BELARUS: Political prisoners' freedom of religion or belief restricted

Source:                www.forum18.org

Date:                     July 16, 2021

 


BELARUS: Political prisoners' freedom of religion or belief restricted
By Felix Corley, Forum 18

Since opposition emerged to the falsified 2020 presidential elections, the
regime has arrested hundreds of individuals and handed down many long or
short jail terms to punish them for opposition or perceived opposition to
the regime. Once in jail, prison authorities have often restricted
political prisoners' freedom of religion or belief and other human rights.

The regime's many political prisoners are frequently denied clergy visits
and access to religious literature, against both Belarusian law and the UN
Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela
Rules).

After her 18 March arrest, Olga Zolotar repeatedly requested a visit from a
Catholic priest, as did Catholic representatives. However, the
Investigative Committee which is handling the criminal case against her
refused such permission. Finally, on 2 June the prison administration
allowed a visit by the Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic, "thanks to
his special diplomatic status", Christian Vision noted. Her mother earlier
tried to hand in a prayer book for her, but the prison administration
refused it (see below).

After a Judge jailed a political prisoner and they were transferred to
prison, a relative asked the Judge in mid-2021 for permission for an
Orthodox priest to visit the political prisoner. The Judge agreed verbally.
However, when the prisoner's relative, accompanied by a priest, visited the
Judge the following day to collect the written permission the Judge
refused, saying that the priest was not a relative and could not therefore
visit the prisoner (see below).

A human rights defender told Forum 18 in July 2021 that prison authorities
had allowed some prisoners to receive visits, but other visits were
arbitrarily refused using coronavirus as an excuse. "When they didn't want
to allow a visit they could use Covid regulations as an excuse," the human
rights defender, who is unnamed for fear of state reprisals, stated. The
regime's actions do not suggest it has any genuine concern about
coronavirus in prisons (see below).

The administration of Prison No. 4 in Mogilev refused to allow political
prisoners it was holding to subscribe to the monthly newspaper of the
Vitebsk Catholic diocese, although it appears in the catalogue of
publications distributed through the post office (see below).

Prison authorities also insist on removing all jewellery and neck crosses
– such as baptismal crosses – from prisoners. On 16 November 2020, an
Orthodox Christian from Minsk, Roman Abramchuk, recounted how police had
cut jewellery and crosses from the necks of those they detained, including
himself. He had asked the police officer to at least leave his cross. "So
he cut it off with particular harshness and threw it under his feet" (see
below).

Christian Vision, a group of Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and
Protestant clergy and laypeople which documents human rights violations,
has repeatedly called for them to end. It points out that denials of
prisoners' freedom of religion or belief often violate the rules covering
conditions in Investigation Prisons, Temporary Detention Centres, and
Labour Camps.

No one at the Department for the Implementation of Punishments of the
Interior Ministry in Minsk, which oversees prisons, or the government's
Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk would discuss
with Forum 18 why prisoners' freedom of religion or belief are restricted
(see below).

The regime has jailed numerous political prisoners
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/15/belarus-unprecedented-raids-human-rights-defenders&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNHSevUNN19cvHZE9I-Op0rS2Mr3tw">https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/07/15/belarus-unprecedented-raids-human-rights-defenders)
since protests broke out against the falsified presidential elections of
August 2020. Many have been tortured
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/belarus-systematic-beatings-torture-protesters&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNH8LTFnLjIf_pPHyYZWtFPokIJb6g">https://www.hrw.org/news/2020/09/15/belarus-systematic-beatings-torture-protesters).

The Viasna (Spring) human rights group counted 566 people it recognised as
political prisoners as of 15 July 2021. Viasna was among the at least 23
human rights and civil society organisations the police raided
(https://www.google.com/url?q=http://spring96.org/en/news/104291&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNG1WUGmCHU8LQzF5R3lQLRHWnbKrA">http://spring96.org/en/news/104291) in at least ten cities on 15 July.
Police arrested at least 10 of its members then and raids and detentions
continue (https://www.google.com/url?q=http://spring96.org/en/news/104322&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNEm_RC_CELRL5sTzxjODwObEDBLGg">http://spring96.org/en/news/104322), Viasna noted.

In her May 2021 report to the United Nations Human Rights Council, Special
Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Anaïs Marin, noted
"reports of beatings and ill-treatment, including the torture of
arbitrarily detained persons in a seemingly premeditated way by police and
affiliated forces". She also noted "poor sanitary conditions in detention
centres" which facilitated the spread of coronavirus among prisoners (see
below).

No answers as to why political prisoners' human rights violated

The duty officer at the Department for the Implementation of Punishments of
the Interior Ministry in Minsk, which oversees prisons, refused on 15 July
to put Forum 18 through to any official who could answer questions on
prison conditions. He said all questions had to be sent in writing.

The same day Forum 18 asked in writing why prison administrations deny
prisoners' (particularly political prisoners) freedom of religion or
belief, including the right to have clergy visits and to receive and have
religious literature and objects, such as neck crosses. Forum 18 received
no reply by the middle of the working day in Minsk of 16 July.

Maksim Shcherbatsevich of the Religious Department of the government's
Office of the Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic Affairs in Minsk
refused to discuss anything. "I'm just an ordinary official," he told Forum
18 on 15 July. He referred all enquiries to the Plenipotentiary Aleksandr
Rumak or his deputy Yelena Radchenko. However, his colleagues said Rumak
was on holiday and Radchenko was out at an event. Radchenko's phone went
unanswered on 16 July.

Prisoners' freedom of religion or belief in Belarusian law

Article 12 of the Criminal Enforcement Code guarantees prisoners serving
sentences freedom of religious belief, where prisoners "are allowed
individually or with other prisoners" to profess, express and share any
faith "and participate in carrying out religious worship, rituals and rites
not banned in law". They are also allowed to have and use religious objects
and literature.

However, Article 12 restricts the ability to exercise this freedom by this
statement: "In conducting religious worship, rituals and rites, the Rules
for internal order of prisons or the rights of others who have been
sentenced must not be violated."

Under Article 174 of the Criminal Enforcement Code, prisoners sentenced to
death are allowed visits from a priest. However, against the UN Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules,
A/C.3/70/L.3
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNFgszwgjtmTCPDXsvzH_Z907DT66A">https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)),
such prisoners may not be granted pastoral visits they request
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id%3D2612&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNEpa8cLIPvhajW4wx3to9aFCvS7Xg">https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612). Death-row prisoners
are informed of their executions only minutes beforehand, making final
meetings with families and others such as clergy impossible.

Paragraphs 116 and 117 of Interior Ministry Decree of 13 January 2004
(amended in 2017) on the rules for investigation prisons, and a similar
Interior Ministry Decree of 30 November 2016 related to Temporary Detention
Centres, make provision for prisoners on remand to have religious
literature and other objects, as well as receive visits from clergy.

"Persons on remand are allowed to have with them and use religious
literature, objects of religious cult for individual use for body or pocket
wear, except for piercing and cutting objects, items made of precious
metals, stones or of cultural and historical value," declares Paragraph 116
of the 2004 Interior Ministry Decree.

"In order to provide spiritual assistance to persons on remand, at their
request and with the permission of the body conducting the criminal
proceedings, it is allowed to invite representatives of religious
denominations registered in the Republic of Belarus to the pre-trial
detention centre. The services of the ministers of religious confessions
are paid at the expense of the persons who are obsessed with the guards,"
declares Paragraph 117.

Rules for prisoners serving sentences in prisons (as set out in a 20
October 2000 Interior Ministry Decree, most recently amended in 2019) and
in open prisons (as set out in a 13 January 2017 Interior Ministry Decree)
note that prisons can have places of worship. However, the rules contain no
guarantees of freedom of religion or belief for prisoners.

Human rights defenders told Forum 18 that prisoners in open prisons can
generally visit nearby places of worship if they wish to in non-working
time.

Jailed political prisoners: Denial of clergy visits

Prison administrations or, in criminal cases, the Investigative Committee
have often denied visits by clergy to political prisoners on remand. This
is despite provisions in the 2004 and 2016 Interior Ministry Decrees
covering persons on remand (see above) that "at their request and with the
permission of the body conducting the criminal proceedings, it is allowed
to invite representatives of religious denominations registered in the
Republic of Belarus to the pre-trial detention centre".

(This provision would not allow leaders of unregistered religious
communities to make such prison visits.)

Similarly, Article 12 of the Criminal Enforcement Code (see above) allows
those serving sentences to have clergy visits with the approval of the
prison administration.

The entire period since the August 2020 presidential election has coincided
with the coronavirus pandemic, which has particularly hit prisons. The
Interior Ministry, which controls prisons, enacted some restrictions on
prison visits, though these were lifted on 30 June 2021.

A human rights defender told Forum 18 in July 2021 that prison authorities
had allowed some prisoners to receive visits, but other visits were
arbitrarily refused using coronavirus as an excuse. "When they didn't want
to allow a visit they could use Covid regulations as an excuse," the human
rights defender, who is unnamed for fear of state reprisals, stated. "When
they wanted to, they gave [permission]."

The regime's actions do not suggest it has any genuine concern about
coronavirus in prisons. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the
situation of human rights in Belarus, Anaïs Marin, received "numerous and
concurring testimonies about systematic violation of detainees' right to
health (for example, of how all detainees in an overcrowded cell were made
to drink water from the same bottle)," she stated in her 4 May report to
the UN Human Rights Council (A/HRC/47/49 (https://www.google.com/url?q=https://undocs.org/A/HRC/47/49&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNGdulIzOX2iCqiFmojTG9k_grYY4w">https://undocs.org/A/HRC/47/49))
for 2020 and early 2021.

Marin observed that "the authorities did not introduce consistent
anti-COVID measures and continued to allow mass events", and that "poor
sanitary conditions in detention centres has made the impact that the
COVID-19 pandemic has had on human rights in Belarus particularly severe
for persons deprived of liberty".

Marin also notes: "Overcrowded cells, with no sanitation or safety
measures, and the transfer of detained persons from one facility or cell to
another have been described as factors facilitating the spread of the virus
among detainees". She pointed out that "a majority of those detained in
2020 tested positive for the virus after their release".

On 30 June, the Interior Ministry announced that it had opened up prisons
again to visitors from outside, claiming that the coronavirus situation had
improved.

While awaiting trial in Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1 up till April
2021, Pavel Severinets requested a visit from an Orthodox priest in writing
on at least five occasions, while his wife Volha requested such a clergy
visit on three occasions, Christian Vision noted on 4 May. Representatives
of religious organisations also requested visits with him. "However, over
nine months not one such pastoral visit was permitted." In late April the
prison authorities transferred Severinets to Prison No. 4 in Mogilev.

Only after Severinets' conviction and sentencing in May (he received a
seven-year jail term) did a Judge allow an Orthodox priest to visit him at
Mogilev's Prison No. 4. However, he and the priest were separated by a
glass panel and had to speak through a phone. Severinets was therefore
unable to make a confession or receive communion.

After a Judge jailed a different political prisoner and they were
transferred to prison, a relative asked the Judge in mid-2021 for
permission for an Orthodox priest to visit the political prisoner. The
Judge agreed verbally. However, when the prisoner's relative, accompanied
by a priest, visited the Judge the following day to collect the written
permission the Judge refused, saying that the priest was not a relative and
could not therefore visit the prisoner.

After the regime arrested Irena Bernatskaya in Lida on 25 March, they
transferred her to Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1. She applied at least
twice for a visit from a Catholic priest but these were refused. "The
request for a priest was rejected," Bernatskaya's daughter Veronika Piuta
wrote on Facebook on 16 April. "In their refusals, the investigating
authorities refer to the epidemic situation associated with the
coronavirus," Christian Vision noted on 4 May. (On 25 May, as a condition
of her release, Bernatskaya had to leave for Poland.)

Similarly, another prisoner at Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1, Olga
Zolotar, who was arrested on 18 March, several times requested a visit from
a Catholic priest, as did Catholic representatives. However, the
Investigative Committee which is handling the criminal case against her
refused such permission. Finally, on 2 June the prison administration
allowed a visit to Zolotar by the Vatican nuncio, Archbishop Ante Jozic,
"thanks to his special diplomatic status", Christian Vision noted. (Since
then, Zolotar has contracted coronavirus.)

The telephone of Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1 was not answered each
time Forum 18 called on 15 and 16 July.

"The denial of access of priests to political prisoners who are religious,
and the use of discriminatory and repressive measures against them are
unacceptable in a democratic and legal state and grossly violate one of the
fundamental human rights," Christian Vision declared on 4 May. "Believers
are left for many months without access to the sacraments of confession and
communion, and without the spiritual support they need."

Such denials of clergy visits are in violation of the UN Standard Minimum
Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules,
A/C.3/70/L.3
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNFgszwgjtmTCPDXsvzH_Z907DT66A">https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)).
Rule 65 includes the provision: "Access to a qualified representative of
any religion shall not be refused to any prisoner."

Jailed political prisoners: Religious literature denied

Prison administrations have refused to allow those on remand to receive or
have religious literature with them. This is despite provisions in the 2004
and 2016 Interior Ministry Decrees covering persons on remand (see above)
that they "are allowed to have with them and use religious literature".
Similarly, Article 12 of the Criminal Enforcement Code (see above)
guarantees prisoners serving sentences the right to have and use religious
literature.

After Pavel Severinets was arrested in June 2020, prison warders took his
Bible and all other possessions from him, his wife Volha noted on her
Facebook page.

In October 2020, Artyom Tkachuk sent Catholic publications to three
political prisoners, Maksim Znak, Dmitry Furmanov and Eduard Palchis.
However, the prison authorities returned the publications, saying that
individuals can receive journals only via subscription. Similarly, the
following month the administration of Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1
returned 42 of the 70 New Testaments Dmitry Dashkevich had sent to
political prisoners there. It declared that "those being held on remand
have the right to use literature from the prison library".

After Olga Zolotar's 18 March 2021 arrest, her mother Yanina tried to hand
in a prayer book for her, but the prison administration refused it.

While Irena Bernatskaya was being held at Minsk's Investigation Prison No.
1, the prison rejected religious literature handed over for her, her
daughter Veronika Piuta wrote on Facebook on 16 April.

The administrations of the Temporary Detention Centre at Zhodino and
Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1 have refused to accept Bibles handed in
by relatives and friends of those held there, Christian Vision noted on 31
March 2021. It added that there is no bar on handing in literary works for
detainees.

The Temporary Detention Centre at Zhodino responded by insisting that
religious literature – including the Bible – is available in its
library. However, Christian Vision points out that copies of the Bible in
prison libraries are limited. Getting access in the prison library to a
Bible or New Testament in Belarusian, the language many of the political
prisoners would prefer, is also difficult.

The telephones of Minsk's Investigation Prison No. 1 and the Temporary
Detention Centre at Zhodino were not answered each time Forum 18 called on
15 and 16 July.

Christian Vision condemned the denial of access to prisoners' personal
copies of the Bible, especially in the run-up to Easter (celebrated this
year by the Russian Orthodox on 2 May and by most other Christians in
Belarus on 4 April) when "in conditions of the impossibility of
participating in worship, reading the Bible is one of the ways to
participate in religious life and practice religious beliefs".

In March, after prisoners in one cell at the Police Detention Centre in
Minsk's Okrestina Street complained about conditions, the prison
administration seized all their personal possessions, including a prayer
book.

The telephone of Minsk's Police Detention Centre was not answered each time
Forum 18 called on 15 and 16 July.

Such denials of religious literature are in violation of the UN Standard
Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (known as the Mandela Rules,
A/C.3/70/L.3
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNFgszwgjtmTCPDXsvzH_Z907DT66A">https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/GA-RESOLUTION/E_ebook.pdf)).
Rule 66 declares: "So far as practicable, every prisoner shall be allowed
to satisfy the needs of his or her religious life by attending the services
provided in the prison and having in his or her possession the books of
religious observance and instruction of his or her denomination."

Jailed political prisoners: Subscribing to religious publications blocked

The administration of Prison No. 4 in Mogilev refused to allow political
prisoners it was holding to subscribe to the monthly newspaper of the
Vitebsk Catholic diocese, although it appears in the catalogue of
publications distributed through the post office.

"Relatives of political prisoners wishing to subscribe to this publication
report that prison officials deleted the newspaper 'Catholic Herald' from
the catalogue, as well as the independent publication 'Belarusians and the
Market'," Christian Vision noted on 31 May. "The right to use religious
literature and the press is part of the right to freedom of religion and
belief and cannot be arbitrarily restricted."

The telephone of Mogilev's Prison No. 4 was not answered each time Forum 18
called on 15 and 16 July.

Christian Vision called on prison administrations to allow those serving
jail terms or those held awaiting trial to be allowed to subscribe freely
to religious organisations' publications. It also called on the prison
service and the government's Plenipotentiary for Religious and Ethnic
Affairs to ensure an end to the obstruction for prisoners to subscribe to
religious publications.

Jailed political prisoners: Forced removal of neck crosses

Prison authorities also insist on removing all jewellery and neck crosses
– such as baptismal crosses – from prisoners. This is despite
provisions in the 2004 and 2016 Interior Ministry Decrees covering persons
on remand (see above) that they are allowed to have with them "objects of
religious cult for individual use for body or pocket wear, except for
piercing and cutting objects, items made of precious metals, stones or of
cultural and historical value".

Following his short-term jailing in September 2020, Dmitry Korneyenko, an
Orthodox Christian from Vitebsk, described the removal of his cross as the
"greatest unhappiness in the conditions of my detention, as a believer", he
wrote on his Facebook page on 7 October 2020. While noting that he
understood the need to remove sharp metal objects and laces from prisoners,
he questioned why the prison authorities had not worked out a way to deal
with prisoners' neck crosses.

"At almost all stages of my detention, I tried to find out how this
prohibition could be circumvented, which greatly disturbed my religious
feelings," Korneyenko added. "Sometimes I even started to accuse the
warders of atheism, but it was useless."

The prison authorities similarly demanded the removal of Korneyenko's cross
during a subsequent short-term jail term handed down in January 2021,
Christian Vision noted on 28 February. His cross was taken and held with
his other property during his entire jailing.

On 16 November 2020, an Orthodox Christian from Minsk, Roman Abramchuk,
recounted how police had cut jewellery and crosses from the necks of those
they detained, including himself. He had asked the police officer to at
least leave his cross. "So he cut it off with particular harshness and
threw it under his feet."

"Reports of beatings and ill-treatment"

As well as noting the lack of care for prisoners during the coronavirus
pandemic, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in
Belarus, Anaïs Marin, noted widespread reports of maltreatment of
detainees and prisoners.

"Repression .. continues to the present day," she noted in her May 2021
report to the UN Human Rights Council, "with reports of beatings and
ill-treatment, including the torture of arbitrarily detained persons in a
seemingly premeditated way by police and affiliated forces." (END)

Full reports on freedom of thought, conscience and belief in Belarus
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query%3D%26religion%3Dall%26country%3D16&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNEdR2RZ5ujOg_gGRPKAI5AxARWRKg">https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?query=&religion=all&country=16)

For more background, see Forum 18's Belarus religious freedom survey
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id%3D2612&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNEpa8cLIPvhajW4wx3to9aFCvS7Xg">https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=2612)

Forum 18's compilation of Organisation for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE) freedom of religion or belief commitments
(https://www.google.com/url?q=https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id%3D1351&source=gmail&ust=1627225452462000&usg=AFQjCNHSZEDNHDDvArBVQATYr33AntnIEg">https://www.forum18.org/archive.php?article_id=1351)

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