Ales Bialiatski: ‘Registration or non-registration of Nasha Viasna will show the readiness of the authorities for changes pertaining to NGOs’
Mr.Bialiatski’s interview concerning the registration of the Nasha Viasna human rights organization.
Q: Mr.Bialiatski, Belarusian mass media have repeatedly mentioned that the Nasha Viasna human rights organization, founded by members of the liquidated Human Rights Center Viasna, has applied for registration to the Ministry of Justice.
A: Right, we are the basis of the former Viasna center, where we used to work and continue our activity, since being a human rights activist is a mission, not just a post. We, over 70 people across Belarus, held a congress and applied for registration of Nasha Viasna, because the Belarusian legislation requires to change the name to avoid confusion with the closed organization.
Viasna was closed down in October 2003 for its militant activity, for criticizing the authorities and blaming them for mass violations during the 2001 presidential election. It was revenge by the authorities. However, the violent actions by the state did not stop our human rights activity, since no one can restrain a Belarusian citizen to maintain human rights activity in the framework of an organization or individually. Over the period, we have not abandoned our hope to regain the legal status and reestablish the name of an active human rights organization – Human Rights Center Viasna.
We lodged a claim with the UN Human Rights Committee, which arrived at a decision that by liquidating Viasna the Belarusian authorities violated the International Covenant on Civl and Political Rights. In its resolution, the Committee reaffirmed the right of the Viasna members to adequate legal protection and compensation for the illegal liquidation. The decision also urged the Belarusian government to take precautions against similar violations towards other NGOs in future. Unfortunately, the decision was not fulfilled by the Belarusian authorities and our status was reviewed.
In 2007 we retried to obtain the legal status and applied for registration of a new human rights organization. But, I think there was a political decision to turn down our application and we were denied registration again.
Our recent attempt, under current circumstances, when liberalization of Belarusian NGOs’ activity is demanded by numerous representatives of the international community, including the latest resolution by the European Parliament, which highlighted the problem of Nasha Viasna’s registration, has an enormous significance. We urge the Belarusian authorities to correct their political mistakes concerning our organization and officially grant registration to the Human Rights Center Viasna under a new name. The registration, in my opinion, will show whether the authorities are ready for cardinal changes pertaining to Belarusian NGOs.
Q: The Belarusian human rights community set their hopes on the recent negotiations of Ambassador Janez Lenaric, Director of the ODIHR OSCE, with head of Lukashenka’s administration Uladzimer Makei and the minister of foreign affairs Siarhei Martynau on 23 January. Mr.Lenaric also met with representatives of political parties, NGOs and human rights activists to consider the reform of the Belarusian electoral code. What are the main impressions of the meeting?
A: A few months ago we already knew that in late January 2009 there would be consultations on the reform of the Belarusian electoral legislation. This time the authorities, including the Central Electoral Commission, supported the idea, having repeatedly refused any contacts over the past few years.
Belarusian elections have been condemned by OSCE since 1996, issuing recommendations to reform the legislation and the electoral procedures in particular. However, all of them were turned down by the Belarusian authorities.
The meeting with Mr.Lenaric had a diplomatic and a framework character. It was aimed at considering the mechanism of expert discussion on the reform of the Belarusian legislation. That is why Mr.Lenaric stressed that it is not OSCE’s function to reform legislation, but to indicate the flaws and best ways of to correct them. It is the Central Electoral Commission and the members of the House of Representatives who should adapt the electoral legislation to the European standards.
During the meeting, attended by representatives of various human rights organizations, the participants touched upon a number of issues, including the reform of the Belarusian electoral legislation, since all of the Belarusian HR activists are unanimous about this matter – the Electoral Code should be reformed. Also, we dwelt upon the freedom of association, the registration of NGOs, including Nasha Viasna, in particular. I should stress that many NGOs have either applied or are going to apply for registration lately. This, in my opinion, will be a test of the ‘good will’ of the Belarusian authorities for reforming their, to say the least, unfavourable conditions for NGOs.
Q: Mr.Bialiatski, what are the odds on actual changes of the electoral legislation? Will it be a ‘face-lift’ or a real reform?
A: The process is not yet clear. The ODIHR experts are still to start work with the Belarusian authorities. Besides, we have demanded to allow representatives of NGOs and political parties to participate in the work, as the subjects of the electoral process, i.e. the bodies directly affected by the inefficiency and intransparency of elections. There is a series of demands, both by the Belarusian participants of the electoral process – political parties, NGOs, and by the ODIHR, which, it should be stressed, coincide almost 100%. We all can see the flaws of the Electoral Code, the electoral process and the possibilities for falsifications of elections in Belarus.
Q: That is, we can state that the Achilles' heel of the electoral legislation is well-known both to European experts and Belarusian human rights activists?
A: Right, we determined the disadvantages of the electoral process a long time ago. There are three main parts. Firstly, the formation of electoral commissions, which is undemocratic at present. Secondly, the early vote, which requires more transparency and control by participants of the elections. Thirdly, the voting day itself, the transparency of the counting of votes in particular.
There are other, equally severe flaws. Thus, if there is a possibility to join the work at reforming the electoral legislation, human rights experts are ready to work for positive changes.
Q: Mr.Bialiatski, can we expect any legislative changes, e.g. the notorious Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code?
A: Here, we are also of the same opinion with the OSCE, the issue was mentioned in the recent resolution by the European Parliament. There should be changes in the legislation, which is at present a means of harassing the representatives of NGOs, especially those of the unregistered ones. In general, the legislation on the freedom of association has also to be reformed and requires a more accurate treatment by the Ministry of Justice.
Q: Can we consider the recent statement by the General Prosecutor of Belarus Ryhor Vasilevich that ‘the abolition of death penalty is highly probable’ a real will of the authorities or just another word juggling?
A: Of course, the statement is rather curious, since, in my opinion, the General Prosecutor does not have his own position, or if he does, it is a well-hidden one. He says capital punishment can be abolished. But he does it unwillingly, simply because Europe is pressing on Belarus. However, he thinks that ‘death penalty can so far be used a precaution measure’. Is execution a ‘precaution measure? It is a medieval cynicism. So the statement can be viewed as being on both sides of the fence. Still, I should add that the Belarusian authorities seem to be psychologically ready for cardinal changes, at least to declare a moratorium on death penalty. As for the Belarusian society, there should be a more clear position, it should speak, there should be a social pressure put on the authorities.
Public opinion polls show that the Belarusian society is equally divided into two groups – those who support death penalty and those who oppose to it. So, we should intensify our work to influence public opinion; and naturally, there should be a political will of the state.
Q: Do you think that the abolition of capital punishment will require a referendum, which is so often used by the state?
A: The thing is that to declare a moratorium on death penalty we need no referendum at all, it could be easily done with the help of the law, and in some time we can reconsider its final abolition, after the necessary education work is done. I believe that Belarusians will be able to understand that the abolition of the legal murder is a moral must.