Ales Bialiatski: ‘Registration or non-registration of ‘Nasha Viasna’ is the indicator of the readiness of the authorities to change their policy towards NGOs’
Mr. Ales! At present the Belarusian mass media actively discuss the information that the documents for registration of the human rights association Nasha Viasna, among the founders of which there are members of the liquidated by the authorities Human Rights Center Viasna, have been passed to the Ministry of Justice.
A.B.: Yes, this is really the core of the former Viasna center – the human rights activists who have worked there and continue working now, because being a human rights defender means not only an office position, but also some kind of personal mission. We, about 70 people from all over Belarus, held a constituent assembly and submitted documents for registration of Nasha Viasna, because the Belarusian legislation demands that the organization name be changed so that it would not resemble the names of the organizations that have been liquidated.
Bear in mind that Viasna was liquidated in October 2003 for its active position, for criticizing the authorities and accusing them in manipulation of the results at presidential elections 2001. It was an act of revenge from the side of the Belarusian authorities. However, these forced measures of the state did not lead to cessation of human rights activism, because no one can prohibit to any citizen of the Republic of Belarus to deal with human rights activities either in association with others or individually. For all this time we have been trying to regain our legal status and prove our reputation of an active human rights organization, which Human Rights Center Viasna really used to be.
We filed a complaint with the UN Human Rights Committee, as a result of which the Committee concluded that by their activities on liquidation of the Human Rights Center Viasna the Belarusian authorities violated the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In its decision the Committee confirmed the rights of Viasna members for such means of legal defense as re-registration and a compensation for unfair closedown. This decision also obliged the authorities to take measures for prevention of similar actions towards other NGOs. Pitifully enough, they did not implement this decision and our registration was not renewed.
In 2007 we repeated our attempt and submitted documents for registration of a new human rights organization. However, I think that there was the political decision not to grant registration to us. We did not receive registration once again.
At present practically all civilized world demands that the activities of NGOs in Belarus be liberalized. It is also specified in the latest resolution of the European Parliament, which includes the concrete question about registration of the Nasha Viasna association. In this context the attempt to get a new NGO registered acquires a special importance. We doubtlessly demand that the Belarusian authorities correct their political mistakes concerning us and actually restore the registration to HRC Viasna under such corrected name, which we propose now. It seems to me that this registration (or non-registration) will show the extent to which the authorities are ready to change their attitude towards non-governmental organizations in Belarus in the contemporary conditions.
The civil society of Belarus had some hopes connected with the negotiations of the director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutes and Human Rights (ODIHR) Janez Lenarcic with the head of the presidential administration Uladzimir Makei and the minister of foreign affairs Siarhei Martynau on 23 January. Mr. Lenarcic also met with representatives of parties, NGOs and human rights activists and discussed the reform of the Belarusian electoral system. What were your main conclusions after this meeting?
A.B.: The agreement about the beginning of consultations on reform of the electoral legislation of Belarus at the end of January was reached several months ago. This time neither the authorities, nor the Central Election Commission refused from this meeting, though during the recent years they used to very consequently and stubbornly refuse from such contacts.
Bear in mind that since 1996 the OSCE has not recognized any elections in Belarus as free, fair and democratic. As a result of all OSCE observation missions there were made recommendations on amendment of the Belarusian legislation and improvement of the electoral process. But all such proposals were blankly rejected by the Belarusian authorities.
The meeting of Mr. Lenarcic was of diplomatic, framework nature. Its aim was to once again pronounce the mechanism of discussion of the Belarusian legislation by experts. That’s why at the meeting Janez Lenarcic emphasized that the task of the OSCE was not to correct the legislation, but just to point at the shortcomings and prompt the ways for their correction. Putting the election laws in line with the European standards is the task of the CEC and the Chamber of Representatives.
During the meeting that was attended by representatives of various human rights organizations there was raised a number of questions including the improvement of the Belarusian electoral legislation, as all human rights activists have the unanimous position that the law on elections needs to be urgently changed. There was also discussed the problem of freedom associations and registration of NGOs including the public human rights association Nasha Viasna which is in progress as of now. It is necessary to point out that at present many NGOs are either going to submit documents for state registration or have already done it. To my mind, it will be a certain check-up of the ‘good will’ of the Belarusian authorities for changing of their unfriendly (to put it mild) attitude to NGOs.
Mr. Ales, are real changes likely to be introduced into the election laws or there will be just some ‘cosmetic’ amendments?
A.B.: This process is just being defined. Soon the ODIHR experts will start working in cooperation with the authorities. Besides, we asked to engage in this work representatives of NGOs and political parties as subjects of electoral process, the ones who are really interested in transparent, democratic and fair elections. There’s also a certain complex of demands from the side of the Belarusian participants of the electoral process – political parties and NGOs and there are ODIHR recommendations. It’s worth mentioning that 99% of these demands and recommendations are the same. We all see the weak points of the law on elections, the election campaign and the opportunities for falsification of the elections in Belarus that exist nowadays.
So, can we say that not only the European experts, but human rights activists see the Achilles hill of the electoral legislation?
A.B.: Yes, we found the weak points of the electoral process long ago. There are three main blocks. The first is the forming of the election commissions, which is conducted in a non-democratic way nowadays. The second important moment is early voting, which needs to be more transparent and more controllable by participants of elections. The third moment is the Election Day, where there are problems with transparency during calculation of the results.
Of course, there are also other mismatches of the same importance. That’s why human rights activists are ready to propose positive changes to the electoral legislation if we are given the opportunity to join the work on improvement of the electoral legislation.
Mr. Ales, can we soon expect other changes in legislation, first of all concerning the disgraceful article 193.1 of the Criminal Code?
A.B.: Here we also have the common position with the OSCE and this issue is emphasized in the latest resolution on Belarus of the European Parliament. There must be changes in the legislation, which at present represses representatives of NGOs, especially those that have no official registration. All in all, the legislation on freedom of association needs a review and a more friendly and precise implementation from the side of the Ministry of Justice.
Can we consider the recent statement of the Prosecutor General of Belarus Ryhor Vasilevich that ‘in general, the abolishment of death penalty is possible’ as a real, conscious will of the authorities, or just a part of the everyday world juggling?
A.B.: This statement seems quite interesting as, to my mind, at present the Prosecutor General has not own position or, even if he has one, it is hidden deep inside. Yes, he agrees that capital punishment can be abolished, but admits it reluctantly, yielding to the pressure of the European structures. However, at the same time he believes that capital punishment is still necessary for ‘prophylaxis’. But what kind of cynical medieval prophylaxis can be – punishment by death? That’s why such a position can be considered only as a maneuver. At the same time, I should add that the Belarusian authorities are psychologically ready to serious changes, at least to introduction of moratorium on this kind of punishment. The public position on this issue needs to be more defined. It should be voiced and there must be some public pressure on the authorities.
The sociological questioning shows that the number of adherents and adversaries of capital punishment in the Belarusian society is practically equal. That’s why NGOs need to work more actively, to influence the public opinion and the Belarusian people should demonstrate its political will.
Do you think that it is necessary to hold a referendum on abolishment of death penalty, which the authorities are using as a cover?
A.B.: The matter is that there’s no need in any referenda for introduction of moratorium on death penalty. Legislatively it can be made quite quickly and after a certain period of time during which the appropriate educational and explanatory work will be implemented, we could return to its final abolishment. I believe that in this case the Belarusian citizens will manage to understand it quite soon that the abolishment of death penalty is necessary for us all in moral and in ethical respect.