Concern as authorities continue systematic retaliation against civil society

Concern as authorities continue systematic retaliation against civil society


Liquidation of Ecodom seen as persecution and harassment

On 31st August 2021, the Supreme Court liquidated Ecodom (translates to ‘Ecohouse’ in English), one of the oldest environmental NGOs in the country, as part of the wider onslaught on civil society that has continued since the post-election protests of 2020. The liquidation followed a petition filed by the Justice Ministry to the Supreme court, to close down the organisation, after an unscheduled inspection in July 2021 revealed alleged violations by the NGO. The home of Maryna Dubina, Ecodom’s director, was also raided by authorities in July 2021, in relation to the post-2020 election protests.

In this regard, in October 2021, at the seventh meeting of the parties to the Aarhus Convention, the parties adopted a decision on Belarus which saw the country’s rights and privileges under the Aarhus Convention suspended. This was after the parties classified the liquidation of Ecodom as a case of persecution and harassment of NGOs, and a violation of the convention. The Aarhus Convention is a convention of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe on access to information, public participation in decision-making and access to justice in environmental matters.

Despite the resolution on the convention, the Information Ministry of Belarus nevertheless went ahead and blocked Ecodom’s web pages and those of other organisations in the country weeks later on 3rd November 2021 .

According to a report by LawTrend, an organisation that monitors legislative changes on freedom of association, authorities continued the forced liquidation of NGOs operating nationally and locally. The report notes that on 1st November 2021, there were 29 more organisations which had been liquidated than in October 2021. By 4th January 2022, Law Trend, OEEC NGO and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee reported that the number of NGOs in liquidation or against which liquidation processes had been initiated reached 200.

The profiles of the organisations that have been forcefully liquidated in the country are very diverse.

Legislative developments stifle operations of NGOs

A new directive issued by Cabinet on 27th December 2021 introduced changes to the criteria for NGOS that benefit from reduced base rates when renting real estate. According to the directive, non-governmental organisations that will benefit from rent reduction are those that undertake activities in the military-patriotic, social, humanitarian, charitable and family fields; and that do not receive financial support from abroad, among other requirements. According to the Law Trend, the Belarusian Red Cross and Olympic organisations will however be exempted from this criteria. Non-profit organisations wishing to benefit from the reduced rates must submit their applications stating how they meet these requirements to the State Property Committee, which will then forward the applications to a permanent commission for consideration.

In other legislative developments, new regulations adopted in early December 2021 introduced new reporting requirements for civil society. According to the new regulations, NGOs must annually publish details of the previous financial year. NGOs are obliged to make public details of the receipt and expenditure of funds and property received from foreign and international organisations as well as details of activities carried out, including the goal, agenda, names of participants, moderators and journalists in attendance. The CSOs must send these reports to the responsible public institutions or publish the data on their web pages, mass media webpages, or social networks. Where this information has been published on a website, the NGOs must also send the date and the link to the web page to the relevant public institutions. Law Trend notes that the new requirements are even stricter, especially those on external funding. The new legal provisions entered into force on 15th December 2021.

Separately, amendments were also made to the Administrative Code and the Criminal Code, further restricting the right to freedom of association and peaceful assembly effective from 14th January 2022. A new amendment to the Criminal Code criminalises the holding of, or participating in activities by organisations which have been suspended or liquidated by authorities, or those which are yet to obtain registration. The amendment to the Administrative Code on the other hand criminalises the raising of funds to pay fines for anyone who is prosecuted for violating the law on holding mass events such as protests.

Viasna lawyer Pavel Sapelka commented:

"This is a new rule, which introduced liability for violating the requirements of the law “On Mass Events.” One of the many restrictions is now the raising of money to pay fines. This norm should be assessed in conjunction with other legislation that regulates, or rather, impermissibly restricts the right to participate in peaceful assemblies and the practice of its application.

The conclusion is clear–this norm is aimed at restricting the rights and freedoms.”

Peaceful Assembly

Authorities double down on retaliation against 2020 post-election protesters

During the last months of 2021, several participants of the 2020 post-election protests were sentenced to various periods of detention.

On 16th November 2021, a student from Belarus was sentenced to four years in prison by a court in Minsk. According to Radio Free Europe, Uladzislau Martsinovich, a Belarusian State Medical University student, was convicted of "public calls for actions aimed at damaging national security."

Martsinovich posted on his Telegram channel information about the post-election protests in the fall of 2020, for which he was accused of instigating actions against the state. He was arrested in November 2020 and detained after pleading not guilty. In September 2021, after almost a year in detention, Martsinovich changed his plea in what human rights defenders believe was as a result of mistreatment he endured behind bars. He is currently included in the list of political prisoners.

On the same day of Martsinovich’s sentence, in a separate incident, the District Court in Brest sentenced several residents of Brest to prison for participating in a dance protest on 13th September 2020 over the disputed August 2020 presidential elections. A week earlier, 19 others were also sentenced in the same city for similar reasons. The protesters were accused of violating public order and blocking traffic in a crowded intersection during the protest which was dispersed by police using water cannon.

In related developments, in November 2021, several Belarusian human rights defenders issued a statement denouncing the conviction and sentencing of seven other people: Uladzimir Makarevich, Maksim Mikulich, Siarhei Sakavets, Anton Nechyparovich, Barys Nestsiarovich, Ihar Sankevich and Siarhei Shauchenka, who were also sentenced to imprisonment for violating public order after participating in the post-election related protests. The seven are also on the list of political prisoners. The human rights defenders called for their immediate release, as well as the release of all those detained in connection with the post-election protests.

By 11th January 2022, the list of political prisoners had reached approximately 980 people.


Onslaught on independent media continues

Belarusian authorities continued to put pressure on independent media outlets. On 1st November 2021, the BelaPan Press Agency was declared an extremist organisation. Later, Belsat, an independent TV station, was added to the same list. These outlets reported on the

aggression of authorities against protesters during the post-election protests of 2020.

Similarly, on 7th October 2021, the media outlet TUT.BY once again found itself on the radar of authorities. This came after its staff members were accused of inciting hatred by the Investigative Committee of Belarus, who did not provide further details.

Following these developments, the Belarusian Association of Journalists issued a public statement calling on the Belarusian authorities to bring to a stop the relentless persecution of independent media outlets and stop undermining the right to free speech. The statement noted the dire implications of classifying outlets as terrorist groups, which allows for criminal prosecution of individuals without establishing their guilt.

Citizens, journalists, bloggers jailed for social media posts

On 5th January 2022, Valiantsin Panasik was sentenced to six years in a medium-security penal colony after he was detained on 5th August 2021, and convicted of organising mass riots, incitement to racial, national, religious or other social hatred and organising and preparing actions that grossly violate public order or active participation in them.

This came after Panasik published messages about the post-election related protests in a Telegram channel called ‘Grodno 97%’.

His lawyer stated that the prosecution had not presented any evidence to prove his client's guilt, but the Hrodna Regional Court nevertheless sentenced him to six years’ imprisonment.

In separate developments,journalist Iryna Slaunikava, former Belsat TV representative in Belarus, and her husband Alyaksandr Loyka were detained in October 2021 upon their arrival at Minsk Airport. They were later charged for “distributing materials listed as ‘extremist’” on Facebook. Shortly after the judges announced the sentence, Slaunikovawent on a hunger strike together with other convicted women in protest against detention conditions. She is on the list of political prisoners in the country.

In similar developments, on 10th January 2022, it was reported that Aleh Kanavalau, the host of the YouTube channel "Third Region Belarus", was detained by law enforcement after he was accused of promoting messages with extremist content and inciting hate speech. According to the press service of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus, Kanavalau took part in the protest movement and posted videos of the protests on his channel.

He was arrested while crossing the border on his return from Ukraine, where he had been previously. Belarusian law enforcement officials said Kanavalau continued to post critical content on his YouTube channel to government officials abroad.