In response to the indictment and arrest of Yuliya Bodak in Brest (accused under Part 2 of Article 339 of the Criminal Code) and the detention of Ihar Bantsar in Hrodna (accused under Part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code) we, representatives of the Belarusian human rights community, note the following.
By the decision of an investigator at the Brest inter-district department of the Investigative Committee of February 17, 2021, Yuliya Bodak was charged under Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism). The woman was placed under house arrest.
According to the charge, on October 23, 2020, Yuliya Bodak, together with several other persons, made an effigy, which was later “displayed in public as the President of the Republic of Belarus.” The effigy bore two sheets of paper on which an unidentified person wrote, “He stole votes” and “He convicted the innocent”. It was then hung on a tree outside Brest. Thus, according to the investigation, Yuliya Bodak committed a crime under Part 2 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code (hooliganism), i.e. intentional actions committed by a group of persons grossly violating public order, expressing clear disrespect for society and characterized by extreme cynicism.
The essence of the actions, the contents of the slogans, as well as the appearance of the effigy, in our opinion, suggest their protest motivation. It is obvious that the purpose of this act was expressing protest and disagreement with the falsification of the presidential election and the current situation in the country in the post-election period.
Therefore, these actions cannot be qualified as hooliganism.
In the context of the recent socio-political events, including the post-election protests, the motives of the slogans were expressing opinions on socially important topics.
We believe that this form of expression falls under the protection of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and has nothing to do with the charges.
In accordance with Art. 19 of the Covenant, everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice. The exercise of this right carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary: (a) for respect of the rights or reputations of others; (b) for the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
The accused did not encroach on sacred or historical and cultural values, did not destroy them. The slogans themselves do not contain obscene language or language of hostility and hatred on the grounds of nationality, race, religion or social origin and other characteristics.
We also learned that on October 20, 2020, a well-known rock musician and activist Ihar Bantsar was detained and taken into custody in Hrodna for dancing naked in front of a police car.
These actions were qualified by the investigation authorities as hooliganism, Part 1 of Art. 339 of the Criminal Code. Meanwhile, as testified by the accused, the actual motives and purposes of this act were protesting through staging a performance, which was accompanied by a partial public exposure (dancing in thongs) in front of a car with police officers in it.
It should be noted that full or partial public exposure of the body is one of the most common forms of protest and expression. Despite the audacious nature of this kind of action, it was peaceful and, given the circumstances, the addressee, place and time of the action, it did not pursue vile motives and did not aim to encroach on the protected freedoms of other citizens.
In our opinion, these circumstances should have been taken into account by the investigation bodies in the legal qualification of Ihar Bantsar’s actions.
We recall once again that freedom of expression is only subject to restrictions in strictly defined cases, while these restrictions must be proportionate.
The qualification of Ihar Bantsar’s actions as a criminal offense (hooliganism) and his detention for several months is a completely disproportionate measure, which testifies to the political motive of his persecution by the Belarusian authorities.
In this context, we consider the imprisonment of Yuliya Bodak and Ihar Bantsar to be politically motivated, and Yuliya Bodak and Ihar Bantsar to be political prisoners in accordance with paragraph 3.1 (a) of the Guidelines on the Definition of Political Prisoners.
In this regard, we, representatives of human rights organizations in Belarus, call to:
- immediately and unconditionally release Yuliya Bodak and Ihar Bantsar from custody and drop the criminal charges they are facing;
- immediately release all political prisoners and put an end to political repression in the country.
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Belarusian Documentation Center
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Belarusian Helsinki Committee