Review-Chronicle of Human Rights Violations in Belarus in February 2009
In February police dispersed two peaceful democratic actions: on 14 February – in honor of St. Valentine's Day and on 16 February – an action of solidarity with political prisoners and families of the missing political and civil activists. Some of participants of these actions applied for medical aid. No one was detained.
Political conscripts Zmitser Khvedaruk, Ivan Shyla and Franak Viachorka got to hospitals, which witnesses the falsification of the medical conclusions declaring them fit for military service. Zmitser Khvedaruk was even operated. However, the appeals to court against the drafting brought no results.
Politically motivated criminal persecution continued as well: a criminal case was brought against Maksim Dashuk, a figurant of the 'Process of 14', for evasion from serving the penalty.
On 8 February the new Law On mass media, called a 'draconian law' by the international community, came into effect. International organizations called on the Belarusian authorities to put the law in line with the international standards. According to Liliya Ananich, the first Deputy Minister of information, the new law on mass media 'considerably simplified the registration of editions' and 'established a precise mechanism of responsibility'. Meanwhile, Article 54 of the law provides forced re-registration by 9 February 2010 for all mass media that were registered by the Ministry of Information before 8 February 2009, which means that the authorities could refuse to issue new licenses to 'undesirable' editions. Mass media were also banned to receive financing and property from foreign legal and physical bodies, people without citizenship and anonymous sources. The work in Belarus of unaccredited journalists with foreign media was banned by the law.
On 4 February the Ministry of Information and the Belarusian Association of Journalists held the round table Legislation on mass media as a development factor of the national informational space. The event was attended by state officials, the OSCE, representatives of the European Commission and journalists, Zhana Litvina, Chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists; Andrei Bastunets, BAJ Deputy Chairperson; and representatives of private media including Iosif Siaredzich (Narodnaya Volia), Vasil Zdaniuk (SNplus. Svobodnye Novosti plus), Iryna Krylovich (Belorusy i Rynok) and Andrei Dynko (Nasha Niva). It was the first time when such a discussion took place, which brought about a contentious debate. A special attention was paid to the new Belarusian law On mass media.
Natallia Piatkevich, first Deputy Chairperson of Presidential Administration, stated that the 'fever around the new law on mass media is in many respects wire-drawn and artificial'. Independent experts and representatives of private media tried to raise some acute issues. Commenting on the round table, some of its participants stated that it was organized in order to demonstrate to the EU the readiness of the authorities to engage in a dialogue with the society. At the same time, 11 largest private socio-political editions were still denied distribution by the state monopolists, Belsayuzdruk and Belposhta.
Besides, on 25 February the Maskouski district court in Brest declared edition 7-8 of the ARCHE magazine 'extremist materials that must be destroyed'. On the eve of the hearings, the International Federation of Journalists submitted a letter to the President, the Prosecutor General and KGB Chairperson. On 27 February, the international organization Reporters Without Borders condemned the court verdict in its public statement.
On 19 February the delegation of the EU headed by the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU, Secretary General of the EU Council Javier Solana, arrived to Belarus for an official visit. The delegation met with President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, Foreign Minister Siarhei Martynau and other high officials. However, a meeting with representatives of the civil society was held first. In his speech Mr. Solana pointed that the EU intended to make Belarus a part of the Eastern Partnership program seeking to develop relations with Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and the Ukraine. However, this could happen only if the official Minsk implemented the EU demands on democratization of the Belarusian society.
On 20 February a group of deputies of the EU Parliament headed by Christopher Beazley of the UK, member of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, came to Belarus for a six-hour visit. The delegation also included Laima Liucija Andrikiene of Lithuania, who initiated the visit, Jose Javier Pomes Ruiz of Spain, and Jacek Protasiewicz of Poland, who headed the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Belarus. It was not an official visit, as the delegation did not receive official confirmation for holding negotiations with Aliaksandr Lukashenka and Siarhei Martynau. During the visit the delegation of the European People's Party of the European Parliament met with the Ambassadors of the European countries, representatives of democratic forces and officials of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In the evening a press-conference was held at the Representation of the European Commission in Belarus. In general, the European deputies praised the present development of the contacts between Belarus and Europe, but pointed that the future of the Belarusian-European dialogue depended on the situation of human rights in Belarus. The results of this visit could also influence the EU decision on renewal or abolition of the restrictive measures against a number of the Belarusian officials with Aliaksandr Lukashenka at the head.
Jacek Protasievicz stated that this decision must be reached unanimously by all members of the EU Council and the sanctions against Belarus should no longer be suspended if at least one of 27 state parties voted against it.
The US Department of State presented its yearly report on the situation of human rights in the world. The document considers the situation of the internationally recognized individual, civil, political and labor rights, mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations Organization. According to the report, the situation of human rights in Belarus remained rather bad and the state authorities continued to systematically and seriously violate human rights.
1. Politically motivated criminal cases
Bear in mind that following his participation in a peaceful protest action of entrepreneurs, in May 2008 Maksim Dashuk, being under age, was sentenced to 18 months of personal restraint without direction to penitentiary institution.
2. Harassment of political and civil activists. Activities of security services
On 3 February the Tsentralny district court in Homel fined Andrei Tsianiuta 2.8 million rubles (about $1 000) for participating in an unauthorized action and resistance to police. Vasil Tokaranka was fined 1.75 million rubles ($625) and Kastus Zhukouski (who videoed the action) – 3.5 million rubles ($1 250). That day the regional activists proceeded from the Homel oblast Drama Theater to the Homel city executive committee holding six-meter long streamer: 'KGB haunt us, will the Constitution protect us?' to protest against unlawful dismissals of local activists under the KGB pressure. During a personal search at the Tsentralny police department in Homel the picket participants were completely undressed. Then they were guarded to court.
Despite taking the oath of allegiance 7 February in the military units in Zhodzina and Mezhytsa (Lepel district), Young Front activists Zmitser Khvedaruk and Ivan Shyla intended to go to the law against the forced recruitment and demand the annulment of the orders for their drafting. 'I am going to pass all court instances, including the international ones, if necessary', said Ivan Shyla after taking the oath. 'It's my principled position and I will not refuse from it'.
On 13 February the Leninski district court in Minsk fined Mikola Dzemidzenka 1 225 000 rubles (about $437) and Zmitser Dashkevich – 1,4 million rubles ($500) for participation in an unauthorized action.
On 20 February the Salihorsk town court ruled to pass to the Lepel inter-garrison military court the complaint lodged by Ivan Shyla against the actions of the draft board related to his drafting. The activist's parents appealed at the Minsk oblast court against the order for his drafting.
On 21 February, International Mother Language Day, police detained the Homel youth who held a flash-mob for protection of the Belarusian language. The Tsentralny district court in Homel sentenced Kastus Zhukouski to 7 days of arrest. Marysia Tulzankova, Ales Viartseika and journalists Zmitser Karmazin and Aleh Ryzhkou were fined 700 000 rubles ($250) each, and Vasil Tokaranka – 1.75 million rubles ($625). Judge Damnenka dismissed the petitions by the accused for leading the trial in Belarusian.
On 24 February Zmitser Khvedaruk was operated on a vein at the main military hospital of the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Belarus. Earlier, during a medical examination in the army, it was found that the youngster had a varix dilatation. At first the operation was scheduled for 14 April because of the lack of places in the hospital, but then the medics changed their mind.
The Minsk inter-garrison military procuracy confirmed the beating of Franak Viachorka on the day of drafting. On 24 February his father Vintsuk Viachorka received from the procuracy an answer to his complaint lodged on 29 January with the Belarusian military prosecutor. In his answer the prosecutor refused to bring a criminal case against officers of the Savetski district draft board of Minsk and of main military clinical center 432 concerning the use of physical violence and excess of the duty powers. At the same time, the procuracy forwarded to the investigative organs all materials concerning the use of physical violence against Franak Viachorka by police (including the unidentified 'people in mufti').
On 26 February Natallia Zhupikava, Judge of the Minsk city court, considered the cassation appeal of Franak Viachorka and left in force the verdict of the Savetski district court in Minsk by which his draft into the army was found legal. At the trial Vintsuk Viachorka and Franak's lawyer spoke about grave violations of the Law On military duty and military service and the Civil Process Code by the Savetski district court. It's quite interesting that two different versions of the minutes of one sitting of the drafting commission were attached to Viachorka's case. The documents of the activist's examination at the military hospital contain no information about his blood pressure and the ophthalmologist 'examined' him without seeing.
On 26 February, police detained Aliaksandra Kamarova, an activist of the For Freedom movement, and a friend of her while holding a public poll. The activists asked passers-by whether there was a crisis in Belarus and what they thought about it. At the police station the questionnaires were taken away from the detainees and detention reports were drawn up. The reason for the detention was formulated as 'undermining the fundamentals of the state system'.
Anatol Liabedzka, leader of the United Civil Party, was still banned to travel abroad. At his press-conference at the central office of the Belarusian Popular Front on 2 February he stated that two months after his address to the Prosecutor General's Office, he received an answer running: 'An appropriate inquiry was lodged with the prosecutorial organs of the Russian Federation for clearing the circumstances necessary to take a well-grounded decision on Your address. There's still no answer, which prevents us from taking a decision on this matter.' The politician reminded that he was banned to travel abroad in connection with a criminal case instigated five years ago for 'defamation of the President'. Mr. Liabedzka said he intended to appeal against the ban at court and could possibly address the prosecutorial organs of the Russian Federation for getting a written answer.
3. Freedom of peaceful assemblies
The Homel oblast executive committee did not authorize an assembly of NGOs and initiatives of the Homel oblast in the run-up to the Assembly of NGOs. According to Uladzimir Katsora, Deputy Chairperson of Homel city branch of the Belarusian republican association Legal Initiative, at first an oral agreement for accommodating the action was received from the head of the House of creative work of children and youth Yunatstva, but later the official refused to do it without providing a reason (he said he could not do it over the telephone). By the way, the House of creative work belongs to the culture department of the Homel oblast executive committee.
On 14 February, police violently dispersed a traditional action in honor of St.Valentine's Day. Though the event was not sanctioned by the authorities, about one hundred of youngsters took part in it. As a result of the police violence three participants of the action applied to hospitals for medical aid. Activists of the Young Front appealed to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and to the procuracy against the groundless use of violence by the law-enforcement agencies. The Belarusian human rights activists, indignant at the actions of the police, adopted a statement in which they called on the authorities to implement the international undertakings and stop using violence at peaceful actions.
The Vitsebsk city executive committee banned the representative of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Pavel Levinau to hold a picket against violations of civil rights by the police. The action was dated to the Police Day, 4 March. The official reason provided for the refusal was that such action 'would hinder the movement of passers-by near the Summer Amphitheater'. Mr. Levinau was also reminded that holding any mass actions in central Vitsebsk was banned as the city administration had defined for it only some places on the outskirts. Pavel Levinau considers it inexpedient to hold civil actions in such lonely places. He lodged without any success five appeals against the bans. Nevertheless, after the last refusal he applied to court for the sixth time.
4. Freedom of conscience
Two Danish priests were deported from Belarus in February. The migration service of the Savetski district police department in Homel prohibited them to enter Belarus for one year. According to official information, Rolf Bergen and Erling Laursen were in the country on a short-term mission, during which they 'tried to conduct illegal religious activities in the prayer house of a Protestant community'. In the interview with the BelaPAN Bergen and Laursen said that they came to Belarus to meet with their friends, believers of the Protestant church Living Faith, to maintain the contacts established as a result of joint humanitarian projects. Both Danish citizens attended a divine service in a church on 7 February and were detained by police after it.
On 20 February the Lelchytsy district court issued a verdict on the administrative case against Vital Myshona, priest of the local Catholic parish. The district architect drew a report on the priest for 'installment of a cross without permission'. Prior to this, in January the chairperson of the Lelchytsy district geodesic and land service prescribed the priest to either dismantle the cross or complete the legal procedures necessary for the issue of a piece of land for it. As a result the priest was fined 105 000 rubles (about $37) for the failure to implement the prescription.
Bear in mind that the local authorities allowed the installment of a Catholic cross at the entrance of Lelchytsy in October 2008. However, later officials of the Lelchytsy district executive committee started putting additional conditions before the priest.
5. Freedom of association
On 19 February Tereza Selivonchyk, Chairperson of the Baranavichy department of the underground Union of Poles in Belarus, was warned by the procuracy about the possibility of criminal punishment for activities on behalf of unregistered organization. According to Andrei Pachobut, member of the UPB Main Council, it was the first case when Article 193.1 was used by the authorities against members of the organization. He stated that the authorities had suddenly started openly pressing the UCP members on the whole territory of Belarus to make them refuse from participation in the organization activities. The people were 'invited' to come for 'talks' to the KGB, MIA or procuracies. There they were warned about possible criminal punishment for participation in the organization assembly scheduled for 14-15 March. Security services also sent many anonymous letters and E-mail messages with accusations against well-known UPB activists.
At the end of February the Homel oblast justice department issued a warning to Talaka, a local youth local core organization, for using unregistered symbols at its web-site and the ads that were distributed in the city. Larysa Shchyrakova, Chairperson of the organization, refers the warnings to the organization activities: 'Each month we organize one or two meetings with writers, poets and other creative people who are under, so to say, official prohibition. It is simple pressurization, an attempt to intimidate our organization for its activities.'
6. Freedom of information
On 24 February Maryna Damnenka, Judge of the Tsentralny district court in Homel, fined Zmitser Karamzin and Aleh Razhkou, members of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, for 'violating the rules of holding street actions'. During the trial, Judge dismissed all petitions for summoning police officers and other witnesses. In fact, the journalists were detained while gathering information about an action dated to 21 February, International Mother Language Day. Police captain Siarhei Aleinik told Karamzin and Razhkou that they ostensibly resembled the offenders who beat a person, and guarded them to the police station for identification. Police officers drew up violation reports against the detainees and passed them to court.
On 24 February the Homel oblast procuracy issued a warning to Tatsiana Bublikava, a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, for 'activities with the TV Company BelSat that broadcasts to Belarus from the territory of Poland'.
On 7 February the Chavusy district court turned down the lawsuit filed by Siarhei Niarouny, editor of the private small-circulation newspaper Volny Horad; and Uladzimir Kudrautsau, founder of the newspaper, against the insult of their honor, dignity and business reputation by the state newspaper Leninskii Klich. The trial of the case lasted for more than a year. The reason for the lawsuit was a series of feuilletons published in Leninskii Klich in 2005-2007 as a response to the critique by Volny Horad of the work of Leninskii Klich. The plaintiffs stated that the authors of the feuilletons had deliberately distorted facts from the life of opposition politicians in order to soil their reputation in the eyes of ordinary citizens. The court established that the feuilletons were written by Tatsiana Iwkina, editor of Leninski Klich, and journalists Aliaksandr Haurylenka and Aliaksei Ivanou, all of whom were defendants at the trial. Sixteen pasquinades were directed for a linguistic expertise that eventually confirmed that in some cases the feuilletons contained libel. Nevertheless, Judge Alena Karalko dismissed the complaint arguing that 'the resemblance between the characters of the feuilletons to the plaintiffs was not established'.
On 25 February, Judge Tatsiana Miraniuk, Deputy Chairperson of the Maskouski district court in Brest, granted a lawsuit of Brest oblast KGB department and ruled that edition7-8 of the ARCHE magazine was 'extremist and liable to destruction'.
Bear in mind that on the border crossing point in Brest on 24 October 2008 the customs officers confiscated ten copies of the magazine from one of its authors, Ales Pashkevich. On 30 December 2008 the Brest oblast KGB department lodged a lawsuit where it was stated that ' it was established by an analysis that the magazine contained information that discredited activities of the power organs of the Republic of Belarus, escalated social and political tensions and confrontation in the society and stimulated actions seeking to organize mass riot, thus creating danger to security of the Republic of Belarus'.
Zhana Litvina, Chairperson of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, commented: 'The greatest number of questions arises from the court issuing the verdict at a closed trial, without an appropriate expertise. To my mind, it witnesses the wish to conceal the essence of the trial from the public. Taking into account that ARCHE is a legally registered edition and the only Belarusian media invited to the net of the European intellectual magazines Eurozine, the situation looks even more absurd. It is a rude crackdown on freedom of expression instead of respect to the civil right to receive information. KGB assumes a censor's functions and the right to the ultimate truth.'