FIDH Sends Two Open Letters to Lukashenka
The international human rights organization FIDH has submitted two open letters to Aliaksandr Lukashenka. Here is the full version of both texts:
Open letter to Mr Lukashenko, President of Belarus
Paris, 1st August 2003
The FIDH expresses its deepest concern about the situation of fundamental rights and freedoms in Belarus. On 17 April 2003, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights adopted Resolution 2003/14 on the situation of human rights in Belarus, and made a number of recommendations to the Government. In spite of this Resolution, infringements of human rights standards still persist, and, in some respects, have intensified.
Disappearance of political opponents and independent journalists
Investigations that were being carried out concerning cases of disappearance of public figures, which occurred in 1999 and 2000, have been suspended. In January 2003, the investigations concerning the disappearances of Viktar Hanchar, chairperson of the Supreme Soviet of the 13th Convocation, of Anatol Krasowski, entrepreneur, and of Iury Zakharenka, former Minister of Internal Affairs were suspended by the Prosecutor's Office, because “at present it has no prospects”.
As regards the investigation into the disappearance of the ORT cameraman Dzmitry Zavadski, it was suspended in February, because “the missing individual cannot be found”. The trial of the so-called “Ignatovich group” (October 2001 – March 2002), before the Regional Court of Minsk, did not shed light on his disappearance. On 14 March 2002, at the end of a closed doors trial, J. Ignatovich and M. Malik, former officers of Almaz Special Assignment Police Force, accused of the kidnapping of the journalist, were sentenced to life imprisonment. Doubts regarding the guilt of the defendants are founded on several violations of fundamental rules of judicial procedure and also on quite contradictory and confusing testimonies. Therefore, the court verdict can be considered as an attempt to report to the society that justice has been restored.
In February 2003, Hanchar's and Krasowski's wives, as well as Zavadski's mother, appealed against the decision of the Prosecutor's Office to suspend the investigations. Between March and June 2003, Minsk Tsentral Borough Court refused to consider the appeals.
The FIDH is extremely concerned by the situation of impunity in which the perpetrators of these crimes are left.
Harassment against civil society and political opponents
The FIDH notes with concern that individuals who hold diverging opinions or who criticise the authorities, are often subject to pressure, in particular arbitrary arrestations and detentions.
According to Viasna, our affiliated organization in Belarus, in January and March, many political opponents were arrested for having taken part in the Day of Commemoration of Victims of Political Repression, and in the “March for a Better Life”, organised by private entrepreneurs to protest against the unsatisfactory social and economic situation, and pressure against private initiatives. The Freedom Day celebration, commemorating on 25 March 2003 the anniversary of the Belarusian People's Republic, gave rise to mass detentions.According to the Belarusian authorities, it was in contradiction with “the official conception of Belarusian nationhood”. As a result, many demonstrators were sentenced to imprisonment for up to 14 days.
The 2 years suspended prison sentence pronounced in May 2003 against Aksana Novikava (who is she? Do you have further information about her???) for having distributed leaflets accusing President Lukashenko of felony, also witnesses the fact that individuals who are likely, by their activities, to undermine the power of the Belarusian authorities in any way, are muzzled.
Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky has been in jail for two years, serving a politically motivated eight years' imprisonment sentence.
Moreover, since April 2003, pressure on non-governmental organisations has developped tremendously, and it seems that a new campaign of State persecution has been initiated against NGOs.
Means of intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders are manyfold . They often consist in administrative harassment or judicial liquidation for alleged administrative irregularities. For instance, “Ratusha”, a regional NGO, was liquidated for non-permitted editorial activity; the Agency of Regional Development “Varuta” was liquidated because only its shortened name appeared on internal documents.
Viasna can also stand as an example of state pressure. It has lately experienced check-ups, or threats of check-ups, of five of its offices. A report was sent to the Ministry of Justice subsequently to the check-up of Viasna office in Brest, alleging accountancy irregularities. To this day, however, the Minister of Justice has not reacted to the report.
Freedom of independent media
Recent events show that authorities are still trying to exert control and censorhip on independent media. An increasing number of independent newspapers were temporarily or permanently suspended by judicial decisions, following alleged administrative violations or warning concerning articles. Some of them ceased existence following continuous harassment and arbitrary actions which made publication practically impossible, even though their publication had not been judicially suspended or prohibited as such. Here are some examples.
In May 2003, the Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta (BDG) was suspended for three months, after two judicial warnings subsequent to articles criticising President Lubashenko and reporting on a criminal cases The Ministry of Information ordered the 3 months suspension while the appeal of BDG Editorial Board was still pending. In June, repression actions continued being taken against the BDG, as witnesses the detention of seven vans containing issues printed in the Russian Federation. 1600 copies of the newspaper, which had been published under the name of Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta, were seized. The Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta was suspended for two months following an article entitled “Lawful lawlessness”; which, according to the vice-Minister of Information, “violated the las by publication of false information”. The suspension of the Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta makes it impossible for BDG journalists to have their views heard.
The national authorities also sometimes directly attack journalists themselves. In June 2003, Pavel Selin, Head of Minsk correspondent station of the Russian channel NTV, was deported from Belarus, and was prohibited entrance in the country for a period of five years, after reporting arrests of citizens for having joined a peaceful mourning gathering at the occasion of the death of the Belorusian author Vasil Bykaw. The Ministry of Internal Affairs regarded this report as “provocative and false”.
The Information Ministry also ordered Heads of all FM radio stations to send in full text their news-blocks and play lists in the end of each working day, in order to check that no violations of the Belarusian legislation are carried out. This is obviously to exert control on the content of the radio programmes, and will no doubt be used as a means of censorship.
Restrictions on the activities of religious organisations
Over the last few months, the Belarusian authorities have been increasingly trying to limit church activity, and therefore exerting limits on freedom of association and freedom of counsciousness.
In particular, in several instances, the authorities alleged administrative problems in order to justify their interference with the holding of religious assemblies. The case of the Presbyter of Gospel Baptist Church witnesses this tendency. The police attempted to draw the Presbyter to administrative responsibility for the absence of sanitation and emergency exit in the house where the Presbyter held its meetings, and claimed that under the law “About religious freedom and religious organisations” of 17 December 1992 , religious organisations need to obtain permission from the local executive body in order to gather in private houses for joint prayer and Biblical studies.
Furthermore, the Committee On Religious and National Affairs adopted on 30 December 2002 a ruling on “Methodological recommendations for the State registration and re-registration of religious organisations”, which provides for a new procedure for the registration of religious organisations. In February 2003, the Committee informed the Full Gospel Christians that religious organisations that were registered under the law “About religious freedom and religious organistations”, before the Ruling came into force, were subject to a new registration. In addition, the Ruling states that the authorities can request additional material to those listed in the recommendations, and have the power to suspend registration until those documents are received. However, the FIDH notes that Article 18 of the above-mentioned law provides for a comprehensive list of the documents needed for registration, and does not mention the possibility for the authorities to request additional documents. Furthermore, according to the fourth part of Article 65 of the law “About normative and judicial acts of the Republic of Belarus”, normative acts affecting citizens' rights, freedoms and duties, can only be enforced after their official publications. It appears that the Methodological recommendations have not been published.
In view of the above, the FIDH urges the Belarusian authorities:
- to resume the investigations concerning the disappearances of Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasowski, Iury Zakharenka, and Zmister Zavadski, and to take the necessary steps to ensure that the perpretators are brought to justice before an independent and impartial tribunal and are punished;
- to cease harassment and intimidation of opponents and non-governmental organisations.
- to cease harassment and intimidation of independent journalists, and to guarantee freedom of expression and freedom of the press;
- to refrain from creating new restrictions on the activities of religious organisations, in order to respect and carry out freedom of consciousness.
The FIDH also urges the Belarusian government to fully implement the Resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus, and to comply with its international obligations.
Open letter to Mr Lukashenko, President of Belarus
Paris, 1st August 2003
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of their joint programme of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, note with concern that repression of Human Rights Defenders in Belarus has intensified over the past few months. Individual Human Rights defenders, as well as non-governmental organizations, are subject to constant pressure, which takes many forms: judicial liquidations of NGOs, arbitrary arrests and detentions, legislative action, etc.
In particular, the Observatory would like to insist on the situation of Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky, who has been in jail for two years, serving an eight years' imprisonment sentence thought to be linked with the fact that he openly criticised the reaction of the state authorities to the disastrous impact of the Chernobyl catastrophe on population’s health. On 7 July 2003, the UN Human Rights Committee declared that Mr Bandazhevsky's communication for consideration under the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was admissible.The Committee resquested the State of Belarus, in its capacity if State arty to the Protocol, to submit written explanations clarifying the matter, and measure that have been taken. On several occasions, the Observatory expressed its concern that the conditions of imprisonment may severely impact on his health in the long term. In December 2002, the Observatory requested from the authorities the authorisation to organize an investigative mission on Mr Bandazhevsky’s conditions of detentions. The authorities did not follow up on this request (see press release of 17 April 2003). The Observatory is deeply concerned about the current condition of Mr Bandazhevsky, and is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
Since April 2003, pressure on non-governmental organisations has developped tremendously, and it seems that a new campaign of State persecution has been initiated against NGOs.
On 16 April 2003, President Lukashenko signed Decree No. 13 “On some question of civil justice”, stating that “representatives of non-governmental associations can be representatives of physical persons in civil trials in general courts only in cases the law allows them to represent and protect the rights and interests of the members of those associations and other persons in courts”. Moreover, in his yearly message to the Parliament, the President noted that the practice for representatives of NGOs to represent the interests of citizens damages the institution of advocacy. According to the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, this decree conflicts with Article 62 of the Belarusian Constitution, which does not limit the right of citizens to choose their representatives in courts, and with Article 73 of the Civil Procedural Code, which lists limitations to this right only regarding minors, disabled or partially disabled persons, as well as judges, investigators and prosecutors. The aim of this Decree is obviously to prohibit NGOs to represent the interests of citizens in civil trials, thus hindering their activity. The Observatory insists that this Decree violates Article 9 (3) (c) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 9 December 1998, which states that “...everyone has the right, individually and in association with others... to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance or other relevant advice and asistance in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Another way of intimidating NGOs consist in trying to draw them to administrative responsibility to order their liquidation. The Observatory notes with deep concern that an increasing number of NGOs are liquidated for alleged adimistrative irregularities. In April, “Ratusha”, a regional NGO, was liquidated for non-permitted editorial activity; the Agency of Regional Development “Varuta” was liquidated because only its shortened name appeared on internal documents; “Youth Christian Union” in Minsk was liquidated for activities that allegedly contradicted its statutes (e.g support to refugees) and non presentation of the list of its members to the Ministry of Justice. In May, “Civil initiatives” was liquidated for, among others, purposeless use of equipment received as free assistance, and distortion of its name.
Viasna, a Human Rights NGO , has also lately experienced check-ups, or threats of check-ups, of five of its offices. The first check-up concerned the regional office in Brest. It was conducted by the Justice Board of Brest Regional Executive Committee (REC) in March 2003, immediately after the election to local Deputy Soviets. A report was sent to the Ministry of Justice subsequently to the check-up, alleging accountancy irregularities. To this day, however, the Minister of Justice has not reacted to the report. The Justice Board of Minsk REC was also planning to carry out a check-up of the office in Minsk. It did not take place, however, because the office had been liquidated in the meantime. At the end of June, check-ups of the offices of Vitsebsk and of Homel were still ongoing. The Observatory thus fears that Viasna may be the next victim of governmental repression.
The Observatory notes that all these facts contradict the principles of freedom of association and of freedom of expression. Furthermore, they constitute grave and blatant violations of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, especially Article 1 which states that “everyone h as the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”. According to Article 2, “each State has the prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
In light of the above, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders urges the Belarusian authorities:
–to cease harassment and intimidation of non-governmental organisations and individuals engaged in the protection of Human Rights;
–to take all necessary measures to ensure that human rights defenders can exert their activity free from state interference;
–to release individuals detained for their commitment to the protection of human rights;
–to implement international and regional instruments for the protection of human rights binding on Belarus, and to comply with Resolution on the situation of Human Rights in Belarus adopted by the UN Commission on Human Right on 17 April 2003;
–to invite Mrs Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, to go to Belarus in order to assess the situation.