Жыве Беларусь!

An Open Letter

In any prison, officers spend their time preventing convicts from fighting for their rights. As well as the use of physical intimidation, a big part of this involves the isolation of convicts from the prison community and sources of information. In the middle of November 2014, while doing my time in solitary in Mogilev prison, I learned that a new criminal case under Article 411 was opened against me. This meant that my forthcoming release was postponed by another year. I was not able to influence this situation, other than killing myself so they have no one to try. The only reasonable way of fighting was with a sheet of paper and a pen. I had to, as much as possible, attract public attention - including the international public - to the existence of this article and its practical application against political and common prisoners fighting for their rights. This is how the idea to write an open letter to the media leapt to mind.

Writing was not even half the battle, but perhaps one tenth of it. How to get it to the outside? Prison administration rarely lets out even official complaints to the Department of Corrections, never mind devastating letters to the media. I had to resort to a trick that I can’t disclose here. I will only say that as a result I experienced intense shakedowns before going to see my lawyer, and threats to put me in a worse cell. But I didn’t really worry about it — I had pulled it off.

The letter, written in March 2015 was translated into Russian and English thanks to my parents and comrades, and was handed to representatives of the European Union in Belarus, diplomats from the US Embassy, published in Narodnaya Volya newspaper and a bunch of other Belarusian online media'.

‘Greetings! My name is Mikalai Dziadok. I am writing this letter to all those for whom the words ‘justice’, humanism’ and ‘human dignity’ are not an empty phrase.

On February 26 this year, I was sentenced under Part 1 of Article411 of the Criminal Code to one year of imprisonment. The title of this article is ‘Willful disobedience to the requirements of the administration of a correctional facility’. The sentence was handed down in prison just five days before the end of my previous term, 4 years and 6 months. I noted that I received the maximum penalty under this article. In 2012, a former political prisoner Zmitser Dashkevich was convicted under the same article.

What was my ‘crime’? 16 disciplinary violations in almost 2 years in Prison No. 4, in particular; wearing a tracksuit, talking to inmates in neighbouring cells and walking around the cell after 10 p.m. It is also important to note that for each of the 16 violations I was reprimanded, either receiving a warning or five to ten days in a punishment cell, thus serving sixty days in a punishment cell of this prison alone.

The Constitution, the Criminal Code and the Correctional Code of Belarus declare a lot of good principles and rights, but they are trampled into the mud when Article 411 of the Criminal Code is in action. It allows them to send a person to a correctional colony for one year (or two years under the second part of this article), for wearing or not wearing certain clothes, or for a conversation with your cellmate. Is there such a terrible and absurd legal norm elsewhere in the world?!

Initially, Article 411 of the Criminal Code was introduced to deal with crime bosses in penitentiaries and the internal prison laws inherited by Belarus from the Soviet era. Today, however, these internal laws are almost universally defeated by the administrations of prisons and colonies, and the article was and is increasingly being used against political prisoners and other inmates fighting for their rights. The very wording of the article opens up a space for moral violence and violation of human dignity. Here is an example: a prison inspector spits on the ground and gives a convict a mop to clean it up. The latter refuses. Four such refusals are enough for criminal prosecution! One of the convicts told me this story, and even if it is not quite true or exaggerated - everything in it is within the law, and this is the worst thing about it. In full accordance with the law, a prisoner can be put in prison for four refusals to perform work that humiliates him! I do not know of even a single case of acquittal under Article 411.

In general, human rights violations and abuses in Belarusian prisons have reached such a scale that they have become a system and a habit, they should be described in a whole book, not a single letter! However, I don’t want to be overambitious in this appeal, and so I will focus on the effects of Article 411.

This scope for arbitrary actions of prison administrations is created by the Interior Ministry’s Internal Rules of Conduct (IRC), which should be followed by each convict. However, convicts are not familiarised with the entire rules, only part of them, and they are told that the rest of the document is ‘for official use’. This does not prevent the administration from demanding full observance of the rules by the convicts. The rules themselves are written in a manner that allows the punishment of anyone at any time for things such as: being unshaven, wearing dirty clothes or shoes, unbuttoned collars, improper greeting or not greeting a representative of the administration, not standing up in the presence of prison authorities and so on. Often violations reports are simply falsified, and then try proving that your shoes were actually clean! It is for such ‘violations’ that Belarusian political prisoners continue to be put in disciplinary segregation, secure housing unit and deprived of family visits. These prisoners include: Thar Alinevich, Artsiom Prakapenka, Yauhen Vaskovich and Mikalai Statkevich?.

Moreover, strict compliance with the rules is demanded only from those who ‘stand out’ in some way: political prisoners and those who dare to speak about their rights. The others have more or less quiet lives — as long as they are silent. I have observed the application of Article 411 so many times, and it was always out of revenge to a prisoner for his indomitable will, or for the defense of his rights, and never anything else.

In their official publications, correctional officers - though it would be more correct to call them punitive - constantly repeat that they took the best from the Soviet penal system. It is true, if to you the best things are a total disregard for the individual, ruthless suppression of prisoners’ will, promoting divisions into castes and roles and the use of fear as the only method of control. The President of Belarus likes to say that Belarus is the centre of Europe. But why then does this ‘centre’ brutally ignore its international commitments - not least the Declaration of Human Rights, which guarantees respect for human dignity, the right to humane treatment and a fair trial? A convict in Belarus is a powerless and dependent creature, whose fate is entirely in the hands of the officials of the penitentiary and the Department of Corrections. If they want to, they will put you in a remand prison, secure housing unit or transfer to a prison. They can lower the status of a convict so that he will cease to exist as a person for others (this is done by loyal prisoners who can execute any order), or extend their sentence. This feeling of despair and powerlessness is difficult to convey - it can only be felt.

Of course, I would really like to shout to the whole world about the injustice caused to me by the punitive system, but I do want to be the last convict under Article 411. Therefore, I appeal to the international and Belarusian human rights agents, to all international organisations interested in human rights, and to concerned people of Belarus: do everything possible for the repeal of Article 411 of the Criminal Code. The Belarusian society is atomised, constrained by fear and conformism. Separate groups can barely defend their economic rights, and those who are trying to protect their political rights are subject to endless repression. However, I am convinced that the Belarusian people will wake up and realize that ‘those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety’3, that the collective will of the people can force the state machine to listen to reason and begin to fulfill its international obligations.

Of course, the world’s attention and that of Europe today is focused on the Ukraine, where people die in tens and hundreds, and it seems that the suffering of the five political prisonersina relatively stable and peaceful Belarus is a small matter. However, let’s not forget that the events in the Ukraine began largely due to the lack of respect for human dignity, the attempts to impose on society a life of fear and an anti-democratic system of values. What are we witnessing in Belarus, if not the same thing?

I therefore send to you, and all those who have the power and ability to influence the situation, my hope that what is happening to me will not happen to anyone else in Belarus.

Mikalai Dziadok Prison No. 4

March 2015’

The Last Resort