INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS BELARUS UPDATE
Edited by Victor Cole
Vol. 5, No. 42
This year has been one of enormous repression and suffering in Belarus for brave activists attempting to defend the sovereignty and freedom of their homeland and struggling to protect the rights of the victims of the Lukashenko regime. Journalists, lawyers, clergy, and NGO activists have variously been subjected to threats, detentions, beatings, and even sentencing to corrective labor--a stark indication of the new worsening of state persecution this year. At the same time, even as the internal situation has deteriorated, the external attention to Belarus has lessened considerably as the international community has focused on Central Asia, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and some main donors have been compelled to reduce assistance.
Each year at American Thanksgiving time in November, we make a special year-end appeal for contributions to the League to assist our work. At this time we would like to appeal to all our Belarus Update readers who are concerned about democracy and human rights in Belarus to make a special contribution to the League's Emergency Response Program and directly assist individuals in need in Belarus. This year, due to the great amount of harassment people face, we have many more cases than in the past. We often receive requests for help from Belarus which are hard for the major foundations to cover in their regular grants programs, i.e. individual humanitarian relief, coverage of legal fees or court-ordered fines, temporary income maintenance for persons dismissed from employment, replacement of police-confiscated equipment, etc. That's why we must turn to you as concerned individuals to help us meet this need. As always, any emergency-response contributions donated to the League for this purpose will be sent directly and as quickly as possible to activists in need in Belarus, without any diversion of your contribution for overhead or administration.
Readers in the U.S. may send checks made out to "International League for Human Rights", a non-profit, charitable organization under 501-c-3, and marked "Belarus" to: ILHR, 823 UN Plaza, Suite 717, New York, NY 10017. You will receive an acknowledgement letter noting your tax-exempt contribution for use in your IRS return. Readers outside the U.S. may also contribute by sending a bank transfer to the League. Please contact me at email@example.com for the transfer information.
We hope we can count on you to help us help others in Belarus.
Catherine A. Fitzpatrick
CIS Program Director, ILHR
IN THIS ISSUE:
-Court Upholds Conviction Of Independent Journalist
-Distributor Of Anti-Lukashenko Leaflets Charged With Slander
-Independent Newspaper Loses Another Court Battle
-EU Concerned About Media Freedom In Belarus
-Us Urges Osce To Dispatch Senior Official To Belarus
-Helsinki Commission Hearing On U.S. Policy Re: OSCE
-Social Democrats Urge Opposition To Unite Before Elections
-Two US Diplomats Barred From Bulldozed Church Site
-Authorities Refuse To Register Non-Moscow Orthodox Church
-Lukashenko Turns To Vietnam For Foreign Investment
- HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPOSITION NEWS-
COURT UPHOLDS CONVICTION OF INDEPENDENT JOURNALIST
On October 15, the Minsk City Court rejected an appeal by Viktor Ivashkevich, the editor-in-chief of Rabochy, a Belarusian newspaper. A month before, the Pervomaisky District Court of Minsk sentenced Ivashkevich to two years of corrective labor for allegedly slandering Alexander Lukashenko--a punishment 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 ("Publicly insulting the President"). The court did not say where Ivashkevich would have to 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 was timed to come out during the September 2001 presidential election campaign, but authorities seized 39,000 issues of the edition before it hit newsstands.
"It's clear that this is political revenge against a journalist and against freedom of speech," Ivashkevich said after the October 15 ruling was announced. "We are seeing more and more of economic and political pressure on the independent media," he added. Ivashkevich promised to do all he can to resume publication of Rabochy. (Belapan, October 16)
DISTRIBUTOR OF ANTI-LUKASHENKO LEAFLETS CHARGED WITH SLANDER
The Prosecutor's office of the Tsentralny District of Minsk charged Oksana Novikova, 29, with violation of Art. 367, part 2, of the Belarusian Penal Code ("Defamation of the President by accusing him of committing serious crimes"). On October 17, Novikova was arrested on Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk while distributing anti-Lukashenko leaflets and now is facing up to five years of "restricted freedom" or imprisonment. (Belapan, October 18)
INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPER LOSES ANOTHER COURT BATTLE
Judge Grigory Markovsky of the Belarusian Supreme Court upheld the decision of the lower court to annul the registration certificate of Svobodnye Novosti, an independent weekly with a circulation of 36,000 copies. The publishing of the newspaper was suspended on August 21, following a complaint to the Information Ministry filed by Sergei Atroschenko, the newspaper's major shareholder. Atroschenko, who owns 60 percent shares in the weekly, charged in his complaint that the newspaper is unprofitable and is secretly financed by the U.S. Embassy in Minsk. "The American embassy does the Belarusian press a disservice and hampers the normal development of the media market in the country," Atroschenko wrote. The Svobodnye Novosti's staff replied, by accusing Atroschenko of foul play, charging him with trying to silence yet another opposition newspaper to please the Lukashenko regime. "The people who initiated the closing of this opposition newspaper are ensured to receive state support at the highest level," commented Alexander Ulityonok, Svobodnye Novosti's editor-in-chief. (Belapan, October 16)
EU CONCERNED ABOUT MEDIA FREEDOM IN BELARUS
The European Union expressed concern on October 16 about the Lukashenko government's treatment of the independent media, which it said was characterized by censorship, harassment, repression and intimidation. "The EU is alarmed by the deterioration of the situation regarding freedom of media and freedom of _expression in Belarus," the Danish EU presidency said in a statement. "The EU deeply regrets the repression of journalists, trade unions and others critical of President Lukashenko."
The EU condemned the conviction and sentence imposed on Viktor Ivashkevich, the editor-in-chief of Rabochy, an independent newspaper. In a trial closed to domestic and international observers, Ivashkevich, charged with insulting Belarusian leader, was sentenced to two years of corrective labor. The EU statement described Ivashkevich's trial as a "worrying example of the intimidation of media representatives by the Belarusian authorities."
The statement noted that the Ivashkevich case follows the June 24 conviction of Grodno-based Pahonya journalists Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mazheiko and the initiation of a criminal investigation into cases of journalist Irina Khalip and Anatoly Lebedko, chair of the United Civic Party. The EU urged the Belarusian government to revoke these sentences, to adhere to its international commitments to freedom of media and freedom of _expression and to revise the provisions in the Criminal Code that affect freedom of media and of _expression. It also underlined the need to see improvements in the situation regarding human rights and democracy before relations between the EU and Belarus can move forward. (UN, October 17)
US URGES OSCE TO DISPATCH SENIOR OFFICIAL TO BELARUS
In a statement delivered to OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna on October 18, John Schmidt, Director for European Regional Political-Military Affairs of the Bureau of European Affairs of the US Department of State, said that he believe that OSCE missions and field operations could play a more active role in implementing the OSCE activities in the security and economic dimensions.
Following are excerpts from Schmidt's statement regarding Belarus:
"Belarus has expelled international members of an OSCE field presence and absolutely refused to negotiate with the OSCE Chair or this Permanent Council. As recently as yesterday [October 17 -Ed.], Belarus advised that it would not enter into negotiations on a future OSCE presence until the Permanent Council adopted a decision formally closing the AMG. This announcement contravenes the position conveyed by Belarusian Foreign Minister Khvostov only a month ago in New York, who informed Chairman-in-Office Portuguese Foreign Minister da Cruz that he would instruct the Permanent Representative of Belarus to negotiate an immediate resolution of this problem."
"Mr. Chairman, this matter is no longer about respect for the views of a host State, but rather respect of a participating State for the principles of this organization and the decisions of this Permanent Council. Such conduct in contravention of OSCE principles and decisions undermines the integrity of this organization and is unacceptable."
"Mr. Chairman we urge you to dispatch a senior level visit to Minsk for the purpose of negotiating a resolution of this matter. Absent a functioning mission, we request that you place discussion of developments in Belarus on the PC agenda until this matter is resolved. Unless Belarus engages in a constructive dialogue with the Chair, there will be further deterioration of our bilateral relations. In the run-up to the Oporto Ministerial, this Permanent Council and its respective Participating States, need also to consider the mechanisms, processes, and instruments at our disposal to address this issue. In closing on this matter, we, once again, urge President Lukashenko to change course...." (OCSE, October 18)
HELSINKI COMMISSION HEARING ON U.S. POLICY RE: OSCE
During the United States Helsinki Commission hearing held on October 7, Lorne W. Craner, Assistant Secretary of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; gave the following testimony regarding Belarus:
"In Belarus, parliament recently passed a law on religion that threatens religious freedom imposing an insurmountable hurdle for many 'non-traditional' faiths because it limits registration to those religious groups that have been present in Belarus for twenty years. Civil society increasingly is under attack by the Lukashenko regime. Journalists have been imprisoned and newspapers closed down. The government has sought to crush all legitimate opposition. The United States has condemned the recent conviction for slander of the editor of the publication Rabochy, Viktor Ivashkevich, as another attempt by the regime to silence its critics. Furthermore, members of NGOs have been assaulted, fined, and imprisoned and opponents of the regime have disappeared. Under Lukashenko's direction, the Presidential Guard -- initially created to protect senior officials -- continues to act against the political enemies of the Lukashenko regime with no judicial or legislative oversight. Members of the security forces have committed numerous serious human rights abuses. 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."
"Clearly, the HDIM and other OSCE mechanisms including field missions and special representatives play important roles in addressing a range of human rights violations. In Belarus, however, the OSCE faces a unique institutional challenge. The OSCE's response to efforts by the Lukashenko regime to shut down the OSCE's field mission will set an important precedent. Other participating states will take note of how the OSCE reacts. We are therefore discussing with other like-minded participating states possible consequences for Belarus' disregard for the OSCE as an institution. These consequences may include bilateral as well as multilateral components. We feel strongly that the organization must respond to this challenge in real time. We have advised Belarus that failure to resolve this matter will likely ensure it will be raised by the Ministers at the end of the year. As we consider what to do about countries that defy OSCE commitments, we must look not only to egregious violations, but also to the more subtle eroding of democracy and human rights that is now taking place with respect to religious freedom. We see governments across the NIS considering and in some cases adopting legislation to make their laws on religion more restrictive. We see new restrictions on registration of religious organizations and visa difficulties increasing for foreign religious workers from minority religions. We hear of increasing reports of pressure on landlords not to rent space to minority religious groups, and shadowy visits reminiscent of the Cold War days from members in the Security Services who intimate that minority religions are the objects of security concerns…"
An un-official transcript of the hearing is available on the Helsinki Commission's Internet web site at http://www.csce.gov. (CSCE, October 7)
SOCIAL DEMOCRATS URGE OPPOSITION TO UNITE BEFORE ELECTIONS
The Belarusian Social Democratic Party or Narodnaya Hramada issued a statement calling on all members of the Consultative Council of Opposition Political Parties to coordinate their efforts in the run-up to the local elections scheduled for the spring of 2003. "As is turned out, almost all members of the Council, intend to put forward their own candidates in 52 electoral districts of Minsk," the party's leadership said in the statement. The United Civic Party plans to nominate 26 candidates, the BPF Adradzhenne - 40 people. "If we are not united ahead of the elections, it may happen that in the capital the most prominent opposition members will be involved in a show fight against each other for deputy seats," it said. "In this case, the elections will result in "an indisputable victory for the regime's supporters." As of October 17, Narodnaya Hramada, the Belarusian Labor Party, the opposition Party of Communists of Belarus, and the Coalition For Social Changes has already agreed to coordinate nominations. (Belapan, October 17)
- RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN BELARUS-
TWO US DIPLOMATS BARRED FROM BULLDOZED CHURCH SITE
Two United States diplomats and their translator, a Belarusian citizen, have been barred from visiting the site of the Autocephalous Orthodox church bulldozed by the authorities in the village of Pogranichny, Berestavitsky District, Grodno Region. Ian Turner, the Third Secretary of the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, a U.S. State Department official and the translator, Dmitry Semyonov, were stopped on October 9 by the law enforcers on the grounds that they violate a restricted border zone (Pogranichny is a few kilometers from Belarusian western border with Poland). The diplomats had hoped to view the site of the bulldozed church, and to meet local members of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church, including parish priest Fr. Yan Spasyuk and Ivan Pisar, the head of the village administration. The diplomats were ordered to show their I.D.s and ordered to proceed to the village administration building accompanied by two police vehicles. The diplomats spent an hour and a half in the building (though Pisar was absent) before being allowed to leave the place accompanied again by police cars. They were precluded from meeting Fr. Spasyuk or his parishioners. A police report was filed on Semyonov. (Keston News Service, October 15)
AUTHORITIES REFUSE TO REGISTER NON MOSCOW ORTHODOX CHURCH
The Belarusian government continue to deny registration to any Orthodox parishes that does not belong to the Moscow Patriarchate. The True Orthodox parish in Minsk has filed a complaint with the Council of Ministers about the failure by officials to respond to its registration application filed in June 2002 within the prescribed three-month period. In an interview to Keston news Service, Bishop Agafangel (Pashkovsky) of Sevastopol and Crimea, under whose authority the parish comes, said his parishes faced "great difficulties" in Belarus. "Officials told our priest that 'your Church has no future in the country'," he said.
Bishop Agafangel reported that his jurisdiction now has only one priest in Belarus, Fr. Leonid Plyats. "There was another, but he couldn't take the pressure placed on him and returned to the Moscow Patriarchate, he added. The bishop said there are three semi-open parishes, with more parishes "underground." He said that even these three parishes have difficulty conducting open religious activity.
Bishop Agafangel was also critical of the advantage the new religion law gave the Moscow Patriarchate. "The Moscow Patriarchate is a Soviet Church that needs great changes and improvements," he told Keston. He said that all his Church wanted was "equal conditions" for it to operate in Belarus. "We want to revive freely, open parishes, build churches, conduct missionary activity and have legal rights just like any other Church." (Keston News Service, October 15)
- AT HOME IN BELARUS-
LUKASHENKO TURNS TO VIETNAM FOR FOREIGN INVESTMENT
Alexander Lukashenko turned to Vietnam on October 14 for much-needed foreign investment, offering special tax deals and other incentives for the communist country to invest in the Belarusian economy. "No subjects must be excluded" from the discussion between the two nations, Lukashenko said during a meeting with Nong Duc Manh, the General secretary of Vietnam's ruling Communist Party. Belarus is prepared to offer Vietnam tax incentives, create joint ventures and even sell shares in Belarusian factories if their products are sold in Vietnam, Lukashenko said. He mentioned a Minsk motorcycle and bicycle plant whose products are popular in Vietnam, where motorbikes and bicycles are a major form of transportation. (Belapan, October 14)
… AND GIVES PIERRE CARDIN HIGHEST STATE AWARD
In an unexpected move, the eccentric Belarusian leader awarded France's famed fashion designer Pierre Cardin the Order of Francisk Skaryna, the Belarusian highest state award, for his "contribution to bilateral cultural ties and help in overcoming the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster," Lukashenko's press service told reporters on October 16. According to the press service, Cardin helped organize a Belarusian culture presentation in Paris this year as well as exhibitions of Belarusian artists. (Interfax, October 17)
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