FIDH and Viasna note for the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus
In 2004 the public and political situation in Belarus took a serious turn for the worse. As a result of the referendum authorizing Alexander Lukashenko to run for president for more than two times, repression against political opponents increased. New discriminatory laws were adopted. Freedom of expression was curtailed and violations of freedom of association and peaceful assembly continued. The 2004 election of the Belarus Chamber of Representatives of the Republic of Belarus failed to comply with democratic norms. Process used in the recent electoral campaign and the vote did not comply with Belorussian legislation and international standards.
The authorities did not abide by their commitment to the UN International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. Belarus did not apply the provisions of the resolutions adopted by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2003 and 2004, however the authorities publicly proclaimed that they were an example of international political pressure on Belarus and its political independence.
We recall that the Working Group on Arbitrary detention carried out an investigation in Belarus in August 2004. In its report, the Working Group highlights in particular the excessive powers granted to the Prosecutor's Office and investigators, the lack of independence of magistrates, restrictions imposed on the work of lawyers and conditions of provisional detention contrary to international standards. The Group also expressed its concern about restrictions imposed on freedom of expression and association through the arrest of several political opponents and prohibition of several NGOs. The Group notes with concern the frequent use of administrative detention, as explained in details in the note.
The acting authorities of Belarus use criminal and administrative prosecution extensively in combating their political opponents. This is possible because of the absence of independent and fair court system in Belarus. The criminal case that was brought against Mikhail Marynich in 2004 became the most notorious example of pressure exercised against political opponents.
Mikhail Marynich is a well-known public activist, former minister of external economic relations, former Ambassador of Belarus to Latvia, Estonia and Finland, and head of the public association “Business Initiative”. In April 2004, Mr. Marynich was charged with illegal appropriation of property by taking advantage of his official position (article #210 of the Criminal Code) and was kept in the KGB's investigative isolator from 16 April to 30 December 2004 when the court pronounced its verdict. Mr. Marynich was accused of stealing the organization's computers and other equipment (17 items in total) that the US Embassy in Belarus had given to the public association “Business Initiative”. Although the US Embassy made no charges against Mr. Marynich, on 30 December the Minsk District Court found him guilty and sentenced him to six years in jail, confiscation of his property, and prohibition to occupy any official position for five years.
The case of Valery Levanewski and Aliaksandr Vasilyew is another example of this trend. V. Levanewski and A. Vasilyew are well-known activists in the Belorussian entrepreneurs’ movement. They organized several mass actions and strikes of Belorussian entrepreneurs. The criminal case against Valery Levanewski and Aliaksandr Vasilyew was based on part 2 of article #368 of the Criminal Code – public insult of president Lukashenko, and abuse of power.
On 7 September 2004 Levanewski and Vasilyew were sentenced to two years in jail for insulting the president (Vasilyew was also found guilty of organizing mass riots).
In 2004, charges of “insult of president” were lodged against: Andrey Klimaw, a politician, Anatol Liabedzka, the leader of United Civil Party, Iryna Khalip, a journalist, Hary Pahaniaylo, a human rights activist and vice-head of the Belorussian Helsinki Committee, Aksana Novikava, a public activist, as well as Maryna Bahdanovich, Aleh Volchak and Aliaksandr Tsynkevich, who were candidates in the 2004 Parliamentary election.
According to information received, on September 18, 2004, President Lukashenko declared that he could ban several opposition parties “even today” for violations of national law. He added that he refrained from doing so in order to avoid the “clamour” that he is clamping down on the opposition in the run-up to the 17 October parliamentary elections and presidential referendum. “As long as they continue getting together in their own shell and do not take people to the streets, we tolerate them,” said the Belarus President.
Pressure on Human rights defenders
Violations of freedom of assembly
Human rights activists are put under severe pressure. In 2004 several criminal cases were brought against the Belorussian Helsinki Committee's head, Tatsiana Protska, and accountant, Tatsiana Rusakevich, for alleged non-payment of taxes on foreign financial aid that was given by European Union, thus violating the norms of Belorussian legislation.
Such pressure and illegal arrests are often connected to the distribution of information by public associations (for instance, human rights activists Tatsiana Reviaka and Hary Pahaniaylo who were arrested on October, 16, 2004 and sentenced for distribution of the Council of Europe's official resolution on missing persons in Belarus,).
Further, Professor Yury Bandazhewski, declared by the International Community a prisoner of conscience, is still in prison.
Arrests, physical force, gases and truncheons are still actively used against participants of peaceful manifestations. A huge number of people were detained during the peaceful manifestations held on 25 March and 21 July in Minsk and on 1 May in Hrodna and Minsk.
During the peaceful demonstrations following falsification of the results of the election and the referendum that were held in the end of October 2004, the law machinery was especially ruthless against demonstrators and detainees.
The special police forces violently beat the participants of the demonstrations that took place on 19-21 October in Kastrychnitskaya Square. They beat several people, including journalists and leaders of parties. The head of the United Civil Party, Anatol Liabedzka, was taken to hospital with broken ribs, cranial trauma and kidney haematoma. Liabedzka was seized on the stairs of the “Patio-Pizza” cafe, opposite the Central supermarket. They pulled him into the cafe; it took a long time to get him under control (they put hand-cuffs on one hand only). They threw Liabedzka on the floor and all of them started kicking him with their feet. From time to time they pulled him up by the hair and hit in the face and on the head. Then some seven or eight policemen led by the commander of the Minsk special police forces Padabed came. “They twisted my arms, and raised me up, so that my feet didn’t touch the ground anymore, and Padabed hit me in the face six or seven times with the palm of his hand”. Liabedzka then lost consciousness until he was in the police car.
The amendments to the law on agencies responsible for state security, that were adopted in first reading by the Parliament in May 2004, give more powers to the secret services, thus violating the right to individual privacy, by authorizing eavesdropping on private telephone calls and entry into private accommodations without a warrant from the prosecutor. These amendments also introduce criminal responsibility for anyone who publicly reveals the names of secret informers, collaborators and agents of secret services in public organizations, political parties, state organs and other organizations.
Limitations on Freedom of Association
In 2004, freedom of association did not improve. The legal conditions for creation and activity of independent associations of citizens remained unfavorable, and in some respect, legislation and practical evidence reflected the tendency to further limit freedom of association.
According to official information in 2003, out of 1,464 applications for the creation of public associations, authorization was granted for the creation of only 10 national, 23 international, 12 regional, and 49 district, city and other public associations. All in all, there were 94 applications granted. In 2004 the proportion remained almost the same, and the system of registration did not change.
In 2004, 20 persons were fined or imprisoned for activities carried out by unregistered public associations. Among them there were representatives of the People’s Coalition “5+”, the civil initiative “Partnership”, “Zubr” movement, Charter-97, the public association “For A Worthy Life”.
Presidential decree #24 of 2003 increased the control of the foreign financing of NGOs. Since then, permission from the Board of Presidential Affairs has to be obtained in order to be allowed to use foreign grants. It is only authorized if the Board agrees with the program for which the funds are to be used. The responsibility for violation of the order on “the use of grants” has also become stricter. It applies to both Belorussian and foreign citizens who give financial support to NGOs: t0he latter can be deported for violating the order, e.g. in 2004 several German and British citizens were deported.
Beside financial verifications, NGOs face numerous investigations by judicial bodies as well as searches, conducted by bodies responsible for criminal prosecution. During the campaign on the referendum and Parliamentary election in Summer and Autumn 2004, the offices of a number of organizations were subjected to illegal searches, with the police or secret services bursting in, e.g. the “Independent Institute for Social, Economic and Political Studies”, a public initiative “Partnership”, the organization “Civil Initiatives”, the public initiative “Dzedzich”, the offices of Frantsishak Skaryna Belarusian Language Society, Lew Sapieha Foundation, the office of “Young Front” in Zhodzina, the office of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” in Brest.
As a result of the charges filed by judicial bodies, in 2004 the courts liquidated the following organizations: “Young Hramada”, “Belorussian Association of Young Politicians”, ”New Group”, the human rights organizations “Independent Society of Legal Research”, the Center for Constitutionalism and Comparative Legal Studies, scientific research organizations, the “International Institute for Political Studies, the “Belorussian Engineer Technological Academy”, the women’s organization “Initiative”, and others. In the first half of 2004 alone, 21 public associations were liquidated.
In 2004 the authorities refused to accredit representation of the American agency “Counterpart Alliance for Partnership”.
Religious communities continuously suffer because of undemocratic and discriminatory legislation. As a result of the state campaign on the re-registration of religious organizations that was held on 16 November 2004, dozens of religious organizations and communities ceased to exist.
Violations of Freedom of Speech
In 2004, local authorities refused to provide legal addresses to the editorial boards of the independent newspapers “Afisha” and “Novaya Gazeta Smorgoni” from Smarhon, “Sobstvennyi Kommentariy” and “Volny Horad” from Krychaw.
In 2004, as a result of state censorship, the newspapers “Volnaye Hlybokaye” and “Vitsebski Kuryer” were published with blank spaces.
A January 2004 issue of the independent newspaper “Volnaye Hlybokaye” was censored by the administration of the Maladechna printing house. The article about the assembly of the BPF party was removed without the agreement of the editorial board and replaced by an advertisement reading: “You could have placed your ad here” and the telephone number of the newspaper’s advertising department. The “Vitebski Kuryer”, one of the oldest independent newspapers in Belarus, came out with blank pages instead of the TV schedule in February 2004. The editors explained the reasons to their readers in an appeal that described the general situation of the news media in Belarus: economic and political pressure on non-state mass media, liquidation of NGOs, etc. The newspaper editors believe the TV schedule was not published because of a decision of the Board of the President’s Administration of 27 October 2003. The Board decided to transfer all rights of the distribution of TV programs to the state BelTA information agency. "This way, it became a state monopoly", -- says the appeal. The journalists explained that they tried to sign a contract with BelTA. All throughout January they tried to get a contract for publishing the TV schedule for the basic TV channels of the country. On February 3, the editors finally received the draft contract for February 2004, which indicated that they were supposed to pay 5 million 25 thousand Belorussian roubles (2,340 USD) (Formerly the newspaper paid about 100 thousand roubles – about 45 USD).
Editors of “Mestnaya Gazeta” from Vawkavysk faced censorship in the printing house. The speeches of opposition candidates on radio and TV and the texts of their pre-electoral fly-sheets were constantly censored. The editors of the independent newspaper were not informed that the Svetach printing press was canceling its contract on May 28, 2004. The official reason was the financial debt of the newspaper, according to reports by the press service of the Belorussian Association of Journalists.
On May 26, the printing press was supposed to print the last issue of the newspaper. However, that day the Mestnaya Gazeta chief editor Andrei Shantarovich received a phone call from Siarhei Charhinets, the Svetach director of operations who said he could not permit publication of one of the articles and suggested that it be replaced by another one. He was referring to the article on corruption in the Vawkavysk tax inspection service. Shantarovich refused to replace the article. He suggested the printing press leave a blank space in the slot intended for the article. An hour later, the director of operations called back to say that the issue would not be printed at all.
The chief editor of Mestnaya Gazeta had already contacted a number of printing presses in Minsk, Baranavichy, and Slonim, but their management refused to print the newspaper. Svetach printed Mestnaya Gazeta for 12 months. Shantarovich believes that the main reason for contract cancellation was a series of critical articles about the work of the tax inspection service. The first article came out last week. According to Shantarovich, since his newspaper appeared in 2001, the circulation figures for the local state newspaper has dropped significantly. Shantarovich summarized the situation by saying, “Obviously, the authorities failed to implement the 'ideological program', and decided to use other methods to fight for readers”.
According to information from the Belorussian Association of Journalists, in 2004 20 newspapers and monthly magazines suspended their activity because of repressive economical policies and the application of unequal conditions to state mass media on the one hand, and on the other, independent mass media such as “Vremya”, “Navinki”, “Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta”, “Zgoda”, “Rabochaya Salidarnasts”, “Vecherniy Stolin”, “Versiya”. The week before the October elections, 11 more newspapers were closed, which greatly influenced the information wielded during the election, especially in the regions – “Molodiozhnyi Prospekt”, “Nedelya”, “Rehiyanalnaya hazeta”, “Regionalnye Novosti”, “Narodnyi Predprinimatel”, etc.
The distribution of the independent press is also an obstacle course. The independent press suffered from hundreds of cases of press retention during the electoral campaign. In 2004, the distribution of printed editions by subscription was declared to be a licensed activity. As a result, it is totally controlled by “Beposhta”, a state monopoly.
Warnings on the publication of critical articles are used as a mean to blackmail the editors, who have to change their editorial policy to escape liquidation. When “ARCHE” magazine issued an issue devoted to the tenth anniversary of Lukashenko’s ruling in Belarus (#4 of 2004), Minsk state shops refused to sell it, and the founders of the magazine received two official warnings. Valerka Bulhakaw, Arche’s editor-in-chief, confirmed this fact to BelaPAN news agency. Managers of some stores demanded that the editors remove all previous issues of the magazine.
The issue featuring the 10th anniversary of Lukashenko’s presidency went on sale in the end of September. In early October, the Minsk bookstores refused to sell it. Nevertheless, the magazine’s chief editor believes this did not really hurt the magazine, since only the stores in the Belarus capital refused to sell it. Moreover, the readers could still find the magazine in newspaper kiosks of the state Belsayuzdruk network. Last summer the magazine encountered similar problems: the “Akademkniha” bookstore refused to sell it. The bookstore manager, Sofia Zhybulewskaya, told a Nasha Niva reporter that the store had “no space”. In August 2003 the Vitebsk state distribution network refused to sell the magazine. According to the managers, they were instructed to do so by deputy minister, Lilia Ananich. During her visit to the Slavianski Bazar festival in Vitebsk, Ms. Ananich saw the magazine in a state kiosk. Once back in Minsk, she called the deputy director of the distribution network and reprimanded him for “negligent performance of duty”. RFE/RL reports, the deputy minister confirmed the validity of Arche’s sales permit, but said that state officials “must understand where and what they can sell”.
During the electoral campaign (Parliamentary elections and the Presidential referendum on 17 October) copies of “Den”, “Vremya” and “Nedelya” newspapers were often confiscated.
One of the effective ways to limit access to information is accreditation refusal or withdrawal. This is a practice applied to both Belorussian and foreign mass media.
For instance, the representatives of the French TV channel “TF1” were deported for attempting to elucidate the activities of youth opposition in Minsk. In the evening of 5 November, members of the unregistered “Zubr” movement were hanging a banderole with the words “Lukashenka lost!” from the railway bridge not far from Miasnikow Square in order to inform people about the real results of the referendum. Representatives of the Russian bureau of “TF1” decided to film it. While they were doing it, two persons in plain clothes came up to them. They took away the journalists’ papers and told them to stop filming. The journalists were then taken to the Minsk Savetski Borough Board of Internal Affairs and released later. The “Zubr” members were not detained.
On the morning of June 21, 2004, Ukrainian citizen Mikhail Padaliak, deputy editor-in-chief of the Belorussian independent newspaper Vremya, was deported to Ukraine. State security officers placed him on the “Minsk-Odessa” train.
In 2004 records show that journalists were beaten, viz. employees of the Russian TV-companies REN-TV and NTV including the journalist Pavel Sharamet. On 17 October, 2004 the head of the special projects of the ORT Russian channel Pavel Sheremet was taken to hospital, suspecting that he suffered from a cranial traumatism. He was beaten in Minsk by two youngsters in plain clothes. The journalist Svetlana Kalinkina who was with Sheremet at that time called for the police, who detained the youngsters. However, soon Sheremet was detained for “hooligan assault on two people”. According to the Minister of Internal affairs Uladzimir Navumaw Sheremet had a fight with a group of skinheads. Kalinkina and Sheremet are the authors of the critical book “Occasional president”.
Several independent information websites were also liquidated.
In July 2004, Mr. Haraszti, the OSCE media expert, informed both the Belorussian foreign minister and the OSCE official representative in Belarus Viktar Haysionak of his plans to visit Belarus. In July and August he succeeded in his discussions on the details of the visit with the officials in charge. He agreed to change the dates and the term of his trip, as well as the program of the seminar, as Belorussian authorities required. After all that, the very seminar was cancelled. Mr. Haraszti refused to give up his plans and kept waiting for the official response from Belorussian officials. No answer followed...
Limitation of educational liberties and working rights
The authorities try to eradicate sources of other-mindedness in state and private educational establishments. This was done through the introduction of obligatory curriculum disciplines (such as “fundamentals of the state ideology”) and liquidation of disloyal educational establishments.
In August 2004, the European Humanities University was closed: it had maintained contemporary European standards in the field of education.
In 2004 the non-state International Humanities Institute was also closed. This institute had the only department of Judaic studies, where specialists in Jewish culture could be trained. It was the rector of the Belorussian State University Vasil Strazhaw who signed the order to liquidate this institute. Jewish organizations consider the liquidation of this institute, which trained specialists in the field of the Jewish culture, as an act of national discrimination. Neither the Education Ministry, nor the BSU rector gave any reasons. The International Humanities Institute was founded 5 years ago. It was financed by donors interested in restoring Jewish education in Belarus. Since 1938 there have been no Jewish schools or educational establishments which offer classes on Jewish culture. Representatives of Jewish organizations believe that the liquidation of the institute which trained specialists in Jewish culture, translators, and synagogue staff, is a serious attack on Jewish education in Belarus.
Yakub Kolas National Humanitarian Lyceum was liquidated in early 2004, meanwhile continuing its activity underground. Education there was held in the Belorussian language, at a level that conformed to European standards. The lyceum was effectively liquidated by the governmental ruling of June 25 and the Ministry order of June 26. Now the lyceum building belongs to the city’s communal assets
There have been severe blows to well structured academic institutions which have developed significant cultural co-operation activities with EU countries that incarnate the principles of academic freedom and educational autonomy in Belarus.
In 2004 working conditions continue to deteriorate. The most significant violation of the working rights of citizens was the forced and massive transfer of workers of state enterprises to private contract form of employment. During the election and referendum of 2004, democratic activists were threatened to be fired. The control of working relations became an important means for the state to repress freedom of speech and be able to control public life.
Official trade unions actually were turned into a body of state power, in coordination with the companies’ management. The main thrust of state policy on labour is still levying pressure on the independent trade unions.
As a conclusion, and considering that no progress has been made toward a better protection of human rights, FIDH and Viasna request the Human Rights Commission, during its 60th session, to adopt a new resolution on Belarus including the concerns of the Arbitrary detention working group, and to the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in view of reporting to the 62th session.