STATEMENT ON ARREST OF MARCH ORGANIZERS IN BELARUS (New York, March 13)
On 12 March, approximately 6,000 people gathered peacefully in a central Minsk square under the banner "For a Better Life!" to protest deteriorating economic and social conditions in Belarus, charter97.org, Belapan and other local news services reported. The organizers included human rights groups, opposition politicians, and market vendors, tens of thousands of whom had gone on strike from public markets in 30 cities around Belarus that day. While initially police had ordered the protesters to hold the event in Bangalore, a park remote from the center of town, on the eve of the march they had reportedly received permission to assemble in Jakub Kolasa Square. No violent incidents were reported, although police and plainclothesmen pushed the demonstrators out of the street on to sidewalks and attempted to provoke them.
Yesterday, at least four organizers of the march were arrested whose signatures were on the application to authorities for permission to hold the rally. Trials were held in Sovietsky District Court with Judges Relyava and Kozadayev presiding.
Andrei Sannikov, international coordinator of Charter 97 and former deputy minister of foreign affairs, sentenced to 15 days of jail
Ludmila Gryaznova, human rights coordinator of Charter 97, former member of parliament, sentenced to 15 days of jail
Dmitry Bondarenko, Charter 97 coordinator, sentenced to 15 days of jail
Leonid Malakhov, co-chair of "Private Property," the market vendors movement, charged with the same offense, awaiting trial 13 March
All of the leaders were arrested by police on the street after the march was over and taken to Sovietsky Police Precinct where they were held overnight before trials this morning under Art. 167-1 or 167-2, "participation in unauthorized mass actions." (As Gryaznova had a daughter who is a minor, she was allowed to return home overnight but nevertheless sentenced the following day to jail.) None of these leaders have used or advocated violence, and their protest action had proceeded peacefully. Dmitry Bondarenko negotiated with police about their obstruction of the crowd and urged the crowd to disperse peacefully.
The Belarusian government's action appears to be a new level of repression, as previously they had not arrested Andrei Sannikov for such peaceful expression of dissent, given his status as a well-known diplomat at home and abroad. The length of the jail sentences -- 15 days -- is also more severe than sentences given for past marches of this type.
The International League for Human Rights calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all four march leaders and any others detained for peaceful expression and call on authorities to refrain from obstruction of peaceful assemblies of protest. As other opposition marches are planned for 25 March and 26 April, we call on the authorities of Belarus to permit peaceful assembly of civic groups wishing to express their grievances.
We note that all of the Charter 97 leaders have been our close colleagues for a number of years and a partner in the League's programs, taking part in our delegations to the OSCE, the UN Commission on Human Rights and participating in conferences on democracy and human rights as well as hearings and briefings in the U.S. Congress about conditions in Belarus.
We urgenly call on the recently re-established OSCE office in Minsk and foreign embassies in Minsk to make every effort to visit these persons in jail and to seek their immediate release and the dropping of the charges against them.
New York, March 13)