Belarus: ‘Freedom Day’ Crackdown

14.04.2017 Source: Human Rights Watch

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