The Observatory has been informed about the confirmation in appeal of Mr Andrey Chapiuk and Ms Marfa Rabkova’s prison sentences. Before their arbitrary detention, Ms Rabkova was the coordinator of Human Rights Center “Viasna”’s volunteer service, while Mr Chapiuk was a Viasna volunteer.
On February 28, 2023, the Supreme Court of Belarus considered the appeal in the case of Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapiuk, and ruled to reduce Chapiuk’s prison sentence from six years to five years and nine months; and that of Rabkova’s from 15 years to 14 years and nine months. The Supreme Court confirmed the imposition of a fine of 16,000 Belarusian rubles (5,900 Euro approximately) and 22,400 Belarusian rubles (8,300 Euro approximately) for Mr Chapiuk and Ms Rabkova, respectively. The hearing was held behind closed doors and hence the grounds for the Supreme Court’s decision remain unknown. As the verdict is final, both human rights defenders will be transferred from pre-trial detention centres to prisons. Marfa Rabkova will serve her prison sentence in a general-security penal colony, and Andrey Chapiuk in a medium-security one.
The Observatory recalls that Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapiuk were arbitrarily detained on September 17 and October 2, 2020, respectively, and were sent to pre-trial detention centres. Marfa Rabkova was charged under ten articles of the Criminal Code, and Andrey Chapiuk under four, both for allegedly organising criminal groups between 2016 and 2020.
On September 6, 2022, after four months and a half of closed court hearings, the Minsk City Court imposed the above-mentioned prison sentences on both human rights defenders. Marfa Rabkova was found guilty of “organising, participating in and training others to participate in mass riots”, “inciting social hostility towards the government” and “involvement in a criminal organisation” among other charges. Andrey Chapiuk was found guilty of “participating in mass riots” and “involvement in a criminal organisation”.
Throughout her arbitrary detention, Marfa Rabkova’s health has deteriorated considerably due to the lack of adequate medical care.
The Observatory recalls that on March 3, 2023, head of Viasna and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy and FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovich, and Viasna’s lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich were sentenced to 10, nine and seven years of imprisonment, respectively, in a trial marred with multiple violations of human rights and fair trial standards. Leanid Sudalenka, chairman of Viasna’s Homieĺ branch, was sentenced to three years of imprisonment on November 3, 2021, and transferred to penal colony number 3, near Viciebsk, in January 2022.
The reprisals against Viasna and its members are part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Belarus. According to the organisation, as of March 6, 2023, 1456 individuals remained detained in the country for political reasons. In 2021 alone, the authorities shut down more than 275 human rights and other independent organisations, leaving not one legally operating human rights NGO in the country. In addition, legislative amendments to the Criminal Code adopted in December 2021 re-introduced criminal liability for "acting on behalf of unregistered or liquidated organisations". The liquidation of all independent human rights organisations by the authorities has therefore led to a de facto criminalisation of human rights work.
The Observatory reiterates its strong condemnation of the arbitrary imprisonment of Marfa Rabkova, Andrey Chapiuk, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich and Leanid Sudalenka. The Observatory urges the authorities to quash their sentences and release them immediately and unconditionally, as well as all other human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Belarus.