Belarus:New amendments create alarming risks for human rights defenders
Paris, Geneva – November 30, 2005. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) express their deepest concern about the adoption in first reading of amendments to the Belarusian Criminal Code by the Low Chamber of Parliament, which strengthen penal responsibility concerning “Acts against people and public security”, on November 25, 2005.
According to Viasna, on November 23, 2005, Mr. Aleksander Lukashenko, President of the Republic of Belarus, submitted urgently to the Parliament some amendments to the Belarusian criminal Code, adopted in December 1960. Two days after, these amendments were backed by 94 out of 110 deputies, with only one voting against. In order to be adopted, a second reading before the Upper Chamber is necessary, which should occur within ten days.
First of all, the new amendments introduce criminal sentences for the illegal organisation of activities by an association or a foundation, or participation in their actions (article 193-1). In particular, it stipulates that anyone who organises activities in the framework of a suspended or liquidated association may face a fine and be sentenced up to six months in prison. In serious cases (for which there is no definition) one can be subjected to a “restriction of freedom” sentence for a period up to two years . The Observatory fears that human rights defenders be particularly targeted by this new disposal, since most of independent human rights NGOs have been liquidated during the past three years, and since reasons for liquidation have been even widened in the recent law on Public Association, adopted in August 2005 (see below).
Moreover, any person who provides training or any other type of education aiming to the participation in « mass activities », or any person who funds such activities, may face a prison term up to six months, and sentenced up to a “restriction of freedom” sentence of three years (article 293). Also, any person who provides training or any other form of education, aiming to the participation in « group activities which seriously violate public order », or any funding or other material assistance of such activity, may be sentenced to prison up to six months and to a “restriction of freedom” up to two years (article 342). However, there is no precision on the definition of a « mass activity » nor of a « group activity », and the Observatory fears that the vagueness of the terms may give the authorities a new opportunity to sanction members of independent organisations in an arbitrary manner.
Furthermore, these amendments also provide very serious infringements to freedom of information. Indeed, the new amendments stipulate that «providing false information to a foreign State or international organisations, concerning the political, economical, military or international situation of the Republic of Belarus, as well as on the judicial situation of Belarusian citizens or any power instance », is punishable by a six-month prison term or a two-year “restriction of freedom” sentence. The amendments also state that any person who would communicate with foreign States and organisations, or international organisations, « to the detriment of internal security, sovereignty or territorial integrity », as well as disseminate material with such content, could be sentenced to prison from six months to three years. If such information is distributed through mass media, the « perpetrators » could be sentenced from two to five years of “restriction of freedom”. Again, the vagueness of the terms used may lead to arbitrariness.
Finally, these changes provide that « people suspected of terrorism or vandalism may be detained during ten days before being charged ».
The Observatory is very preoccupied by this new piece of legislation which puts at serious risks the very activities of independent human rights defenders in Belarus and constitutes an additional tool for the authorities to crackdown on independent civil society. In this regard, the Observatory recalls that the Law on « Public associations », adopted on August 1, 2005, facilitates the suspension or liquidation of independent organisations by widening the reasons for punishment against them (for example, an organisation may be suspended for up to six months, after only one violation of legal disposal). The law also strengthened the control of the authorities over NGOs, and created new obstacles to the registration of organisations, as well as an increased takeover on their fundings and activities.
The Observatory notes that these amendments constitute a blatant violation of international human rights instruments, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which states that “no one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest or detention”(article 9-1).
They also contradict the provisions of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1998, which states that “for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right to communicate with non-governmental or international organisations” (article 5c) and “freely to publish, impart or disseminate to other views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms” (article 6b), as well as the Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) which provides that « the participating States respect the rights of everyone, individually or in association with others, to study and discuss the observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms and to develop and discuss ideas for improved protection of human rights and better means for ensuring compliance with international human rights standards » (article 10-2).
The Observatory calls upon the Belarusian authorities to cancel the process of adoption of these amendments and to put Belarusian legislation in conformity with international standards, in terms of freedom of association and expression.
The Observatory refers this situation to the Special Representative of the United Nations (UN) Secretary General on Human Rights Defenders, to the Special Rapporteur on Belarus of the UN Commission on Human Rights and to the programme on freedoms of association and peaceful assembly in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), in the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organisation for the Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).