CIVICUS condemns sentencing of four civil society activists in Belarus
8 August 2006 - CIVICUS voices deep concern at the prison sentences handed to four civil society activists in Belarus accused of belonging to an unregistered organisation which was planning to observe the 19 March 2006 presidential elections.
The four peaceful activists led a Belarusian election observation group, Partnership (Partnerstva), which observed the 2004 parliamentary elections but later was denied registration on several occasions. On 4 August, Nikolai Astreiko, 25, was sentenced to two years in prison while Timofei Dranchuk, 24, received a one-year sentence. Aleksandr Shalaiko, 29, and Enira Bronitskaya, 24, were sentenced to six months each.
They were charged under Article 193, Part II of the Belarusian Criminal Code, which prohibits the “organisation or management of unregistered public associations which infringe upon the rights of citizens.” The law stipulates prison sentences from six months to three years. The article was added to the Criminal Code in December 2005 as part of a series of amendments that introduced additional harsh penalties for vocal civil society organisations and other critics of the government.
When these amendments were introduced, CIVICUS expressed deep concern that they would further endanger civil society’s freedoms of association, expression and assembly. The amendments impose prison terms for anyone who facilitates or participates in group activities, works with unregistered organisations, appeals for assistance from foreign governments and organisations, or discredits’ the Republic of Belarus in any way.
The activists were detained on 21 February 2006, during the run-up to the presidential elections, which were characterised by wide-spread arrests and harassment of peaceful activists. The elections were labelled by CIVICUS and other international organisations as substantially flawed and illegitimate.
CIVICUS fears this ruling is indicative of the government’s intention to continue to further restrict the activities of independent civil society in Belarus.
CIVICUS urges the government of Belarus to:
Unconditionally release the four Partnership activists, and refrain from using the laws of Belarus to erode the rights of civil society.
Immediately repeal the Criminal Code amendments of December 2005, and avoid introducing any future regulations harmful to freedom of association, expression and assembly in Belarus.
Review the restrictive registration and funding laws introduced over the last four years, particularly the Law on Public Associations adopted in August 2005, and repeal those articles which curtail the activities of civil society.
Recognise the vital role that civil society and independent media can play in ensuring the Belarus citizenry’s peaceful engagement with the government, and work to guarantee they are able to operate freely without undue restrictions.
For more information, please contact CIVICUS at firstname.lastname@example.org or +27 11 833 5959, or visit www.civicus.org or www.civilsocietywatch.org.