The Belarusian opposition wants to restart mass protests late March, but will people go back to the streets? Last month saw a heavy crackdown with outrageous verdicts for demonstrators and journalists in courts. The number of political prisoners since last summer has risen to 270, and only in February 102 people were convicted of 'political crimes' under the Lukashenko regime.
Journalist Kataryna Barysevich and doctor Artyem Sorokin on trial on March 2
by Adam Tarasewicz
Developments in February and March show that Aleksandr Lukashenko continues to re-assert his rule in Belarus. Dialogue with the opposition is nowhere in sight. After a carefully selected crowd saw Lukashenka allege a foreign 'blitzkrieg' against Belarus during the Soviet-esque 'All-Belarusian People’s Assembly' on Constitutional reform on the 11th of February, March began with a widening on the law on extremism. Extremists may now include those critical of the government, and authorities will have the right to keep a list of 'dissenting individuals'.
Simultaneously, in February alone at least 102 people were convicted of political crimes, while the total number of political prisoners according to human rights activists reached 270 as of the 3rd of March.
Convictions of Journalists
On February 16, the headquarters of the Association of Belarusian Journalists was among those raided by Belarusian authorities under alleged ties to the funding of protests. More than 400 journalists have been detained in the last six months, while reporting on the demonstrations.
On the 2nd of March, journalist Kataryna Barysevich and medical doctor Artyem Sorokin were sentenced to six months (at least three in prison) with a 2,900 rouble fine, and a two-year suspended term, with a 1,450 rouble fine respectively. Barysevich quoted Sorokin in an article discrediting claims that protester Roman Bondarenko had alcohol in his system when he died on 11 November 2020. He was killed by masked attackers who rights activists say were connected to the authorities. They attacked him when he protested as they removed red-white ribbons from a fence in his courtyard, a sign of neighbourhood solidarity against the oppression. After the murder of Bondarenko people assembled at his courtyard, but were quickly dispersed by the police.
Barysevich and Sorokin were convicted of sharing the private medical details of a patient, even though Bondarenko’s sister, a witness in court, had given the journalist permission to publish the information.
Proceedings began on the 19th of February and were shrouded in secrecy. The trial took place behind closed doors, 'to avoid the disclosure of medical secrets and preliminary investigation data', and all witnesses and defence attorneys signed non-disclosure agreements.
The decision to remove the public and independent reporters after half an hour on the trial’s first day was met with anger by supporters of the defendants outside court. Only 5 state press employees and limited family members were allowed to hear the verdict, even Barysevich’s own brother could not enter the court room.
Mass protests in winter gave way to local small but persistant signs of disagreement with the hars crackdown in neighbourhoods
Elsewhere, two journalists reporting on the rallies commemorating Bondarenko were arrested in November. Kataryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were working for Belsat TV when the apartment they were filming from was raided by armed riot police. After first being told their actions were an offence, not a crime, a criminal case was soon opened.
The trial began on the 16th of February with non-state media not allowed in the court room. On the 18th, both women were sentenced to two years in prison for 'organising public events aimed at disrupting social order'. They maintained throughout that they were merely doing their job and rejected charges as politically motivated. EU foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano called the ruling a 'shameful crackdown on media'.
Journalists Kataryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova were sentenced to 2 years
Prosecution of the vulnerable
On the 26th of February, a group of pensioners were arrested for reading works by Belarusian writers on a train in Minsk, which they were told constituted participation in an unauthorised protest.
Elena Lebedinskaya explained to Tut.by that there were around 30 pensioners in the group. She was accused of shouting 'Long Live Belarus' and wearing white-red-white clothes, which she says security footage would have disproved. The white-red-white flag is often used in anti-Lukashenko protests.
At first, Lebedinskaya and 6 other women, mostly pensioners, were kept in a four-bed cell, where only Elena could reach the top bunks, and not given food. Most of the 26 arrested in total were eventually released ahead of their court dates, but Tut.by reported one 66-year-old woman was kept in the notorious Akrestin Street Detention Centre.
The same woman, Halina Hulyankova, was given 20 days administrative arrest by a Minsk court on the 2nd of March. Her son, Maksim, explained how she was arrested when exiting the train. Accused of waving her arms, provoking onlookers to act against the government, the judge refused her appeal to review CCTV footage.
Hulyankova walks with a cane due to a bad back and leg, and has oncology after her thyroid was removed, for which she takes pills. She will have to serve another 17 days in addition to the time she spent in Akrestin Street, where she had to sleep on the floor.
A day earlier, 8 others from the group were fined between 870 and 1,740 roubles for their roles.
Belarusian courtroom (picture ngo Spring96)
An epileptic teenager sentenced
In August, 16-year-old Mikita Zolotaryev was arrested from his home in Homiel for throwing a Molotov cocktail towards a policeman. On the 22nd of February, a district court sentenced him to five years in prison. Two older defendants 25-year-old Dmitry Karneyev, and 28-year-old Leonid Kovalyev received eight and six years.
Zolotaryev, who is epileptic, says he has been denied his medication while in prison, and brutally beaten, both after his arrest in August, and again during his detention. He threw himself against the bars of the courtroom cage when the sentence was announced, shouting 'Let me out of here!'. According to Belsat, in spite of the defendant’s young age (he was born in 2004), prosecutor Yevhen Fartushnyak initially called for a six year sentence.
16 year old Nikita Zolotaryev (picture ngo Spring96)
Research by the Russian website Mediazona showed that during protests between August and September 2020, 1,406 people suffered violence. Their extensive analysis of data from the Belarusian Investigative Committee shows that more than half of injuries sustained came after detention when individuals were unable to resist nor pose a risk. The data shows that 24 people under the age of 18 were beaten.
Politically motivated layoffs
In late February, Minskenergo workers told Tut.by that workers were being fired after authorities came in to check security footage for those who participated in rallies.
Aleksandr Danko, who worked for the Minsk Cable Works under Minskenergo, reports being abruptly told he was to be fired unless he agreed to mutually terminate his contract. He told Tut.by that he had never had any complaints from management about his work.
Reasons for termination are minor infringements that usually go unpunished. Another woman, pressured into resigning, claimed that if she had not, a reprimand would simply have been found each day to justify her firing. When questioned, Minskenergo said they do not give comments over the phone.
While opposition leader Svetlana Tsikhanovskaya, who considers herself as the elected president of Belarus, has called for a new wave of protest to start on the 25th of March, it remains to be seen whether this will be successful. A December survey showed that 41% of respondents who supported the protest movement did not participate themselves.