On 28 November the International Day of Charity “Generous Tuesday” took place, within the framework of this day we talked to the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” about the history of formation, the main activities of the Human Rights Centre at the moment and about political prisoners in Belarus. Within the framework of “Generous Tuesday”, we urge you to support the activities of the “Viasna”, details are at the end of the article. The questions were answered by human rights defender Marina Kastylianchenko.
– When did the “Viasna” appear? And what events happened to the “Viasna” after it was recognised as an extremist formation?
– The “Viasna” emerged in April 1996 as a response to the harsh actions of the authorities against peaceful protesters during the multi-thousand “Chernobyl Way” demonstration. Since then, the organisation has always been under the close supervision of law enforcers, but has persisted in its activities. Despite the fact that the “Viasna” was deprived of official registration back in 2003, human rights defenders did not stop and have been defending the rights of citizens for the last 20 years.
After the falsification of the 2020 elections and all the events that took place after that and continue to take place every day for three years, many non-state organisations were liquidated, forced to cease their activities or continue their activities outside the country. Almost every day, the regime adds new lines to the lists of extremist materials and extremist groups. And it is clear that it was only a matter of time before the “Viasna” was recognised as an extremist formation. Because all those who now help people in word, deed or any other way are banned. And we were prepared for this development. Of course, this complicates our work, because people are afraid, and we realise that we are also responsible for the safety of those who come to us for help.
However, designating the “Viasna” as extremists has not stopped our organisation’s activities for a moment.
– In which direction is the focus of your work now concentrated?
– As before, the main focus is on civil and political rights. Now the biggest part of our work is focused on political prisoners in Belarus and everything that happens to them. The “Viasna” continues to gather information about arrests, where people are, monitor court hearings and their results, analyse how the conditions of detention deteriorate during the investigation and in places of detention, continue to collect and record facts of torture and inhuman treatment, as well as talk about different ways to help political prisoners and show solidarity.
As time passes, more and more people are released from places of detention, having fully served their sentence. They need help: medical and psychological rehabilitation, re-socialisation and adaptation, and sometimes help with leaving Belarus, settling in a new place, finding a job, etc. These are the challenges that human rights defenders and the whole society face today.
The “Viasna” also conducts analytical work, collecting and describing human rights violations in Belarus in monthly analytical reviews. These data are also submitted to the United Nations special procedures and voiced at various international platforms and meetings.
There are also plans to monitor the parliamentary and local elections to be held in February 2024. You can read how this will be done here.
It is important to note that the demand for human rights knowledge remains very high. Therefore, the educational and awareness-raising activities of the “Viasna” also continue.
– What are the difficulties you face in carrying out your activities outside the country?
– Probably, like all Belarusians/Belarusianess who were forced to leave the country, we face obstacles in obtaining information. Over time, the gap between those who left and those who remain is increasingly felt. However, our goal remains the same – to help people whose rights have been violated by the state.
– What are the main tasks and goals that the “Viasna” sets for itself at the current stage of work?
– The goal of “Viasna” has remained unchanged for many years – to support the development of a civil society based on respect for human rights and to build a society based on democratic values.
The urgent task today is also to collect and document evidence of gross violations of human rights in Belarus, to identify those involved in committing crimes and to bring them to justice in the future.
– How many political prisoners are currently in Belarus? And how do you think this list will grow?
– At the moment there are 1450 political prisoners in detention. This number has been hovering around 1500 for a long time, but it is not static. People are detained, sentenced to imprisonment, and some are released daily after serving their sentences.
Most likely, the list of political prisoners will continue to grow because repression in Belarus does not cease for a single day, and elections are ahead. This means that the authorities are unlikely to change their strategy in the near future.
Additionally, the Human Rights Coalition has started accepting statements demanding a review of criminal cases, the annulment of verdicts, and the full rehabilitation of former political prisoners. This applies to individuals who faced persecution, imprisonment, but whose information did not reach human rights defenders in a timely manner.
– In what conditions are political prisoners held, are they given “special” treatment?
– As for the conditions of detention of political prisoners, it can be noted that they are only getting worse. The authorities introduce more and more new bans that contradict the Criminal Executive Code and the internal regulations of the institutions where political prisoners are serving unjust sentences. This applies to correspondence, phone calls, access to legal aid, and transfers. What is allowed to other prisoners is forbidden to political prisoners.
It is known that they are much more likely to be picked on spurious grounds, punished, and then the chain goes on: 24 hours in a punitive isolation centre (sometimes 60-80-100 days in a row), restrictions on transfers and deprivation of family visits, the status of a “persistent offender”, transfer to a cell-type facility, then transfer to a prison regime or imposition of an additional term according to Article 411 of the Criminal Code.
– In your opinion, under what conditions is an amnesty scenario possible for political prisoners? And how realistic is this scenario?
– Since last year’s amnesty did not apply to political prisoners, the new Amnesty Law, expected to be adopted in 2024, is also unlikely to affect the situation. Amnesty does not apply to “extremists,” and almost all political prisoners have this status. Moreover, correctional facility administrations do everything to label political prisoners as “persistent violators,” automatically depriving them of the opportunity to be released through amnesty. It seems that this means of release will not be utilised for political prisoners as long as daily arrests and trials continue in the country, and the repressive machinery initiated by the events of 2020 persists.
The cessation or reduction of repression is possible either due to increased pressure on the regime or if the authorities feel that their stability is not under threat. The war in Ukraine also remains a significant factor.
– How many of the “Viasna” members are currently in detention, and how can they be helped?
– At the moment, five members of the “Viasna” remain behind bars for their consistent and peaceful professional activities. This includes the leader of the “Viasna” and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valentin Stefanovich, lawyer Vladimir Labkovich, volunteer service coordinator Marfa Ryabkova, and volunteer Andrei Chapuk.
Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to send them parcels or make money transfers, as all human rights defenders are in colonies. But it is very important to continue writing letters to them and to spread information about their unjust imprisonment as widely as possible.
– Any final words for the readers?
– Keep your hands up, keep your heads up, do what you can, where you are. Every contribution matters!
And as our imprisoned colleagues say: “Spring will come irrevocably!”.