Author: Olga Hryniuk
On 28 June, Alan Paul Smith, a British citizen incarcerated in Belarus for assisting illegal immigration, stopped his hunger strike after a visit from a British embassy worker. According to Mr Smith’s wife, he initiated the hunger strike to draw attention to violations of his prisoner’s rights in Belarus. In fact, poor treatment and disproportionate prison terms for foreigners mirror the commonplace judicial mistreatment faced by Belarusians.
Significant media attention in Belarus of the trials of Smith and several other foreign visitors has highlighted the persistent problems of the Belarusian judiciary: draconian punishments for minor offences coupled with procedural irregularities. As Belarusian investigative committees, prosecutors, and police frequently work non-transparently and ineffectively, so the courts continue to issue disproportionate prison sentences. Apparently, paedophiles constitute a lesser danger in the eyes of the judiciary than teens possessing marijuana.
Seven years in prison for a souvenir cartridge
The cases of two foreign citizens – a Japanese artist, Daichi Yoshida, and a French shop assistant, Jolan Viaud – once again called into question the nature of the Belarusian legislation. These two well-intentioned foreign visitors could have spent up to seven years in Belarusian prisons if not assisted by their families, diplomatic corps, human rights lawyers, and journalists.
On 23 May, Yoshida left prison after spending two years in custody for illegal transportation of firearms across the Belarusian state border. Ironically, Yoshida even failed to step on to Belarusian soil properly: he flew from Kyiv to Tokyo with connecting flights in Minsk and Abu Dhabi. In his luggage, Yoshida carried various pieces of antique firearms, which he had purchased legally in Kyiv. The security service at Kyiv airport photographed the weaponry and allowed Yoshida to fly, only for Belarusian authorities to detain the transit passenger.
In April 2017, the Minsk district court sentenced Yoshida to four years and six months for the illegal transfer of firearms. While in custody, Yoshida’s physical and mental condition significantly deteriorated. After the two appeals from Yoshida’s parents and the media campaign in his support, the Belarusian president ordered a reduction to his prison term. As a result, the supreme court’s judicial collegium changed the verdict citing “excessive severity of punishment”.
A similar case in 2017 concerned the French tourist Viaud, when the Homiel region court acquitted him of smuggling firearms. When Viaud travelled to Ukraine via Belarus, the Frenchman presented his souvenir cartridge in the “red channel” at Belarusian customs. According to Viaud, the customs officers spoke poor English and consequently misunderstood each other. As a result, the border officers transported Viaud to Homiel prison where he spent about two months. Initially, Viaud faced from three to seven years in prison, although intervention by French diplomats facilitated his release.
Lost in translation?
Criticism bombards Belarusian courts for procedural irregularities during several opposition leaders’ trials. However, the cases of the hunger-striking British businessman, Alan Paul Smith, and a Colombian jewellery maker, Gedilane Giraldo Calderon, show that the non-transparent modus operandi of Belarusian courts and investigative committees also damage the lives of ordinary people, including foreign citizens.
Smith’s case has drawn significant attention both in Belarus and internationally. On 11 July 2017, a court in Glubokoye in northern Belarus sentenced Smith to two years in prison for assisting the illegal immigration of six Iraqi citizens. According to barrister Michael Polak, assigned to Smith by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office: “Not only was Alan not afforded his rights during the investigation and trial but now he faces terrible conditions which could have a permanent effect on his health.”
In particular, according to Smith’s wife, the Belarusian authorities failed to issue a proper arrest warrant, refused access to an interpreter, and failed to inform the British embassy straight after the arrest. Moreover, the authorities held Smith on remand for ten months before the trial. The Glubokoye court refused to call witnesses in support of Smith’s defence and provided incompetent translators for the Kurdish-speaking witnesses. Smith never admitted guilt and appealed to higher courts. His health also deteriorated due to limited access to medical assistance.
The case of the incarcerated Colombian citizen, Calderon, bears numerous similarities. According to the blogger Alexander Lapshin, Calderon received six years in prison for a violent fight in a Belarusian nightclub. The authorities denied Calderon a Spanish interpreter during the trial. So far, not a single Colombian diplomat has visited Calderon in prison, and his case has erupted in public thanks to the efforts of bloggers and human rights activists. The prospects for Calderon look particularly gloomy due to the absence of diplomatic support from his own country.
What about ordinary Belarusians?
Unlike foreign citizens, especially Westerners with influential diplomatic corps, Belarusian citizens possess fewer opportunities to protect themselves against the injustices of the national judiciary. Some of them follow Smith’s example and go on hunger strikes. So do Belarusian political prisoners and the mothers of convicted teens for possession of soft drugs. Others appeal to higher courts and patiently wait to see whether their verdicts get amended.
Belarusian legislation has a long way to go if it is to improve. Instead of applying harsh sentences for minor drug-related and non-violent offences, legislators should focus on preventive measures. Moreover, the Belarusian public should obtain better control over the work of courts and investigative committees in order to challenge their long history of non-transparency and human rights abuse.
Prison conditions should also improve as prisoners’ treatment in Belarus remains among the worst in Europe. Only humaneness combined with the rule of law will heal Belarus’s historic wounds and clear away the remnants of the Gulags’ legacy.
As for foreigners travelling to or through Belarus, the above-mentioned cases should serve as a warning. The trafficking of antique firearms across the Belarusian border, even via a transit flight, qualifies as a serious criminal offence. Possession of soft drugs for personal use, including marijuana, brings a prison term from two to five years. Engaging in a violent fight could result in a prison term of up to 15 years.