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UN rights expert warns of worsening situation for political prisoners in Belarus ahead of elections

GENEVA (11 June 2015) – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, today raised alarm at the deterioration of the plight of several political prisoners ahead of the October presidential elections, and reiterated his calls to the immediate and unconditional release of all those imprisoned for the exercise of their political and other rights.

“In this election year, the authorities have both kept critical-minded political personalities in prison and severely hardened their situation, instead of giving a reassuring signal to society on creating an environment for free and fair elections,” the human rights expert said. (See list of cases below)

“This is disheartening for all who hoped that four years after the massive reprisals during the last presidential elections of December 2010, the Government finally would be ready to release all political prisoners, as well as secure equitable chances for all competitors by rehabilitating the civil and political rights of the previously incarcerated,” he stated.

Mr. Haraszti was referring to the events in 2010 which prompted the United Nations Human Right Council to establish the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus.  At the time, seven of the nine presidential candidates were arrested and incarcerated along with hundreds who protested against the  non-transparent voting procedures.

“This year, the authorities chose in several cases to extend prison sentences of already incarcerated political opponents or impose harsher prison conditions, on differently formulated but similar grounds,” he noted. “Imposing harsher regimes or extending prison sentences based on claims of violations of internal prison regulations are deliberately used to put pressure on political prisoners.

“I urge the Belarus authorities not only to release, but also to fully rehabilitate political opponents who have been imprisoned,” the Special Rapporteur said, while stressing the importance of rehabilitation and full reinstatement of civil rights, especially in view of this year’s presidential election.

As pointed out in his reports* to the Human Rights Council, former political prisoners as individuals having a criminal record, cannot run for or occupy public office. They continue facing preventive supervision procedures and have to regularly report to the authorities; they cannot change or leave their place of residence without permission from the police. 

Mr. Haraszti also expressed his concern at the lack of independence of the judiciary from the executive, which is inconsistent with an environment necessary for the exercise of human rights, and is an enabling factor in perpetuating the use of arbitrary detention against political opponents. “A broad and comprehensive reform is needed to ensure the principle of independence and impartiality of the judiciary,” he reiterated.

The cases highlighted by the Special Rapporteur:

On  27 May 2015 the Pružany District Court sentenced political prisoner Yury Rubtsou,  who had been serving a sentence in an open-type correctional facility  in  Pružany  district, to two years of imprisonment in a penal colony on charges of violating penitentiary regime rules  under article  415 of the Criminal Code.

Yury Rubtsou is an activist from Gomel who was first arrested in November 2013 during a demonstration, and was then repeatedly sentenced to terms of administrative detentions until October  2014, when criminal charges were brought against  him for  allegedly insulting a judge during a closed session  administrative hearing in April,  and was sentenced to 18 months  in prison.

Mr. Rubtsou is but the last instance when an imprisoned political opponent continues to be charged with additional offences allegedly related to violating penitentiary rules.  In April, the presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich, who is serving a six-year prison sentence since May 2011 for  allegedly ‘organizing  mass riots’  during the  2010 presidential election, was found guilty of violating the internal regulations of Shklou penal colony ¹ 17  and sent to a  cell-type prison facility with a harsher penitentiary regime  (Prison No. 4 in Mahiliou) – charges included failing to be in bed on time.

Similar pressure continues against the political prisoner Mikalai Dziadok, who in 2011 was sentenced to  four and a half  years in prison. This April his punishment was extended for one year on alleged violations of prison rules under Article 411 of the Criminal Code.

Before the extension of his term, he was charged with 16 violations, the main of which was ‘wearing a tracksuit instead of prison uniform’ and ‘refusal to clean the cell.’ Each alleged violation was punished by placement in an isolation cell, denial of food parcels and meetings with relatives. Reports continue to attest that since he was transferred to another prison facility in May, he continues to receive ill-treatment in a confinement cell. 

“The cases of Mikalai Statkevitch, Yuri Rubtsou, and Mikalai Dziadok, show that arbitrary detention as a policy to stifle dissent has not stopped, and set a very clear signal to opposition ahead of the 2015 presidential election,” Haraszti said.

The human rights expert warned that while some imprisoned critics have been released – notably Ales Bialatski –others are being sentenced and sent to prison on similar charges, and the situation of already imprisoned dissenters is continuously deteriorating.  

(*) Check all the Special Rapporteur’s reports on Belarus:  http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?m=140

Mr. Miklós Haraszti (Hungary) was designated as Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus by the UN Human Rights Council in 2012. In the 70s, Mr. Haraszti was a founder of Hungary’s human rights and free press movement, and in the 1990s he was a Member of the Hungarian Parliament. From 2004 to 2010, he served as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. Since 2010, he has been a Professor at several universities teaching media democratisation. Learn more, log on to:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/SP/CountriesMandates/BY/Pages/SRBelarus.aspx

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

UN Human Rights, country page – Belarus: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/BYIndex.aspx

For more information and media requests please contact Ms. Alexandra Swetzer (+41 22 917 9401 / aswetzer@ohchr.org) or write to sr-belarus@ohchr.org.

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)  

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