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Let them pray for death: Belarus’ war on drugs

Belarus’ anti-drug campaign is imprisoning thousands of young people on possession charges. But the evidence often doesn’t add up – or warrant such strict sentences.

Photo: Tanya Kapitonova. All rights reserved.On an ordinary evening in March 2015, Alexey Rassadnev returned to his parents’ home, a middle-class Soviet-style apartment complex in Minsk. After dinner, Alexey, 29, headed out to see his girlfriend who lived with her child nearby.

When leaving the apartment block, he passed a neighbour who patted his shoulders in the place where police epaulettes normally go. He was trying to warn Alexey about the police. But Alexey wasn’t paying attention. By the time the young man saw the approaching officers, it was too late. He tried to run but was caught, beaten and dragged home to be searched. Alexey was lucky. The police found neither prohibited substances, nor paraphernalia. Alexey’s mother Galina says her son ate in front of the computer quite often, and she saw the police collect some dust and crumbs as evidence.

That same evening a search was carried out in his girlfriend’s apartment, but again investigators did not find anything. A urine test confirmed, however, that the young couple smoked marijuana. That was enough for the police. Investigator threatened to imprison them both and send the child to an orphanage, so they signed papers confirming that Alexey had proposed to smoke weed together. According to Belarusian law, persons cooperating with investigations are exempted from criminal liability. But after a few short months on freedom, Alexey was sentenced to five years in maximum security prison for possession of 0.164 grams of marijuana. The court ruled that the material evidence (a paper package and a cloth bag) must be destroyed, and allegations that the testimony was given under pressure were groundless.

Alexey was sentenced to five years in maximum security prison for possession of 0.164 grams of marijuana

Alexey was sentenced for distribution despite only sharing some cannabis with his girlfriend. Every year in Belarus, several thousand people go to jail for violating Article 328 of Belarus’ Criminal Code for “illicit trafficking in narcotic and psychotropic substances, their precursors and analogues.” The duration of imprisonment ranges from two years for manufacturing, acquisition or possession of drugs without intent to 25 years for drug dealing if it results in the death of a person.

In the first half of 2017, 1,568 people were convicted of drug-related crimes, according to official reports. In 2016, courts in Belarus sentenced 3,608 people and almost 4,000 a year earlier. Independent lawyers and human rights activists believe that about 12,000 to 13,000 young people have been convicted in the past three years.

From Asia to Europe

As a transit state, Belarus has faced drug trafficking since Perestroika. Back then, most of the banned substances were transported from Asia to Ukraine and Europe. In the 1990s, the small city of Svietlahorsk in south-eastern Belarus was affected not only by depression caused by the collapse of the Soviet union, but also by the influx of drugs. As a result, Svietlahorsk has become notorious as an HIV epicentre, and the number of HIV-positive people has risen again in recent years.

The largest share of drug trafficking, according to representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, comes from Russia. The two countries share an unregulated land border as members of the Union State. Despite the fact that earlier last year a few border zones were restored by Russia, the investigative committees of both countries state that it is still extremely difficult to block drug trafficking channels.

Photo: Tanya Kapitonova. All rights reserved.Around 2009, “spices” or so-called “designer drugs” imported from south-east Asia became increasingly popular on the Belarusian drug market. “Spices” are smoking mixtures consisting of natural herbs soaked in synthetic substances. By 2014, their consumer base in Belarus was estimated at 70,000 people. Four years ago smoking blends could be easily found, for example, in the central market of Minsk. Their price was much lower than that of the “classics” – marijuana, hashish and amphetamines.

Naturally, in a country where the average income ranges between 270-350 euros, cheaper products are very welcome. In July 2014 in Gomel, a city lying not far from the border with Ukraine, three friends aged 21, 23 and 29 smoked “spice”, after which the youngest was found with his eyes gouged out and his face disfigured. His two friends committed the crime in a state of unconsciousness and were sentenced to 11 and 15 years in a maximum security prison. State television channels have showed shocking stories about young Belarusians jumping out of the windows under the influence of drugs.

The use of drugs and psychotropics in public places, as well as public intoxication is punished in Belarus with fines between 50 and 145 euros. If a person breaks the law again within the same year, he or she could be sentenced for a period of up to two years. A few years ago, the consumption was not prohibited, but in January 2015 the Criminal Code was amended, and the fight against drugs moved to a new level.

“Beat to the fullest”

In Belarus, where all key decisions are taken by the head of state or under his direct control, drug policy could not be designed without the participation of President Alexander Lukashenko. In December 2014, during a meeting on illicit drug trafficking, the president, in his characteristic manner, declared war on drugs. “I should have broken your necks, like of ducklings, a long time ago,” the President swore at representatives of police and other law enforcement agencies, lamenting that their actions were tardy and conditioned by expectations of the conclusions of special committees and commissions.

As a result of that meeting, the commander-in-chief gave the Minister of Internal Affairs full powers to coordinate the actions against drug trafficking. He also made a proposal to increase the duration of imprisonment for those “particularly distinguished” drug distributors to 25 years and make jail conditions even tougher: “Let’s set such a regime in these prisons so that they pray for death,” Lukashenko said. Other participants of the meeting suggested to introduce responsibility for being in state of drugs intoxication in public, to reduce the minimum age of criminal responsibility for those accused in manufacturing of banned substances, to create a database of drug users, as well as the other measures.

Three weeks later, in late December, Lukashenko signed the now famous decree No. 6 “On emergency measures for countering the illegal trafficking of drugs” (in Belarus the president’s decrees have the force of a law). Starting from 2015, the procedure for classification of new psychoactive substances as drugs is considerably simplified, criminal responsibility for manufacturing and sale of drugs is applicable from the age of fourteen, the maximum terms of imprisonment for convicts under article 328 of the criminal code increased: from 8 to 15 years for a sale to a teenager, from 15 to 20 years for sales operated by an organized group, from eight to 20 years for manufacturing in a laboratory.

Photo: Tanya Kapitonova. All rights reserved.In March 2015 an electronic database of drug users was created, and the Ministry of Health is responsible for its maintenance. A witch hunt has begun.

If we compare the official statistics from 2013 to 2017, the number of convicts for drug-related crimes is not be radically different. With the adoption of the presidential decree, however, the legitimacy of the court decisions and the commensurability of punishments began to cause more and more questions by the public. In independent electronic media, interviews with the parents of convicts are plentiful and devastating. According to them, police and the department of drugs control officers arrange traps – for instance, they create online stores and catch people when they to collect drugs after payments. Consequently, consumers are detained and sentenced more often than dealers.

In November last year, a 16-year-old girl from Mogilev, whose name has not been revealed, was sentenced to eight years in a penal colony. The girl helped her friend to order psychotropics online and went to pick the drugs up at the indicated location. As it turned out later, her friend collaborated with Belarusian law enforcement, and a police officer had placed the drugs. His testimony, however, was not presented at court, and the indictment was re-qualified – again, the young girl was sentenced for trafficking. This kind of story is far from being an outlier. An actor from the Minsk Dramatic Theater, Artsiom Borodich, was arrested for having 23 grams of marijuana when searched. Borodich pleaded guilty, but claimed that he only used cannabis himself, since his work was associated with constant stress. Numerous colleagues from the theatre company attended the court hearings to support Artsiom and supported his innocence. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to five years for trafficking that, again, was not proven.

There is no division between “soft” and “hard” drugs in Belarus

In fact, law enforcement officers have a vested interest in pursuing criminal proceedings under Article 328. Each disclosed “crime” promises benefits in the form of a bonus, award or promotion. It’s definitely much easier to arrest consumers like Alexey or Artsiom than to close real drug trafficking channels. In Gomel, for example, local people are concerned about the activities of a large Roma diaspora, who have a very good protection at the top, according to locals. “Even a blind man understands how they earn,” says a middle-aged man who asked not to be named.

Few investigations end up involving former civil servants however in 2016, 17 members of a drug trafficking organization which distributed “spices” via a website called LegalMinsk were sentenced to between two and 20 years imprisonment. The main manager involved in the “Affair of the 17” received a 20 year sentence, a former employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – 14 years, and two former KGB officers received 14 and 15 years of maximum security prison.

Civil society and legalisation

There is no division between “soft” and “hard” drugs in Belarus. It also does not matter whether 0.1 grams of marijuana or a kilogram of synthetic drugs were found on a defendant. If the judge finds the charges in the trafficking as true, the accused can be put in jail for at least five years. Often in court statements one can read phrases like “drugs were transferred to an unidentified person at an unidentified site”. Judges routinely consider these grounds sufficient to imprison someone.

Once Decree No. 6 entered into force, many opportunities for acquittal were abolished, and convicts began to be placed in the specially allocated colonies – a third special prison was created recently as the other two have been overloaded. Last month, the president, a big ice hockey fan, was photographed with an ice hockey stick made by prisoners. It was not specified in which colony sports equipment is produced exactly, although there are also woodworking, sewing and other workshops in prisons across the country. However, there is not a sufficient number of workplaces and pay is extremely low; usually people get around one euro cent per work day. Moreover, for several years now, visual segregation has been practiced: those convicted on drugs charges have to wear green patches.

Photo: Tanya Kapitonova. All rights reserved.One more detail makes Belarus’ “drug trials” distinctive: from time to time off-site court hearings are organised. For example, the government believes that it is educational to conduct trials in schools. This autumn, a court sentenced a 30-year-old woman from Minsk to three years in prison for storing hashish – the trial was conducted in a classroom of a school. “I almost fell asleep,” commented one of the students.

In the absence of independent sociological studies, it is difficult to evaluate the effects of such drug policy. Belarusian civil society is weak, though one civic initiative has managed to attract public attention to the problems of Article 328. “We do not claim that our children are completely innocent,” says Larisa Zhigar, who is behind the “Mothers’ Movement 328” initiative. “We want punishments to be commensurate with crimes. They must not ruin young people’s lives.”

Several years ago, Larisa created a group on the internet. Today there are more than one thousand participants; mainly parents who disagree with harsh court sentences. The average imprisonment term among their children is nine years. Someone was sentenced to 10 years for a package of “spice” or a gram of marijuana, others only 0.33 grams were found, or nothing at all. Many parents witness use of force during the investigation. In 2016, Larisa was refused registration as a public association, but together with other mothers she held pickets and initiated numerous meetings with representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, deputies and other officials. “We wrote more than 3,000 appeals to the presidential administration,” Larisa adds. “Of course, to change the legislation we need the favour of the president. There is information that we will be allowed to meet with him next year. Definitely, this means that we have stirred up the system.”

“Legislation is actually blind to drugs in Belarus; it is necessary to introduce a distinction and legalise marijuana,” Peter Markelov a 23-year-old activist from “Legalize Belarus” believes. The activist and his team are focused on enlightenment: earlier last year they organized a trip to Berlin to visit Hanfparade, as well as film screenings and public lectures in several cities of Belarus. “Legalize Belarus” supporters signed postcards to convicts, just as to political prisoners. In addition, young people managed to collect 4,600 signatures in support of legalising marijuana, but the Ministry of Internal Affairs replied to their petition saying that the issue was not substantial and legalisation threatens the health of the population. Like many other young people, Peter believes that the authorities are involved in drug trafficking. Yet there is no evidence, so Belarusians are waiting for legislative amendments in the coming year.

This article originally appeared on Political Critique


About the author

Sasha Gubskaya is a journalist from Minsk, Belarus. She graduated from European Studies at University of Warsaw and then worked closely with Belarusian cultural web magazine 34mag.net between 2014 and 2017. Her main areas of interest are wilderness protection, drug policies and civil movements in Eastern Europe. Currently, Sasha is pursuing masters studies in France.

Read On

This article originally appeared on Political Critique, a pan-European online magazine for democracy, equality and culture beyond the nation-state.

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