By EUvsDisinfo

The public space in Belarus is heavily controlled and the human rights situation remains dire. We have previously reported on large-scale repression against journalists, civil society, and Belarusian society herehere and here.

According to the recent report by the Viasna human rights organisation, in 2023 at least 6,386 people faced administrative persecution on politically motivated grounds, and almost 4,500 of them were eventually convicted in administrative cases. As of 31 December 2023, Belarus has at least 1,452 political prisoners who are kept in particularly harsh conditions.

Lately, according to Viasna, over 200 people were persecuted on 23-24 January 2024 when KGB officers and other interior ministry enforcement personnel conducted mass searches, interrogations, and detentions of former political prisoners and their relatives across the country. Obviously, a large campaign of intimidation to spread fear.

Among hundreds of persecution cases, some stand out for their ridiculousness. The absurdity of some court cases is so extreme that human rights defenders occasionally include special sections on them in their reports. Earlier, we have covered bizarre forms of state reprisals in Belarus here and here.

Convictions for ‘extremist’ colours

Persecution continues of people who happen to use, consciously or accidentally, the ‘extremist colours’ of the banned Belarusian red and white flag. Our past article contained information about people in Belarus being fined or imprisoned for wearing socks with red and white patterns, hanging red and white towels and blankets to dry on a private balcony, or placing a snowman in the yard of a private house with a red scarf.

The paranoid absurdity has continued. In October 2023, an elderly hunter was convicted for wearing a white-red-white patch on his jacket. According to information from the court proceedings, the man was hunting wild animals in the forest during a morning where he ‘held a single picket [one-person demonstration] using protest symbols, namely, hunted with an emblem of a white-red-white flag on the right sleeve of his jacket.’ The court imposed a fine of 1,480 Belarusian roubles, which is around EUR 500, on the man. Roughly the amount of a standard monthly salary.

A similar case was reported by independent media, based on the data of publicly available court verdicts, weeks later. A pregnant woman faced trial in a Minsk court for using a white-and-red-coloured umbrella in rainy weather. This, according to the court, amounted to ‘public expression of her political views as she was walking with an umbrella in white, red, and white colours and demonstrated it to citizens’. The woman was found guilty of ‘unauthorised picketing’ and fined EUR 500 while the umbrella was confiscated and destroyed.

‘Extremist material’ – Check your bookshelf

A 19th century writer’s poems are labelled ‘extremist’
Two poems of the 19th century Belarusian writer Vintsent Dunin-Martsinkevich were blacklisted for ‘extremism’ in August 2023. Written back in the 1860s in the Belarusian language, the poems called on the Belarusian people not to trust the tsarist Russian empire. Months later, Belarusian courts added additional works by Dunin-Martsinkevich to the ‘extremist list’. This effectively jeopardised Belarusians who happen to keep volumes of Belarusian classics in their homes.

Yet ‘extremist’ books are only part of the problem. The authorities ‘List of extremist material’ has swollen to 890 pages as of 9 February 2024.

A person was reported arrested for 10 days for keeping a sticker with a banned historic emblem in a religious book at this private house. The court decision questioned the house’s privacy, arguing that the man violated the law by keeping ‘a sticker depicting a horseman with a sword and a shield in his arms which has been added to the national list of extremist materials, in a publicly available place accessible for an unlimited circle of people in the book with public access’. A private house now considered a ‘public place’ by the courts. This has potential far-ranging consequences as the below reports illustrate.

‘Information Days’ = Indoctrination

In December 2023, many meetings of state ideologists with public sector workers, so-called information days, concerned the ‘struggle against extremism’, the Belarusian service of Radio Liberty reported. Ideologists stated that just in the southern region of Homiel over 900 cases of ‘proliferation of extremist materials’ took place during January-November 2023.

They also urged attendees to stay away from ‘extremist’ items and sources of information – not as easy a task as it may sound, given that some books considered ‘extremist’ like the ones featuring Dunin-Martsinkevich’s poems have been printed in the thousands and are kept in the personal book collections in the homes of tens if not hundreds of thousands of Belarusians.

Mid-aged and elder citizens may remember the Soviet Union when history was routinely “corrected”. In some grotesque examples, book subscribers would receive freshly printed pages to insert in their existing books, e.g. encyclopaedias, to glue over original pages if the content had fallen out of political favour. A notorious example is the Great Soviet Encyclopaedia entries about Lavrenty Beria, Stalin’s head of the secret police NKVD, who after Stalin’s deaths in 1953 fell from power and was executed by the new rulers of the Communist Party. The Soviet authorities send out pages to millions of holders of the encyclopaedias with instruction to cover the original long entries praising Beria with a long text of the Bering straits. Voila, Beria disappeared from the encyclopaedia.

Anti-Ukrainian reprisals

Administrative arrests for minor manifestations of solidarity with Ukraine regularly take place, while dozens of people in Belarus received multi-year prisons terms for anti-war activities. One individual was reported arrested for seven days for singing Ukraine’s national anthem in a karaoke bar while in a more recent case an individual was sentenced to 15 days for calling police and saying ‘Glory to Ukraine.’

Loyalists among victims of ‘anti-extremist’ practices

In today’s Belarus, leaving a comment, reposting, or liking content from an ‘extremist’ source may amount to the ‘proliferation of extremist materials’. And simply following an social media account labelled ‘extremist’ may result in an administrative arrest or fine. Since the list of ‘extremist’ websites and social media accounts currently is hundreds of pages long and is regularly expanded, it is hardly possible for ordinary internet users to be aware of all such sources. Some may simply forget about past ‘likes’ they once left on one of their personal social media accounts they might rarely use while others’ ‘likes’ might have been unintended at all.

Human rights defenders report about an increasing number of cases of even state officials and Lukashenka’s loyalists becoming victims of these broad and harsh ‘anti-extremist’ regulations. In December 2023, a high-level official of the Zhlobin city administration stood in court for liking a post of an Instagram account on the ‘extremist list’. The official in charge of sports was assuring the court that he had unintentionally liked the content during the monitoring of social media accounts of his subordinates and athletes that he was carrying out. This explanation did not help Akhremenka avoid a 15-day arrest, the confiscation of his mobile phone, and eventually the loss of his job.

‘A thin line’ should prevent people from chatting online

A December 2023 Belarus state TV 1 report urged viewers in Belarus to think carefully before joining groups and chats online, particularly on Telegram. It argued that they ‘might [unknowingly] be coordinated by Western special services, destructive channels of information’. The state TV reporter went on and advised: ‘How to avoid becoming a puppet in another’s well-thought-out game? The only right decision is to refuse to take part in it. In most cases, the administration of such [online] communities is controlled by foreign special agencies and destructive centres which aim to destabilise the situation.’

According to the state TV reporter, only a ‘thin line’ lies between a harmless online community and an extremist group. The Belarusian regime seems to have blurred this line intentionally in an attempt to make people distance themselves from any source of information beyond a handful of explicitly state-controlled ones.

Self-censorship and self-restrictions are powerful tools once they are internalised and Belarus authorities work hard on this.

By EUvsDisinfo