HUMAN RIGHTS REVIEW BELARUS – JANUARY 2004
Human Rights Center "Viasna", January 2004
The authorities continue their systematic actions directed against the structures of the civic society, independent mass media and non-governmental organizations. The campaigns orchestrated by the authorities led to disappearance of the significant number of independent mass media, decline of information space, uncontrolled by the authorities; and forced many human rights, women, youth, social NGOs, as well as regional resource centers to go underground. A decision of the National Commission for Registration (Re-registration) of political parties and NGOs is enough to deny registration to an NGO. In January 2004 Justice Minister Viktar Halavanaw reported at the session of the Ministry board, in 2003 they registered 94 NGOs, which makes up 6% of 1464 NGOs, which applied for registration. Out of 94 NGOs they have registered, 23 have an international, and 10 – national status. The Justice Minister pointed out, in 2003 they intensified control of activity of non-governmental organizations, political parties, and trade unions. The Ministry carried out profound check-ups of 81 NGOs. The check-ups resulted in 810 written warnings to the governing bodies of these NGOs, which is 6 times more than the number of warnings in 2002. On the Ministry’s suits courts liquidated 51 non-governmental organizations, which, according to the Ministry, violated the legislation.
The Resolution of the Belarusian Human Rights Defenders Forum, which took place on January 23-24, reads: "We, the representatives of the human rights movement of Belarus, CAME TO A CONCLUSION, that the situation related to observance of human rights in Belarus is steadily worsening; representatives of official authorities grossly violate the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus, international pacts and conventions ratified by the Republic of Belarus, as well as resolutions and recommendations of the international organizations, including UNO, OSCE, PACE, etc.; national, religious, and language discrimination exists in the Republic of Belarus in its different forms and manifestations; severe authoritarian regime of personal power of A. Lukashenka has been established in the country; such institutes of a civil society as independent electronic and printed mass media, independent non-governmental organizations have been actually destroyed; and a newly created state ideology is the evidence of emerging elements of totalitarianism in the country; persecution of and counteraction to activity of human rights activists puts the human rights activity outlaw".
1. NGOs Liquidated and Denied Registration
On January 12 Frantsysk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society received notification of municipal services about leasing contract termination. The BLS occupied an office at Rumiantsaw Str., 13. Partyzanski borough Housing and municipal service demands the BLS to leave the building in two months. The official ground for such actions is the lack of premises for municipal services of the borough. Aleh Trusaw, the chair of the Belarusian Language Society, connects these events with activities of the organization. He believes, lack of premises is just a pretext for pressure. “There were attempts to close us a year ago, when we received two official warnings from the Justice Ministry. Now the Belarusian Language Society is pressed according to the scheme of the Belarusian Lyceum – first ousting from the building and closure afterwards”, says Aleh Trusaw, "However, an ousting is not yet a closure. Either way, we are going to work further on".
2. Human Rights Organizations Banned
On January 29 Minsk city court ruled to liquidate the Independent Society for Legal Research. The court decision was based ONLY on Art 29 of the Law "On Public Associations". In particular, the NGO was found guilty of "repeated actions which caused a written warning during the last 12 months". The Judge grounded her conclusion, indicating in the resolution part of the decision, that in 2003 representatives of the Society participated in trials by Hrodna regional court (cases of liquidation of the Ratusha organization; and rejection of registration to Smarhon Human Rights House NGO), and by Vitsebsk regional court (the case of liquidation of the Youth Initiatives Center "Kontur"). These grounds turned to be enough to liquidate the human rights NGO. The Independent Society for Legal Research has been active since 1996. During that period of time its representatives took part in over 40 trials. Earlier neither the justice department, nor the judges saw it as a violation of law. The claims appeared only in 2003, coinciding with liquidation of the legal Assistance to Population and the Human Rights Center "Viasna".
In January Minsk Maskowski borough Tax Inspection fined Belarusian Helsinki Committee 380 million Belarusian rubles (176 000 USD). The human rights organization was fined for using a TACIS grant. BHC plans to file an appeal to court. If the court leaves the decision in force, BHC will be liquidated.
3. Religious Freedom Restricted
Heads of Evangelical Churches addressed Ministers of Justice and Education with complaint against illegal actions of pro-governmental Belarusian National Youth Union (BRSM). The grounds for the appeal were numerous cases when high school and college students were forced to join the BRSM against their will. The letter was signed by Siarhei Khomich, bishop of the Union of Evangelical Faith Christians, M. V. Sinkavets, bishop of the Baptist Union, M. Ya. Astrowski, bishop of the Adventist Church Conference, and A. V. Sakovich of the Full Gospel Association. The believers ask the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Justice to take appropriate measures to prevent the illegal actions of BRSM, which violate the rights of the citizens.
4. Public Activists Criminally Prosecuted
Aksana Novikava, conditionally sentenced to 2 years of imprisonment for spreading anti-presidential leaflets, was not tried on January 17. On August 30, September 8, and September 18 Novikava participated in pickets, thus, the police accused her of violation of Art 167-1 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Offences ("Organizing meetings, rallies, street marches, demonstrations, and pickets"). January 17, 2004 Frunzenski borough court of Minsk was to hear the possibility to disaffirm the stay of execution of her sentence. But on January 16 the court secretary called Aksana Novikava and informed her, in conjunction with the Amnesty announced on January 12, her criminal case had been sent to the Committee on Penalties, which would consider the issue of applying the amnesty to her. That’s why the court hearing did not take place.
5. Peaceful Actions Participants Persecuted
On January 9 Alexander Monich, member of the Zubr resistance movement, was tried in Barysaw. Alexander Monich was detained on December 10, 2004 for participation in "We Remember" action, carried out on the Human Rights Day. Judge L. A. Pukhavy found Monich guilty under Art 167-1 part 1 of the Code of Administrative Offences and issued an official warning to the activist.
On January 16 Aksana Novikava, sentenced to conditional imprisonment for insult of president Lukashenka in April 2003, was fined 250 basic values (about 2000 USD). She received a fine for participation in the action against the possible referendum about Lukashenka’s third term in office. On November 24 the police detained 17 people, Aksana Novikava among them. She was released from the police station at 9 p.m. The next day, November 25, she was to be tried. However, Aksana Novikava decided not to come to the court. She explained: "I am not going to go there on my own will. The regime is illegitimate, that means all its demands are illegal and there is no necessity to obey them".
On January 21 Frunzenski borough court fined Aksana Novikava 3,5. million rubles (about $1 630) for unauthorized picketing. On December 11 Novikava stood near the building of Minsk city court with the poster “We Need Jury Trial”.
On 26 January Minsk Centralny borough court fined Zubr activist Raman Kazakevich 20 basic values ($ 163) for participation in the picket, conducted on 23 January near the building of the prosecutor’s office. The picket participants held portraits of the missing politicians and journalist Zmitser Zavadski and poster “Lukashenka, Sheiman, Sivakow! It’s time to take the responsibility!”.
On 29 January Barysaw police detained three activists of the unregistered youth organization ZUBR who handed out Viasna “The Right to Freedom” newsletter in the central square of the city. Detained Alexander Kazakow, Alexander Peralyhin and Pavel Paddubny were taken to Barysaw city board of internal affairs. The police drew up reports charging the detainees with violation of Art 172 of the Code of Administrative Offences. In two hours all three guys were released.
6. Authorities Violate the Freedom of Speech
The "Assembly" magazine was seized from Minsk Post office. It is the first case of mass detention of private correspondence based on political motives in the modern history of Belarus: several hundreds letters with “prohibited” information did not reach the addressees. Usually the edition is sent to public associations in sealed envelopes on behalf of publishers – natural persons. Practically, the secrecy of private correspondence was violated. NGO Magazine “Assembly” has been published since 1997. It is dedicated to the activities of NGOs in Belarus and it is the only national edition of this kind. On January 10, 2004 the publishers prepared the next issue of the magazine, dedicated to the topic “NGOs and elections”, for distribution. The readers were offered analytical materials about possible participation of NGOs in the upcoming parliamentary election campaign. The highlight of the issue was the so-called Grey list – names of state officials, personally responsible for political repression against non-governmental organizations. Earlier the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Justice have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the acute materials of the magazine, hence quite logically the publishers link the magazine detention to its contents.
On January 9 the Belarusian Independent trade union resumed publishing its weekly the Salidarnasts. The last issue of the newspaper came out on December 12, 2003. On 17 December Svetach printing press, based in Minsk, informed the editors it would not print the newspaper because of the overload. Now the newspaper is printed by a company in Smolensk, Russia. The circulation of the newspaper stayed the same – 5 thousand copies. Last year the Salidarnasts had to suspend its issues twice. First time it happened in June, when the newspaper provided its space for materials of the BDG, which was suspended for three months by the Ministry of Information. Then Chyrvonaya Zorka printing press refused to print the Salidarnasts. The editors managed to find another printing press and resumed the newspaper in October.
On 15 January two suits on protection of honor, dignity, business reputation and compensation of the moral harm were filed to Minsk Leninski Borough Court by “Alliance-media” enterprise (founder of the “Obozrevatel” newspaper) and businessman Siarhei Atroshchanka (chief editor of the edition). The plaintiffs lay claims on the Narodnaya Volya newspaper and demand it should pay 50 million rubles as a compensation.
The Belarusian Ministry of Communication refused to deliver the BDG newspaper to its subscribers. The newspaper editors were informed that Belpochta state company broke the agreement and returned money to the subscribers. That means, the state-owned structures unilaterally refused to provide services for subscribers. The BDG editorial team believes the refusal to deliver the newspaper is a planned action of the authorities.
In the night of January 11 Homel journalist Iryna Makavetskaya, known for her articles in the BDG newspaper, received an anonymous telephone threat. During an our a stranger called her several times. He demanded from Iryna to quit her job of a journalist, otherwise he promised she would be "buried". The journalist managed to record one of the calls. Iryna Makavetskaya told Belarusian Association of Journalists Press Service, the man introduced himself as a "representative of the Belarusian people". He rudely insulted the journalist, and accused her in "dislike for the president and the Belarusian people". He assured her, despite all her efforts "the third term to Lukashenka and the referendum would take place", and the BDG will soon "be done away with". The journalist reported the incident to the police. However, the police refused to launch criminal proceedings on the case of telephone threats in the night of January 11. Iryna Makavetskaya learned that on January 20 from Valery Stryhalow, head of Chyhunachny borough Police Department #2. Although the police identified the stranger. It turned out to be Viachaslaw Bulkin, 25, employee of Homel TV and Radio company. However, the law-enforcing bodies did not consider his actions a crime. The journalist doubts the offender was acting on his own.
7. Situation of the Cases of the Disappeared Public Figures in Belarus.
January 14 Minister of Internal Affairs Uladzimir Navumaw claimed he didn’t know why PACE reporter Christos Pourgourides had concluded the top Belarusian officials were connected to political disappearances in Belarus.
Journalists asked Minister Navumaw to comment on the conclusion from Christos Pourgourides’s report that top leadership of Belarus was involved in political disappearances. Uladzimir Navumaw said: "He asked me questions, and I answered them. It is difficult to guess why he came to such a conclusion". Uladzimir Navumaw said, his conversation with Mr. Pourgourides lasted for almost 1.5 hours. However, Navumaw refused to say what they were talking about, referring to the agreement with Pourgourides. Uladzimir Navumaw is mentioned in Mr. Pourgourides’s report in conjunction with SOBR commander Pawlichenka, suspected of organizing abduction and killing of Zakharanka, Hanchar, and Krasowski. The journalists asked Minister Navumaw why he had done nothing to convince Pawlichenka to meet with Mr. Pourgourides. Uladzimir Navumaw took all the responsibility: "As far as lieutenant colonel Pawlichenka is concerned, I believe, as a Minister of Internal Affairs I answered all questions to me and my subordinates, because I am responsible for them as well".
The Resolution of the Belarusian Human Rights Defenders Forum, adopted on 24 January, points out: "Special concern of the representatives of the human rights movement is caused by the fact, that full, impartial and public investigation of forced abduction of the well-known political and public figures Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasowski, and Dzmitry Zavadski has not been carried out.
The information, which has become known at the result of journalists' and public investigations, gives grounds to believe that certain high-rank governmental officials and functionaries, in particular, Prosecutor General V. Sheiman, Minister of Sports Y. Sivakow, Minister of Internal Affairs U. Navumaw, officer of the Special Quick Respond Unit Dz. Pawlichenka, and others, - were involved in politically motivated crimes aimed at abduction and, possibly, physical liquidation of Y. Zakharanka, V. Hanchar, A. Krasowski, and Dz. Zavadski. These facts were reflected in the official report of the Committee on Legal Issues and Human Rights of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. WE, the participants of the Forum of the Belarusian human rights defenders, DEMAND that the authorities of the Republic of Belarus to carry out full, impartial and public investigation of disappearance of Yury Zakharanka, Viktar Hanchar, Anatol Krasowski, and Dzmitry Zavadski, with participation of public representatives, and experts of UN Working Group on Forced Disappearances, and Special PACE Sub-Committee for Political Disappearances in Belarus. We also think it mandatory to suspend the powers of the officials suspected of being involved in these crimes for investigation period.
On January 27 the PACE Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights heard the report by Christos Pourgourides, representative of European People’s Party Group. The committee adopted the draft resolution and draft recommendations unanimously. This document is the strictest of all international documents ever adopted by an international structure concerning the situation in our country. It is the first time of such a strict reaction to the issue of disappearances in Belarus. The draft was approved by one of the leading committees and at will be presented to PACE plenary session in the end of April.
8. Displays of Anti-Semitism in Belarus
January 14 the Union of Jewish NGOs and Communities of Belarus addressed Prosecutor general Viktar Sheiman with the request to launch proceedings against administration of Orthodox Books bookshop, located in Minsk, and against the Orthodox Initiative company. Jacob Basin, director of the Belarusian office of the Union of Committees of Defense of Jews of the former USSR, there are numerous facts witnessing the above mentioned companies attempted to stir up national hatred. Basin states, the facts are listed in the article "Nice Present from the Orthodox Books", published in November issue of the Aviv newspaper. The article contains evidence that the Orthodox Books and the Orthodox Initiative companies deliberately spread information defaming the Jewish people and its representatives. Jacob Basin pointed out they had informed the Prosecutor’s general office about illegal actions of both companies in October 2003. "However, the Jewish activists, who had sent the letter, did not receive any reaction. First the letter was re-addressed to the office of the borough prosecutor, and later sent to KGB for consideration", -- said Jacob Basin.
On January 14 Jacob Gutman, chair of the World Association of Belarusian Jews, registered in the United States, was detained for unauthorized picketing of the President’s Administration. Jacob Gutman came to the building with a poster, urging President Lukashenka "To Stop Demolition of Jewish sanctuaries, cemeteries, and monuments to Holocaust victims in Belarus". The moment Mr. Gutman tried to unfold the poster, he was detained by police and taken to Minsk city police station for identification and clarification of his motives. The same day Leninski borough court judge Alena Tserashkova tried him and made him an official warning. Jacob Gutman went on hunger strike in protest against displays of state anti-Semitism.
On January 21 Jacob Gutman picketed the presidential administration with a portrait of his grandfather who died in the Second World War. The moment he unfolded the portrait he was approached by police officers. As the result, he got detained again. While the police was drawing up the report, he felt unwell. He was taken to Minsk hospital # 9.
9. Activists of Human Rights Organizations Get Beaten
On January 2 strangers beat members of Belaaziorsk (Brest region) Belarusian Helsinki Committee: Natalla Akaronka, Elvira Tkachenka, and Yawhen Akaronka. We are concerned by regular incidents when human rights activists get beaten and law-enforcing bodies do nothing to prevent the crimes and punish the guilty.