The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of their joint programme, 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. Open Letter to Mr Aleksander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus
Paris-Geneva, 8 August 2003
The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of their joint programme, 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.
Since April 2003, pressure on non-governmental organisations has indeed developed tremendously, and it seems that a new campaign of State harassment has been initiated against NGOs.
In that respect, it should be recalled that on 16 April 2003, President Lukashenko signed Decree No. 13 “On some questions of civil justice”. This decree states 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 Belarus Helsinki Committee, this decree contradicts Article 62 of the Belarus Constitution, which does not limit the right of citizens to choose their representatives in courts. It also contradicts 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 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders of 9 December 1998. This article 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 assistance in defending human rights and fundamental freedoms”.
Furthermore, Human Rights Defenders, as well as non-governmental organisations, are subject to constant pressure, which takes many forms: judicial liquidations of NGOs, check-ups and threats of check-ups of NGOs’ premises, warnings, etc.
The Observatory notes with deep concern that an increasing number of NGOs are liquidated for alleged administrative 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. On 31 July, Vitsebsk Regional Court ordered the liquidation of the Centre of Youth Initiatives “Kontur” because since August 2000, its office had moved, and was not situated at its registered address any more. The Court also claimed that Kuntur used the financial support of foreign non-profit organisations without the appropriate authorisation.
On 2 August, judicial proceedings started in the Minsk City Court for the liquidation of “Legal Assistance to Population”. According to the Civil Code, the Law about Public Associations, and Presidential Decree n° 13, this activity requires a licence, which the NGO did not have, because it was previously deprived of it by the Justice Ministry. It is worth mentioning that Legal Assistance to Population provides the families of the missing Belarus political opponents with legal assistance. The organisation head, Oleg Volchek, is the representative of Yuri Zakharenko. He also represented the interests of the families of the children who died at a pedestrian underground crossing in Minsk, in May 1999. The accident, at the occasion of which 53 people died, was reportedly due to police negligence.
Moreoever, 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 Vitebsk and of Gomel were still ongoing. The Observatory thus fears that Viasna may be the next victim of governmental repression.
In July the Justice Board of Minsk City Executive issued a warning to the local Human Rights NGO “Independent Association of Juridical Research”, because it had represented the interests of Ratusha during the liquidation trial in Hrodna. According to the warning, the organisation infringed the Law on public associations by carrying out an activity outside the city of Minsk where it is registered. On 29 July, the “Belarus Organisation of Working Women” was warned for violation of the rules concerning production and keeping of seals, and creation of bodies that were not mentioned in its Statutes. It also allegedly printed a wrong registered address on some documents.
Finally, the Observatory would like to insist on the situation of Professor Yuri Bandazhevsky. He is in jail since 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 requested the State of Belarus, in its capacity as State party to the Protocol, to submit written explanations clarifying the matter, and expose measures 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 organise an investigative mission on Mr Bandazhevsky’s conditions of detentions. The authorities did not follow up on this request (see press release on 17 April 2003). The Observatory is deeply concerned about the current condition of Mr Bandazhevsky, and is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
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 U.N. Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, especially Article 1 which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realisation 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”. Article 5 guarantees the right to “meet or assemble peacefully; to form, join and participate in non-governmental organisations or groups; to communicate with non-governmental or intergovernmental organisations”, for the purpose of promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms.
In light of the above, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) within the framework of their joint programme, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, urge the Belarus 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 comply with the request of the UN Human Rights Committee, and to release Yuri Bandazhevsky immediately and unconditionally;
- 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 Rights 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.
President of FIDH
Director of OMCT