How to count the political prisoners: are the new criteria needed?

It is important not to use the presumption of the state’s guilt – otherwise, the political prisoner status will completely lose its sense, as then everyone would be able to be considered a political prisoner

On December 17, 2021, the weekly analytical monitoring of Belarus in Focus in partnership with Press Club Belarus, the “Our Opinion” expert community website, and the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS) held an online meeting to discuss the methodology and procedures of identifying political prisoners in Belarus.

The main speakers were human rights defenders and lawyers:

  • Aleh Hulak – chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee;
  • Viachaslau Kasinieraŭ – founder of the Dissidentby – aid for political prisoners’ initiative;
  • Aleh Aheyeu – deputy chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, lawyer.

The meeting was also attended by representatives of international organizations and the diplomatic corps, and analysts and journalists including Anaïs Marin (UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus), Olga Zazulinskaia (“Country for life” foundation), and others.

The discussion was moderated by Vadim Mojeiko (BISS) and Anton Ruliou (Belarus in Focus/Press Club Belarus).

What methodology and procedure of political prisoner identification are now used by the human rights activists in Belarus?

Nowadays Belarusian human rights defenders are using „Guidelines for the identification of the  political prisoners”, which was jointly adopted by the human rights organizations at the 3rd Human Rights Forum in October 2013, Aleh Aheyeu recalled.

Beforehand, the criteria for this Guide were developed for about a year. It was accomplished in cooperation with colleagues from other post-Soviet countries, based on the experience of human rights activists to satisfy the demand for predictability and transparency of decisions, Aleh Hulak said.

When the human rights defenders notice criminal prosecution against those who could meet the criteria the process of discussion within the coalition is initiated. Anyone can start the debate, though usually, it is related to the profile of the organization (like the Belarusian Association of Journalists follows repressions against journalists). Afterwards, human rights defenders discuss how the case correlates with the criteria and if there are no contradictions – there comes the general voting, where the members are deciding upon political prisoner recognition.

Belarusian human rights community representatives’ joint statements on identifying someone as a political prisoner are signed by the following members: Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Legal Initiative, Lawtrend, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian PEN Center, Barys Zvozskau’s Belarusian House of Human Rights. As Aleh Hulak noted, the coalition was formed not because “some leading human rights activist issued an order”, but based on experience and self-organization.

Viachaslau Kasinieraŭ noticed that he and his colleagues are not proposing new criteria – they are just updating these which have been already used. He also believes that the issue is one of interpretation and that it has started to sag since 2020 – as the authorities conclude and learn to organize provocations to put a person into prison as a result of actions that exclude political prisoner status. According to Viachaslau, with detentions involving the use of force and the systematic use of torture, the prisoner’s confessions could not be relied upon. Therefore, their lists of political prisoners include those who tried to resist the security forces’ violence.

What are the benefits and threats of expanding the criteria for the identification of the political prisoners?

Aleh Hulak said that the use of force by potential political prisoners is fundamental and it all comes down to the logic of necessary defence. He believes that if human rights defenders will make decisions about political prisoners’ recognition from a presumption of guilt against the state, this will significantly undermine the credibility of the very status of the human rights defender, and the decisions that are made by this group of human rights defenders.

Aleh Aheyeu thinks that the advantage of the current approach is its universality and its applicability to different countries. Changes in the criteria may also lead to different interpretations of the same concept. He also noted that the accusation of the use of force imposes more detailed observation of the situation and lack of use of force is not a complete rule, there are exceptions of self-defence or in case of subsequent excessive abuse. Sometimes human rights defenders do not require immediate release, but rather a revision of the case. And even if someone is not identified as a political prisoner straight away, it does not necessarily mean that he will not be recognized as such later.

Viachaslau Kasinieraŭ notes that in Belarus there are no charges of excessive self-defence – all the cases are interpreted as an attack against police officers or hooliganism. Viachaslau believes that arson of the doors or puncture of the tire is not an act of violence, but property damage. And that Molotov cocktails could be used for symbolic acts of protest and result in damage to the property, but their aim is not to harm people, He mentioned the story of 17-years old Nikita Zolotarev, who has been charged for 5 years of colony for Molotov’s cocktail in his bag (which was not thrown anywhere) and who has not been identified as a political prisoner. Viachaslau thinks that “we as human rights defenders should follow cases of human rights violation, not teach people, how to express their protest”.

On the other hand, Aleh Hulak believes that violence does not include only symbolic damage to the objects, such as flags, aimed to express one’s opinion, though he emphasized that destroying someone’s property is violence. Aleh notices as well, that even if someone is not identified as a political prisoner, it does not mean that he is being accused or that they refuse to defend him (analogically as human rights defenders being against the death sentence are not supporting the crime leading to such charges). And if someone’s rights are being violated, human rights defenders say it straight and apply the same measures they do in the case of political prisoners. “There are many other tools for raising awareness about the problems, political prisoner status is not the only and most important one”.

Olga Zazulinskaya from the “Country for life” foundation noted that there are not enough volunteers able to go to the courts, advocacy is being smashed. In such conditions to what extent do the human rights defenders coalition have enough information to give characteristics of the particular situation?

Aleh Hulak agreed that there are more and more problems and less and less information. But it does not lead to the refusal of human rights defenders to identify someone as a political prisoner because of the lack of information, but that simply extends the process of the information gathering within the time. And even if there will be no more volunteers, it will not stop existing mechanisms of political prisoners’ identification, but that will simply make it more complicated. Aleh emphasized that it is important not to use the presumption of guilt of state – otherwise political prisoner status will lose its sense at all, as in such a situation everyone could have been considered a political prisoner.

What lists of political prisoners are there?

Talking about the numbers of political prisoners most of the time media are referring to the list created by the Coalition. The alternative to it is a wider list of the Dissitentby. There are even more names in the list of political criminal cases defendants, the list of those convicted in political criminal cases, and the database of administratively charged people maintained by Vesna.

Viachaslau Kasinieraŭ expressed the readiness to continue the work in this situation, with the maintenance of two lists. At the same time, he does not like that the people who are put on the Dissidentby but are not included in the Coalition’s list are very often not noticed by the media.

Aleh Hulak believes that the convenient option would be the existence of clear and understandable different lists of different criteria, so everyone interested could sort out the differences and use that information. Meanwhile, in his opinion, various approaches towards the application of criteria should not be an obstacle for human rights defenders to gather around other issues – for example, to react jointly on the political repressions in a wide sense.

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