Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in Belarus in June 2008
The main events in Belarus in June were the official appointment of the parliamentary elections, the start of the electoral campaign and the adoption of the new law On mass media that considerably aggravated the situation of mass media in the country and was evidently repressive. 24 June the president of Belarus Alexander Lukashenka signed order #344 On appointment of the elections to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus of the fourth convocation. By this document the elections were appointed on 28 September 2008. Short before this the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and other Human Rights defenders stated their intention to monitor the elections.
The chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Aleh Hulak, and Ales Bialiatski, vice-chair of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), answered journalists’ questions at a press-conference on 12 June. The Human Rights defenders stated that the present electoral legislation allowed holding quite free elections, the main problem was in the practice of its implementation and the elections could be free and fair if there was political will for it. The authorities reacted to the initiative of the Human Rights defenders by pressurizing them and their families. On 12 June the 1st channel of the Belarusian TV advertised a program which insulted their honor and dignity. Then the whole of program was shown in the Sunday’s Panorama. Apart from the attempt to discredit Human Rights activity the authorities also conduct a detailed tax check-up of Human Rights defenders. The BHC chair Aleh Hulak, its ex-chair Tatsiana Protska, the BHC member Zmitser Markusheuski, the Human Rights defenders Ales Bialiatski and Valiantsin Stefanovich and their families received orders from the Ministry of Dues and Taxes to fill asset and income declarations.
Despite the official statements of the country’s authorities (including A.Lukashenka) that the elections would be transparent and democratic, Human Rights defenders registered many violations in this sphere, such as confiscation of printed agitation materials, detentions, trials and arrests. In Kine many activists were fined or imprisoned for participation in unauthorized mass actions. KGB and military enlistment offices pressured youth.
The hasty adoption of the new law On mass media by the Belarusian parliament caused a large resonance in the Belarusian and international community. Preparation of the law was initiated by the presidential administration and continued for five years in closed regime. The Belarusian Association of Journalists asked the authorities many times to admit its members to the sittings of the working group and the regular commission of the Chamber of Representatives who were working out the law. However, these requests were ignored. The draft law was extraordinary put on the agenda of the session of the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly on 10 June. The following day its consideration was appointed on 17 June. The BAJ lawyers received the text of the law only on 11 June. Having analyzed it they concluded that as a result of its adoption a severe blow would be delivered on independent mass media in Belarus, which could put them on the brink of extinction. Meanwhile, the law On mass media was adopted almost unanimously in the first reading: 93 deputies voted for it and only one against. On 27 June, on the eve of adoption of the law On mass media by the Chamber of Representatives in the second reading, the international community including the OSCE Representative on freedom of mass media Miklos Haraszti called upon the Belarusian authorities not to adopt this law because it could aggravate even the present, unreasonably severe restrictions to activities of mass media in Belarus. Several influential international organizations including the International Federation of Journalists addressed Alexander Lukashenka and the Soviet of the Republic, offering support in the reworking of the document with the aim to put it in line with the international standards and Human Rights. The law includes a number of novelties. It prohibits professional activities of foreign journalists on the territory of Belarus without official accreditation. Now mass media can be punished for ‘distribution of incorrect information which can harm the state or public interests’. Prosecutors of all levels receive the right to liquidate mass media. Despite the calls of the Belarusian and international community, on 28 June the Soviet of the Republic of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus adopted the law On mass media.
On 17 June the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus adopted the changes and supplements to the law of the Republic of Belarus On counteraction to extremism in the second reading. Oppositional politicians expressed their conviction that these changes would considerably limit the opportunities of political parties during the electoral campaigns. ‘The novelties in the country’s laws mean only the intensification of pressure on the opponents of the regime’, pointed the leader of the United Civil Party Anatol Liabedzka.
1. Politically motivated criminal cases
The lawyer of the political prisoner Alexander Kazulin Zmitser Harachka addressed the Prosecutor General Ryhor Vasilevich with a complaint. The lawyer said that any possibilities should be used to reverse the verdict by which Mr. Kazulin had been sentenced to 5.5 years of imprisonment.
Vitsebsk KGB office continued interrogating public and political activists within the frames of the criminal case on threats to public and political activists of Vitsebsk on behalf of the underground Russian neo-Nazi organization Russian National Unity (RNE). On 16 June they summoned the member of the Conservative-Christian Party BPF, Siarhei Kavalenka, for interrogation. Bear in mind that on 23 May KGB officers conducted a search in the private apartment of the Human Rights activist, Leanid Svetsik, in connection with this criminal case. Mr. Svetsik had given free consultations to those who had received threats from neo-Nazi and helped the victims in composing addresses to the appropriate state agencies.
The prosecutor’s office of Minsk again suspended the criminal case that was brought in 2005 for defamation of Alexander Lukashenka by means of the political cartoons that were placed at the website of the unregistered organization Third Way. At the end of March the KGB searched the offices and apartments of independent journalists who worked for foreign mass media without official accreditation, allegedly to find evidence in this case. They also confiscated from the journalists computers and supplies. On 12 June the prosecutor’s office stated that the confiscated items would be returned to the journalists.
On 28 June, after a sitting of the political council of the United Civil Party, the police preventively detained Mikhail Pashkevich who had been sentenced to personal restraint within the frames of the ‘process of 14’ (the criminal case against 14 participants of the rally of entrepreneurs that was held to protest against new restrictions on their work imposed by presidential decree #760). At the sitting of the political council the UCP delegated Pashkevich as its observer to the Central Election Commission. On 30 June the judge of Kastrychnitski district court of Minsk Ryta Shahrai, considered the administrative case against Mikhail Pashkevich under Article 17.1 (disorderly conduct) and sentenced him to 7 days of arrest. In addition, he was fined 350,000 rubles (about $164).
2. The right to association
On 19 June the Ministry of Justice again refused to register the Human Rights educational public association Movement ‘For Freedom’. The official reason was that the charter aims of the organization allegedly did not meet the real ones. The Ministry of Justice stated that the real aims of the For Freedom movement did not meet the requirements of the law of the Republic of Belarus, which, according to Article 15 of the law On public associations, could serve as a legal reason to deny registration to it.
In June the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party received a letter from the Ministry of Justice where it was stated that the organization was denied registration (for the second time). The reason was that the state agency did not understand the ‘aims, tasks, subject and methods of activity of the organization’.
3. Freedom of expression and the right to disseminate information
On 16 June the editorial office of the Narodnaya Volia newspaper and the deputy-editor, Maryna Koktysh, received the official answers from Maskouski district court of Minsk to their lawsuits in which they asked the court to bring the presidential security and the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly to accountability for refusaling to accredit Maryna as a journalist. The judge, V. Husakova, turned the claims down.
On 18 June the Vitebskiy Kuryer newspaper received warnings under two articles of the law On press and other mass media. The Ministry of Information stated that the newspaper had put an invalid address of the editorial board in the imprint (Article 26) and did not timely inform the ministry about the change of its address to get the registration certificate amended (Article 11).
On 22 June in Navabelitski district of Homel the police detained the civil activist, historian Sviataslau Shapavalau for handing out leaflets with explanation of the position of the United Democratic Forces concerning the upcoming parliamentary elections. Mr. Shapavalau was taken to the police station where 675 leaflets were confiscated from him and a violation report under Article 22.9 (distribution of printed periodicals without imprint) was drawn up. Leaflets cannot be considered as periodicals, that’s why the actions of the police evidently contradicted legislation.
4. Arrests and other punishments to public and political activists
On 12 June the activist of the democratic movement, Alexander Atroshchankau, was summoned to the KGB for giving statements concerning his complaint against KGB officers who had confiscated a computer and supplies from him. He managed to phone from the KGB office and say that he was being detained, after which his telephone was switched off. Alexander’s relatives tried to find about his location during the whole day after the detention. He stood a closed trial at Tsentralny district court of Minsk and was sentenced to 15 days of arrest for alleged insult of the judge, Alena Iliina, (Article 24.1 of the Administrative Code) at the ‘process of 14’.
On 27 June the judge of Maskouski district court of Minsk Kharkevich found the member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee from Maladechna, Eduard Balanchuk, a participant of the monitoring of the elections to the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus, guilty under two articles of the Administrative Code: Article 23.4, insubordination to the lawful demands of an officer on duty, and Article 17.1, disorderly conduct. The court paid attention only to the testimonies of the policemen who had detained the Human Rights activist near Minsk office of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. The testimonies of Balanchuk’s witnesses were ignored. As a result of the trial Mr. Balanchuk was sentenced to 10 days of arrest and fined 1,050,000 rubles (about $493). Human Rights activists considered it as the beginning of repressions against those who openly stated their intention to take part in the election monitoring.
On 27 June the activist of the civil campaign European Belarus, Yauhen Afnahel, was preventively detained in Minsk. The police accused him of dirty swearing in public and drew up a report under Article 17.1, ‘disorderly conduct’. The following day Tsentralny district court of Minsk found the activist guilty and punished him with 10 days of arrest. Earlier Afnahel was sentenced to 7 days of arrest in absentia, for participation in the Labor Day demonstration, held by the official trade unions near the National Library in the Uruccha suburb of Minsk. Thus, the activist had to spend 17 days in prison.
5. Politically motivated dismissals from work and expulsions from educational establishments
On 12 June the court refused to rehabilitate Leanid Autukhou, the chairman of Haradok district organization of the Belarusian Popular Front Party to work. Autukhou was dismissed due to the expiry of the labor contract. During the two days of trial Autukhou tried to prove that he was dismissed with violations of the law. In particular, he was informed about the dismissal less than a month before it. Nevertheless, the head of the district court Alexander Liashkevich did not grant the activist’s petition for rehabilitation at work and compensation of the moral harm.
On 26 June Maskouski district court of Minsk considered the lawsuit of the chair of the cultural commission of the BPF Party, Franak Viachorka, against the Belarusian State University, from which he had been expelled in February 2008 (he studied at the third year of the journalistic faculty). The judge, Volha Husakova, stated that the procedural norms hadn’t been violated during the expulsion and Viachorka’s complaint had been filed after the expiry of the legal terms for it.
On 27 June the first-year student of the philological faculty of Hrodna State University, Siarhei Yenin, was informed about the order for his expulsion because of ‘poor academic progress’. The student stated that the real reason for expulsion was his active public position. Siarhei is the author of a number of works in history and economy, in which he criticized the Belarusian authorities. The student also addressed the hotline of the directorate with critical remarks concerning the international exchanges.
The activist of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, Hanna Antonava, was expelled from her first year in the Belarusian philological faculty of Minsk Pedagogical University. The reason is that the student applied to the authorities for permission to hold a picket in support of the political prisoner Alexander Kazulin. At the dean’s office Hanna was told that she studied in a state university and therefore was to support the policy of the state and the president.
6. The right to peaceful assemblies
On 4 June the judge of Minsk district court, Viachaslau Tuleika, sentenced the head of the Memorial section of the Belarusian voluntary society for protection of the monuments of history and culture, Viachaslau Siwchyk, to 10 days of arrest under Article 23.34 (violation of the rules of organizing and holding mass actions) for participation in the final stage of the photo contest ‘My photos – my Kurapaty’ that took place in the place of mass shooting of Stalin’s victims on 3 June.
On 5 June the judge of Leninski district court of Hrodna, Natallia Kozel, found Hrodna Human Rights activist, Viktar Sazonau, and the head of Hrodna regional UCP branch, Yury Istomin, guilty under Article 23.34 and sentenced them to a fine of 1 050 000 rubles ($488) each. The reason for the punishment was that during the concert of the Polish rock-band Lombard that took place on 2 May in Hrodna Istomin and Sazonau waived a white-red-white flag for six minutes. On 9 June the head of the Union of Poles in Belarus, Anzhalika Borys, was fined 1.4 million rubles for organization of the concert.
On 11 June in Polatsk the police detained and escorted to the police department the activists of Young Front Mikalai Dzemidzenka, Siarzhuk Karalionak, Ales Khaberau, Ales Krutkin and Katsiaryna Salauyova for unrolling the banner ‘STOP DICTATORSHIP’ in front of Polatsk town executive committee. Ales Khaberau felt bad and was driven away by ambulance. On 12 June the judge, V. Dzeravenka, fined each of the activists 1 050 000 rubles under Article 23.34.
On 17 June the judge of Slonim district court, Alexander Shylin, found the democratic activist, Ales Masiuk, guilty under Article 23.34 for organization of a public meeting with the politician Alexander Milinkevich and fined him 700,000 rubles (about $325). The judge ignored the fact that the administrative report against the activist had been drawn up a month after the police report, though the law gives only ten days for it. Masiuk’s petitions for invitation of additional witnesses and impeachment to the judge were declined.
On 20 June Pukhavichy district court found the dweller of the Dryzhny settlement, Siarhei Saldatsenka, guilty under Article 23.34 and fined him 525,000 rubles. On 28 June the judge of Pukhavichy district court, Anzhalika Danilava, fined Mikhail Kalinkevich, an invalid from Rudzensk, 350,000 rubles for participating in an unauthorized rally against construction of a pesticides plant by the Russian private company Avgust-Bel. Before this Pukhavichy district court twice punished with fines the activist of the civil initiative against construction of the plant Siarhei Abrazouski and the teachers of Druzhny school, Nasta and Tatsiana Dylkous. Another participant of the action, Tatsiana Rysiavets, received a warning.
7. Activities of security services
The KGB continued the intimidation of students. According to the youth activist Ales Halavach, a KGB officer tried to force him to collaborate during a talk at the dean’s office. In the case of refusal Halavach was threatened with expulsion from the Belarusian University of Culture, of which he was a fifth-year student.
8. Persecution of public, political and Human Rights activists
Like it used to be during the Soviet times, Belarusian authorities tried to use the obligatory army service as a repressive tool against youth activists. The Belarusian students who studied abroad were taken off at the border and informed that they were prohibited to leave Belarus. Their surnames were put on the lists of the persons who were subject to temporary foreign travel restrictions by the military enlistment offices. The youth activist of the BPF Party, Franak Viachorka, was not let out to Lithuania at the crossing point Kamenny Loh without any statements. Meanwhile, Viachorka had passed a district medical commission and got a 6-month deferment of army service because of an operation on his eyes. The student, Zmitser Buianau, who studied at Hdansk University in Poland was taken off the train when returning to Belarus from Poland. He was told that he would not be let back because he was on a ‘black list’. However, the military enlistment office had a certificate from the university with translation in Belarusian. That’s why there the youngster was informed that he had a 12-month deferment from army service and he only needed to present such certificates every year. The head of the BPF youth wing, Ales Kalita, was professed unfit for army service by a district medical commission. Nevertheless, the authorities did not give up the idea of drafting him into the army. That’s why at the military enlistment office he received direction to the republican medical commission.