INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS BELARUS UPDATE Edited by Victor Cole Vol. 5, No. 41
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Lawyer Convicted Of Slandering Prosecutor-General
-Opposition Leader Summoned To Prosecutor’s Office
-Strike Leader Charged With Staging Unauthorized Rally
-Helsinki Commission Hearing On U.S. Policy Toward OSCE
-Helsinki Commission Co-Chair Criticizes Belarus Religion Law
-U.S. Concerned About Deterioration Of Freedoms In Belarus
-Article 19 Condemns New Religion Law
-U.S. State Department: Religious Freedom Diminishes In Belarus
-Harassment Of Hindus Continues
- HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPOSITION NEWS-
LAWYER CONVICTED OF SLANDERING PROSECUTOR-GENERAL
Judge Valentina Krivaya of the Leninski District Court of Minsk sentenced Igor Aksenchik, who was charged with slander under Art. 188, part 2 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, to 18 months in jail suspended for two years. As a lawyer, Aksenchik represented Olga Zavadskaya, mother of kidnapped journalist Dmitry Zavadsky, in the case against Valery Ignatovich, Maksim Malik, Aleksey Guz and Sergei Savushkin.
On February 13, 2002, while speaking to journalists near the entrance to the court’s building, Aksenchik said that during the investigation, the guilt of the four members of the Ignatovich group had not been proved. He insisted that a number of high-ranking Belarusian officials, including Viktor Sheiman, Prosecutor General, masterminded the abduction of Dmitry Zavadsky as well as Yuri Zakharenko, the former Minister of Internal Affairs who disappeared on May 7, 1999, and Victor Gonchar, a 13th Supreme Soviet deputy chair and a high profile opposition politician, who went missing on September 16, 1999. In March 2002, Aksenchik was stripped of his license to practice law after he accused the Belarusian leader of blocking the investigation into the case.
In the courtroom Aksenchik reiterated that Sheiman should have been investigated as the main suspect in the disappearance of the ORT cameraman because there was witnesses’ testimony about his involvement in the case, including from two former officials from the prosecutor’s office who fled abroad after threats received for their whistle-blowing. (Belapan, October 11)
OPPOSITION LEADER SUMMONED TO PROSECUTOR’S OFFICE
Anatoly Lebedko, chair of the United Civic Party, was summoned to the Minsk Prosecutor’s office on October 8 and interrogated as a witness in the criminal cases of the missing Belarusian opposition politicians Yury Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar. Investigator Vladimir Chumachenko was primarily interested in an interview Lebedko gave several years ago to Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper, in which he said that high-ranking government officials ordered the death squad to abduct and murder Zakharenko, Gonchar, Krasovsky, and Zavadsky, Lebedko told the journalists after the interrogation. “I have an impression that the Prosecutor’s Office is not even considering the political version of Zakharenko’s and Gonchar’s kidnappings,” he commented. (Belapan, October 9)
STRIKE LEADER CHARGED WITH STAGING UNAUTHORIZED RALLY
Valery Levonevsky, head of the Belarusian Trade Union of Small-Business Owners, was arrested in Grodno on October 11 and charged with violation of Art 167, par. 1 (“participation in mass actions violating public order”) of the Belarusian Administrative Offenses Code for holding an authorized rally in protest against recent tax increases and insurance fees for small business owners. (Belapan, October 11)
HELSINKI COMMISSION HEARING ON U.S. POLICY TOWARD OSCE
The U.S. Helsinki Commission held a hearing on October 7 to examine U.S. policy toward the OSCE. Those testifying before the Commission included: Elizabeth Jones, Assistant Secretary of State, European and Eurasian Affairs; Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; Catherine A. Fitzpatrick, CIS Program Director, International League for Human Rights; Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director (DC), Europe and Central Asia Division, Human Rights Watch; and Robert Templer, Asia Program Director, International Crisis Group.
The hearing examined U.S. priorities and long-standing human rights concerns in the OSCE region and how the OSCE can serve as a forum to advance human rights and democracy goals and address gross violations. The witnesses also looked at the role of the nearly 20 OSCE field activities including in Belarus, Chechnya, Georgia, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, and Uzbekistan; and expectations for the OSCE Ministerial Council in December.
Following are excerpts from Elizabeth Jones’ testimony regarding Belarus:
“During the past year, Belarus has been the object of some of our most serious human rights concerns. On September 6, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry denied without credible justification a request for a visa extension for the OSCE’s Advisory and Monitoring Group Mission's (AMG) human rights officer in Belarus. Earlier this year, Belarus denied visa extensions to the AMG’s Deputy Head of Mission and its Political officer, thereby bringing to a temporary halt the AMG’s activities in Belarus.”
“Belarus argued that it found no grounds for extending the visas. Yet numerous reasons for an extension can be offered. Civil society is increasingly under attack by the Lukashenko regime. Journalists have been imprisoned and newspapers closed down. Minsk has sought to crush all legitimate opposition. Members of NGOs have been assaulted, fined, and imprisoned and opponents of the regime have disappeared. Credible reports indicate that a regime death squad is responsible for these disappearances. Meanwhile, the presidential election held last year failed to meet international standards and, unless serious electoral reforms are adopted, local elections expected in early 2003 will face the same fate.”
“The OSCE AMG is tasked to help Belarus address these kinds of issues. Concern over what is happening there will not disappear with the expulsion of another member of the AMG. Belarus will remain a regular issue of concern and discussion by the OSCE. Belarus will not be able to normalize its relations with the United States and other members of the Euro-Atlantic community unless it permits the resumption of the activities of the AMG and makes progress in adhering to the four conditions established by the OSCE.”
“Additional delay on the part of the Belarus regime will only further its self-isolation from the Euro-Atlantic community and ensure that this issue becomes a topic for the December OSCE Ministerial in Porto. We continue to support the efforts of the Chair to resolve this impasse and secure a return of the AMG to Belarus. At the same time, we are discussing with other delegations additional measures that can be taken to address human rights concerns in Belarus, such as the Moscow Mechanism.”
An un-official transcript is available on the Helsinki Commission's Internet web site at http://www.csce.gov. (CSCE, October 7)
- RELIGIOUS FREEDOM-
HELSINKI COMMISSION CO-CHAIR CRITICIZES BELARUS RELIGION LAW
The new religion law passed recently by the upper chamber of the Belarus’ parliament and now awaiting Lukashenko’ signature “clearly violates internationally accepted human rights standards,” Rep. Christopher H. Smith ( R-NJ), Co-Chair of the Helsinki Commission of the U.S. Congress, said on October 7.
Following is a Helsinki Commission press release:
“United States Helsinki Commission Co-Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) today said Belarus’s upper chamber of parliament struck another blow against religious freedom with a burdensome and restrictive religion law Passage of the law comes two months after the Belarusian authorities plowed through a newly built church with a bulldozer.”
“This repressive legislation, targeting minority religions, clearly violates internationally accepted human rights standards. Lukashenko and his regime of hand-picked legislators are obviously intent on stamping out minority religious communities, leaving only the state-recognized Orthodox Church to decide how individuals practice their faith.”
“Lukashenko’s regime has inflicted Belarus with the worst human rights record in Europe. It has flagrantly violated basic freedoms of speech, expression, assembly, association and religion.”
“The new law bans religious activity by groups not registered with the government and forbids most religious meetings on private property. Religious literature is subject to government censorship and religious organizations existing fewer than 20 years are prohibited. Under the legislation, the Orthodox Church has a ?#152;determining role’ in Belarus. Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Islam, however, are designated as ?#152;traditional’ faiths.”
“In August, Belarus officials bulldozed a newly built Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the village of Pogranichny. Authorities ordered the building destroyed, citing ?#152;illegal’ construction since plans did not include a basement. A journalist was jailed 15 days for attempting to write about the bulldozing. Lukashenko has reportedly launched a media smear campaign targeting Protestant communities.”
“Lukashenko’s political opposition, independent media and non-governmental organizations endure constant harassment. Three journalists were jailed for allegedly defaming him. Lukashenko refused last month to renew the entry visa of the OSCE Advisory and Monitoring Group’s acting head, effectively shutting down the operation.”
“Recent presidential and parliamentary elections, infested with democratic standards violations, were neither free nor fair. Credible evidence links Lukashenko’s regime to the disappearances of his political opponents. Evidence also indicates Belarus is a supplier of military equipment to rogue states.” (CSCE, October 7)
U.S. CONCERNED ABOUT DETERIORATION OF FREEDOMS IN BELARUS
The United States is concerned about the draft law on religion adopted by the upper chamber of the Belarussian Parliament and urges President Alexander Lukashenko not to sign the law, Bruce Connuck, U.S. diplomat, told the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on October 10.
Following are some excerpts from his statement:
“The United States shares the concerns of the EU regarding the draft law on religion adopted by the upper chamber of the Belarusian Parliament. This new law would ban religious activity by unregistered groups, forbid most religious meetings on private property and subject religious literature to government censorship.”
“We join with the EU in calling upon President Lukashenko not to sign this draft law. But we also would like to note that we share the concern of the OSCE Representative on the Freedom of the Media, Mr. Duve, and the EU regarding the deterioration of freedom of the media and freedom of expression in Belarus. The prosecution and sentencing of not one, but three journalists in Belarus in recent months represents attempts by Belarussian authorities to intimidate independent journalists and violate the OSCE’s core commitment to free expression.” (USIA, October 10)
ARTICLE 19 CONDEMNS NEW RELIGION LAW
ARTICLE 19, the Global Campaign for Free Expression, expressed concern at the news of the adoption of the Law of the Republic of Belarus on the Insertion of Changes and Amendments in the Law of the Republic of Belarus “On Freedom of Denomination and Religious Organizations”.
“The law seriously restricts the right of religious organizations to disseminate material,” wrote Andrew Puddephatt, the organization’s Executive Director, in an open letter to Alexander Lukashenko. In particular, Article 26 of the new law appears to severely restrict religious communities’ freedom of expression, he said. While section 1 of the article recognizes the right of religious institutions to produce and disseminate religious literature, this right is emasculated by the rest of the article. Several sections of article 26 introduce a so-called ?#152;examination’ to be conducted by the State Committee on Religious Affairs and Minorities. Pursuant to section 2 of the article, such examination is mandatory in all cases of imported religious materials. Section 3 further allows for an examination in the cases of any distribution of religious materials at the request of a governmental body, while section 4 stipulates that examination is also mandatory whenever religious literature is to be delivered to libraries.
Furthermore, only religious organizations that are duly registered may exercise the rights granted by article 26, Puddephatt continued. While pro forma registration requirements of the mass media do not directly contradict the international law as long as they meet certain conditions, the UN Human Rights Committee has held that in Belarus, registration requirements imposed even on occasional and small-circulation publications often creates an insurmountable burden to freedom of expression, he said. Accordingly, another concern is with the restrictions on publishing and disseminating religious material, Puddephatt wrote in the letter. Article 26(5) allows only companies established by religious organizations to publish religious literature, while Article 26(8) restricts distribution of these materials to places owned by religious organization, or places which have been pre-approved by “local executive or management bodies.”
“These provisions are highly restrictive and totally unjustified. Any publishing company should be allowed to print religious material, the practice in the vast majority of countries around the world,” Article 19 said. The restrictions on distribution are even more draconian and would, for example, “prohibit a religious leader from handing out religious material in his or her home,” he wrote.
Article 19 reminded the Belarusian authorities that while the international guidelines concerning freedom of expression do permit limited, “time, place, and manner” restrictions, such restrictions must meet the following test: the burden must be necessary to achieve a legitimate state objective and the law imposing the burden must not be vague or too broad and must not discriminate among the actors.
The first part of the test means that there must be a “compelling social need” for any restriction. The reasons given by the State to justify the restriction must be “relevant and sufficient,” and the burden imposed must be proportionate to the goal pursued. Restrictions on freedom of expression that do not comply with these requirements are illegitimate. The jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights makes it clear that this test presents a high standard which any interference must overcome, because of the fundamental importance of freedom of expression in a democratic society.
The various provisions concerning “examinations” represent a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression. The State has no right to regulate any publication (religious or otherwise) in this way,. The threat of such examination, along with the possible sanctions, which include ?#152;liquidation of the responsible organization” (Article 23) and, presumably, confiscation of the material, are bound to exert a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression.
“Even more serious is the application of these measures while information is being distributed or before it reaches libraries,” Article 19 said. “This is reminiscent of the old censorship apparatus and effectively codifies prior censorship (also known as prior restraint).”
Article 19 called upon the Lukashenko government to amend the law and delete the Article 26 (except for its first section); and to promote an environment in which religious organizations can freely express themselves without fear of intimidation. (Article 19, October 8)
U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT: RELIGIOUS FREEDOM DIMINISHES IN BELARUS
The International Religious Freedom Report for 2002, released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor at the U.S. State Department last month, provided additional information regarding international religious freedom. The 2002 Report includes 192 country chapters on the status of religious freedom worldwide. Following are excerpts from the Report’s Executive Summary regarding Belarus:
“The Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the regime restricts this right in practice. The status of respect for religious freedom continued to be very poor during the period covered by this report. Head of State Alexander Lukashenko continued to pursue a policy of favoring the Russian Orthodox Church, the country's majority religion, and the authorities continued to harass other denominations and religions. The regime has repeatedly rejected the registration applications of some of these, including many Protestant denominations, the Belarusian Orthodox Autocephalous Church (BAOC), and some eastern religions. Without registration, many of these groups find it difficult, if not impossible, to rent or purchase property to conduct religious services. The authorities continued to enforce a 1995 Cabinet of Ministers decree that restricts the activities of religious workers in an attempt to protect Russian Orthodoxy and curtail the growth of other religions. During the period covered by this report, Protestant and other non-Russian Orthodox religious groups continued to come under attack in the government-run media. Despite continued harassment, some minority faiths have been able to function if they maintain a low profile. On June 27, the lower house of Parliament gave its final approval to a new law on religion which would impose further severe restrictions on religious freedom. Despite reported efforts by the executive branch to secure its quick passage, the upper house postponed further consideration until the fall of 2002.
There are, for the most part, amicable relations among registered, traditional religious communities; however, societal anti-Semitism persisted, and sentiment critical of minority faiths continued to increase.
The U.S. Government discussed with the regime the poor human rights situation in the country and raised problems of religious freedom during such discussions. U.S. Embassy officials also discussed specific cases with the Government, and in June 2002, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk publicly called upon the authorities to ensure that a proposed draft-law on religion ensure the right of all Belarusians to worship freely.”
The report is available at http://www.state.gov/g/drl/rls/irf/2002/13923.htm
HARASSMENT OF HINDUS CONTINUES
Judge Tatiana Pavluchik of the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk fined Maria Viatkina, a member of the unregistered Hindu Shiva-Sakti community, the Light of Kailash, 1,600,000 BYR (about $1,000) for holding unauthorized pickets on August 17 in Minsk. Earlier, Igor Yusupov, Irina Golovina, Tatiana and Sergei Akadanovs, Dmitry Alisevich, Aleksey Romanchuk, and Tatiana Zhilevich were sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment each for demanding to stop harassment of religious minorities and to register their community. Irina Sibilina, who has a six-year old child, was fined instead of going to jail. Protesting the court’s decision, Tatiana Zhilevich went on a ten days’ hunger-strike. In September, she was attacked by an unidentified hooligans and hospitalized with a brain concussion and cranium injury. (Charter 97, October 11)
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.