Editor: Louise Voller
For many years, Belarus has served as a transit country for refugees travelling from the former Soviet Union to Europe, primarily Poland, in search of asylum. Most of the refugees come from Russia, especially from the Chechen Republic.
To limit irregular migration, the EU has made it a priority to provide training and border control equipment to the border authorities in countries along the EU’s eastern land borders. This includes Belarus, whose border authorities have received surveillance cameras, patrol cars and boats, from the EU in order to better detect people crossing their borders.
The border authorities that received the equipment have been implicated in the pushbacks of refugees, however, in violation of their rights, in both 2017 and 2018.
Video footage of border authorities apprehending migrants as they transit Belarus, has also raised concern that the EU may be indirectly contributing to human rights violations.
According to the border authorities, the officers in the specific video material handled the situation in “strict compliance with Belarusian law”.
In May 2018, the Belarus State Border Committee posted a video on YouTube in which border authorities detain a group of Afghan and Indian migrants who had crossed into Belarus from Russia illegally, in their attempt to reach the EU.
The video shows hooded border guards aggressively detaining the migrants in an operation that was carried out in cooperation with the Russian Federal Security Service, FSB, according to the Belarus Border Committee.
In another video, posted in April 2018, a Belarusian border guard runs towards a car on a stretch of road close to Minsk. The car’s passengers are described as migrants. They appear to be unarmed. With a gun raised, a border guard shouts at the migrants to show their hands, before he breaks the car window with the gun. Border guards proceed to pull the migrants out of the car, before the migrants are handcuffed and placed face down on the side of the road.
Martin Lemberg-Pedersen, associate professor in Global Refugee Studies at Aalborg University, thinks the videos should “cause concern” among EU leaders that have equipped the border guards with patrol and surveillance equipment.
“The videos are frightening to watch. If this is how Belarusian border police act against migrants, then the EU and its member states are equipping a regime that showcases its ‘shoot first, ask later’ control practise against migrants and refugees,” says Lemberg-Pedersen.
In an email, official representative of the State Border Committee of the Republic of Belarus Anton Bychkovskiy says:
“As for the video showing the detainment of persons in a car, Belarusian officers acted in strict accordance with the law, because the border guards had information concerning the committing of serious criminal offense related to illegal migration and human trafficking. Before starting the investigation (interviewing detainees), it was not possible to identify victims, organizers and facilitators of this heinous crime.”
The migrants and refugees in the video are not alone. Refugees from Chechnya, a Russian republic where human rights organisations and media have documented torture and disappearances, have also suffered rough treatment at the hands of the Belarus border guards.
In their reports on Belarus report for 2017 and 2018, Amnesty International states that Belarus lacks “a functioning asylum system and repeatedly handed over individuals seeking international protection to authorities of countries where they were at real risk of torture or other ill-treatment”.
In collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), Danwatch have examined two cases in which Belarusian border guards ignored requests for asylum from Chechen refugees, before returning the refugees to Russia. According to Josephine Liebl, Head of International Advocacy at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), this practice directly violates international refugee law.
“States are required to grant access to an asylum procedure to those seeking protection under both international law and the European Union asylum acquis. The directive specifies obligations to inform people in need of protection of the possibility to apply for asylum, as well as to promptly register claims when they are made,” she says.
The pushback of Chechens to Russian authorities is also a violation of the so-called principle of “non-refoulement”, which is a cornerstone of international refugee protection and international human rights law.
“This principle prohibits states from transferring or removing individuals from their jurisdiction or effective control when there are substantial grounds for believing that the person would be at risk of irreparable harm upon return, including persecution, torture, ill-treatment or other serious human rights violations,” says Liebl.
According to ECRE, Belarus violates these principles.
“While we do not know the exact facts of the case, the practice of Belarusian border guards handing over Chechens to Russian authorities without giving them the opportunity to claim asylum in Belarus violates the principle of non refoulement.”
The EU leaders are increasingly choosing to support human rights violators with border control equipment, in order to to curb the influx of refugees and migrants says Martin Lemberg-Pedersen.
“Criticism of the EU’s policy of supplying border control equipment to police states or states with poor human rights records is not new. But instead of ending the support, European countries have chosen to escalate their support to a string of problematic regimes, such as Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey or Saudi Arabia over the past decade,” he says.
“It therefore seems an awful lot like window dressing when the EU on the one hand talks about fundamental rights, while simultaneously increasing its involvement with countries and regimes that act in direct violation of those same rights.”
On the night of June 8, 2017, Murad Amriev, a Chechen MMA fighter, was mistreated by Belarusian border guards at the border checkpoint Veselovka, which is located at the Belarusian side of the border with Ukraine – the same stretch of border that has been equipped by the EU.
According to reports by Human Rights Watch, Amriev was fleeing persecution in Russia. On June 4, police detained him in the Bryansk region for allegedly using a forged document and held him for 48 hours at the police station. By the morning of June 6, the police had yet to charge Amriev and, according to his lawyer, he was legally free to leave.
A group of Chechen police officers then arrived at the police station, claiming they were there to arrest Amriev. Amriev told his lawyer that he identified one as having tortured him in 2013 when he was being held for two days by officers seeking information about his older brother who had fled Chechnya years earlier.
Amriev was handcuffed and attached to a radiator. He spent around six hours sitting on the cold floor. During this time, his requests for water, food, and a toilet were ignored. Moreover, he was not told the justification for his treatment, especially given that he had never resisted and had complied with all orders.
Early in the morning of June 9th, Amriev was handed over to the police and brought to the small town Dobrush in Belarus where his lawyer visited him. Russian TV reporters also arrived and captured a video of him inside the police station where he can be heard shouting from the window of the detention cell that his requests for asylum were being ignored.
APPEAL: From a detention center in Belarus, Murad Amriev shouts to lawyers and TV reporters that he wishes to seek international protection in Belarus. Instead, he was returned to his persecutors in Russia.
According to Nasta Loika, Amriev was handed over to Russian security services later that same day.
In a documentary about the events, Amriev says that even after four or five months he cannot fully feel his hands because of the way he was handcuffed.
Broken nerves: Amriev explains that he has problems feeling his own hands. According to a Ukrainian doctor, Amriev’s nerves were damaged as a result of being held in tight handcuffs for several hours.
Nasta Loika adds that Amriev also suffered a back injury from being forced to sit on the floor of Veselovka. She argues that the border guards did not have grounds to place Amriev in handcuffs because he complied with the police’s orders without resisting.
“The grounds for his apprehension was not a terrorism charge but rather an accusation of document forgery. Finally, to force a handcuffed person to sit on a concrete floor for six hours definitely amounts to unjustified degrading treatment,” says Nasta Loika.
Nasta Loika says she helped Murad to write complaints to the prosecutor’s office and to the State Border Committee (SBC). After the SBC reviewed the complaint, they ruled that no violations had taken place.
Nasta adds that “generally speaking, the border guards have the same problems as all other security services in Belarus: they do not know how to ensure the rights of people in border procedures. They never tell people about their rights, duties or the basis for the apprehension”.
In an emailed response to the inspections and detentions at checkpoints SBC official representative Anton Bychkovskiy states:
“Border guard officers operated within the framework of the law, in accordance with established procedures that are within their competence. It is also a common European and world border guard practice. Further inspections and decisions regarding each particular case are beyond the competence of the border guard service. If any person reasonably believes that he was mistreated, then he has the right to file a complaint, which will be necessarily considered. It is also applicable to the mentioned case with Murad Amriev”.
Amriev is not the only Chechen refugee whose rights have been violated by SBC border officers.
In March 2017, Imran Salamov and his family – Russian nationals of Chechen origin – left Chechenya for the fear of persecution by the authorities. Like many Chechens before them, they stopped in the Belarusian town Brest on their way to Poland, where they planned to apply for asylum. But they never made it past Brest.
The family arrived in the town on March 21 and over the course of the next eight days made eight attempts to apply for asylum in Poland. According to Belarus NGO Human Constanta, which assisted the family in asylum proceedings, Polish border guards repeatedly ignored their requests for asylum and returned them to Belarus.
Early in the morning of April 5, Imran and his family passed through a passport control at a Belarusian border checkpoint in a train station in Brest. They had done so eight times before in order to board the train to Poland. But on that morning Imran was prevented from leaving Belarus. According to a press release from Human Constanta, SBC officers annulled an exit stamp that had been placed in his passport a few minutes earlier, before interrogating him for approximately 40 minutes about the purpose of his stay in Belarus. Imran was subsequently released. The same series of events repeated on the following day.
The next time that Imran and his family attempted to leave Belarus for Poland was on the morning of April 13. They passed through the passport control at the train station as usual, but this time, Imran was apprehended by SBC officers and handed over to the police shortly after.
It was later revealed that, on the evening of April 5, 2017, Chechen security services opened a criminal case against Imran and placed him on an international wanted list, for allegedly assisting a member of an illegal armed group. According to the documents sent from Chechen to Belarusian authorities, the alleged supposed ”assistance” amounted to purchasing 10 pairs of underclothes, two pairs of shoes, and food for an alleged member of an illegal armed group.
The police decided to hold Imran in detention prior to deporting him to Russia. While in detention, Imran applied for international protection in Belarus claiming that he would be tortured in Chechnya. When his application was rejected in August 2017, he legally had 15 days to appeal the decision during which time authorities could not remove him from the country. However, Imran was expelled two days before the 15 day appeal period, in violation of the law.
According to an Amnesty International report from November 2017, although Imran’s “lawyer and wife met with him at the City Police Headquarters in Grozny on September 11th, all subsequent efforts to locate him have failed and the authorities had claimed he is not in their custody.”
Nasta Loika says that she “doesn’t know real reasons behind two instances when Imran Salamov was denied exit from Belarus” but her guess is that “this could have happened in accordance with an agreement with Belarusian migration services, which in turn were asked by Chechnya’s authorities,”.
“It can be said the border guards apparently violated Imran’s rights but it’s impossible to say that they are directly responsible for his disappearance in Chechnya,” adds Nasta.
This investigation was conducted in collaboration with Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), published in the Danish Daily Politiken and financially supported with a grant from the IJ4EU fund.
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