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  • Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown

    The international organization Human Rights Watch presented a report on recent wave of repressions against peaceful protesters, journalists and human righst defenders.

    Author­i­ties across Belarus arbi­trar­i­ly detained at least 700 peo­ple in March 2017 in con­nec­tion with peace­ful protests, Human Rights Watch said today. The major­i­ty, includ­ing more than 100 jour­nal­ists and 60 human rights activists, were detained in con­nec­tion with peace­ful protests mark­ing Belarus’ annu­al Free­dom Day on March 25.

    Police punched, kicked, clubbed, and oth­er­wise abused many of the detainees. On March 27, courts in Min­sk and oth­er cities swift­ly sen­tenced 177 peo­ple, includ­ing jour­nal­ists and human rights activists, to fines or deten­tion on fab­ri­cat­ed mis­de­meanor charges. Hours before the March 25 ral­ly in Min­sk, riot police raid­ed the Human Rights Cen­ter “Vias­na”, one of the country’s lead­ing human rights groups, detain­ing 58 peo­ple.

    “Belaru­sian author­i­ties led a shock­ing, all-out assault on peace­ful assem­bly around the Free­dom Day protests,” said Yulia Gor­buno­va, Belarus researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They should imme­di­ate­ly release every­one who was detained in con­nec­tion with the protests and inves­ti­gate alle­ga­tions of police mis­treat­ment.”

    A Human Rights Watch researcher inter­viewed 19 jour­nal­ists, human rights activists, lawyers, and released detainees and attend­ed court hear­ings in Min­sk.

    “There were more deten­tions of jour­nal­ists in one day than through all of last year,” Andrei Bas­tunets, head of the Belaruss­ian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, an inde­pen­dent group, told Human Rights Watch, refer­ring to jour­nal­ists detained while cov­er­ing the March 25 ral­ly.

    One jour­nal­ist was detained three times in as many days, and sev­er­al told Human Rights Watch that the police had beat­en them. Author­i­ties repeat­ed­ly harassed anoth­er jour­nal­ist, includ­ing threat­en­ing twice to take away her child unless she stopped cov­er­ing protests. A human rights activist with Vias­na had to be hos­pi­tal­ized for a con­cus­sion he sus­tained due to police mis­treat­ment.

    “The author­i­ties brazen­ly pre­vent­ed jour­nal­ists and human rights mon­i­tors from sim­ply doing their job cov­er­ing the protests,” Gor­buno­va said. “They made lit­tle attempt to hide their con­tempt for Belarus’ com­mit­ments on media free­doms.” /…/

    The Min­sk ral­ly was sched­uled for 2 p.m. Between 12:30 and 4 p.m., riot police arrest­ed hun­dreds of peo­ple, includ­ing peace­ful pro­test­ers, jour­nal­ists, and passers-by who were either in the area or tried to approach it before­hand. “They were arrest­ing every­one in sight, even peo­ple who were just stand­ing or sim­ply walk­ing by –young, elder­ly – didn’t mat­ter,” one wit­ness told Human Rights Watch. A British jour­nal­ist who wit­nessed deten­tions near Vic­to­ry Square, 2.3 kilo­me­ters from the Acad­e­my of Sci­ences, and was lat­er him­self detained, said, “It looked as if these riot squads were lit­er­al­ly “peo­ple hunt­ing” – these men were not moti­vat­ed, they were pos­sessed; ran­dom­ly grab­bing and throw­ing peo­ple, any­one, that came their way, into police vans.” /…/

    Author­i­ties detained, beat, harassed, and issued offi­cial warn­ings to at least 107 jour­nal­ists, both for­eign and domes­tic, in the lead up to and dur­ing the Free­dom Day protests. Accord­ing to the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists, police beat sev­en jour­nal­ists and in three cas­es dam­aged or destroyed their pho­to and video equip­ment. Eight jour­nal­ists were sen­tenced to up to 15 days in deten­tion on charges of par­tic­i­pat­ing in an unsanc­tioned gath­er­ing and hooli­gan­ism. One was fined and more are await­ing tri­al.

    On March 26, police also detained jour­nal­ists who cov­ered the small­er demon­stra­tion on Oktyabrskaya Square, among them Bel­sat jour­nal­ist Ales Zalevsky. Traf­fic police stopped the car from which Zalevsky and his cam­era­man were live-stream­ing the protest and ordered them out. Min­utes lat­er, riot police arrived, forced them into a police van and took them to the Maskaus­ki dis­trict police sta­tion. Zalevsky said:

    «I saw two more police vans arriv­ing [at the sta­tion] right after us, full of peo­ple. The police told every­one to face the wall and spread their legs wide. We had to stand like that for three hours. If any­one as much as moved or tried to turn around, the police would hit them. They also kicked and hit those who they thought didn’t have their legs spread wide enough.»

    After three hours, Zalevsky and his cam­era­man were released with­out charge.

    Police also detained Zalevsky on March 24 and 25. On March 24, Zalevsky and sev­er­al oth­er jour­nal­ists – from France24 tele­vi­sion chan­nel, Ukraine’s Novoye Vre­mya, and Radio Lib­er­ty – went to the office of the Green Par­ty, where the fam­i­lies of peo­ple detained in con­nec­tion with the anti-tax ral­lies could get assis­tance. The police went to the office, detained the jour­nal­ists and took them to the Maskaus­ki dis­trict police sta­tion, where the police checked the jour­nal­ists’ doc­u­ments and even­tu­al­ly released them with­out charge. On March 25, two riot police detained Zalevsky as he was on his way to cov­er the Free­dom Day ral­ly. With no expla­na­tion, they threw him into a mini­van with sev­er­al oth­er peo­ple. Zalevsky was allowed to leave the mini­van before it drove off, after he told one of the riot police­men that he lived near­by and showed his res­i­dence reg­is­tra­tion.

    On March 25, riot police detained and beat a British free­lance jour­nal­ist, Fil­ip War­wick, and held him for over six hours. War­wick told Human Rights Watch in a Skype inter­view that the police threw him into the police van, where a riot police­man kicked him in the thigh and in the head. The police took him to a sta­tion, searched him, and checked his doc­u­ments. In a writ­ten com­mu­ni­ca­tion to Human Rights Watch, War­wick described what hap­pened:

    «They twist­ed my arms behind my back, which result­ed in great pain, flipped me upside down, threw me onto the floor, stood on my ankles, while one of the men applied his knee onto my spine. This result­ed in crush­ing my rib cage onto the floor, for a cou­ple of sec­onds I could not breathe, nor catch my breath, and I start­ed to choke. This brought about some con­sid­er­able laugh­ter among these men. With hand­cuffs applied they threw me against the wall, kicked my feet aside, and force­ful­ly went through all my pock­ets.»

    War­wick was released over six hours lat­er, appar­ent­ly with­out charges, and left Belarus the next day.

    Cata­ri­na Andree­va, a Bel­sat jour­nal­ist, was arrest­ed togeth­er with her assis­tant, her cam­era­men, and anoth­er local jour­nal­ist on March 25. Andree­va said that her cam­era­man, Alexan­der Borozenko, was arrest­ed at about 3 p.m. while film­ing the ral­ly, but that she and her oth­er col­leagues man­aged to walk away. Andree­va, her assis­tant, and the oth­er jour­nal­ist – who is her hus­band – then went to take pho­tographs at Oktyabrskaya Square, where armored vehi­cles, water can­nons, and oth­er secu­ri­ty vehi­cles were parked that day. Four masked men dressed in black and armed with batons imme­di­ate­ly sur­round­ed them. The insignia on their sleeves were cov­ered up. Andree­va said:

    «They lit­er­al­ly appeared out of nowhere. They didn’t say who they were, just start­ed grab­bing and push­ing us. I screamed that I was a jour­nal­ist and pulled out my press card. One of the men took the press card, rum­pled it, threw it on the ground and said: “It’s fake.” Anoth­er man yelled: “Drag her! Drag her into the van!”

    Andree­va and her col­leagues demand­ed to know if they were being detained, but the police did not respond. Andree­va said she need­ed to use a bath­room and quick­ly walked into a near­by pub­lic build­ing. With­in min­utes, two police­men fol­lowed her in, grabbed her by the arms and dragged her out­side. A police­man wear­ing met­al knee guards kneed Andree­va in the stom­ach. While two police­men were drag­ging her out­side, she saw anoth­er police­man grab­bing her col­league by the neck from behind and push­ing him on the ground face down. A few min­utes lat­er police released them, with­out expla­na­tion or apol­o­gy.

    Police charged the cam­era­man, Borozenko, with hooli­gan­ism, alleg­ing that he was swear­ing and “wav­ing his arms” in pub­lic. Dur­ing the court hear­ing, which Andree­va attend­ed, Borozenko’s lawyer said that Borozenko could not have been wav­ing his hands because he was hold­ing a cam­era. The court found Borozenko guilty and sen­tenced him to 15 days in deten­tion.

    Author­i­ties also pres­sured and harassed jour­nal­ists in con­nec­tion with anti-tax protests ear­li­er in March. On March 17, a court in Homel fined Lar­isa Shchiryako­va, a local jour­nal­ist, 150 Belaru­sian rubles (approx­i­mate­ly US$80) for par­tic­i­pat­ing in an unsanc­tioned protest, which she was cov­er­ing as a jour­nal­ist for Bel­sat. The next day, police stopped Shchiryako­va on her way to anoth­er protest, in the city of Mozyr, 144 kilo­me­ters from Homel, and detained her for eight hours, she told Human Rights Watch in a phone inter­view.

    On the same day, plain­clothes police­men came to Shchiryakova’s par­ents’ home when she was not at home and warned her par­ents that author­i­ties would take her 10-year-old son away unless she stopped report­ing on the protests. On March 26, an offi­cial from the Homel Munic­i­pal Depart­ment of Children’s Ser­vices asked Shchiryako­va to meet with him. Dur­ing their con­ver­sa­tion, he told her that she spent “too much time” cov­er­ing protests and “not enough time” look­ing after her son, and warned her that social ser­vices could take her son away. “They are try­ing to pres­sure me in every pos­si­ble way,” Shchiryako­va said.

    Police in Orsha, 220 kilo­me­ters north­east of Min­sk, detained Andree­va, the Bel­sat jour­nal­ist, and a Radio Lib­er­ty jour­nal­ist, Gali­na Abakunchik, on March 12, when they were cov­er­ing the protest there against the “social par­a­site” tax. Andree­va told Human Rights Watch that she had spent five hours in a soli­tary con­fine­ment cell at the Orshan­sky police sta­tion with­out a phone or access to a lawyer. After that, the police charged her with “par­tic­i­pat­ing in the work of unreg­is­tered media,” under arti­cle 22.9 of the admin­is­tra­tive code, and trans­ferred her to a pre-tri­al deten­tion facil­i­ty. Andree­va spent the night with­out food or water in a cold cell, sleep­ing in her coat. At 9 a.m., the police took Andree­va to a court hear­ing. She first met her defense lawyer min­utes before the hear­ing began. The court found Andree­va guilty and fined her 540 Belaru­sian rubles (US$287).

    Read the full report here

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