Belarusian human rights defenders use the mechanism of universal jurisdiction to punish the police and riot police officers who tortured people at the protests in August and continue to torture them to this day for crimes against humanity. Understanding how universal criminal jurisdiction works.
In August 2020, in the early days of protests against falsified presidential elections, a huge number of people were tortured in temporary detention centers and in police stations. How much is impossible to say. The scale of the terror shook the entire country. Rough estimates of human rights defenders and volunteers indicate that the number of victims of beatings and humiliation goes into the thousands. The torture, albeit in smaller numbers, continues to this day.
According to the UN Convention against Torture, torture is not only torture familiar from books about the Middle Ages; many actions that are used in places of detention in Belarus are equated with torture: light at night, dark, overcrowded, dirty cells, deprivation of mattresses, a ban on lying on bunks during the day, deprivation of correspondence, sending to a punishment cell, etc., as well as any cruel , inhuman and degrading treatment.
In August, people who passed through the torture conveyor turned to the police with statements about the initiation of criminal cases on the fact of torture. But not a single case was opened. On the contrary, the Belarusian internal affairs bodies began to open criminal cases against victims of violence as “participants” and “organizers” of the protests.
Is there a way to punish those who tortured people, if there is a legal default in Belarus and the laws do not work? Belarusian human rights defenders and volunteer initiatives have turned to the mechanism of universal criminal jurisdiction. What is this and how will it help to bring to justice both those who gave criminal orders and those who carried them out?
The Belarusian House of Human Rights named after Boris Zvozskov talked about universal jurisdiction with BYSOL co-founder Andrei Strizhak.
–What is universal jurisdiction? What kind of crimes are it subject to?
- This mechanism is provided for by the UN Convention against Torture, Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment. Universal jurisdiction allows criminals to be held accountable not only in the country in which they committed them but also in any country that has ratified the Convention. By signing the Convention, the state undertakes an obligation — that is, not only can but is obliged to investigate especially grave crimes against humanity: genocide, ecocide, torture
“The Republic of Lithuania has ratified this convention, which means that any person who has suffered from torture or who has become a victim of genocide can turn to the Lithuanian police to open a criminal case.
- Belarus has ratified the Convention against Torture, but does not fulfill it. And what if Belarus announces the denunciation of the Convention? Will victims of torture be able to seek help from other states?
- In order for the case to be opened within the framework of universal jurisdiction, it is necessary that the Convention should be ratified not by the country that used the torture, but by the one to whose police the victim applies.
- Why BYSOL, created as a foundation, is now also involved in the investigation of torture within the framework of universal jurisdiction?
- From the very beginning of the creation of our organization, we worked with people who were victims of crimes. BYSOL had a program to help relocators who left Belarus, and some of them stated that they were tortured. We initially did not know how to help victims of torture; it was not clear which mechanism to use. But thanks to the cooperation of three subjects — Belarusian human rights defenders, the Office of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, and our specialists — a working instrument was found: universal jurisdiction. We knew it existed, but we didn’t know how to put it into practice. We held negotiations with Lithuanian officials and reached an agreement that the General Prosecutor's Office of Lithuania will deal with criminal cases within the framework of universal jurisdiction.
- For the first cases, the first criminal cases, BYSOL chose people whom we ourselves know well, we know their stories about how they were subjected to physical, including sexual, violence. We met these people when we worked with them as relocators.
- Could you describe how the process of bringing to justice the perpetrators of torture started? What stages is it going through now?
- Initially, this process was started, as I said, by Belarusian human rights activists, the Office of Svetlana Tikhanovskaya and BYSOL. The first case was the case of Maxim Khoroshin. (The owner of a flower shop in Minsk, who was beaten up at the police station during his arrest; including for distributing flowers to protesting women — approx. assistance to a specific person, victim of torture.
- How many criminal cases have been initiated in Lithuania today on the facts of torture in Belarus?
- The specificity of Lithuania's approach is that they combined all episodes of torture in Belarus into one production. And now there is one production in which there are six cases. All six have submitted documents with the help of our specialists and now they are in the status of victims in this case. Our colleagues in Poland are also trying to use the mechanism of universal jurisdiction. The peculiarity of Poland is that all Belarusians who apply for torture are added to the criminal case opened on the fact of torture against Polish citizens. That is, several Poles were beaten at the protests in Belarus, and Poland opened a criminal case on the fact of their beating. And Belarusians are included in this case as witnesses.
- Is there a difference for victims of torture in Belarus, in which country the case will be opened within the framework of universal jurisdiction?
- Lithuania is a unique country in terms of the practice of conducting such processes. Back in the early 90s, they initiated criminal cases within the framework of universal jurisdiction. These were cases against citizens of the Russian Federation. Lithuania is one of the few EU countries that has conducted a full criminal trial against war criminals that killed people in 1991; in particular — against the servicemen of the Soviet army. One of them, General Uskhopchik, is hiding on the territory of Belarus, although a criminal sentence has already been passed against him in connection with detention. Thus, the Lithuanians have already developed a great deal of practice in remote criminal proceedings.
- So far, only six cases have been submitted to the Lithuanian police; but there are many more victims
- The Lithuanian police are currently conducting an investigation as part of a group of investigators and police officers. Despite the lockdown and other quarantine measures in Lithuania, things are moving fast. As soon as we accumulate primary documentation — that is, we translate medical documents and testimonies of the victim into Lithuanian, thereby facilitating the work of the investigation — we immediately transfer them to the police, and the case is quickly registered. But this process cannot be put on the conveyor: the primary processing of information about torture is associated with a psychological aspect, and it is not easy to talk to victims. It is not a quick business to convince a victim of torture to join the international jurisdictional process.
- How many torture complaints do you plan to file?
- As much as we can. In the combined bases of Bayhelpa and Baysol, there are at least several thousand people who asked for help. How many of them will agree to follow this procedure is impossible to say in advance. But we set ourselves the goal of submitting at least several hundred cases. It is necessary to show the massive nature of human rights violations in Belarus, that it was torture. Torture is a crime that has no statute of limitations. These cases will be investigated under any authority, regardless of the age at the time of the investigation of the people who committed them.
- What is the likelihood that the criminals will be punished? If they do not go to Lithuania, will it allow them to avoid punishment?
“After the investigation into the facts stated by the victims is over, those people who have committed crimes, including the Belarusian police, will be involved as suspects or accused. In case of obtaining the status of a suspect, it is possible to add him to the Interpol list. This means that a riot policeman or a policeman, who is on the Interpol list, will be closed the road even to Turkey: any crossing of the border will mean for him the arrest and transfer for interrogation or for other investigative actions. And it doesn't matter whether a riot policeman or a policeman will work in the authorities at the time of arrest; no matter how old he is, torture cases, again, have no statute of limitations.
Here is a legal note from the BYSOL foundation.
The Criminal Procedure Code of the Republic of Lithuania provides that, by order of the Prosecutor General, a pre-trial investigation is carried out upon receipt of a complaint, statement or notification of criminal acts or after the prosecutor or an investigator conducting a pre-trial investigation reveals signs of criminal offenses. With regard to crimes for which criminal liability is provided for by international treaties (Article 7 of the Criminal Code), the General Prosecutor of Lithuania approved recommendations prescribing temporary detention and urgent investigative actions in cases where, when checking a foreigner, there is a suspicion that he may be has committed a crime against humanity, a war crime, genocide or any other crime specified in paragraphs 2-10 of article 7 of the Criminal Code. Consequently, from the moment when a particular person is ordered to be brought in as a suspect (accused) in the framework of an initiated criminal case on torture, this person may already be entered into the Interpol database and put on the interstate wanted list.
Despite the fact that criminals are extradited by foreign states on the basis of the principle of reciprocity, the BYSOL Foundation believes that at the request of Lithuania, criminals will be extradited by almost all states.