International Federation For Human Rights (FIDH) -- Elections in Belarus : Worse than a mascarade
Paris, 17 March 2006 - The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) is extremely preoccupied by the escalation of human rights violations against the independent press, opposition candidates and their supporters, and human rights defenders, on the eve of the presidential election in Belarus.
President of Belarus since 1994, Mr. Lukashenka gained the right to run for a third term last year via a referendum initiated by him and accompanied by numerous violations of rights to fair elections and to peaceful manifestation.
In the course of the presidential election to be held on 19 March 2006, his political opponents were: the united opposition candidate Aliaksandr Milinkevich, the Social Democratic leader Aliaksandr Kazulin, and Siarhei Haidukevich, the leader of a Belarusian Liberal Democratic Party. The four other candidates gave up believing that the election would be rigged.
Lukashenka publicly declared his confidence that he would be re-elected as early as November 2005.
On 21 February 2006 started an unprecedented wave of pressure, harassment and intimidation of civil society and political opposition. Representatives of secret services and police searched private flats and offices of public activists in Navapolatsk, Brest, Mahiliou, Zhlobin, Minsk and other towns and cities of Belarus. They confiscated the information carriers, computer equipment, printed production and documents. The formal reason for that was an order for searches that was issued by Minsk City Procurator’s Office in connection with the case of defamation of president of the Republic of Belarus in a public speech, printed edition or publicly demonstrated artwork ( part 1 of article 367 of the Criminal Code). KGB representatives detained and interrogated as witnesses dozens of public activists all over the country. They openly pressured the detainees.
On 2 March 2006, President Lukashenka held the 3rd All Belarus People’s Assembly with participation of about 2 500 persons, who offered him an important tribune two weeks before the election. Mr. Kazulin, an opposition candidate, who tried to attend this Assembly was violently apprehended by security forces, detained and charged with two criminal and one administrative motivations. A number of journalists covering this event were also violently apprehended.
As of today, 17 representatives of the opposition had been detained. For example, opposition politician Anatoli Liabedzka was arrested on 15 March for carrying unauthorized campaign leaflets. Liabedzka's United Civic Party is part of an opposition movement that has united to back a single presidential candidate, Mr. Milinkevich,
In its interim report on Belarusian presidential election OSCE 1 states that “voter access to diverse political information through media has been limited, President Lukashenka has received in excess of 94 per cent coverage devoted to the four candidates on the news broadcast over the main Belarusian TV channels. (...) EOM observers have reported a number of problems facing the Milinkevich and Kazulin campaigns including: detention of campaign staff for holding unsanctioned campaign events, harassment of campaign workers by police and limited space provided for campaign material and events”.
On 15 March, members of the European Parliament were not allowed to monitor upcoming election, as Reuters reported: they have been refused visas. The refusal was accompanied by a letter from the Belarus deputy minister for foreign affairs saying that any visit of a European Parliament delegation would be interpreted as provocation. Bogdan Klich, the president of the delegation, said the refusal showed that the election did not meet international standards. Moreover, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 15 March that unauthorized election observers were planning to "provoke conflicts and destabilise the situation in the country".
FIDH is extremely concerned about the statement of Stsiapan Sukharenka, the head of Belarus's KGB, who said on 16 March that opposition forces are planning a coup against President Lukashenka, and warned that protests would be treated as "terrorists".
On 9 March the European Union urged “the responsible Belarusian authorities to allow the Belarusian people to exercise fully their right of assembly and freedom of expression and to take all the necessary means to guarantee the personal security of peaceful demonstrators and all Presidential candidates. As stated in the Council Conclusions of 7 November 2005 and 30 January 2006, the European Union will continue monitoring the situation in Belarus closely and will take further restrictive measures against the responsible individuals if the elections are not conducted according to international standards and in line with Belarus' commitments in the OSCE.”
FIDH denounces the atmosphere of repression in which Belarusian electoral campaign took place and urges the Belarusian authorities to respect the Election Code and to put an end to any harassment directed against ONG’s and political parties.
FIDH strongly supports the recommendations of the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus who on 15 March called on the Government of Belarus to release immediately and unconditionally all political opponents, to bring all violations of freedom of expression and of the right of peaceful assembly to an immediate end, and to ensure that the elections are held in full compliance with international standards.
Already at the end of 2005, fearing possible escalation of the situation following examples of Georgia in 2003, of Ukraine in 2004 and of Kirghizistan in 2005, Mr. Lukashenka started active harassment of its political opponents in order to deprive them of all means of political activity.
In December 2005, amendments to the Belarusian Criminal Code, which strengthen penal responsibility concerning “acts against people and public security” were adopted. They constitute blatant violations of international and regional standards in terms of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and represent a very serious risk for the existence of an independent civil society in Belarus.
The new amendments stipulate that anyone, who organises activities in the framework of,a suspended or liquidated association, may face a fine and be arrested 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. Any person who provides training or any other type of education aiming at participating in “mass activities”, or any person who funds such activities, may face a prison term up to six months, or be sentenced to a “restriction of freedom” sentence of three years (article 293). Also, any person who provides training or any other form of education, aiming at 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” sentence up to two years (article 342).
Furthermore, these amendments provide very serious infringements to freedom of information. “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 either 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 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.
On January, 24, 2006 the Supreme Court of Belarus suspended for three months the activity of the public association “Belarusian Thought Factories” (BTF) because of absence of legal address and of its registration in residential premises.
On January, 26, the Ministry of Justice issued a written warning to the BPF Party that can bring to its liquidation. According to a law “On political parties” all parties should have their structures in the majority of the Belarusian regions and in the capital. However, the party structures of Hrodna and Homel region have recently lost their legal addresses, which became the reason to deprive them of registration. The Ministry of Justice ordered the party to find a way out of this situation by 1 March 2006. However, a political party can’t be liquidated during the electoral period and the situation is still pending.
In February, the Supreme Court liquidated the Belarusian Union of Youth, as well as Children’s Public Associations Rada, the last large independent youth association of Belarus. Rada included seven organizations with a national status.
The human rights organization Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which has already been the object of numerous acts of intimidation in the past months, still has to defend itself from persecutions of the Tax inspection. Recently, it has been sentenced for tax evasion for having launched an election monitoring project financed by the European Union under a bilateral agreement explicitly granting tax exemption. Belarusian Helsinki Committee leaders are facing criminal charges that provide jail terms of 5-7 years and confiscation of family property, and the organization is under threat of closure by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.