The hunger strike of Belarussian “Mothers 328”, which unites relatives of the imprisoned for drug-related charges continued for 15 days. Their demands included: meeting with president Lukashenko, revision of criminal cases by a specially instituted committee, and liberalization of drug policy. On May this year, the government of Belarus put forward a new draft of the Article 328.
Every year in Belarus several thousand people go to jail for violating Article 328 or “illicit trafficking in narcotic and psychotropic substances, their precursors and analogs.” The duration of imprisonment ranges from two years for manufacturing, acquisition, or possession of drugs without an intent to sell to twenty-five years for drug distribution if it “results” in a death.
According to “Legalize Belarus”, a civic campaign aiming to advocate for drug liberalization, right now more than 15000 Belarusians are convicted for drug-related crimes. These are mostly young people caught with 1-2 g of marijuana while smoking with their friends. They are being convicted to prison for 5-8 years. In inhumane conditions, they are humiliated by staff and other convicts and forced to unpaid physical labour.
The current law doesn’t differentiate between penalties for the possession of drugs by amount or type of the substance. Moreover, possession of 5g of marijuana can be considered an “intention to distribute” and is punished accordingly. While major drug dealers and state officials who engage in drug distribution remain largely unpunished, occasional consumers and minor street distributors serve excessively harsh sentences.
These draconian punishments led to the formation of the civic initiative “Mothers’ 328”, which now includes more than a thousand members. This spring, a total of 24 women participated in hunger strikes in Kalinkavichy, a town in the southeastern Homel region, in Vostrau, a village in the Minsk region, and in the cities of Lida, Mahileu and Vitebsk. On the sixth day of the hunger strike, the women reported weakness, nausea and dizziness to the journalists. Most of them stopped fasting in protest on May 11th, when the Cabinet Council sent suggested amendments to the Article 328 to the House of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus. Now, the draft law is under review of the deputies in the House of Representatives. The new draft anticipates a possibility that seizure of property due to drug-related crimes can be replaced with a fine. It also reduces the minimum terms of punishment from 5 to 3 years of imprisonment for manufacturing, acquisition, or possession of drugs without intent to sell and from 8 to 6 years for possession with intent to sell or possession in particularly large quantity.
However, the lawyers affiliated with “Legalize Belarus” remain skeptical about the potential for change. Recently, they published a statement on their Facebook page calling out for support of the petition for decriminalization of drug use in small quantities.
Maksim Kavaleu: The current system is ridiculous. Those convicted under the Article 328 are mostly young people. They don’t own any property, what can you take away from them? Now they will be forced to pay a fine or to do community service. Reduction of the minimum terms of deprivation of liberty is a poor consolation considering that the convicts still face 9, 10, 12, or 15 years of imprisonment, and not 8. The term “small quantity” is not in use, so no one knows what it means. How small is a “small quantity” anyway? As a result, the individuals charged with possession of 1 g and 100 g of marihuana face the same sentences.
Stas Shashok: We can already tell that the state tried to deceive the hunger-striking mothers whose children were unjustly convicted under the Article 328. The new draft law doesn’t differentiate between those who sell substances for commercial profit and those who use them occasionally with friends. Recreational drug use is considered to be a crime as serious as rape or murder.
We spoke with Liana Shuba, a member of “Mothers’ 328” Movement. Liana was on a hunger strike after her son had been sentenced to 10 years in prison for selling 5 milligrams of “spice”.
Alina Krushynskaya: What do you think about the new draft law? Does it meet any of your demands?
Liana Shuba: It’s only a one-tenth of what we’ve been asking for. Two years ago we presented 14 amendments to the article 328 in front of the parliamentary legislative committee. The deputies looked into the current drug law and how it is implemented, and agreed with us on multiple matters. We were hoping that at least some of our proposals would have been taken into account. However, the procedures have been dragged and the Ministry of Internal Affairs opposed the liberalization of the bill. Soon we understood that not much will change. The new draft law is an evidence to that. On the other hand, there is a small but real hope for our children to be released from prison two years earlier. If the government passes the bill, we will also be able to appeal the court decision. It is possible that my son’s sentence will be reduced from 10 to 8-7 years. We are not hoping for the sentence to be reduced to 6 years – the lawyers tell us that 6 years is a minimum sentence for young offenders and women. But this is not enough. We want to achieve more.
What are the next steps planned by “Mothers 328”?
While the new draft law is still being discussed, we try to press for inclusion of one or two more of our amendments. Lawyers from the movement, together with the support of the deputy Anna Kanapatskaya [the only opposition deputy in the Belarusian parliament] will try to push to exclude the term “particularly dangerous psychotropic drug” from the Article 328. None of the neighbouring countries uses this legal term, only we do. We also want to advocate for shorter prison sentences for drug-related crimes. Furthermore, we are calling for the special session of the Supreme Court. Right now, we still need one more week to recover from the hunger strike.
How are you feeling right now?
I’m better now. I’m on a diet, I eat small quantities of food, but I still feel a little weak. Yesterday I cleaned the windows in three attempts [laughing].
Are any other women still on hunger strike?
I don’t think so. Recently I read in our group chat that the hunger strike in Lida ended on May 14th or 15th. But then again, when Liudmila Lapko went on a hunger strike on May 10th, she said that she would continue, even if left alone, until the request to meet with Lukashenko will be satisfied.
This was one of your main demands during the protest. Why do you want to meet with Lukashenko?
All of our children faced unjust sentences. We would like the commission to review their criminal cases, at least those in which the accused did not admit guilt. If they did not admit guilt, they had a reason to do so. And after two and a half years of the struggle, we have a clear understanding that the process of appealing against the court judgment is corrupt. But again, we understand that a lot of it depends on Lukashenka’s will. We had naïve faith that Lukashenka could use his administrative resources and create a commission to review the cases of our children at the stroke of a pen. We were hoping that once he hears our stories directly from us, he will realize that the system is flawed and that he will decide to help us. Well, again, as the leader of the state and the guarantor of constitutional rights, he could at least call to account all the law enforcers. They need to be held responsible for what they do and obey the law.