The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) expresses its deepest concern about the situation of fundamental rights and freedoms in Belarus. Summary : - Disappearance of political opponents and independent journalists - Harassment against civil society and political opponents - Freedom of independent media - Restrictions on the activities of religious organisations - Conclusion : the FIDH urges the Belarus authorities ...
Paris, 11 August 2003
The International Federation of Human Rights (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 Viktor Gonchar, chairperson of the Supreme Soviet of the 13th Convocation, of Anatoly Krasovski, entrepreneur, and of Yuri Zakharenko, 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 Dimitry Zavadski, it was suspended in February 2003, 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 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 society that justice has been restored.
The FIDH notes with satisfaction the reopening, in July, of the investigations concerning the disappearances of Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovski, and of the nomination of a new investigator. However, we are concerned that on 29 July, the new investigator refused to meet Krasovski's wife in presence of her representative. Besides, the FIDH recalls that the investigations concerning the disappearances of Yuri Zakharenko and Dimitri Zavadski have not been resumed.
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 arrests and detentions.
According to Viasna, our partner in Belarus, many political opponents were arrested in March for participation 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, which commemorates on 25 March 2003 the anniversary of the Belarus People's Republic, gave rise to mass detentions. According to the Belarus authorities, it was in contradiction with “the official conception of Belarus nationhood” and is not recognised by the Belarus authorities. As a result, many demonstrators were sentenced to imprisonment for up to 14 days.
In May 2003, Aksana Novikova, a 29 years old private businesswoman from Minsk, received a 2 years suspended prison sentence. She was accused of having distributed leaflets accusing President Lukashenko of felony. This also witnesses the fact that individuals who are likely, by their activities, to undermine the power of the Belarus authorities in any way, are muzzled. Since 2001, 21 persons have been accused, found guilty or convicted for alleged infringements of article 367 of the criminal Code of Belarus (defamation of the President).
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 developed 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 manifold . 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 censorship on independent media. An increasing number of independent newspapers were temporarily or permanently suspended by judicial decisions, following alleged administrative violations or warnings 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 Lukashenko and reporting on criminal cases The Ministry of Information ordered the 3 months suspension while the appeal of BDG’s 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 law by publication of false information”. The suspension of the Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta makes it impossible for BDG journalists to have their views heard. Moreover, two other newspapers, Ekho and Salidornosts, were suspended for having published articles by journalists previously working for BDG.
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. He 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 Belarus 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 Belarus 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 Belarus authorities have been increasingly trying to limit church activity, and therefore exerting limits on freedom of association and freedom of consciousness.
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. They claimed that under the law “About religious freedom and religious organisations” of 17 December 1992, amended on 31 November 2002, religious organisations need to obtain permission from the local executive body in order to gather in private houses for joint prayer and Biblical studies. Article 25 of the new Law “About religious freedom and religious organisations” requests an official authorisation in order to hold liturgies in dwellings. Article 167 of the Administrative Code provides that people holding unauthorised assemblies can be punished by fines or emprisonment for up to 15 days.
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 organisations”, 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 Belarus authorities :
-To resume the investigations concerning the disappearances of Yuri Zakharenko, and Dimitri Zavadski, and to take the necessary steps to ensure that the perpetrators of those crimes are brought to justice before an independent and impartial tribunal and are punished;
-To ensure that the investigations concerning the disappearances of Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky are carried out promptly, efficiently, and impartially;
-To cease harassment and intimidation of people whose views are diverging from the authorities’ 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 Belarus government to fully implement the Resolution on the situation of human rights in Belarus, and to comply with its international obligations.