Statement of the Christian Vision Group of the Coordination Council Regarding the Violation of the Right to Freedom of Religion of Political Prisoner Mikita Yemialyianau

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25 October 2021

On 11 October 2021, a Roman Catholic believer and political prisoner, Mikita Yemialyianau, went on a hunger strike in protest against the prohibition of being visited by a priest.

Yemialyianau has been imprisoned since 20 October 2019. His right to freedom of religion or belief is systematically restricted in Mahilioŭ prison no. 4 where he is serving a sentence of four years in a maximum-security colony.

The believer was denied the right to subscribe to the Katalicki Viesnik, a newspaper of the Viciebsk Roman Catholic Diocese, for the second half of 2021. In response to Yemialyianau relatives’ appeal to the prison administration, the head of prison no.4, D. Yeliseenka, replied that the May 2021 issue of the Katalicki Viesnik was not passed to the prisoner in accordance with part 2 of article 89 of the Penal Code: “convicts are prohibited from receiving, acquiring, storing and distributing publications promoting war, incitement to racial, national and religious hatred, violence or cruelty, and publications of a pornographic nature; as well as subscribing to them”. The letter did not specify which part of the Katalicki Viesnik met the conditions of the Penal Code.

In the summer of 2021, Yemialyianau appealed to the administration of the penal institution requesting a pastoral visit, however, the priest was never allowed to see the believer. On 11 October 2021, following twenty-day incarceration in a punishment cell for alleged violation of the rules of the prison’s internal order, Yemialyianau began a hunger strike protesting against the denial of a priest to visit him.

The right to freedom of religion or belief is guaranteed by article 31 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus. Also, the Republic of Belarus has ratified international legal treaties protecting this right. Specifically, article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.

Preventing political prisoners who practice religious faith from being vising by priests and applying discriminatory and repressive measures against them is unacceptable in a democratic state observing the rule of law. Such practices grossly violate one of the fundamental human rights. For many months, believers remain without access to the Sacraments of Confession and Communion, and without the spiritual support which they request. On 4 May 2021, the Christian Vision Group drew attention to such flagrant violations in its statement regarding the refusal of pastoral visits to political prisoners: Paval Sieviaryniec, Irena Bernatskaya and Volha Zalatar.

The right to use religious literature and periodicals is part of the right to freedom of religion and belief and cannot be arbitrarily restricted. On 31 March 2021, the Christian Vision Group drew attention to this in its statement regarding the persons under administrative arrest or under investigation being prevented from receiving the Bible; and on 31 May 2021 – in the statements regarding the ban on subscription to the Katalicki Viesnik newspaper in prison no. 4 in Mahilioŭ.

Political prisoners under investigation or serving a criminal sentence in penal institutions are deprived of the right to pastoral visits by clergy. Their ability to perform religious activities and participate in Sacraments is significantly limited under the pretext of an unfavourable Covid-related epidemiological situation. In such conditions, subscription to religious periodicals remains virtually the only option for staying in touch with the faith communities, for participating in the religious life and practising religious beliefs. Preventing prisoners – on arbitrary grounds – from subscribing to faith organisations’ periodicals available in the catalogue of the state monopolist, Belpochta, is unacceptable in a democratic state observing the rule of law. Such practices violate one of the fundamental human rights.

We express our concern about preventing priests from visiting political prisoners, as well as restricting political prisoners’ ability to subscribe to religious publications and receive religious literature.

We call on the leaders of faith organisations in Belarus, as well as the representation of the Holy See in Belarus, to note the violation of freedom of religion or belief in relation to believers in custody or serving sentences, and to make every possible effort to correct this situation. We ask the Apostolic Nuncio, His Excellency Archbishop Ante Jozić, to intercede before the state authorities and the prison administration for the Roman Catholic believer, Mikita Yemialyianau, who is on hunger strike and systematically subjected to pressure and restrictions on his right to freedom of religion.

We ask you to make official appeals to the institutions of the penal system responsible for such violations, as well as to the Commissioner for Religious Affairs, whose duty is to ensure the rights of citizens to freedom of religion, calling: to reinstate the opportunity to subscribe to religious publications, in particular – to Katalicki Viesnik, for persons under investigation or serving a prison sentence; as well as to end restrictions on pastoral visits by priests and prisoners’ participation in religious services.

We call on the Belarusian and world Christian community to solidarity with Roman Catholic believer and political prisoner, Mikita Yemialyianau, who is currently on hunger strike; and with all people of faith in Belarusian prisons.