Activists Imprisoned for Taking Part in a Bike Ride: Critical Mass in Minsk

BELARUS/2016 - ongoing
Dzmitry Paliyenka in court, October 11, 2016

Critical Mass is a self-organized initiative of urban cyclists who gather to cycle together along the city streets, aiming at popularizing the bike movement and drawing attention to the domination of motor vehicles in the city, which is detrimental to the environment and for road traffic safety. It is an international event that is held on the last Friday of each month and the first Critical Mass in Minsk was organized in the late 2000s. Over the years there have been ups and downs: it used to attract over 200 participants and even received the support of the traffic police; later the Belarus cyclists faced harsh repression.  The most notorious case is the forceful detention of cyclists who participated in the event on April 29, 2016, which resulted in a criminal case and one and a half years’ imprisonment for Dzmitry Paliyenka.

On that day around 35 people gathered at the traditional meeting point near the Theatre of Opera and Ballet. Like most other mass events in Minsk, Critical Mass was also attended by a specially trained human rights observer, who noticed the presence of plainclothes police officers. A little later the participants rode onto the road and started to ride along their usual route. In about 10 minutes a traffic police car appeared behind the cyclists and ordered them to move onto the pavement. Those who didn't follow the order were basically hit by police cars and one of them, Stanislav Konovalov, was knocked down.

The police detained six participants in the event, including the human rights observer. They were forcefully thrown onto the floor of a bus and kicked in the face and stomach. Their bikes were thrown over them and the police officers forbade them to get up all the way to the station. Four of them were released on the same day to await trial, but Stanislav Kovalov and Dzmitry Paliyenka remained under arrest. On the following day, both their flats were searched.

In the following month there were a few administrative hearings on the cases of the other activists. They were all fined for violation of traffic regulations. Stanislav Konovalov was set free from the temporary detention centre with no accusations, but Dzmitry Paliyenka was accused of assaulting a road police officer and transferred to a pretrial detention centre.

Critical Mass shut down

There were a few attempts to hold more Critical Mass events, but many participants later received administrative protocols for violations of traffic regulations though they hadn't been stopped during the ride. Such subpoenas were even delivered to some activists who allegedly hadn’t participated in the ride at all. Numerous events to show solidarity with Dzmitry Paliyenka resulted in fines for the people taking part in them.

Trial of Paliyenka: prison for being an active citizen

In October 2016 the trial of Dzmitry Paliyenka was held. The police officer who had allegedly been attacked claimed that he hadn’t suffered any injuries and that his jacket was torn because Dzmitry Paliyenka grabbed it and while being hit by the policeman fell down, pulled the sleeve of the jacket, and broke it. Paliyenka was additionally accused of distribution of a pornographic video that he supposedly posted on his social media profile. Paliyenka contends that these are false charges and his lawyer and human rights defenders believe that the accusation of the distribution of pornography was added with the aim of discrediting the activist in the public eye and attempting to clean the case of political connotations. In court, the activist was repeatedly asked about his political activities and civic stance.

On October 12, 2016, Dzmitry Paliyenka received a two-year suspended sentence and was released, but in April 2016 the decision was revoked by the district court in Minsk and Dzmitry Paliyenka was sent to a correctional colony to serve a 1.5 year sentence. The reason for the revocation was Paliyenka’s active participation in protests about unemployment benefits and his defence against development of a place where mass executions took place in Soviet times.

On April 13, 2016, a number of human rights organizations in Belarus recognized Dzmitry Paliyenka as a political prisoner and demanded his immediate release, emphasizing the peaceful nature of the action and the fact that the use of violence by the police was unjustified. On August 22, 2017, Amnesty International recognized Paliyenka as a prisoner of conscience.

Dzmitry Paliyenka was released on October 24, 2018 after serving his sentence. While imprisoned he constantly provided information about pressure being applied to him by the prison administration – he was mistreated, denied medical care and visits from relatives, segregated from other prisoners, etc.

The activist did not walk free for a long time. In March 2019 he was arrested again and he is facing a triple charge (especially malicious hooliganism; desecration of buildings or other structures with cynical words or pictures, damage of property on public transport or in other public places; incitement to racial, national, or religious hostility or discord; deliberate activity aimed at inciting racial, ethnic, and religious hostility or discord, and degrading national honour and dignity). He remains in custody awaiting a decision on his pre-trial restrictions.

By this persecution the authorities succeeded not only in neutralizing an active citizen, but essentially in stifling the ecological initiative Critical Mass, which has been held occasionally and attracted a very small number of participants
since April 2017 – not everyone is ready to sacrifice their freedom for the freedom of riding on the road. Every time there is a public call for action, plainclothes police appear at the meeting point to film the activists and follow them.

Further reading

ENG 29/04/2016 Report on monitoring the Critical Mass cycling event on 29 April 2016on 29 April 2016

RUS 06/05/2015 Statement of environmental interest groups in relation to the violent dispersal of the Critical Mass event

ENG 27/07/2016 Viasna writes to UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention over Dzmirty Paliyenka case

ENG 14/04/2017 Expert Conclusion on Prosecution of Dzmitry Paliyenka

ENG 14/04/2017 Statement: Release Political Prisoner Dzmitry Paliyenka

ENG 22/08/2017 Amnesty International: Dzmitry Paliyenka is a prisoner of conscience