Situation in Bielarus: Opinion of Vaclov Stankevic, Member of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe
Situation in Belarus Doc. 9574
25 September 2002
Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights
Rapporteur: Mr Vaclov Stankevic, Lithuania, Liberal, Democratic and Reformers' Group
I. Conclusions of the committee
1. The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights supports the draft resolution on the situation in Belarus adopted by the Political Affairs Committee on 9 September 2002. It notes that Mr Behrendt, rapporteur for the Political Affairs Committee, devotes a large part of his explanatory memorandum to the human rights situation, particularly questions relating to the death penalty, freedom of the media and freedom of association, disappearances allegedly for political reasons and the repression of opponents of the regime.
2. The committee considers that the human rights situation in Belarus must improve significantly in order to meet the Council of Europe's standards. Belarus is the only country in Europe where the death penalty is still applied and where violations of freedom of expression and association and repression against political opponents are regularly reported.
3. The committee considers that while the human rights violations reported must be firmly condemned, more must be done to contribute to the country's democratic development. It was with this in view that a representative of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights took part in the hearing on the death penalty organised by the Belarus Parliament in May 2002 and that the Committee decided to set up an ad hoc sub-committee in September 2002 to shed light on the circumstances of the allegedly political disappearances. For the same reason the Committee proposes greater involvement of the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights.
II. Proposed amendments to the draft resolution
4. Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights adopted the following amendments to the draft resolution:
a. In paragraph 5, after the 2nd sentence, add the following sentence:
"The recent convictions of journalists for their opinions are unacceptable."
b. In paragraph 6, add to the end of the paragraph: "including condemned journalists".
c. Add to the end of paragraph 10:
"provided that the death penalty is abolished first or that a moratorium on executions is introduced immediately and respected"
d. In paragraph 11, replace the words "on the media law" by:
"with the laws on the media, religion, the Ombudsman and defamation"
e. In paragraph 11, last sentence, after the words "bilateral contacts", insert the words "at parliamentary level".
f. After paragraph 11, add a new paragraph as follows:
"The Assembly also encourages the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights to pay particular attention to the situation in Belarus with a view to fostering respect for human rights in that country."
III. Explanatory memorandum by Mr Stankevic, Rapporteur
5. In addition to the assessment of the human rights situation made by the Political Affairs Committee, I should like to highlight the following problems that particularly caught the attention of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights.
A. Death penalty
6. As stated above, Belarus is now the only country in Europe to apply the death penalty. According to information gathered at the hearing on the "legal and political problems concerning the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus", the statistics reveal that:
from 1993 to 1996 between 20 and 30 people were sentenced to death each year
in 1997 the figure was 46
in 1998: 47
in 1999: 13
in 2000: 4
in 2001: 7
7. The decrease in the number of people sentenced to death in recent years seems to
correspond to the policy announced by the government gradually to move towards the complete abolition of capital punishment. As the Rapporteur for the Political Affairs Committee points out, the main argument put forward by the authorities against immediate abolition is public opposition.
8. According to the Helsinki Committee, two people were executed recently in Belarus, even though their cases had been submitted to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights. Human rights organisations also denounce the lack of transparency surrounding procedures for the application of the death penalty.
9. Although the fact that there are fewer executions is worth noting, the position of principle of the Assembly is that the death penalty is a violation of the most important human right, namely the right to life. Consequently, the Assembly must demand the immediate introduction of a moratorium on executions and the subsequent abolition of the death penalty.
10. Acceptation of a moratorium and the abolition of the death penalty in the long term have become preconditions of membership of the Council of Europe. Similarly, the Assembly has decided henceforth to grant Observer status only to the parliaments of states which strictly respect a moratorium on executions or have already abolished the death penalty. (Resolution 1253 (2001).
11. Accordingly, I believe that even if democratic progress is made in other areas, a moratorium on executions must be a precondition of any restoration of the special guest status of the Parliament of Belarus in the Parliamentary Assembly.
12. The Parliamentary Assembly and in particular the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, should intensify their support to supporters of the abolition of the death penalty. The Committee could consider organising a seminar on the subject in Minsk, if possible in cooperation with the Parliament of Belarus and open to a wide range of participants.
B. Persons who have gone missing, allegedly for political reasons
13. The Parliamentary Assembly has repeatedly asked the Belarus authorities to clarify the circumstances of the disappearances of Mr Yuri Zakharenko, former Minister of the Interior (who disappeared on 7 May 1999), Mr Viktor Gonchar, former Vice-President of the Parliament of Belarus (who disappeared on 16 September 1999 with his businessman friend Mr Anatoly Krasovski) and Mr Dmitri Zavadski, a cameraman for the Russian channel "ORT" (who disappeared on 7 July 2000). According to relatives of the missing persons, and to the opposition, Messrs Zakharenko and Gonchar allegedly represented a political threat to the President and Mr Zavadski had allegedly become a nuisance after making certain reports.
14. On 17 May 2002 in Paris, the Legal Affairs Committee held a hearing with close relatives of the missing persons, namely Mrs Olga Zavadskaya, Mrs Zinaida Gonchar and Mrs Irina Krasovskaya. Mrs Olga Klimova, wife of Mr Andrei Klimov, an opposition member imprisoned allegedly for political reasons (and released in March 2002), also took part in the hearing.
15. They denounced the lack of progress of investigations into the disappearances, accused the authorities of being involved and asked for an independent investigation committee to be set up.
16. While there is no news about the disappearances of Mr Zakharenko and Mr Gonchar, two members of a criminal gang have been convicted of kidnapping and murdering Mr Zavadski. However, Mrs Zavadskaya maintained that the trial had not at all elucidated what really happened. Furthermore, Mr Zavadski's body has never been found. Mr Zavadski's family had requested further investigations but the Belarus Supreme Court had rejected the request.
17. Following the above-mentioned hearing, the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights set up an "Ad hoc sub committee to clarify the circumstances of disappearances for allegedly political reasons in Belarus", whose members are: Mr Aksali (Turkey, EDG), Mr Cilevics (Latvia, SOC), Mr Clerfayt (Belgium, LDR), Mr de Aristegui (Spain, EPP/CD), Mr Kovalev (Russia, LDR), Mr Lippelt (Germany, LDR), Mr NcNamara (United Kingdom, SOC), Mr Pourgourides (Cyprus, EPP/CD), Mr Shypko (Ukraine, SOC) and Mr Stankevic (Lithuania, LDR).
18. The Sub-committee should hold its first meeting during the Parliamentary Assembly's September 2002 part session. I hope it will get down to work as soon as possible and I invite the Belarus authorities, particularly the Parliament of Belarus, to give it all the support it needs to do its job properly.
C. Draft laws on human rights
19. Two draft laws currently being examined by the Parliament of Belarus are a source of grave concern to human rights organisations, namely the draft law on the media and the draft law on freedom of conscience and religious organisations.
20. As the question of freedom of the media and the draft law on the subject is addressed in the Political Affairs Committee's report, I should like to draw attention to the draft law concerning freedom of conscience and religious organisations.
21. The draft law was adopted by the Chamber of Representatives of the Belarus Parliament on 27 June 2002 and is now before the second chamber, the Council of the Republic.
22. Opponents of the law maintain that it gives a dominant role to the Orthodox Church and severely limits the activities of religions that have been established in Belarus for less than 20 years.
23. The European Union also expressed reservations about this draft law on 26 August 2002 and invited the Council of the Republic not to adopt it.
24. Consequently I invite the Belarus authorities to submit the draft law to the Council of Europe for expert appraisal before it is enacted.
25. It would also appear that the Parliament has started work on a draft law on the Ombudsman. Even if the role of the Ombudsman can only be very limited in a system under the control of the presidential authority, I consider that the Parliamentary Assembly should help with the drafting of this law, which could give rise to a broader debate on fundamental freedoms and the separation of powers.
D. Violations of freedom of expression
26. Further to the report of the Political Affairs Committee, I should like to point out that in the last twelve months three journalists have been convicted of defamation of the President of the Republic and sent to labour camps. Their names are Nikolai Markovitch, Pavel Mazheiko and, most recently, Viktor Ivaskevich, chief editor of the "Rabochy" newspaper.
27. These men were convicted on the strength of three articles of the Criminal Code: Article 367 (Defamation of the President of the Republic), Article 369 (Insults against the President of the Republic) and Article 369 (Insults against a representative of the authorities).
28. I consider the use of these articles to be abusive and believe that their very existence should be re-examined by Parliament. I therefore urge the Belarus Parliament, with the assistance of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, to start work to bring the legislation on defamation into conformity with European standards.
Reporting committee: Political Affairs Committee
Committee for opinion: Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights
Reference to committee: decision of the Bureau of the Assembly on 17.12.98 and Order No 562 (2000)
Opinion approved by the committee on 25 September 2002
Secretaries to the committee Ms Coin, Mr Sich, Ms Kleinsorge, Mr Cupina, Mr Milner
 See Doc 9543 presented by the Political Affairs Committee.