INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS BELARUS UPDATE
Edited by Victor Cole
Vol. 5, No. 38
IN THIS ISSUE:
- U.S. Criticizes Denial Of OSCE Visa Extension
- Editor Sentenced To Two Years Of “Restrictive Movement”
- OSCE Condemns Conviction Of Another Journalist
- Authorities Seize Property Of Independent Newspaper
- Police Detain Three for Commemorating Disappearances
- Lukashenko Wants Unions To “Integrate” With the State
- Regime Hopes For Better Ties With Iraq And West
- Lukashenko Blasts Putin Over Russia-Belarus Union Plan
- IMF Refuses Loans To Belarus
- HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPOSITION NEWS-
U.S. CRITICIZES DENIAL OF OSCE ADVISER’S VISA EXTENSION
On September 6, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry denied a visa extension for Meagan Fitzgerald, an American citizen serving as Human Rights Officer to the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Belarus. The Ministry stated that it “found no grounds for the extension.”
On September 11, in a statement delivered to the Permanent Council in Vienna, Amb. Stephen M. Minikes, head of the U.S. mission to the OSCE, said that for the last eight months, Fitzgerald has carried out her work as the Human Rights Officer with the highest degree of professional integrity and dedication under extremely difficult and hostile circumstances. “It is a loss for Belarus that her services have been rejected,” the Ambassador said. Following are excerpts from his statement:
“Numerous reasons for an extension can be offered. However, the most central reason relates to the deep problems that exist in Belarus. Civil society is under attack. Journalists have been imprisoned and newspapers closed down. Members of NGOs have been assaulted, fined, and imprisoned and government opponents have disappeared. Meanwhile, the presidential election held last year did not meet international standards and, unless serious electoral reforms are adopted and implemented, local elections expected in early 2003 will face the same fate.”
“The Advisory and Monitoring Group is tasked to help Belarus address these kinds of problems. Concern over these problems will not disappear with the expulsion of another member of the AMG. Rather, in the absence of mission members in place to assist Belarus, it will be necessary to address concerns more directly in the Permanent Council.”
The government of the United States joined the European Union and the OSCE chairmanship on September 20 in decrying the decision of the Belarusian authorities to deny a visa extension for the last remaining program staff member of the OSCE AMG in Belarus. “The United States supports the efforts of the Portuguese chairmanship of the OSCE to find a solution to ensure the continuation of the work of the AMG in Belarus and urges the government of Belarus to reconsider its decision. The recent action by the government of Belarus does not contribute to a constructive resolution of this problem,” the United States Embassy in Minsk said in a statement. “The United States notes with concern the continuing deterioration of conditions with respect to human rights and democracy in Belarus, areas where the AMG can make a crucial contribution. Belarus must return to the path of political liberalization and respect for human rights if it hopes to improve relations with the international community and end its self-imposed isolation,” it said. The United States government called upon the Belarusian authorities to comply with their international obligations undertaken within the OSCE. The OSCE is currently represented in Minsk by Alena Josan, a citizen of Moldova, who does not need a visa to work in Belarus.
Alexander Lukashenko denied that his government had forced several OSCE officials to leave the country. “Their term of accreditation ended. That’s why they left,” he stated unabashedly. The Belarusian leader also called the opposition leaders “sick people” and accused Western governments of giving opposition groups $300 million in recent years (a preposterous sum and a claim easily discredited by examining actual democracy assistance budgets for BelarusEd.)
Relations between the OSCE and Minsk have been hampered by the security body’s criticism of a lack of political press freedoms in the country, and more recently by allegations that Lukashenko’s government was selling arms to Iraq. Lukashenko on his part downplayed the incident, saying the mission’s mandate needed reconsidering and dismissing OSCE proposals on making Belarus into a more democratic society. “We already know what democracy looks like. We would rather have financial aid than advice,” Lukashenko quipped. (USIA, September 11- 20)
EDITOR SENTENCED TO TWO YEARS OF “RESTRICTED MOVEMENT”
The Pervomaisky District Court of Minsk sentenced Viktor Ivashkevich, editor-in-chief of Rabochy, an independent newspaper, to two years of “restricted movement” for allegedly slandering Alexander Lukashenko--a verdict that media freedom advocates denounced as political repression. Ivashkevich was charged with violation of Art. 367, part 2, of the Belarusian Penal Code (“defamation of the President” by accusing him of committing serious crimes), an offence punishable by up to five years in prison, and Art. 368 par. 1 of the Penal Code for “publicly insulting the President.” The court did not say where Ivashkevich would serve his term in internal exile.
The charges stem from an article Ivashkevich wrote in August 2001, entitled, “Thieves Belong in Jail,” which alleged that Lukashenko received illegal kick backs from selling arms and exploiting the Russia-Belarus customs union to smuggle goods into Russia. The article had been timed to come out during the September 2001 presidential election campaign, but authorities seized 39,000 issues of the edition before it hit newsstands.
“This is a politically motivated sentence,” Ivashkevich said, adding that state officials participating in the trial could not disprove a single fact from his article. Zhanna Litvina, the president of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, called the sentence “another threat to the entire Belarusian independent media.” Ivashkevich’s attorney, Tatyana Stankevich, said she would file an appeal within 10 days. (Belapan, BAJ, September 16-17)
OSCE CONDEMNS CONVICTION OF ANOTHER JOURNALIST
Freimut Duve, the OSCE Representative on Media Freedom, has expressed his concern about the sentencing of Viktor Ivashkevich. “I urge the Belarusian authorities to immediately cease its policy of criminal prosecution and intimidation of independent journalists, and to repeal the existing criminal laws on libel and defamation,” Duve said. He called on the Lukashenko government to abide by the commitments to freedom of expression and freedom of the media that Belarus has subscribed to as an OSCE participating State.
“This is not the first case of journalists in Belarus facing criminal charges for allegedly defaming the President,” Duve said, referring to the recent conviction of Mikola Markevich, editor-in-chief of Pahonya, an independent weekly newspaper, and Pavel Mazheiko, a journalist for the same newspaper.,
Duve urged the Belarusian authorities to overturn the sentence of the three journalists, emphasizing the alarming recurrence of criminal prosecution of journalists for their reporting on last year's presidential election campaign in Belarus. “This is absolutely unacceptable in an OSCE participating State,” Duve said. “Criminal libel laws should be repealed. I would also like to stress again that heads of state should not receive undue protection from media reporting on their activities.”
Reporters Without Borders, the Paris-based media watchdog, said in a statement that it was “deeply shocked” by the court verdict, and called on the authorities to ease its media laws. “Belarus courts have now sent three journalists to labor camps in the past 12 weeks,” said Robert Menard, Reporters Without Borders secretary general. “This smacks of what we thought was a bygone era, when anyone who made the slightest criticism of the authorities ended up in the gulag.” (OSCE, September 20)
AUTHORITIES SEIZE PROPERTY OF INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER
With the recent convictions of the three journalists, the pressure on the remaining independent media in Belarus is growing. On September 20, the property of Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper, was seized upon the order of the Leninsky District Court of Minsk. Iosif Seredich, Narodnaya Volya’s editor-in-chief, told Charter 97 Press Center that the court’s actions against the newspaper are the result of the defamation charges brought by Tatiana Zlobich, former judge of the Tsentralny District Court of Minks. In one of its issues, Narodnaya Volya carried an article, which, the judge insists, tarnished their reputation. She seeks BYR 5 million (about $2,825) in punitive damages. (Charter 97, September 20)
POLICE DETAIN THREE FOR COMMEMORATING DISAPPEARANCES
About 100 protesters gathered in downtown Minsk in front of the presidential administration building on September 16 to mark the disappearance of opposition leader Viktor Gonchar and his friend, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, three years ago. “I’m sure that the Belarusian special services and Alexander Lukashenko personally were involved in my husband's disappearance,” Gonchar’s wife, Zinaida, told journalists. The government has denied any involvement in Gonchar’s disappearance and other cases of missing people.
The rally was conducted peacefully, but police detained three demonstrators who held a separate vigil to protest the disappearances earlier that day. Georgy Salamianik, Mikhail Tarasyuk and Dmitry Filipovich were taken into custody, charged with violation of Art. 167, par. 1 (“participation in mass actions violating public order”) of the Belarusian Administrative Offences Code and fined. (Viasna Human Rights Center, September 18-20)
-AT HOME IN BELARUS-
LUKASHENKO WANTS UNIONS TO “INTEGRATE” WITH THE STATE
Alexander Lukashenko told a meeting of the Belarusian trade unions on September 19 that they must become a “reliable support for the state,” persisting in what critics say is an ongoing effort to force the unions into lockstep with his government. “We must clearly integrate the unions into the system of state authority,” Lukashenko said in an address at a congress of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus, which unites 30 unions with a total of some 4 million members.
The meeting came a year after a presidential election in which Vladimir Goncharik, the trade union federation leader at the time, challenged Lukashenko and won more than 15% of the vote, according to official figures. Goncharik, who was later forced to leave his post, said Lukashenko’s comments “only confirm the fact that the authorities have already integrated the unions into their system.” He said Lukashenko has turned the federation into a group that “will not only not defend the rights of workers but will also protect the authorities from acts of protest.”
Leonid Kozik, a deputy head of Lukashenko’s administration who became leader of the trade union federation in July, said at the congress that the unions “have become real partners of the authorities.” (Interfax, Belapan, September 19-20)
REGIME HOPES FOR BETTER TIES WITH IRAQ, WEST
Alexander Lukashenko said late on September 19 that he would welcome better ties with all countries, from the critical West to beleaguered Iraq. “By God’s will, we live in Europe, and we should have neighborly relations. I assure you, we would like to cooperate with the West no matter what our ties with the East, Middle East or Africa will be,” the Belarusian leader said. “I would also like to assure you that our relations with the West will very soon get much better. The West has provided us with some indication to this effect,” he added.
Belarus’s ties with Iraq had so far been constrained to the framework of the UN oil-for-food program, stumping any cooperation Minsk would be willing to offer, Lukashenko said. “We have some $300 million worth of contracts ready to sign, but there is no UN approval for them. We have good relations with Iraq, but we would have liked to improve them, like France or Italy do,” Lukashenko told reporters in an overnight news conference.
The U.N. sanctions, imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, cannot be lifted until weapons inspectors verify that Iraq does not have and is not developing weapons of mass construction. Under tremendous international pressure and U.S. threats of war, Iraq agreed on September 16 to the return of U.N. inspectors who left in 1998, ahead of U.S. air strikes, and weren't allowed back. Washington, however, has expressed skepticism at Iraq’s offer, saying the Iraqi leader continues to build weapons of mass destruction and must be ousted. (AFP, Belapan, September 16-20)
LUKASHENKO BLASTS PUTIN OVER RUSSIA-BELARUS UNION PLAN
Alexander Lukashenko lashed out at Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 17 for changing the terms of the two countries’ proposed union and threatened to charge Russia higher fees for use of its military facilities and transit routes. Russia “doesn’t want to fulfill the existing union agreement--to create a constitution, hold a referendum and create union government agencies,” Lukashenko told reporters. “If Russia wants to destroy the agreement, Belarus can’t prevent it from doing so,” he said.
Lukashenko said Russia enjoys free use of military facilities on Belarusian territory-- including a RADAR station--and hinted that he had the right to charge Moscow for use of the sites. He also said Belarus could charge an additional $800 million to $1 billion in transit fees for Russian oil and natural gas that is transported across Belarusian territory to Europe.
Putin infuriated Lukashenko last month when he put forward two proposals for the long-discussed union with Belarus, neither of which appeared to offer Belarus much political clout. (Belapan, September 17)
- INTERNATIONAL NEWS-
IMF REFUSES LOANS TO DICTATOR
Experts from the International Monetary Fund slammed the optimistic plans and macroeconomic failures of impoverished Belarus as they wound down a visit late on September 18. The Belarusian government and the IMF expert team could not agree on “a single one of the most important macroeconomic parameters,” including GDP growth, foreign investment, export volumes or inflation, Thomas Richardson, head of the mission, said. “It is good to be optimistic, but if one has to set up a precise program of financial and credit administration, it is not these figures that should be the basis for it,” he added. The IMF would not resume loans to Belarus as none of the conditions set forth by the monitoring program earlier this year were met, Richardson concluded.
The IMF last offered credits to Belarus in 1995, and its general cooperation with Minsk came to a halt last year because the Lukashenko regime had shown itself unwilling to support private business and ease government regulations. (BBC, September 19)
The Belarus Update is a weekly news bulletin of the Belarus Human Rights Support Project of the International League for Human Rights (www.ilhr.org) The League, now in its 61st year, is New York-based human rights NGO in consultative status with the United Nations ECOSOC. Visit our website for back issues, analysis, and links to news sites and NGOs in Belarus: www.belarusupdate.org For queries on how to subscribe or unsubscribe or other information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
The Belarus project was established to support Belarusian citizens in making their case for the protection of civil society before the international community regarding Alexander Lukashenko's wholesale assault on human rights and the rule of law in Belarus.