Review-chronicle of human rights violations in Belarus in July-August 2008
At the end of June the parliamentary electoral campaign began. That’s why July and August were defined by numerous violations in this sphere.
Oppositional activists were most often persecuted in connection with investigation of the explosion of a home-made explosive device which had taken place in the night of 3-4 July at the celebration of the day of liberation of Belarus from Nazi troops during the Second World War (called Independence Day by the present authorities). According to the information of the Ministry of Health Care, 54 persons applied for medical aid as a result of the explosion, 47 of them (including two children) were hospitalized. A criminal case under Article 339, part 3 of the Criminal Code (exceptionally malignant hooliganism) was brought on the fact of the explosion. The case was investigated by the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the KGB and the prosecutor’s office. Officers of these state agencies conducted numerous searches, interrogations and arrests of democratic activists and members of political parties and civil initiatives. Among those who were arrested for 3-10 days there are members of an underground sportive-patriotic organization White Legion (that ceased to exist long ago): Siarhei Chyslau, Ihar Korsak, Miraslau Lazouski and Viktar Liashchynski, the deputy head of the youth organization of the Belarusian Popular Front, Human Rights defender Illia Bohdan, the member of the BPF Party Anton Koipish, the head of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Freedom Party Siarhei Vysotski, a member of the United Civil Party Alexander Siarheyenka and the activist of the European Belarus campaign Pavel Kuryianovich. During the interrogations the investigators asked the detainees not only about the explosion, but also about the oppositional organizations and their activities. Representatives of the opposition stated about the necessity of an independent public investigation of the explosion and warned the authorities against the use of the explosion as a pretext for starting a new wave of repressions against political opponents. Nevertheless, many political and public activists were interrogated, their apartments searched. They were forced to give their fingerprints and saliva samples and were photographed. In particular, fingerprints were taken from a pretender for candidate at South-Western electoral constituency #99, Yury Karetnikau, ten times and saliva samples – two times.
At the same time, tax inspections started checking the income and assets of well-known oppositional activists, especially those who expressed their intention to run at the parliamentary elections or monitor them.
The main event of August was granting parole to the last political prisoners – Alexander Kazulin (16 August), Andrei Kim and Siarhei Parsiukevich (20 August). The international community welcomed their release from jail. The Commissioner on external relations and the Member of the EC in charge of External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Walder called this a reassuring step. During his visit to Belarus the deputy assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs at the US Department of State, David Merkel, held a number of meetings with representatives of the Belarusian authorities for normalization of the relations between Belarus and the United States. He spoke about the possibility of abolishment of the economical sanctions against Belarus. According to Mr. Merkel, the US approved of the release of political prisoners and was looking forward to seeing Belarus hold democratic parliamentary elections. He also said that the sanctions against Belarus could be abolished.
The head of the United Civil Party, Anatol Liabedzka, said that there was no reason to abolish the sanction against high-rank officials as long as the reasons for which they were imposed were not liquidated.
On 25 August the released political prisoners Alexander Kazulin, Andrei Kim and Siarhei Parsiukevich disseminated their joint statement. In this document they demanded complete rehabilitation and reminded about the persons who were sentenced to personal restrain within the frames of the ‘process of 14’. ‘We are deeply convinced that release of several political prisoners now does not guarantee their absence in Belarus in future. It is necessary to seek institutional changes in the Belarusian legislation, real separation of the judicial and the executive authorities, complete rehabilitation of all political prisoners and prevention of such practice in the future,’ notice the former political prisoners.
On 4 August the informational agencies BelTA and Interfax informed, with reference to the presidential press-service, that Alexander Lukashenka signed the law On mass media. On 28 August the draft law was adopted by the Soviet of the Republic. In the middle of July it was considered by the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Belarus and then was passed to the president. The Belarusian Association of Journalists several times addressed the deputies with the request to submit this document to an international expertise. The organization also proposed its own expert evaluation of it, pointing at certain repressive regulations. The law came into force on 8 February 2009.
On 5 August in Minsk the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders presented the Russian version of the report on the countries of Europe and the Commonwealth of Independent States. The report shows that the freedom of association and the right to peaceful assemblies were violated in many countries. The activities of NGOs were under a vigilant watch. Obstacles were put to juridical legalization of their status. Some legally registered NGOs were liquidated. Pitifully enough, a special attention was again paid to Belarus in connection with illegal detentions, process violations and harassment of Human Rights activists. The event was attended by the representative of the World Organization against Torture (OMCT), member of the council of youth lawyers of Georgia Tinatin Khidasheli and the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Ales Bialiatski.
1. Politically motivated criminal cases
In July the Belarusian Helsinki Committee passed to the subcommittee on Belarus of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Venetian commission of the Council of Europe its expert conclusion on non-constitutionality of Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code that envisages up to two years of imprisonment for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations. As the head of the BHC legal commission, Harry Pahaniaila, explained, the organization had addressed the Constitutional Court of Belarus concerning this issue, but had received a runaround. That’s why the Human Rights activists submitted their conclusion to the international institutions for studying the situation in Belarus and giving their evaluation of the practice that restricts the civil right to association.
On 22 July the college board of Minsk city court turned down the complaints of ten people who had been sentenced to different terms of personal restrain within the frames of the so-called ‘process of 14’ for participation in a peaceful action of entrepreneurs in January 2008. Bear in mind that 13 of the accused had been punished by Tsentralny district court of Minsk. The last person studied in Poland within the frames of Kastus Kalinouski program for victims of political repressions in Belarus and was wanted. In the beginning of the trial the head of the College Board Uladzimir declined the petition for leading the trial in Belarusian. Despite the statements of the defense that the verdict to the activists was groundless and the action had been videoed with violations of the law, the College Board left the verdict unchanged. The activists said they would appeal against the unfair verdict at higher court instances.
The investigation of the criminal case brought on the fact of anonymous threats by the Russian neo-Nazi organization Russian National Unity (RNE) to public and political activists of Vitsebsk continued. At first the investigators considered the Human Rights defender from Vitsebsk, Leanid Svetsik, as a witness. Then he became the main accused in the case, though there seem to be no real grounds for it.
Polish MPs started the process of nomination of the former political prisoner Alexander Kazulin for the Andrey Sakharov Human Rights prize. The action was initiated by the head of the European Parliament commission on relations with Belarus, Jacek Protasevicz. ‘We have collected more than 30 signatures already. We intend to collect the last ones during the nearest plenary sessions of the European Parliament in the beginning of September’, said Mr. Protasevicz. Bear in mind that for the first time the Andrey Sakharov prize was awarded to representatives of Belarus in 2004, when it was given to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In 2006 it was awarded to the ex-candidate for president, Alexander Milinkevich.
2. The right to association
On 1 July the members of the liquidated cultural-educational NGO Stary Horad Yauhen Belasin, Iryna Laurouskaya, Palina Panasiuk and Siarhei Panasevich lodged complaints with the UN Human Rights Committee against the liquidation of the NGO for wire-drawn regions. In their complaints the activists presented the facts that prove the groundlessness of this liquidation and stated that the real reason for it was revenge of the authorities.
On 15 July members of the organizing committee of the Human Rights and educational NGO Movement For Freedom lodged with the Supreme Court a complaint against the decision of the Ministry of Justice not to register the association. It was the third refusal of the ministry in 2008. The trial took place on 6 August. The Supreme Court rejected the complaint of the organizing committee because of a technical mistake in the guarantee letter of the organization that agreed to provide an office for the legal address of the movement For Freedom.
On 16 July the members of the organizing committee of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party also submitted to the Supreme Court a complaint against the second refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register the party. On 12 August the Supreme Court considered the complaint and, predictably enough, took the side of the ministry. Nevertheless, the BCD members said they would apply to the ministry again for registration of their party.
On 17 July the Ministry of Justice of Belarus again refused to register the socio-ecological NGO Center for support of Chernobyl initiatives whose aim is to give aid to victims of Chernobyl accident and other anthropogenic catastrophes that caused radioactive irradiation. A founder of this organization, correspondent member of the National Academy of Sciences Ivan Nikitchanka thinks that the reasons for non-registering the NGO are wire-drawn: before this the officials were finding ‘mistakes’ in the filed documents, then they started speaking of ‘incompatibility of some of the charter’s provisions with the national laws’ without giving any details. The founders of the organization said they would appeal against the registration refusal at the Supreme Court.
On 30 July the Supreme Court turned down the complaint of the founders of the association of pensioners against the refusal of the Ministry of Justice to register the organization. The formal reason for non-registration was that the ministry allegedly found some incorrigible mistakes in the documents that had been submitted for registration. Uladzimir Strakh, one of the founders of the organization, said that all these mistakes could be corrected, but the Ministry of Justice did not give such opportunity to the pensioners. It was the second attempt of the organization to obtain the state registration with the aim to have legal right to protect the social rights of elderly people.
In the beginning of August the justice department of Hrodna regional executive committee refused to register Hrodna regional organization of the Belarusian Social Democratic Hramada Party for the seventh time. Members of the party said that the court officers could substitute the documents that were filed for registration, because in the refusal it was stated that information about the place of work of one of the organization’s members was incorrect. The head of Hrodna regional BSDH organization ,Viktar Sazonau, stated that it was absolutely impossible, as the same documents were submitted to the ministry several times and the ‘mistake’ was found only during the last one. That’s why Sazonau believes that the real reason for non-registration is the unwillingness of the state authorities to have legal opponents.
3. Freedom of expression and the right to disseminate information
On 17 July the college board of Minsk city court turned down the complaint of the correspondent for the newspaper Narodnaya Volia, Maryna Koktysh, against non-accreditation at the Chamber of Representatives of the National Assembly. The court did not accept her complaint for consideration, after which the journalist decided to apply to a higher court instance. However, the college board of Minsk city court upheld the decision of the inferior court. Thus, the college board agreed that journalists had no right to protect their violated rights at court.
On 24 July in Vitsebsk the officers of Minsk department on struggle against organized crime searched the apartment of the director of the printing house Vitebskiy Kurie, Zhana Papova, within the frames of investigation of the criminal case brought on the 4 July blast. Bear in mind that this printing house published the only non-state public and political newspaper in the region, Vitebskiy Kurier M. As a result of the search the officers confiscated from Papova diskettes, CDs and flash-cards. They explained that these information carriers could contain the scheme of the explosive device. After the search, Zhana Papova was escorted for questioning on the struggle against organized crime at the regional police department. On the eve of these actions, 21 July, she had submitted to the police a letter with the demand to return the confiscated circulation of the first issue of Vitebskiy Kurier M or explain why the newspaper had been detained for several months already.
On 13 August the administrative commission of Chyhunachny district of Vitsebsk fined the local opposition activist and distributor of independent press, Barys Khamaida, 200,000 rubles (about $94) for violation of the rules of trade. Mr. Khamaida said he would not appeal against this verdict. He believes that the amendment of the Constitution by the Belarusian authorities in 1996 was unlawful and that since that time there was no independent judicial authority in Belarus. However, he is not going to stop distributing newspapers either.
On 28 August the judge of Leninski district court of Minsk, Mikhail Khoma, sentenced an activist of the civil campaign European Belarus, Pavel Luksha, to 10 days of arrest, who had been detained for distribution of the Vybor newspaper on 18 August. The newspaper contained articles with calls to boycott the upcoming parliamentary elections and participate in actions of protest against falsifications. The court considered it as ‘calls to participation in unauthorized action’ and punished the activist with ten days of arrest under Article 23.34 of the Administrative Code, ‘violation of the rules of organizing and holding mass actions’.
4. Administrative punishments to civil and political activists
On 1 July the court of the city of Baranavichy and Baranavichy district sentenced the activist of the Young Front, Zmitser Stankevich, to 10 days of arrest for handing out leaflets with information about the political prisoner Andrei Kim. Stankevich had been detained by the police who had drawn up report under Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code, ‘disorderly conduct’.
On 2 July the activist of the civil campaign European Belarus, Pavel Yukhnevich, was placed to the remand prison on Akrestsin Street in Minsk for serving seven-day arrest to which he had been sentenced in absentia by Pershamaiski district court of Minsk for participation in the official Labor Day action, held near the National Library by the official trade unions. Pavel Yukhnevich decided to come to the police on his own, not to be seized out in the street as it happened to the activist of the European Belarus, Yauhen Afnahel.
On 11 July the judge of Tsentralny district court of Minsk, Tatsiana Pauliuchuk, sentenced the activists of the United Civil Party, Mikhail Pashkevich and Vasil Stazharau, to 15 days of arrest and Kiryl Paulouski – to ten days, in both cases under Article 17.1. The people were detained in the morning for an attempt to find about the fate of a member of their party Alexander Siarheyenka, for which they came to the local KGB office. After the detention the activists were escorted to Tsentralny district police department, where reports for ‘dirty swearing in public’ were drawn up against them.
On 16 July, Pavel Levinau, a member of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee from Vitsebsk, was taken from the hospital for serving the arrest term (on 26 May he had been sentenced to ten days of arrest under Article 17.1 of the Criminal Code by the judge Valiantsina Kismiaroshkina). The matter is that on 26 May the activist tried to get into the apartment of the journalist, Vadzim Barshcheuski, where a search was performed, but was detained by the policemen, who accused him of ‘dirty swearing’. Mr. Levinau spent almost two months appealing against the verdict by which he was sentenced to arrest and fined 700,000 rubles (about $330) for insubordination to the police. According to the Human Rights activist, during all this time the officers of Pershamaiski district police department of Vitsebsk were trying to forcedly take him to serve the term of arrest: they kept watch near his apartment and watched his movement around the city.
The district tax inspection fined an activist of the entrepreneurs’ movement, Aliaksei Taustyka, 140,000 rubles (about $657) on the basis of a customer’s complaint, for speaking Belarusian, which was considered as ‘tactless treatment of the customer’. The entrepreneur was not even allowed to familiarize himself with the complaint.
On 28 July the judge of Babruisk district court, Aliaksei Klimau, sentenced a local politician, pretender for candidate at these parliamentary elections, Alexander Chyhir, to ten days of arrest and to 2.1 million rubles (about $986) fine for ‘disorderly conduct, insubordination to the police and defilement of a taxi car). The politician was given the opportunity to appeal against the verdict. On 14 August a judge of Mahiliou regional court, Mikalai Hladki, ruled to turn Chyhir’s appeal down. He did not even explain the reasons for such verdict.
On 30 July the judge of Pukhavichy district court, Anatol Viazhevich, fined the civil activist, Siarhei Abrazouski, 1,750,000 rubles (about $893) for organization of an unauthorized meeting against construction of a pesticide plant near the settlement of Druzhny. Mr. Abrazouski commented: ‘Violations of Human Rights in Pukhavichy district witness that the Belarusian authorities mock at the people. We are shown that common people have no rights and the officials can do anything they want.’ Siarhei Abrazouski was fined for the third time. Before this, he had been fined $1,300 for meetings that had taken place in the settlements of Druzhny and Svislach in spring 2008.
In August the activist of the Belarusian Christian Democracy Party, Kanstantsin Shytal, was called to the office of a court marshal of Doksytsy district court to pay a 70,000 ruble (about $33) fine for picketing at the market in Dokshytsy on 9 May. The trial took place on 10 July, but Shytal received no writ, though in the verdict it was written that he was informed but did not come to the court. Bear in mind that on 9 May 2008, Kanstantsin Shytal held a picket against abortions in Dokshytsy, which caused a great resonance among the local population and in mass media. ‘It is a pity that in our country with a thousand-year Christian history the authorities consider the attempts of protest against antichristian and antihuman actions as a crime’, commented Mr. Shytal.
5. The right to peaceful assemblies
In July Minsk city executive committee banned the pickets of solidarity with the political prisoner Alexander Kazulin that were to have taken place in Arlouskaya Street on 6 and 7 July. The reasons for the ban were not explained.
On 14 July about fifty representatives of oppositional parties and movements took part in an act in Kastrychnitskaya Square in Minsk against the arrest of opposition activists in connection with the 4 July blast. The peaceful action was disbanded by the riot police, who beat the leader of the United Civil Party, Anatol Liabedzka. Medical expertise registered five hematomas, but the politician saw no sense in applying to the court.
Brest city authorities prohibited the Human Rights activist, Raman Kisliak, to hold the act ‘March of petty hooligans’ on 30 July. By this action the Human Rights activist wanted to draw public attention to massive detentions and arrests of public and political activists under Article 17.1 of the Administrative Code (disorderly conduct). The official reason for the ban was that the stated place of the action did not correspond to the ruling of Brest city executive committee On determining regular places for holding mass actions in Brest. 19 applicants of the march appealed against the ban, but the court stated that trial of such lawsuits was beyond its competence.
On 12 August the court of Tsentralny district of Minsk sentenced the youth activist, Mauliuda Atakulava, to ten days of arrest. On the eve of the trial she was detained together with Young Front activists, Andrei Tychyna and Ivan and Illia Shyla for picketing the Russian Embassy. All the detainees were escorted to the police station, but all of them except for Atakulava were under age, that’s why she was the only person who was not released and had to spend the night in the remand prison in Akrestsin Street. The trial of the girl was closed and none of her friends were allowed to be present at it. The court verdict became known only when she was led out of the court hall.
Bear in mind that Minsk city executive committee banned a rally against the war in Georgia. The application for the rally was submitted by activists of the BPF Youth. The formal reason for the refusal was that the place of the action was too close to the metro and it contradicted the law On mass actions. At the same time, the authorities did not propose any alternative places for the actions.
6. Politically motivated dismissals from work and expulsions from high schools
On 14 July the activist of Young Front and the Belarusian Christian Party, Pavel Nazdra, was tried within the frames of a case brought by Mazyr military enlistment committee in June. Mr. Nazdra was accused of having not informed the military enlistment committee about his voluntary termination of the working contract. For this he was fined 70,000 rubles (about $33), while all other people judged for the same thing were just warned.
On 30 July the police took the activist of Polatsk branch of Young Front, Ales Krutkin, out of his apartment and escorted him to Polatsk district police department, where a report under Article 25.1 of the Administrative Code for not coming to the military enlistment office was drawn up against him. Before this, at the end of June Mr. Krutkin was groundlessly expelled from the first year of the historical faculty of Polatsk State University.
The head of Kobryn organization of the Belarusian Popular Front Party Alexander Mekh, a candidate for deputy from the United democratic forces, was fired from the position of engineer of Kobryn department of gas-main pipelines of the open stock company Beltranshaz. Before the dismissal the head of Kobryn department of gas-main pipelines, Uladzimir Halashka, and the head of Kobryn KGB office, Andrei Basko, conducted a ‘prophylactic talk’ with him. They tried to persuade Mekh to refuse to participate in the elections, threatening him with dismissal. Mr. Mekh recorded the conversation with a voice recorder and publicized it with the aid of independent mass media. He also appealed to Kobryn district court against the decision of the enterprise administration not to extend his labor contract. The trial lasted for three days. On 22 August the judge of Kobryn district court, Alexander Babaskin, turned Mekh’s lawsuit down.