Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Belarus to expand use of death penalty. Democratic forces, rail guerrillas under threat

by Maria YeryomaMay 11, 2022 10:04 pm
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Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko speaks during a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin on Sept. 9, 2021 in Moscow. (Getty Images)

Belarus' parliament approved a bill on May 4 to amend the country’s criminal code, introducing capital punishment for acts of "attempted terrorism."

Previously, the death penalty was assigned to those that committed terrorist acts that resulted in casualties.

Belarus’ State Security Committee, or KGB, has a long list of alleged “terrorists,” which include the “guerrillas” that disrupted the country’s national railway earlier in 2022, which means that the new legislation serves to further intimidate those that oppose Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Belarus remains the only country in Europe to impose capital punishment. While human rights activists had hoped for a moratorium on the practice prior to 2020, its application has now broadened.

Actively opposing Belarus’ involvement in Russia’s ongoing war against Ukraine may now lead to death.

Supporting Ukraine – terrorism

The amendment to Belarus' criminal code was likely prompted by the ongoing sabotage attempts on its national railroads, which have been used extensively by the Russian military.

Russia launched its full-scale war against Ukraine on Feb. 24, invading it from four main routes. One of these routes passes through Belarusian territory from the north and uses the country’s railroads to transport supplies and ammunition.

Having crossed the Belarus-Ukraine border and moved swiftly towards Kyiv, Russian troops were able to reach the outskirts of Ukraine’s capital within the first weeks of the war.

Lukashenko’s regime supports Russia’s war, allowing the country to be drawn into the deadly conflict. Russian artillery and missile systems are stationed on Belarusian territory, directly targeting Ukrainian cities. 

However, not everyone in Belarus agrees with Lukashenko’s decision to assist Russia in war.

Since the beginning of the war, Belarus’ national railway has reported two cyberattacks targeting its internal networks, which paralyzed its automated operations for two weeks. 

Belarus' Ministry of Internal Affairs has reported at least six diversions on different segments of the railroad.

The "railway guerrillas" burned down relay panels, slowing down the movement of trains loaded with weapons, in some cases stopping them entirely.

Oleksandr Kamyshin, head of Ukraine’s Ukrzaliznytsia state-owned railway company, recognized these acts as significant contributions towards inhibiting the Russian offensive from the north. 

Meanwhile, Belarus labeled them acts of terrorism, having arrested nearly 60 citizens, one of which was brutally shot in the knees. 

Belarusian pro-Lukashenko lawmaker Marina Lenchevskaya justified the amendment to the capital punishment bill by equating the saboteurs to terrorists in her interview with a state-controlled TV channel.

“This measure is absolutely adequate, given a significant number of terrorist aspirations against critical facilities, infrastructure: transport, military, energy facilities,” Lenchevskaya said.

Destroying opposition

In addition to the railroad saboteurs, at least 26 people recognized as political prisoners by various human rights groups have been charged with attempted terrorism.

Furthermore, Belarus’ KGB lists 42 Belarusian citizens and three organizations as being "involved in terrorism activities.”

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and Pavel Latushko, as well as the NEXTA Telegram channel which serves as a mouthpiece for anti-government protests, are among them.

Presenting evidence of attempted terrorism is difficult, especially when it comes to politically-motivated cases such as those in Belarus.

However, this does not seem to be a problem for Belarusian authorities.

“These are such times in which there is no time for laws,” Lukashenko said in Sept. 2020, amid the then-ongoing protests sparked by the strongman’s fraudulent victory of the 2020 Belarusian presidential elections.

Belarusian human rights watchdog Viasna reported 33,000 administrative detentions and arrests in 2020 alone. 

Many cases were ruled based on the testimonies of witnesses, many of which were “classified” law enforcement personnel that testified in court with faces covered by balaclavas and their names undisclosed.

The alleged witnesses often made factual errors in their testimonies.

Cases against high-profile opposition leaders, such as Viktor Babariko, remain classified. 

Bound by a non-disclosure agreement and unable to expose the terms of the accusation, Dmitriy Layevskiy, one of Babariko’s attorneys, dubbed the process illegitimate. 

"These kinds of cases are easy to falsify,” said Mykhail Kyrylyuk, the chief lawyer in charge at NAU, a democratic movement led by Latushko.

"If we open the KGB list of people involved in terrorist activities, it is obvious that these people did not blow anyone up. Not a single completed terrorist act can be presented,” Kyrylyuk told Zerkalo, an independent news outlet.

“But they can falsify an incomplete terrorist act,” he adds. “It has nothing to do with jurisprudence. It is to intimidate people.”

As of May 10, 1,186 political prisoners remain in custody.

The bill has yet to be checked for constitutional compliance by the Constitutional Court and awaits a presidential signature. Very few doubt that Lukashenko will approve it.

Maria Yeryoma
Maria Yeryoma
contributing author

Maria Yeryoma is a Belarusian media manager and a contributing author at the Kyiv Independent. She recently led the commercial "special projects" at TUT.BY — the biggest independent online media in the country. In May 2021, TUT.BY was raided by Belarus authorities leaving 15 employees in custody and forcing the team to leave the country to continue their work. Maria moved to Kyiv and helped establishing a new media outlet — Zerkalo.

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