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Belarus Weekly: Belarus classifies depiction of LGBTQ+ relationships as 'pornography'

by Maria Yeryoma April 26, 2024 6:42 PM 9 min read
People marching at an anti-government protest wave a pride flag alongside the white-red-white flag of Belarus in Minsk, Belarus, on Sept. 6, 2020. (TUTBY/AFP via Getty Images)
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Belarusian parliament passes bill expanding Investigative Committee's access to citizens' personal data without their consent.

Lithuanian parliament rejects conservative proposal to cancel residence permits of Belarusians traveling to their home country.

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Belarus Weekly

In a move mirroring Russia, Belarus’s Culture Ministry classifies depictions of non-heterosexual relationships as “pornography.”

Former presidential candidate Andrei Dzmitryeu released after serving a full 18-month prison term, while other top Lukashenko opponents remain behind bars, held incommunicado.

UN Human Rights Committee concludes Belarus violated the rights of prisoners executed in 2018.

Belarusian parliament passes bill widening investigators’ access to citizens’ personal data

The lower house of the Belarusian parliament has approved a bill that gives the country’s Investigative Committee, a state body in charge of pre-trial investigations, wider rights to obtain Belarusians’ personal data without their consent, the state-owned news agency BelTA has reported.

The bill also gives the committee the right to remotely access information systems containing such data.

The Investigative Committee already has the right to request and receive personal data of citizens – the bill passed on April 17 would further the process. The bill has yet to be approved by the parliament’s upper chamber. After that, it will have to be signed by Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Critics of the new legislation say it would give law enforcers more tools for surveillance and monitoring of citizens’ private lives.

Belarus already has restrictive laws for controlling its citizens’ personal financial transactions: On Aug. 29, 2023, under the pretext of fraud prevention, Lukashenko the Belarusian National Bank to build an Automated System of Incident Reports and ensure law enforcers had remote access to it.

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The system provides the country’s security agencies with what local media have nicknamed “super-access” to citizens’ financial operations. Under this legislation, the Prosecutor General’s Office, Investigative Committee, KGB security service, and the Ministry of Internal Affairs can suspend payment operations on any bank account for up to 10 days, for any operation deemed suspicious.

Belarusians’ banking data has already been used to repress Lukashenko’s political opponents. In the wake of the regime’s crackdown on mass protests in 2020, solidarity foundations like BYSOL and By_Help and other initiatives raised millions of dollars in donations to help victims of police brutality, political prisoners, and their families.

In 2021, the Belarusian regime retroactively criminalized such donations to solidarity foundations and other Belarusian initiatives by declaring them to be “extremist” organizations.

According to human rights organization Viasna, at least 66 Belarusians have been charged with “funding extremism” on the basis of their donations to such foundations. The head of By_Help, Alexey Leonchyk, claimed that the Belarusian law enforcers had obtained information about the donations from Belarusian banks.

Lithuanian parliament rejects proposal to limit travel rights of Belarusians

Lithuania’s parliament, the Seimas, has rejected a proposal by conservative lawmakers to cancel the residence permits of Belarusians and Russians who frequently travel to their home countries, Lithuanian public broadcaster LRT .

The conservative MPs’ proposal was to revoke the residence permits of Belarusians and Russians who make more than one trip to their home countries annually. The MPs cited concerns that frequent visits raise the risks of such Belarusians and Russians being recruited by their native countries’ spy agencies.

After the conservatives’ proposal was rejected, the Parliamentary Committee on National Security and Defense approved a compromise proposal, allowing no more than one trip every three months.

But in the April 23 vote in the Seimas on the matter, 41 MPs voted in favor, 37 against, and 39 abstained, meaning the proposal failed to pass the required 50% +1 vote threshold for the measure to be approved.

“We did not take the decision to declare all Belarusians a threat,” MP Tomas Tomilinas of the “For Lithuania” Union of Democrats party said after the vote.

Freedom Party MP Kasparas Adomaitis said that the proposed resolution targeted a narrow segment of foreigners traveling to their home countries.

“It’s not clear why only Belarusians should be banned from returning to Belarus,” Adomaitis said. “Why can Lithuanians go to Belarus and not be restricted in any way? They can also be recruited (by the Belarusian spy agencies), regardless of their nationality.”

According to the Lithuanian State Border Guard Service, 52,000 Lithuanian citizens visit Belarus every month.

Lithuania and Poland were among the first to take in people fleeing Belarus’ 2020 political crisis. Lithuania, a nation of three million, took in over 60,000 Belarusian citizens, and also hosts the office of exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.

According to the Lithuanian Migration Department, 74% of the Belarusians who move to Lithuania came for work-related reasons, as many companies moved their businesses from Belarus to Lithuania in 2020.

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At least 1,500 of them received residence permits based on the fact that they risked prosecution if they had remained in Belarus. The head of the Lithuanian branch of the U.S. human rights organization Freedom House, Vytis Yurkonis, said the number of Belarusians that fled persecution in Belarus is in fact higher, as many choose to stay on the basis of a humanitarian visa or a Blue Card work and residence permit for non-EU nationals.

Lithuania has already introduced some restrictions against Belarusians in response to Russia’s war against Ukraine. The current law on national sanctions restricts Russians and Belarusians’ ability to obtain Lithuanian visas and e-resident status.

In 2023, Lithuania revoked several residence permits of Belarusians who had undergone obligatory national service in the Belarusian army or who had a military education.

A new version of the non-approved law now proposes that additional risk assessments be carried out for Belarusian citizens arriving in the country on Schengen visas, considering the potential risk that they might have been recruited by the Belarusian spy agencies.

Belarus’ Culture Ministry classifies depictions of non-heterosexual relationships as pornography

The Belarusian Culture Ministry has declared that depictions of “non-traditional relationships” should be classified as pornography, according to amendments to the instructions regarding the release, rental, sale, and advertising of erotic content published on April 11.

The updated instruction places homosexual, bisexual relationships, and polyamory in the same category as pedophilia, bestiality, and necrophilia. The instruction also targets the expressions of transgender identity.

According to a ministry , an expert commission at the ministry will determine whether an individual piece of content (such as films, TV series, audio content, or books) containing such depictions of “non-traditional relationships” be banned in Belarus. The new rules came into effect on April 12.

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In September 2023, after Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, , claimed that “any popularization of the ideas of childless married couples” along with “non-traditional” relations must be suppressed, the Prosecutor General’s Office stated that it was drafting a law introducing fines for so-called “propaganda of LGBTQ, gender transitioning, and childfree people.”

In 2022, Belarus ranked 45th among 49 European countries in the ILGA Europe ranking measuring respect for human rights in relation to the LGBTQ community. Homophobia, which was widespread in Belarus since the times of the Soviet Union, was instrumentalized against civil society after the fraudulent presidential elections of 2020, with the authorities accusing the protesters of promoting “non-traditional” values in Belarus.

Belarusian LGBTQ+ activists have said they believe that Minsk is further aligning its position with that of Moscow. A law to prohibit minors from being exposed to “gay propaganda” has been in effect in Russia since 2013. The Kremlin’s crackdown on gay rights intensified following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

The Russian government passed legislation banning the public expression of LGBTQ identity in Russia on Dec. 5, 2022.

And under Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s increasingly conservative agenda, the Russian Supreme Court in November 2023 declared the “international public LGBTQ movement” an “extremist organization.”

Ex-presidential candidate released after serving full prison term

Andrei Dzmitryeu, a former presidential candidate in the rigged 2020 Belarusian presidential elections, was released on April 20 after serving an 18-month prison term in full, U.S. state-funded news agency RFE/RL .

Dzmitryeu, who was a co-founder of the banned “Havary Praudu!” (Speak the Truth!) civil campaign and association, was arrested in January 2023 for his involvement in post-election protests in 2020.

He was charged with organizing and participating in actions that “grossly disrupted public order.” The Investigative Committee, the state pre-trial investigative body, also alleged that Dzmitryeu’s frequent foreign trips could indicate “the direction of his political activities from abroad.”

Dzmitryeu has twice been recognized as a political prisoner during his career. He was detained on similar charges in 2010 when heading opposition candidate Uladzimir Niakliayeu’s presidential election team, and was sentenced to two years on probation.

A person holds a poster advocating for the release of Belarusian political prisoners at a rally in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Jan. 28, 2024. (Yerchak Yauhen/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Dzmitryeu was one of four competitors of Lukashenko on the ballot in the fraudulent 2020 presidential elections in Belarus. Although seemingly providing alternatives to Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko, the ballot excluded his main opponents, Siarhei Tsikhanouski and Viktar Babaryka. Both were detained before the beginning of the campaign, sentenced to lengthy prison terms, and have been held incommunicado in prison for over a year now.

Following mass public protests against the 2020 electoral fraud, the Lukashenko regime has cracked down on the Belarusian opposition, and is holding over 1,300 political prisoners.

While some political prisoners have been released upon serving their term, to people are prosecuted in political cases monthly, according to Belarus’ Viasna Human Rights Center.

Belarus violated rights of two prisoners executed in 2018, UN Committee says

The UN Human Rights Committee has found that Belarus violated the right to a fair trial of Siamion Berazhny and Ihar Hershankou, who were both sentenced to capital punishment and executed in Belarus in 2018, the Viasna Human Rights Center reported on April 18.

According to Viasna, the UN Human Rights Committee determined that Belarus had arbitrarily executed the two men, delayed their trials for an unreasonable period (the accused faced trial 580 days after detention), and failed to uphold the principle of the presumption of innocence.

The committee's decision requires Belarus to compensate the families of those executed and, where relevant, cover associated court expenses.

The 31-year-old Berazhny and 37-year-old Hershankou, along with two co-defendants, were investigated as members of a gang that killed elderly homeowners to acquire their real estate. Mahiliou District Court found the two men guilty of murder and kidnapping in July 2017, and sentenced them to death.

The Supreme Court upheld the decision. Two other defendants received over 20 years of imprisonment each.

The UN Human Rights Committee asked Belarus to postpone the execution until the Committee considered the appeal lodged on behalf of the convicted men. Despite this, the Belarusian authorities informed the UN HRC that the men were executed on Nov. 29, 2018.

Belarusians were deprived of the opportunity to appeal to the UN HRC on Feb. 8, 2023 after Belarus denounced the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, thirty years after acceding to it. However, cases from the period before the denunciation are still subject to UNHRC decisions.

Belarus remains the only country in Europe with capital punishment. According to Viasna, in the period since the country’s independence in 1991 until 2018, Belarusian courts handed down 341 death sentences. Given the secrecy surrounding executions, the number of death sentences actually carried out is hard to establish.

The number of offenses to which the death sentence can be applied in Belarus is also increasing. In May 2022, Minsk approved the death penalty for “acts of attempted terrorism” – a move critics say targets the regime’s opponents. In March 2023, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko approved a law extending the death penalty even further – now civil servants and military personnel convicted of high treason can also be sentenced to death.

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