Let them pray for death. Belarusian war on drugs

How the war on drugs was declared in Belarus – and what came out of it. In Belarus, from three to four thousand people, mostly youth under 30, are sentenced for "illicit drug trafficking" yearly. Political Critique tried to find out whether the authoritarian government is effective in its crusade against prohibited substances.

On an ordinary evening in March 2015, Alexei Rassadnev returned to his parents’ home, a middle-class Soviet-style complex in Minsk. After dinner, 29-year-old Alexei headed out to see his girlfriend who lived with her child nearby. While leaving the apartment block, he passed a neighbour who patted his shoulders in the place where uniform pads normally go. He was trying to warn Alexei about the Police. But Alexei wasn’t paying attention. By the time the young man saw the approaching police operatives it was too late. He tried to run but was caught, beaten, and dragged home to be searched. Alexei was lucky. Neither prohibited substances, nor paraphernalia were found. Alexei’s mother Galina says her son ate in front of the monitor 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. 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 Alexei 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, Alexei was sentenced to five years in maximum security prison for the 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.

Alexei was sentenced to five years in maximum security prison for the possession of 0.164 grams of marijuana.

Alexei 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 the Belarusian Criminal Code 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 intent to twenty five years for drugs 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 3608 people and almost 4000 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.

Photo by Tanya Kapitonova ©

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 90s, 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 drug influx. As a result, Svietlahorsk has become notorious as an HIV epicenter, 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 a unregulated land border as members of the Union State. Despite the fact that earlier last year a few border zones were restored by Russia in response to the introduction of a 5-day visa-free regime for foreigners arriving in neighboring Belarus, the investigative committees of both countries state that it is still extremely difficult to block the drug trafficking channels.

The youngest was found with his eyes gouged out and his face disfigured.


Photo by Tanya Kapitonova ©

Around 2009, “spices” or so-called “designer drugs” imported from South-East Asia, became increasingly popular in the Belarusian 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. Besides, state television channels 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 euro. 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, on December 28, 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 8 to 20 years for manufacturing in a laboratory. 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.

Photo by Tanya Kapitonova ©

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 leave the drug after payments. Consequently, consumers are detained and sentenced more often than dealers.

“Let’s set such a regime in these prisons so that they pray for death.”

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 make an order on the Internet and went to pick up a pack with psychotropic substance in an indicated place. As it turned out later, her friend collaborated with law enforcement agency, and an officer left the drugs. His testimony, however, was not presented during investigation 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 theater 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.

An actor from the Minsk Dramatic Theater was arrested for having 23 grams of marijuana when searched.

In fact, law enforcement officers have a vested interest in pursuing  criminal proceedings under the 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 Alexei 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 “roof” 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.

Photo by Tanya Kapitonova ©

Few investigations end up involving former civil servants however in 2016, seventeen members of a drug trafficking organization which distributed “spices” via a website called LegalMinsk were sentenced to 2 to 20 years imprisonment. The main manager involved in the “17 Affair”  got 20 years imprisonment, a former employee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs – 14 years, and two former KGB officers received 15 and 14 years of maximum security prison.

Civil society and legalization

There is no division between “light” 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 5 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 deprive liberty. Once the decree which has already been mentioned, 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: patches on prison clothes of those convicted for drugs are of green color.

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

One more detail makes Belarusian “drug trials” distinctive – from time to time off-site court hearings are organized. For example, the government believes that it is educational to conduct trails in schools. This autumn, a court sentenced a 30-year-old woman from Minsk to three years of restriction of freedom for storage of hashish right in a classroom of the general education school. “I almost fell asleep,” commented one of the students.

Photo by Tanya Kapitonova ©

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 328. “We do not claim that our children are completely innocent,” says Larisa Zhigar, creator of 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 a thousand participants; mainly parents who disagree with harsh court sentences. The average imprisonment term among their children is 9 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 three thousand appeals to the presidential administration,” Larisa adds. “Of course, to change the legislation we need the favor 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.”

We want punishments to be commensurate with crimes. They must not ruin young people’s lives.

“Legislation is actually blind to drugs in Belarus; it is necessary to introduce a distinction and legalize 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 for legalization of marijuana, but the Ministry of Internal Affairs replied to their petition saying that the issue was not substantial and legalization 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.

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 between 2014 and 2017. Her main areas of interest are wilderness protection, drug policies and civil movements in Eastern Europe. Currently, Sasha pursues master studies in France.



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