Review of human rights violations in Belarus, December 2005
The situation with human rights in Belarus is very tense. First of all such rights as the right to freedom of assembly and association, the right to receive and distribute information, the right to elect and be elected.
In December it became known that the president of Belarus will be elected on March 19, which is four months ahead of the earlier planned date. The decision to hold elections on 19 March was taken unanimously (104 “yes” votes) at the extraordinary session of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of Belarus. According to the Constitution it is the parliament that fixes the date of presidential elections. The session took place in the presence of the deputy head of the Presidential Administration Natalia Petkevich and the chair of Central Committee for Elections and Republican Referenda Lidia Ermoshina. The analysts believe that the elections due on March 19 are a forced measure taken by the authorities, which clearly signals its uncertainty regarding the result of the current campaign.
On December 2 the deputies of the Chamber of Representatives adopted in the second reading amendments to the Penal Code, introduced on behalf of Lukashenka by Stepan Sukhorenko, the KGB chief. During the vote the bill was supported by 97 deputies, with only four voting against. The total number of the deputies in the Chamber of Representatives is 110. The amendments made provide for criminal punishment for discrediting the country, passing deceitful information about the situation in Belarus to the foreign and international organizations – from fines to a six month arrest or even imprisonment of up to 2 years.
The Belarusian human rights activists are deeply concerned over the amendments introduced into the Penal Code and Penal Code of Procedure, which hinder the activity of the human rights activists and other segments of civil society.
1. Changes in the legislation of the Republic of Belarus.
The Penal Code has been amended to include a new article “Defamation of the Republic of Belarus”. In the law proposes “defamation” means “untrue information about the political, economic, social, military or international situation in the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of the citizens of the Republic of Belarus, the legal status of the citizens or governmental agencies of the Republic of Belarus”. Such activities will be punished by an arrest of up to six months or imprisonment of up to two years. Article 193-1 “Illegal organization of the activity of a public association or foundation, or participation in such activity” provides that organization or participation in the activity of organizations or foundations that have been suspended or liquidated in a Belarusian court or other legal agencies must be punished by a fine or arrest of up to six months or imprisonment of up to two years. According to the legislation, the punishment for “public calls to seize power or force the change of the constitutional order” will be increased to six months of arrest or three years in prison. The calls on foreign nations to act in a way that violates the international security of Belarus, its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and distribution of information that contains such appeals must be punished with an arrest of from six months to three years. If such appeals are released through the media, the punishment is still more severe – from two to five years. During the 2 December meeting with journalists Stepan Sukhorenko, the KGB chief in Belarus, commented on the bill that introduces harsher penalties for actions “directed against the human and public security” – “foreign media will lose their accreditation and deported” in the event of “providing knowingly untrue information about Belarus”. The advice Mr. Sukhorenko gave Belarusian journalists working for foreign media was “read the law and think it over”.
1. The Ministry of Justice has issued written warnings to several political parties
The Ministry of Belarus has issued written warnings to the Belarusian Green Party, the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada), the Belarusian Women’s Party “Nadzeya”, the BPF Party, and the Belarusian Patriotic Party. The warnings were issued because the parties had failed to comply with part 3 of article 10 of the law “On Political Parties”, which was adopted on July 19 and took effect on October 28 2005. According to this provision, the political parties registered in the Republic of Belarus must have Minsk city and regional offices in most of the country’s regions (at least four regions).
2. Restriction of rights and liberties of Belarusian students
After one of the best students in the international economic relations department Tatiana Khoma was expelled from Belarusian State Economic University, for over two weeks students collected signatures in the university in support of Tatiana. When more than 500 signatures were collected, the students started to be invited to the dean’s offices for “clarification”. Tatiana Khoma’s friends who live in Dormitory No.3 were visited by a man who identified himself as Vladimir Nikolaevich. The same man had a meeting with Tatiana on the day she was expelled and asked questions about the activity of ESIB – its political position with respect to Belarus, etc.
In the university the students started to be invited to the dean’s offices where those in charge explained that the expulsion order was justified and that collecting signatures against the order was inexpedient. During lectures and meetings with the students, the representatives of the dean’s offices explained that BSEU is a state university and must follow state policies, which was why the rector had to expel Tatiana Khoma. On December 1 Tatiana Khoma filed a complaint with the Ministry of Education against the BSEU rector Shimov’s expulsion decision.
Tatiana Khoma was the first student to be expelled for leaving abroad without permission. Though according to the Constitution of Belarus, every citizen has the right to freely move within the Republic of Belarus, leave it and come back.
The rector of the Belarusian State Economic University Vladimir Shimov refused to meet with a delegation of the ambassadors who wanted to discuss the situation around the expulsion of Tatiana Khoma from the university. According to the press service of the UK embassy, the heads of the diplomatic missions of the European Union countries expressed their concern over the limitation of the rights and freedoms of the Belarusian students. They regretted the limitation of the freedom of movement, which “is against the international commitments of the country, which it declares it follows”. The ambassadors expressed their hope that Tatiana Khoma would be able to continue with her studies at BSEU.
3. The businessman Nikolai Autukhovich struggles for his economic rights by having observed a hunger-strike for 74 days now
On December 5 six hunger strikers withdrew from their action of solidarity with Nikolai Autukhovich, which had lasted since November 14. They collected signatures under an appeal to Alexander Lukashenko, requesting that Nikolai Autukhovich be bailed out. The hunger strikers were the unemployed Vladimir Asipenko, the secretary of the Niko-trans company Ludmila Porembskaya, the businessman Anatoly Deshko and three drivers Ivan Yanushkievich, Mikhail Semerich and Dmitry Lenkevich who work in the cars owned by the businessman Autukhovich.
On October 14 Nikolai Autukhovich declared an indefinite hunger strike. Nikolai Autukhovich observed three hunger strikes, the longest of which was 31 days – half a year ago. Criminal action against the businessman is by terms of part 2 article 243 that provides for punishment of three to seven years in prison. The court may confiscate the property. The arrest of Mr. Autukhovich, due to end on December 14, was prolonged to January 14, 2006.
On December 27 in the evening the businessman Autukhovich was brought to Volkovysk from the Republican Prison Hospital. The Hrodna regional procurator’s office changed his restraint to house arrest.
4. Administrative arrests of civil activists.
On December 22 the police detained Vladimir Levonevski, an activist of the Businessmen’s Strike Committee, a member of the Council of Civil Initiatives “Free Belarus” and a son of the political prisoner Valeri Levanieuski. He was detained in Central Market of Hrodno for distributing the bulletin “Businessman” (a pack of which he had on himself but did not distribute and kept in the police station for over two hours). The police confiscated 250 copies of the bulletin and drew up a report registering a violation by terms of Article 172 part 3 of the Code of Administrative Offences (distribution of printed materials without issue data).
On December 16 four young activists were detained in Minsk during the Day of Solidarity Action. Around Iakub Kolas Square the police detained Polina Babina, Iury Kalychev, Danila Borisevich, Ruslan Matveev for photographing candles lit in the windows of the houses. The young people were taken to Sovetski DIA of the capital, where they had to remain until 11.30 p.m.
5. Persecution of human rights activists
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) may be liquidated for violating the taxation legislation. Today BHC is the only human rights organizations officially registered in Belarus.
BHC plans to protest the ruling taken by the Supreme Economic Court (SEC) of Belarus in the procurator’s office. On December 20 the Presidium of SEC ruled that BHC must pay taxes and related penalties in the amount of about 75000 US Dollars. This is how the Presidium of SEC granted the protest filed by the first deputy chair of the Supreme Economic Court Evgeni Smirnov against the ruling of the economic court, which had taken effect and cancelled in June 2004 charges against BHC for avoiding taxes on the funds allocated within the TACIS program.
6. Violation of the freedom of speech
The non-state newspaper Salidarnast will suspend its operation. The Salidarnasts is one of 17 non-state periodicals that will not be able to be distributed via the national state-run system of subscription and retail starting from January 1. The articles published in the last issue dated December 23 explains that for a long time the newspaper had been “under unceasing pressure exerted by the authorities”, and at the end of the year “the authorities delivered a series of blows on the Salidarnasts. The state companies that have monopolized the distribution of the periodicals cancelled their contractual commitments. Under these circumstances the Salidarnasts has no possibility to be printed in Belarus, to be distributed via subscription (from January 2006), to be sold via the national kiosk network (from January 2006). The Salidarnasts is the newspaper of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Miners, Chemists, Oil Refiners, Energy Workers, Transport Workers, Builders and other Workers. The newspaper had a circulation of 5400 copies. After it was founded in March 1991 541 issues have come out.
7. Special services step up their activity.
Unknowns threaten the family of the BPF Party activist in Homel. In the evening of December 17 a telephone call with threats was received in the apartment of Andrei Baranov, a BPF Party activist, a participant of the protest organized by bus drivers. At the time only his wife and a small child were at home, Mr. Baranov was out at work. The caller did not identify himself but started to threaten, “Your husband is a member of the opposition party that is against the current authorities, he has to abandon the party otherwise there might be bad consequences in the future”. During the evening three calls with threats were received in the apartment of Mr. Baranov.
KGB agents threaten physical violence to Iulia Liskovskaya, the Zubr movement activist. This is the information reported by the Charter-97 site. Two persons who identified themselves as KGB agents came to her at work. They asked questions about the Zubr movement, its activists, printed materials and sources of financing. After the girl refused to answer these questions, the agents moved on to insults and threats. One of them said that “a brick might fall on your head”. Also, the girl understood that KGB tapped the telephones of some of her friends. When Liskovskaya demanded that the agents introduced themselves, they responded saying that the girl does not need to know their names.
On December 2 they searched the apartments owned by Telman Masliukov, a member of the Svietlahorsk District Branch of the BPF Party. During the search, some printed materials were confiscated, including copiers.
On December 7 an illegal search was performed in the room of the Zubr activist Lubov Kuchinskaya, who lives in the dormitory of Vitebsk Medical University. When the girl was away, a member of the trade union committee Avdachonok, the first deputy rector Medvetski, the deputy rector for upbringing activities Lukina and an unidentified man in plain clothes. They took away about 1000 copies of printed materials about the Day of Belarusian Solidarity held on the 16th day of each month. The following day Kuchinskaya was called to the rector of the educational establishment. Rector Iatusevich said that he was aware of the girl taking part in numerous opposition actions and threatened expulsion if unregistered printed materials were found in her room again.
Provocations against opposition representatives started in Belarus. Drugs were thrown in the place of the Zubr activists in Homel. On December 27 one of the Conservative Christian BPF Party leaders Sergei Popkov was arrested. He was accused of keeping a forged 100 dollar bill.
In Vitebsk the police arrested Alexander Dorofeev, a democratic movement activist and a member of the united opposition candidate’s initiative group. The activist is accused of being involved with the explosions that occurred in Vitebsk in September.
8. Violation of the rights of the political prisoners kept in correctional facilities.
The administration of Ivatsevichy Correctional Facility No.22 illegally destroys some letters of the Chair of the National Committee of Businessmen of Belarus Valery Levonevski. Valery Levonevski has been sending out letters to various organizations, individuals and governmental agencies, asking for more books to be sent to the correctional facility’s library. Recently the chair of the Strike Committee tried to send such letters via the administration of the correctional facility to various embassies in Belarus. However, the censor thought that these letters had to be destroyed according to Article 143 of the Internal Regulations. As this was done, Levonevski was told that a prisoner could only write letters to embassies provided he was a foreign national. However, the officials refused to indicate the law providing for such restriction. This is not the first case Mr. Levonevski’s letters have been illegally destroyed. The political prisoner sent a complaint against these actions of the correctional facility’s administration.
9. Capital Punishment
On December 27 Mogilev Regional Court finished the hearings and passed a verdict in the case of the so-called “Krichev gang”. Oleg Potapenko and Viacheslav Kniazkov were sentenced to the capital punishment. The regional court found the gang associates guilty of five murders, over 10 violent assaults associated with grievous bodily harm and other crimes. Eight criminals were sentenced to from 12 to 25 years in maximum security prison, with all their property to be confiscated. Yet another convict got a year of correctional labor, and yet another one - two years of restricted freedom. The verdict has not taken effect and may be protested and voided within a term specified.
On December 26 the leadership of the Council of the Belarusian Jewish Associations and Communities sent a statement to the media, where it expressed its indignation at the book “Stalin’s Will” and did not rule out a suit against its author Eduard Skobelev. The statement also says that in May 2003 the leaders of the Jewish community of Belarus sent an open letter to Alexander Lukashenko, asking for more protection of Jews against the danger coming from the Neo-Nazi elements. The reason for the letter was defilement of the memorial complex “Pit” created in memory of 810 thousand Jews victim to the Holocaust. “The letter indicated the names of public statesmen whose aggressive stances incite ethnic strife”, remind the authors of the statement.
Earlier in the same year the magazine Neman published the novel “Stalin’s Will” by Skobelev, and in 2005 the work was published in a separate book with the Jewish leaders’ letter attached and entitled as “Zionists’ Squeal”. “All of us who have signed the letter to the President were called “squealers” and we reserve the right to sue for moral damages in a law of court”, underscores the statement. The leadership of the Council of Belarusian Jewish Public Assocaitions and Communities remark that in 2005 new acts of vandalism have occurred: the “Pit” memorial was defiled, and a remembrance sign in Kuropary near Minsk was desecrated.
Informational Department of Human Rights Center Viasna.