressive actions. So, we are aware of the detention of a 50-year-old resident of Pinsk, a 39-year-old resident of Mozyr, a 51-year-old resident of Gomel for such comments in Telegram, as well as a 55-year-old resident of Brest for comments in “VKontakte”. Also, according to the human rights group “MAYDAY”, on October 4, the Mogilev Region court will begin consideration of two criminal cases under Article 130 of the Criminal Code for comments on the Internet.
On August 11, 2021, it became known that officers of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (hereinafter – GUBOPiK) detained three residents of Chechersk, who “pasted leaflets calling for mass riots, as well as resisting police officers.” The news reports that the investigators gave a legal assessment of the actions of the defendants in the criminal case for inciting social hostility and discord.
Within the framework of this article, a man who, according to the Investigative Committee, assisted the activities of one of the channels in Telegram to deanonymize law enforcement officers was detained: the man personally came to the apartment of one of the law enforcement officer and rang the bell to check whether the law enforcement officer really lives at the address published in the Telegram channel, after which he shared the results of the visit with the administration of this channel. We are also aware of the detention of a 34-year-old resident of Minsk and a Minsk street art artist for distributing the data of the security forces. Law enforcement agencies call such deanonymization actions “aiding extremist resources”. It is worth noting the inconsistency in the use of this article: thus, on September 28, 2021, it became known that a criminal case was initiated for leaking the data of the law enforcement officers against a man not under Article 130 of the Criminal Code, but under Article 203-1 (“Illegal actions with respect to information about private life and personal data”).
A case under Article 370 of the Criminal Code (“abuse of state symbols”) was initiated against persons located on the territory of Poland, who allegedly dirtied and trampled the official flag of the Republic of Belarus for reasons of political and ideological hostility. Recall that the earlier criminal case against Riga Mayor Martinš Stakis and Latvian Foreign Minister Edgard Rinkevich, who publicly replaced the red-green flag with a white-red-white one, was initiated precisely under Article 130 of the Criminal Code. Such actions of the authorities confirm the absence of a systematic and logical practice of using this article. According to the information of the Investigative Committee, according to which this body sent two requests for the possibility of interrogating these persons to the Latvian side (it was proposed to conduct them both on the territory of Belarus and on the territory of Latvia), to which it refused.
On September 27, 2021, the Mogilev Regional Court sentenced two men for a video on Instagram, which allegedly incited to “aggressive illegal actions accompanied by the use of violence against employees of the OMON Department of Internal Affairs of the Mogilev Regional Executive Committee”. The court sentenced both of them to imprisonment for a term of 5 years with serving in a penal colony of enhanced regime.
Article 130 is used as a universal repressive tool to punish oppositional manifestations that are not covered by other defamatory articles of the Criminal Code (for example, articles for insulting officials).
Relatively positive news in the context of extremism is the “pardon” of 13 political prisoners, one of whom was serving a sentence for “inciting hostility” under Article 130 of the Criminal Code. It is worth noting that the charges against these people were not dropped, and the “pardon” was granted only after repentance for what they had done through an application addressed to the president.
The events of September 28, 2021 caused a resonance in society. On this day, KGB officers carried out “special measures to work out addresses in which persons involved in terrorist activities could be located”. In one of the apartments, a 31-year-old resident of Minsk, Andrei Zeltser, opened fire with a hunting rifle at one of the KGB officers, who died of his injuries in hospital. The shooting man was killed by return fire. This situation illustrates that repressive practices of combating “terrorist” manifestations can lead to human casualties. At the moment, not all the details of the tragedy are known, and the video of this incident, published in pro-government sources, raises questions. Moreover, on September 29 and 30, 2021, mass detentions of people who commented on the incident on social networks were noted. As of September 30, 2021, more than 80 people were detained for comments related to this incident. Sources of Nasha Niva reported that people were detained mainly under Articles 130 and 369 of the Criminal Code (“insulting a representative of the authorities”).
On September 29, 2021, a demonstration from anarchists in support of Andrei Zeltser took place in Warsaw, and on October 1, 2021, it became known that the Investigative Committee opened a criminal case on inciting social hostility under part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code against two anarchists for participating in this demonstration. According to the Investigative Committee, the men are also charged with “glorification of terrorist activities”, responsibility for which is not provided for in the Belarusian criminal legislation.
On October 1, 2021, a search was conducted at the Komsomolskaya Pravda employee Gennady Mozheyko, who is the author of the material about Andrei Zeltser. Subsequently, the journalist was detained on criminal charges, and access to Komsomolskaya Pravda itself was restricted on the territory of Belarus due to the fact that “such publications could threaten national security”.
The practice of applying Part 1 and part 2 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code by both investigative bodies and courts arbitrarily restricts the right to freedom of expression and does not take into account the need to assess a number of criteria provided for by the Rabat Action Plan on the prohibition of propaganda of national, Racial and Religious Hatred, which constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence (hereinafter – the Rabat Action Plan).
Article 289 of the Criminal Code («Act of terrorism»)
In the period August-September 2021, this article became much less frequently used in comparison with July, when it was one of the most popular grounds for conducting searches and arresting activists. Nevertheless, articles on terrorism continue to be used to intimidate civil society, we know about the initiation of one new case under this article, 13 preventive conversations and at least two searches.
According to the MAYDAY human rights group, many people prosecuted under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code (now Article 24.23 of the Administrative Code, “violation of the order of organizing or holding mass events”), starting in August 2021, were summoned to the police allegedly under a criminal case of terrorism. However in the police station there was no talk about any actions related to terrorism, and preventive conversations were held with the summoned people with a proposal to sign a paper with an obligation not to participate in unauthorized mass events. According to the data of Mogilev human rights activists, at least 13 people were summoned to the police in this way.
On September 25, 2021, information appeared about the detention of three residents of Bobruisk, who, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, were involved in terrorist activities. In the Telegram channel, the press secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs said that they are suspected of placing objects similar to explosive devices on the railway tracks and near one of the Tabakerka stores in Bobruisk, as well as setting fire to a shooting range belonging to one of the military units. Criminal cases have been initiated against these persons for the threat of committing an act of terrorism and an act of terrorism.
On September 29, 2021, for unknown reasons, within the framework of Article 289 of the Criminal Code, a search was conducted at the freelance operator Deutche Welle, after which he was sentenced to 14 days of arrest for petty hooliganism.
Article 357 of the Criminal Code (“Conspiracy or other actions committed with the aim of seizing state power”)
We are aware of only one verdict under this article: the criminal proceedings against the member of the Presidium of the Coordination Council Maria Kolesnikova and the lawyer of Viktor Babariko’s headquarters Maxim Znak on charges of conspiracy committed with the aim to seize state power by unconstitutional means, together with charges under Articles 361 and 361-1 of the Criminal Code. They were found guilty and sentenced to imprisonment: Maria – for a term of 11 years with serving in a correctional colony under a general regime, and Maxim – for a term of 10 years with serving in a correctional colony under a high security regime. On September 16, 2021, their defense filed appeals in the case with the Supreme Court.
Based on the List of Organizations and Individuals Involved in Terrorist Activities (hereinafter referred to as the List), it can be noted that under Article 289 of the Criminal Code are political activist Olga Karach, accused of attempting to murder STV journalist Grigory Azarenok, Dmitry Sosnovsky, as well as Denis Hofman, who, according to version of the state media owned a “destructive chat that recruited militants.” On September 15, 2021, it became known that a whole family was detained within the framework of this article, whose members are accused of attempting to set fire to the cottage of deputy Oleg Gaidukevich. Thus, there is information about four new cases under this article.
Article 361 of the Criminal Code (“Calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus”)
This article continues to be used by the authorities as a punishment tool for posting opposition calls on the Internet. In addition to the verdict of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak, we know about another verdict and two new criminal cases.
On August 16, 2021, a judge of the Grodno Regional Court sentenced Leonid Gerasimlyuk to 3 years and 6 months in a penal colony in a general regime for “calls for actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of the Republic of Belarus via the Internet” (part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code). Leonid did not admit his guilt. This process continued since July 2021: the man was accused of public calls for violence and committing acts of terrorism, allegedly posted by him in one of the Telegram chats in October-November 2020.
On August 17, 2021, it became known that the Investigative Committee initiated a criminal case under part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code against Bozena Zholud (the girlfriend of the head of the “Belarusian House in Ukraine” Shishov, who was found hanged in Kiev). According to the investigation, allegedly in August 2021 she called for mass riots, accompanied by violence against the person and armed resistance to representatives of the authorities in order to commit actions aimed at causing harm to the national security of Belarus. near the embassy of the Republic of Belarus in Ukraine.
On September 29, 2021, a case was initiated under part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code against an unregistered presidential candidate Valery Tsepkalo. According to the Investigative Committee, Tsepkalo posted a video on the Internet in which he called the murder of a KGB officer “an example of how to fight” for all residents of the Republic of Belarus, publicly called for an armed seizure of state power, forcible change of the constitutional order.
Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code (“Creation of an extremist group or participation in it”)
Within the framework of this article, the punishment of the creators and administrators of opposition Telegram groups actively continues. This article was included in the verdict of Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak. There is information about two new cases under this article and two searches of one person.
On September 18, 2021, it became known that a case was initiated under this article against a 26-year-old resident of Minsk, who had already been detained in May for administering a Telegram channel. In May, the woman was warned under extremism legislation and her channel was declared extremist. Nevertheless, after further verification by the GUBOPiK (Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption) officers, the investigators nevertheless decided to open a criminal case.
On September 22, 2021, employees of the Vitebsk GUBOPiK detained 7 people. Criminal cases for malicious hooliganism and the creation of an extremist group were initiated against them. According to the press secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, these citizens created and administered a closed Telegram group, in which various forms of opposition actions were discussed. Moreover, some of the defendants in this case are charged with participating in a “performance” at the city cemetery. The performance allegedly symbolized the “burial of the regime.”
Also, the famous Belarusian TV and radio presenter and musician Katerina Pytleva underwent two searches in a month and only after the second of them she managed to find out that she was under the article about the creation of an extremist formation. During the first search on September 7, 2021, the security forces broke down the door to Katerina’s apartment, cut her speakers and wedding photos, damaged various decor items and even scattered cereals on the floor. The second search was carried out by KGB officers.
Other criminal cases and incidents
On September 28, 2021, representatives of the KGB on the air of state television announced the suppression of the activities of the “organized extremist network “Rabochy Rukh” (“The Working Movement”), whose representatives from abroad, under the control of foreign special services, carried out psychological processing and recruitment of workers of Belarusian enterprises. These actions, according to the KGB, took place using a Telegram channel and secret chats. Perhaps this news is directly related to the large-scale searches and detentions of members of independent trade unions and strike committees, which were carried out at the end of September. It is not reported under which article a criminal case was initiated against the persons who were signed as suspects on the air.
Separately, we would like to note in the context of criminal cases the case that happened with the former head of EuroBelarus, coordinator of the National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum Vlad Velichko. On August 4, 2021, KGB officers searched his house and 17 articles of the Criminal Code appeared in the search warrant at once. The decree included the following articles: Part 3 of Article 130 (“Incitement to racial, national, religious or other social hostility or hatred”), Part 1 of Article 188 (“Libel”), Parts 1 and 2 of Article 205 (“Theft”), Part 4 of article 209 (“Fraud”), part 3 of article 214 (“Hijacking of a vehicle or small boat”), parts 1 and 3 of article 218 (“Intentional destruction or damage of other people’s property”), part 1-3 of article 293 (“Mass riots”), part 1 of article 310 (” deliberate blocking of transport communications “), part 1 of article 328 (“Illegal circulation of narcotic drugs, psychotropic substances, their precursors and analogues”), parts 1 and 2 of article 339 (“Hooliganism”), parts 1 and 2 of article 342. (“Organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them”), part 1 of article 349 (“Unauthorized access to computer information”), part 1 of article 361 (“Calls to action aimed at causing harm to national security Of the Republic of Belarus”), parts 1 and 2 of article 363 (“Resistance to an employee of the internal affairs bodies or other person protecting public order”), part 1 of article 364 (“Мiolence or threat of violence against an employee of the internal affairs bodies”), part 1 article 368 (“Insult to the President of the Republic of Belarus”). After a search and interrogation, Vlad was released. This case demonstrates the complete non-systematic nature of the practice of conducting searches by law enforcement agencies, as well as the use of the search procedure as one of the tools for intimidation and repression.
The most common “extremist articles” of the Administrative Code include articles for the use of Nazi symbols (Article 19.10) and extremist materials (Article 19.11). According to these articles, people are attracted “mechanically” – without assessing the context, message, likelihood of consequences and other important criteria stipulated by international human rights standards to restrict the right to freedom of expression (for example, the Rabat Action Plan). Courts hear about 200 such cases annually, despite the fact that only a few cases are made public. Below are the cases known for August and September 2021 – one case under Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code and 20 cases under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code.
Article 19.10 of the Administrative Code (“Propaganda or public display, production, distribution of Nazi symbols or attributes”)
During the analyzed period, we know of only one detention under this article. So, in the message of the press secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs dated August 12, 2021, it is said about the detention of a resident of Vitebsk by employees of the GUBOPiK, whose Nazi and protest symbols, paraphernalia and literature were found during a search, and it is also reported that the man was a participant in protest actions. Thus, it can be noted that the official bodies in their messages are actually trying to equate various opposition manifestations with the Nazi ones and, thereby, discredit the peaceful protest.
Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code (“Distribution, production, storage, transportation of information products containing calls for extremist activities or promoting such activities”)
The period of August-September 2021 was marked by a huge number of cases of administrative offenses for distributing materials included in the Republican list of extremist materials – according to our information, in September at least 20 people were detained, arrested or fined under this article. Separately, it is worth noting the case of a married couple from Minsk, who were detained in mid-July and have already been arrested six times under Article 19.11 of the Administrative Code for 84 days in total. The arrest is being extended from time to time for various messages from “extremist” Telegram channels, which the spouses sent to each other in personal correspondence. It is worth noting that perhaps even such a harsh punishment is not final and the arrest can be extended if law enforcement officers find any more “forbidden” messages in the spouses’ correspondence. Courts do not take into account the degree of public danger in such cases.
The process of prosecution for publishing or distributing various “extremist” materials continues. Thus, a citizen of Brest was fined for publishing stories in Instagram with “images of a pig’s head with an inscription A.C.#.B. on an internal affairs officer’s headdress” (added to the list in 2018), a citizen of Polotsk was punished with 7 days of arrest for reposting from a popular Vkontakte group “Ploshcha”, a citizen of Mogilev was punished with 15 days of arrest for reposting materials from media “Belsat”, also 3 citizens of Mogilev on August 9, September 13 and September 20 were fined for reposting from telegram-channel “NEXTA”, which has become a traditional basis for prosecution under Art. 19.11 Of the Criminal Code. On September 30, 2021 it became known about the search and protocol on Sergey Udaljev for the same act. Nevertheless, new tendencies were noticed in this process. Thus, on August 20, 2021 it became known that the editor of the site “Virtualny Brest” was fined for distribution of the photo of Vladimir Gundar (in a shirt with an ornament, which GUBOPiK employees considered the swastika). On September 24, 2021 for the first time a man was convicted for 15 days, in whose phone in a personal correspondence with a friend was a message from a news site recognized extremist. Also it is known about the detention of a citizen of Brest , Elena Gnauk, (later her case was sent for revision) and the editor of “Virtualni Brest”, the administrator of one of the Telegram-channels considered extremist, Andrey Kuharchik (he was also accused of insulting the President) under the same Art. Also two “Naftan” employees were convicted under the same article (one was fined, the other was arrested), as well as a citizen of Mogilev (was fined 30 basic units), a sports journalist Andrey Maslovsky (was arrested for 15 days), a citizen of Vitebsk and another citizen of Polotsk.
In addition, on September 2, 2021 three employees of a culture centre “Korpus” were convicted under the art. 19.11 Administrative Code, although everybody was judged under the art. 24.3 Administrative Code (“disobedience to a lawful order or demand of an official during his official duties”). The DJ Alexander Bogdanov and the set designer Maxim Kruk were arrested for 10 days, the organizer of culture events Lizaveta Nevmerzhitskaya — for 8 days. Later it became known that the former two were convicted under the art. 342 Criminal Code.
Also we were informed that the newspaper “Inform-progulka” (Luninets) was fined 2 900 BYN (100 basic units) for “causing harm to national interests of Belarus” under the art. 23.4 Administrative Code (“violation of media legislation”). This judgement was passed even though the Brest regional expert commision on the assessment of media products for the presence (absence) of signs of manifestation of extremism in it hadn’t spotted anything forbidden.
Liquidation of NGOs on the ground of “extremism”
Under the pretext of combating “extremism” and “threats to national security,” the process of liquidating non-profit organizations of various profiles continued in August-September 2021. According to the human rights center Viasna, at least 275 Belarusian non-profit organizations have been liquidated or are in the process of being liquidated. We interpret such actions of the authorities as pressure on civil society and violation of the right to freedom of association, provided for in article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
On August 3, 2021, the General Prosecutor’s Office of the Republic of Belarus publicly announced the liquidation of four organizations: “Human Constanta’, human rights organization consulting on current international practices and their implementation in law, “Center for the Promotion of Women’s Rights”, “Office for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities” and ” Center for Legal Transformation “. According to the General Prosecutor’s Office, these organizations are being liquidated due to inconsistency of their activities with the goals and subjects indicated in their charters. It was also alleged that their websites “post untruthful information aimed at spreading destructive moods in society, calls for economic and political pressure on the country, and for other actions detrimental to national security.” It is obvious that the activities of human rights organizations and civil society organizations do not pose a threat to national security, and the elimination of such organizations is one of the forms of persecution of peaceful human rights activities.
According to our data, a large number of public associations were liquidated by the courts or executive committees based on information provided by the GUBOPiK divisions. For instance, the Minsk City Court, when considering a civil liquidation case of Minsk executive committee against “Supolnast Center”, appealed to the information sourced by GUBOPiK, that the center was involved in various kinds of “extremist activities” (“infringement of the constitutional order “,”riots”, “actions that grossly violate public order”).
Amendments to the Republican List of Extremist Materials
In August and September 2021 the courts continued to extend the list of extremist materials and to publish them on the website of the Ministry of Information, in the Republican List of Extremist Materials. The very existence of this list, and prosecution for the use of listed materials is an unreasonable restriction of freedom of expression.
During two months, the courts issued 84 decisions classifying 129 materials as “extremist” (in the period June-July 2021 – 71 decisions on 115 materials), which confirms that this is an upward trend. Minsk Central District Court is in the forefront, having issued 10 decisions on “extremis materials” – this is 3 less than in the previous period. The second place with 7 decisions was unexpectedly taken by the Minsk District Court of the Minsk region, which was never in the leading positions. The third place with 6 decisions went to the premier of the period of April-May 2021 – the court of the Zheleznodorozhny district of Gomel.
By region analysis of this process shows that most decisions were made by the courts of the Minsk region (29 decisions), although much fewer decisions were made separately in the city of Minsk (only 18). Probably, over the past periods, the courts of the city of Minsk managed to ban almost all the largest opposition Telegram channels and chats in the city, and therefore the trend of blocking has shifted to small cities in the Minsk region. The second place was taken by the courts of the Vitebsk region (12 decisions), and the third – the Grodno region (11 decisions). It should be noted that during this period the courts of the Mogilev region did not participate in classifying the materials as extremist at all – they did not make a single decision in such cases.
The main target of labeling materials as extremists remain opposition resources in Telegram – 85 different Telegram channels, chats, groups and bots were included in the list (in June-July 2021 there were 90 of them). It is worth mentioning that the description of the extremist materials is not particularly logical. For example, many resources in Telegram, which are essentially chats, are listed as Telegram channels (for example, a Telegram channel called “Chat. Starodorozhsky Live Old Roads”). The definition of “Telegram-group” is also questionable, the difference between “Telegram channel” and “Telegram chat” is not entirely clear.
To continue with banned Telegram channels, it is important to note that in addition to a significant number of district and regional opposition channels and chats, the list was also supplemented by larger opposition resources, which previously did not concern law enforcement: the mock channel “Tea with Raspberry Jam” ( almost 140 thousand subscribers), the opposition channel “Basta!” (almost 80 thousand subscribers); the resources of “Cyber Partisans” (about 80 thousand subscribers) and “Cyber leaks” (about 16 thousand subscribers), which in August-September 2021 published recordings of conversations between law enforcement officers and police informants; opposition channel “Resistance” (about 2 thousand subscribers) and others. In this regard, it should also be noted that law enforcement officers focused channels with a very small audience: for example, the channels “Belarus Partyzanits” (about 500 participants), “Dvizh” (about 200 participants), “Samakrutkin” (about 80 participants, administrator was detained). Separately, I would like to note the channel “Ikhtiandry Grodno”, which at the time of inclusion in the list had only 20 subscribers, and at the time of writing the review increased the audience up to 150 followers.
August-September 2021 was marked by new additions on the list of extremist channels: chats of Minsk universities such as Belarusian State BSU, BSUiR, BNTU. Also, the list was replenished with three resources of the strike committee “Grodnoazot”, as well as a channel of Belarusian railroad workers.
Labeling websites of various independent media as “extremist” also continued: all Internet resources of “Tribuna.com”, “TUT.BY”, “ChestnOK”, and KYKY Telegram channel were included in the banned list. Also, a number of independent media were not included in the list of extremist materials, however, for posting materials already included in the list, access to their websites was limited. Thus, by order of the prosecutor’s office of the Brest region, access to the Media-Polesie website was restricted for 6 months. Most of the websites of independent media were restricted without any legal justification.
For the first time in the history the list included communities in the Viber messenger and the mobile application “Tribuna.com”. Moreover, a music video of the band called “GIVE THE WAY!” to the song “Sleep tight” has been added to the list – according to the Brest GUBOPiK, it was filmed in 2020 to discredit law enforcement officials. Yuri Stylsky, the author of the song, has been outside Belarus since the beginning of August. It should be noted that not only the clip itself was labelled as extremist material, but also “its possible copies, derivative works and reworkings, which contain the main meaning of the work”.
Despite the fact that the list is traditionally crowned by the sources put there to suppress opposition, the period August-September 2021 was marked by a number of neo-Nazi materials, which, judging by the names, have a racist and anti-Semitic narrative (as compared to June-July 2021, when such materials were not included in the list).
Changes to the List of Organizations and Individuals Involved in Terrorist Activities
For the first time in history the list has included a Belarusin organization. On August 18, 2021 the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus recognized the organization “Civil Self-Defense Forces of Belarus” (OGSB) as terrorist. According to the background information in the list itself, the OGSB was “an informal organization that was uniting radical individuals, persuading them to commit acts of terrorism, training in methods and technologies used in terrorist activities, organizing and carrying out acts of terrorism.” Very little is known about the activities of the organization itself; this information was collected in a journalistic investigation.
The List of Individuals has also been updated – on September 3, 2021, it included seven more citizens of Belarus. In addition to the already mentioned Olga Karach, Dmitry Sosnovsky and Denis Hofman, the list also includes Vadim Gulevich, Natalya Matveeva, Aleksey Glotov, Kirill Ashurok, who are also involved in the “OGBS case”. They are included based on the previously used article 289, and the new article 359 of the Criminal Code.
Apart from tabs “List of individuals” and “List of organizations”, a third tab “List of terrorist organizations” recently emerged. It contains only one organization – the aforementioned “OGSB”. Perhaps the KGB officers decided to make a separate tab for Belarusian terrorist organizations.
Warnings, preventive supervision and other trends
Again, we note that law enforcement agencies continue to use “warning in accordance with the legislation on countering extremism” as another tool to put pressure on civil society. For example, we know that such a warning was issued to a minor from the Bragin district. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, he was the administrator of the Telegram group, which published information on the location and movement of police vehicles. Also, many political prisoners continue to be registered as “prone to extremism” in prisons. During the period described, the co-founder of the editions “KYKY” and “The Village Belarus” Alexander Vasilevich and the philosopher Vladimir Matskevich were placed under preventive supervision.
There is information that Belarusians previously detained under “protest” articles are drawing increased attention on the part of the State Border Committee and customs authorities when entering the country. Some of them had their belongings examined, and equipment was taken away under the pretext of “searching for extremist content”.