Stop the Persecution of Civil Society in Belarus (THE NORWEGIAN HELSINKI COMMITTEE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS)
Vienna, Oslo, 19 May 2003
Stop the Persecution of Civil Society in Belarus
Dear President Lukashenko,
A large-scale campaign against civil society is currently taking place in Belarus. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Norwegian Helsinki Committee (NHC) are calling on your government to halt the administrative harassment of the non-governmental organizations, and to investigate threats against prominent persons in Belarusian civil society.
On 21 April 2003, the Justice Department of the Grodno Regional Executive Committee sent a letter to the district court calling for the liquidation of Ratusha, a public association and regional resource center for non-state and non-profit groups based in Grodno. The liquidation suit was based on an official warning to Ratusha related to alleged violation of rules on the registration and storage of printing equipment. The warning was issued on 9 April after a hearing in the district court, in which the head of Ratusha was not represented. This was the second official warning issued to Ratusha within a year, and according to Belarusian law, the authorities can close any public association which has received two or more warnings relating to the same violation within the span of twelve months. The formal liquidation of Ratusha is due to take place in a court meeting later this month.
The liquidation of Ratusha, was preceded by similar moves against the regional center Varuta, based in Baranovich, and the Christian-Social Youth Union, an NGO based in Minsk. A liquidation
suit has also been filed against the Civic Initiatives regional resource center in Gomel, and the “request” of the local authorities will be considered in court later this month. At present there is an on-going investigation of the Brest-branch of the Viasna human rights center, one of the most important human rights monitors in the country. If the local department of justice finds irregularities in Brest, it can serve as a pretext for closing down the whole organization. The vigilance of the authorities is boundless: the Krug regional resource center in Mogilyov recently received an official warning after having sent a letter in which the printed stamp of the public association was a few millimeters smaller than the original stamp submitted in the registration documents.
In Grodno, the administrative moves against Ratusha coincided with threats against the head of the public association, the prominent human rights defender Aleksandr Milinkievich. On 7 May he received a letter which expressed support for the actions of the authorities against Ratusha, furthermore it noted that Milinkievich was a thief of Jewish extraction, and went on to threaten him personally. The letter was sent by a group that calls itself the Russian National Union, a group implicated in the beatings of the prominent opposition figures Andrei Sannikov and Dmitriy Bondarenko in Minsk on 2 February 1999. Although the perpetrators were known and the Minsk-incident took place in front of witnesses, no one was charged after this attack. As the NHC noted in its report Maintaining the Democratic Ghetto: The Persecution of Civil Society in Belarus from August 2002, “Often, crime seems to occur in conjunction with repressive state measures, and it is thus difficult not to list crime among the means by which civil society is persecuted.”
In recent years, the Belarusian authorities have expanded their arsenal of regulations and decrees pertaining to civil society. Presidential Decree no. 13, which was issued on 15 April 2003, for all practical purposes bars public organizations from representing ordinary citizens in court, and is another attempt at isolating civil society in a “democratic ghetto” by driving a wedge between public organizations and the public. The liquidations of NGOs, the threats against human rights defenders and the new Presidential Decree, amount to a new orchestrated campaign against civil society in Belarus. The present campaign comes at a time when the United Nations Human Rights Commission have just adopted a resolution expressing deep concern about the human rights situation in Belarus, and urging the Government of Belarus specifically to, inter alia, “establish independence of the judiciary” and “bring the actions of the police and security forces into conformity with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
The IHF and the NHC call on your government to abide by its international obligations concerning civil and political rights and its obligation to protect human rights defenders. We respectfully ask you to halt the administrative harassment of the non-governmental organizations, and investigate threats against prominent persons in Belarusian civil society.
National Helsinki Committees