Human Rights Situation Review Belarus – February 2004
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
In February 2004 the Belarusian authorities continued to suppress non-governmental organizations. Restrictions aimed against the independent mass media became even tougher. The tendency to suspend independent editions remained not only a way to enforce censorship, but also a method of economic pressure on the independent press. The criminal proceedings against journalist Iryna Khalip, initiated in September 2002, was continued. The court decision to fine journalist Natalla Kalada for publishing information in the Internet is the first, unprecedented case of information spread in the Internet becoming the subject of court hearing. The policy of discrimination against the Belarusian language was displayed vividly. Belarusian language is ignored by state institutions. For instance, Leninski borough court of Minsk refused to provide Human Rights Center "Viasna" lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich with an interpreter from Russian language. In February we registered cases of violation of the citizens’ rights to peaceful assemblies and arrests of participants of peaceful street actions.
1. Campaign to Liquidate NGOs
On 10 February Navapolatsk Resource Center “Usiaslaw Charadzey” was warned by Navapolatsk City Justice Board. According to the officials, the NGO violated the law by displacing its legal address.
Minsk city administration cancelled the leasing agreement with the Frantsysk Skaryna Belarusian Language Society. The city administration suggested the NGO should find another office.
2. Human Rights Organizations Banned
On 4-5 February the Congress of European People’s Party took place in Brussels. Its special resolution on Belarus said that “the law concerning political participants and civic non-governmental organizations has been recently amended. The new regulations oppress the said institutions and do not correspond to the basic norms of international law. A number of non-governmental organizations had been closed (one of the most dramatic was the closure of “Viasna 96” – center for the human-rights defense); several political parties and many non-governmental organizations were refused registration without any sufficient reason”.
Human rights activist Zmitser Salawyow was summoned to Navapolatsk Prosecutor’s Office to give explanations concerning some facts, mentioned in the letter, submitted by Navapolatsk Executive Committee. The letter stated that some unregistered organizations maintained their activity in the city. Among them the authorities mentioned Human Rights Center “Viasna”. They also submitted Nasha Prava bulletin as evidence. The bulletin contained his announcement: If your rights have been violated, you can get free legal assistance from human rights defender Z. Salawyow. According to Salawyow, the prosecutor’s office staff showed him the letter and demanded explanations. He, in his turn, refused to answer referring to article 27 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus that allows individuals not to give information that can be used against them.
The Board of Department for Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee investigates into failure of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee to pay taxes. The reason for the investigation was the “Report of the field check-up of the correctness of calculation, comprehensiveness and timeliness of payment of taxes and dues”, drawn up by Maskowski borough tax inspection . The inspection carried out the comprehensive check-up of BHC activities from August 2003 to January 2004, checking the paperwork since 1995. The inspection confirmed that the resources had been spent according to the pupose, but found debts in tax payment. Together with imposed economic sanctions BHC is to pay 385 million rubles (about 180 thousand USD) for activities under TACIS projects. BHC lawyers believe, the decision of Maskowski borough tax inspection is not based on the norms of the current legislation. Under item 1.1 of Decree #8 of 12 March 2001, and item 1.1 of Decree #24 of 28 November 2003, these pieces of legislation do not apply to the international technical assistance, provided by TACIS program in Belarus. It is regulated by General Rules of Memorandum of Financial Assictance of 10 May 1994, under which the technical assistance is relieved from taxes and customs duties. This act is an international agreement, concluded between the Belarusian Government and the Commission of European Communities. It has higher priority than the national legislation.
3. Restriction of the Right to Use the Native Language, One of Official State Languages
On February 20 Leninski borough court repeatedly violated the right of Viasna lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich to use the native language and defend his rights in Belarusian language. On February 20 Labkovich was to have been tried again. The first verdict was reversed on the ground that the judge had refused to provide him with an interpreter from Russian language. On October 29 2003 Labkovich was fined for participation in a peaceful action of protest against closure of the Human Rights Center "Viasna". He was found guilty under Art 166 of the Code of Administrative Violations (failure to obey police orders). Chair of Minsk city court M. Ardziaka cancelled the court decision and sent it back to the borough court for a new trial. However, Judge Tserashkova postponed the trial till March 4 because an interpreter was not provided again. Labkovich’s complaint is the first complaint defending the right to trial in Belarusian language and the right to translation into Belarusian. According to the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and the Law on Languages, Belarus has two official state languages: Belarusian and Russian; the citizens are guaranteed the right to address the state bodies in both languages. Furthermore, the Law on languages requires all officials to know Belarusian language and be able to work on it with people. The Code of Administrative Violations envisages responsibility of state officials for violation of the legislation on languages.
4. Criminal Cases
On 11 February the Committee for Punishment Execution granted parole to Aksana Novikava, sentenced to two years of conditional imprisonment for insult of the President in April 2003.
On 12 February RFE/RL reported former rector of Homel Medical Institute, world famous scientist Yury Bandazhewski’s 8-year term was decreased by one year.
International human rights organization Amnesty International has started an action of support to the imprisoned professor Yury Bandazhewski.
Amnesty International draws attention to the worsening of Bandazhewski’s health and urges to send letters to Alexander Lukashenka and other officials. Amnesty International quotes the letter of the imprisoned professor to his wife Halina: “I am really grateful, that I am not forgotten. The state of my health is not the best one, I am in depression… Medicine does not help and has many by-effects, including allergy. My last strength is leaving me’’.
5. Violation of the Right to Peaceful Assemblies
On 2 February Artsiom Buryla, one of the founders of Homel youth organization “Hart”, was fined 50 basic values for importing of out-timed fly-sheets to Belarus.
On 2 February Brest Maskowski Borough Court did not satisfy the complaint of Nina Davydowskaya who disagreed with the decision of Brest Maskowski Borough Administrative Commission of 19 December 2003 to fine her 49 thousand rubles.
On 10 December 2003 Nina Davydowskaya was handing out congratulation fly-sheets devoted to the International Day of Human Rights. The judge pronounced the verdict that obliged Nina Davydowskaya to pay the fine.
On 5 February Vitebsk opposition activist Uladzimir Pleshchanka was fined 2 million 800 thousand rubles (about 1400 USD). He was detained with the poster “Collection of signatures against the alliance treaty, illegally signed by Alexander Lukashenka”.
On 5 February Minsk City Court did not satisfy the complaint of the Young Front activist Artur Finkevich who demanded to “cancel the verdict of Minsk Savetski Borough Court of 27 November 2003 as lawless.” We should remind that on 27 November 2003 Judge of Minsk Savetski Borough Court R. Kazadayew sentenced A. Finkevich to 15 days of jail. The verdict was issued on the day when the previous prison term was over. Before that, A. Finkevich was sentenced to 15 days in jail on 13 November for distribution of the fly-sheets calling to take part in an action against the prolongation of the presidential powers to A. Lukashenka. After the end of this imprisonment A. Finkevich wasn’t released – he was taken right to Minsk Savetski Borough Board of Internal Affairs, where the police drew up reports upon part 2 of article 167.1 of the Code of Administrative Violations for distribution of fly-sheets, for which he was detained a week before being tried for the first time. Then Judge R. Kazadayew sentenced A. Finkevich to 15 days of jail, as A. Finkevich was an organizer of the action “STOP Third Referendum”. On 18 December Artur Finkevich received the decision of Minsk Zavadski borough Administrative Commission of 12 December to fine him 60 thousand rubles for “distribution of printed publications, produced with violation of the established order (part 3 of article 172 of the CAV). This is the first precedent when a person is punished three times for the same action.
On 14 February the Young Front members conducted the eighth action, devoted to celebration of St. Valentine’s Day, this time under the slogan “We Love Europe! We Love Belarus!”.
The procession devoted to St. Valentine’s Day wasn’t sanctioned by the authorities, who stated that the law prohibits mass street actions near the buildings of state institutions and diplomatic missions.
Six action participants were detained: Paval Seviarynets, Barys Haretski, Ales Vasilewski, Artsiom Litvinaw, Andrei Shybko, and Yulia Sipovich.
The police took the detained to Centralny Borough Board of Internal Affairs. There the detained were told to write explanatory notes. The police officers drew up reports for violation of article 167.1 of the Code of Administrative Violations (violation of the order of holding of mass actions) and at about 3 p.m. released all the detained.
On 26 February a leader of entrepreneurs’ movement, head of Perspektyva NGO Anatol Shumchanka received a citation to come to Pershamaiski borough Board of Internal Affairs. The ground was Shumchanka’s presence in Minsk ?#152;Uruchcha’ market on 24 February. Shumchanka claims he came there for a personal meeting. Many market vendors working in ?#152;Uruchcha’ are members of the Perspektyva NGO. The police brought charges under Art 167 part 2 of the Code of Administrative Violations of organizing an unauthorized meeting in the market. In court Shumchanka entered a motion for an attorney, and the trial was postponed till March 1.
5. Violation of the Right to Freedom of Speech
On February 2 Centralny borough court of Minsk tried journalist Natalla Kalada and found her guilty of violation of Art 167-10 of the Code of Administrative Violations (activity on behalf of not registered or not re-registered political parties, trade unions, and non-governmental organizations). The journalist was fined 20 basic values (about 170 USD). Natalla Kalada was accused of "participation in forming" of the Charter’97 web-site and monitoring human rights situation in Belarus.
The General Prosecutor’s Office of Belarus abolished the ruling to suspend the criminal cases against the vice-editor of “Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta” Iryna Khalip, initiated for the article “Afghan Greyhounds”, published 1,5 years ago in the “BDG” annex “Dlia Sluzhebnogo Polzovaniya”. Iryna Khalip is accused of libeling Prosecutor General Viktar Sheiman. Iryna’s case is investigated by Minsk prosecutor’s office investigator for most important cases Viktar Feshchanka.
On 5 February the Ministry of Information suspended the issue of the non-state newspaper Zhoda for one month. Alaksei Karol is sure that the claims are only a pretext for the punitive measures. Zhoda newspaper has been issued since 1992. It is registered as an independent informational and analytical weekly. The newspaper concentrated on analytical materials on serious economic and political issues. According to A. Karol, the Ministry of Information could be dissatisfied with the article “Gas, Pipelines and Integration” that was published in the last issue.
On 11 February founder and senior editor of the non-state newspaper Vecherniy Stolin Alexander Ihnatsiuk received by mail a warning and an order to suspend the newspaper for three months. Both documents were signed by the Minister of information Uladzimir Rusakevich. According to the minister, the publication grossly violated the legislation: articles 30 and 31 of the Law on press and several rulings of the Council of Ministers. As a result, on 5 February Minister Rusakevich issued a warning to the newspaper and on 6 February ordered its three month long suspension.
A January issue of the independent newspaper Volnaye Hlybokaye was censored by the administration of Maladechna printing house. The article about the assembly of the BPF party was removed without the agreement of the editorial board and replaced with the advertisement “You could have placed your ad here” and the telephone of the newspaper’s advertising department.
Hrodna regional Soyuzpechat, state kiosk network, refuses to sell the Den newspaper.
7. Displays of Anti-Semitism in Belarus
Rector of the Belarusian State University Vasil Strazhaw signed the order to liquidate the International Humanities Institute, that had been subordinate to BSU. Jewish organizations consider liquidation of this institution which trained specialists in the field of the Jewish culture, a national discrimination. Neither the Education Ministry, nor the BSU rector explain the reasons for liquidation. The International Humanities Institute was founded 5 years ago. It was financed by donors interested in restoration of the Jewish education in Belarus. Since 1938 there have been no Jewish schools or educational establishments which offer classes in the sphere of Jewish culture. Representatives of Jewish organizations believe, liquidation of the Institute which trained specialists in Jewish culture, translators, and synagogue staff, is a serious attack on Jewish education in Belarus.