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Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in the Cultural Sphere (June 15-30, 2022)

Last update: 2 July 2022
Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in the Cultural Sphere (June 15-30, 2022)

Between June 15 and 30, 2022, sentences were passed in the criminal cases of a philosopher-methodologist Uladzimir Matskevich (5 years in a maximum security prison), a wikipedia author Mark Bernstein (3 years of restriction of freedom without referral to an open correctional institution (“home chemistry”), a music teacher Aksana Kaspiarovich (1 year and 2 months of imprisonment in a general regime colony). In Hrodna, a civil and cultural activist Mikola Markevich was sentenced to 10 days, in Homel, an organizer of a celebration for Ukrainian children, Ala Karalenka was sentenced for 7 days. During the trial, Uladzimir Hundar, a local historian from Baranavichi, was tortured. The state seeks to monopolize activities in the sphere of culture – the authorities are forming a register of organizers of cultural and entertainment events in Belarus. Politically motivated arrests of cultural figures, dismissals for civil position, persecution for anti-war stance, as well as repressions against cultural figures who were forced to leave Belarus and their relatives continue.

I. Criminal politically motivated cases against cultural figures, authors and performers

1. On June 23, the Minsk Regional Court considered behind closed doors the case of Uladzimir Matskevich, a philosopher-methodologist, found him guilty and sentenced him to five years of imprisonment in a maximum security colony. Uladzimir Matskevich is a philosopher, methodologist, essayist, publicist, public figure and TV presenter. The founder and head of the Humanitarian Technologies Agency, the founder of the program to create a modern university in Belarus “Flying University”. He participated in the creation of the “Charter’97” civil initiative and he is the author of the text of the initiative’s declaration. Matskevich regularly gave public lectures and speeches, including for “local yard communities” in 2020. Since 2012, he has been the host of the “Talk of the Day” program on the “Belsat” TV channel. He is the author of a large number of publicist articles and about 50 scientific works on philosophy, politics, culture and education transformation. Co-author of a series of books on issues of civil society, dialogue and values “Belarus for Beginners” (2006-2009). The author of several video courses on philosophy and transformation of society. Uladzimir Matskevich was detained on August 4, 2021, since then he has been behind bars – first in the detention center on Akrestsina Street, then in the pre-trial detention center No. 1 on Valadarskaha Street in Minsk. Philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich was charged with organizing and preparing actions that grossly violate public order according to Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them).

2. On June 24, the Zavodski District Court of Minsk issued a verdict in the criminal case of Mark Bernstein, a Wikipedia author: three years of restriction of freedom without being sent to an open correctional institution (“home chemistry”). Since 2009, Mark Bernstein has been among the 50 best editors of the Russian-language Wikipedia. Author of numerous articles on the Holocaust, author of an article on censorship in the Soviet Union, in which he cited about 250 sources. On March 10, 2022, the Russian pro-government Telegram channel “Mrakoborets” published Bernstein’s personal information and accused him of violating the new Russian law on the publication of fake news. The channel said Mark Bernstein’s editing of Wikipedia articles about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine violated the new “fake law.” On March 11, 2022, Mark Bernstein was detained in Minsk. The GUBAZIK Telegram channel published a photo of Mark Bernstein with the caption: “This person spreads fake anti-Russian materials.” On March 12, 2022, Mark Bernstein was sentenced to 15 days of administrative arrest under Art. 24.3 of the Code of Administrative Offenses of the Republic of Belarus (disobedience to a lawful order or demand of an official in the performance of his official powers). He was not released after 15 days of arrest. A criminal case was started against Mark Bernstein, where he was a suspect under Art. 342 (organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order, or active participation in them).

3. On June 29, the Hrodna Regional Court held a trial in the criminal case of a music teacher Aksana Kaspiarovich, who was convicted under Art. 130 of the Criminal Code (“Incitement of hatred or enmity”) and sentenced to 1 year and 2 months of imprisonment in a general regime colony. Aksana Kaspiarovich was detained on September 30, 2021 for comments on social networks on the death of a KGB employee Dzmitry Fedasyuk and an IT specialist Andrei Zeltser.

4. On June 29, information appeared that the court proceedings in the BelaPAN case were suspended for at least two months due to the resumption of procedural actions. Among the defendants in the BelaPAN case are a poet and a media manager Andrei Aliaksandrau. Andrei Aliaksandrau created “Belarusian Journal”, an intellectual online publication, where he planned to develop free and independent Belarusian thought, to bring together different ideas, views and opinions, sometimes completely opposite. For many years Andrei participated in the projects of the methodologist and philosopher Uladzimir Matskevich. He was arrested on January 12, 2021 and charged according to Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code (training or other preparation of persons to participate in group actions that grossly violate public order, as well as financing and providing in other ways for such activities). The reason for the accusation was that, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Andrei Aliaksandrau paid 250 fines to participants of peaceful protests from August 22 to November 9, 2020. On June 30, 2021, Andrei Aliaksandrau was charged with a new crime according to Part 1 of Art. 356 (treason). The trial of the BelaPAN criminal case began in a closed session on June 6 in the Minsk Regional Court. The accused are the chief-editor Iryna Leushina, ex-CEO of the agency Dzmitry Navazhylau, journalist and media manager Andrei Aliaksandrau and Iryna Zlobina. Now the trial is suspended due to the resumption of procedural actions. It is unknown in relation to whom they are conducted or will be conducted.

II. Politically motivated administrative detentions and arrests of cultural figures, authors and performers

1. On June 21, Mikola Markevich was detained in Hrodna and sentenced to 10 days of administrative arrest, having been convicted for reposting “extremist materials” on social networks. Mikola Markevich is a former deputy of the Supreme Council of the 12th convocation, in 1995 he participated in the hunger strike of deputies against the holding of a referendum that would change the white-red-white flag and coat of arms of Pahonia (The Chase) as the state symbol, and would give the official status to the Russian language in Belarus. Mikola Markevich is the founder and editor-in-chief of the “Pahonia” newspaper, and one of the first political prisoners in Belarus – in 2002, he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for slandering Lukashenka.

2. On June 29, in Homel police arrested Ala Karalenka, one of the organizers of a celebration for refugee children. Ala Karalenka was sentenced to 7 days of administrative arrest. On June 27, in Homel, activists planned a celebration in the park, which the organizers called “Birthdays Day” and which involved games and contests for all ages, a historical quest as well as gifts. Children were to bring a home-made “dove of peace” or make it in the park together with other participants. Police officers broke up the children’s party. Pro-government Telegram channels reported that the police intervened in the celebration to prevent “provocations and political slogans”, and that its participants had not submitted an application to the city executive committee for a mass event.

III. Conditions in places of imprisonment

1. Aleh Gruzdzilovich is a journalist and the author of a non-fiction book “Who blew up the Minsk subway?” Since the beginning of June, he has been sent to the penalty zone (Shiza) twice. This was reported by Aleh Gruzdzilovich’s wife, Maryana. Political prisoner Aleh Gruzdzilovich was released from his second term in the penalty zone (Shiza) the other day. The interval between the first and second terms was two days. It is unknown why he got there.

2. On June 28, the Court of Horatski District issued a ruling that Mikola Dziadok, an anarchist, author of the book “Paints of a parallel world”, should be transferred from the penitentiary to a closed prison for 2 years and 10 months until the end of the 5-year term of imprisonment. Reason: “numerous violations of the rules of the internal order”.

IV. Torture

Local historian from Baranavichy Uladzimir Hundar, who has the second group of disabilities (he has only one leg) in the courtroom was standing in a cage wearing only underpants, his hands were handcuffed to the bars in a stretcher. In the Hrodna prison No. 1 during the trial of the criminal case of the “Autukhovich group”, Uladzimir Hundar refused to testify, but claimed he had been beaten when detained: Uladzimir Hundar announced a dry hunger strike as a sign of protest. Uladzimir Hundar’s daughter, Inha, said: “When the judge came in, the lawyer asked for permission to loosen the handcuffs a little or to give dad an opportunity to sit down. The judge ignored the request. Dad sang a song. The judge listened and ordered him to be removed from the courtroom. Then dad said that he declared a dry hunger strike, and if any violent measures were taken against him, he said he would take his own life”.

V. Dismissals

1. Aliaksandr Hrusha was dismissed from the post of head of the Central Scientific Library named after Yakub Kolas of the National Academy of Sciences of Belarus, which he has held since 2014. Aliaksandr Hrusha is a medievalist historian, doctor of historical sciences. He researched the formation of written culture in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 13th-16th centuries. He has worked at the Academy of Sciences since 1996 and was one of those who began to restore the publication of the Metrics of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Belarus – a collection of manuscript books that were compiled by the chancellery of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 15th-18th centuries. He was one of those who initiated to create a scientific publishing series “Monuments of the Historical Thought of Belarus”, within the framework of which they reprint the most significant scientific works on the history of Belarus. He was the founder and one of the organizers of several cycles of international scientific conferences.

VI. The state monopolizes activities in the sphere of culture

The authorities are forming a register of organizers of cultural and entertainment events in Belarus. This is provided for by Council of Ministers Resolution No. 401 of June 22, 2022. The goal is to record and systematize information about the organizers. To be included in the register, the organizer needs to send an application and a number of documents to the department. The Republican expert commission under the Ministry of Culture will consider the documents. Organizers that are subject to inclusion in the register, but are not included into it, cannot hold cultural and entertainment events. The main provisions of the resolution enter into force after its official publication.

VII. Repressions in the book industry

The books “Myths about Belarus” by Vadzim Dzeruzhynski and “Welcome to Belarus” by Ales Hutouski were withdrawn from sale in the “Green” store in Hrodna. The reasons are the appeal of the pro-government activist Volha Bondarava. In the “OZ” store in Hrodna, after Bondarava’s appeal, they removed the book “Summer in a Pioneer Tie”, which tells about an LGBTQ+ love in a Soviet pioneer camp.

VIII. Repressions against cultural figures who were forced to leave Belarus, as well as against their relatives

Police officers ransacked the apartment of Anton Matolka’s mother. A video of the consequences of the search of the apartment appeared in one of the pro-government Telegram channels. It shows things scattered on the floor, broken mirrors and traces of soil from a broken vase with houseplants on the wall. Anton Matolka is a cultural and public figure who has been outside Belarus since 2020 due to the threat of persecution for his activities and views.