Ales Bialiatski: ‘We must take every measure possible to stop the escalation of tension and hysteria created by the authorities ahead of the presidential election’
Earlier this year the Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ predicted the intensification of the wave of repressions ahead of the presidential election in Belarus. But then the human rights defenders could not have foreseen whether the authorities would use criminal prosecution or repressions would have a hidden character. In what direction is the situation developing? Ales Bialiatski, head of the HRC ‘Viasna’, vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights, gives his assessment of the events of the recent weeks.
The human rights activist noted that the sad forecast about possible deterioration of Belarus’ human rights situation in 2010 appeared to be true. Above all, this is due to two political campaigns: the local council elections are over and the country is gradually moving towards the presidential election. The difficult human rights situation in the country has become even more complicated and human rights activists say that there are grounds to argue that the harassment of the active groups of the Belarusian civil society have become a routine. Ales Bialiatski identified several areas of the repressive actions of the authorities.
The raid on independent journalists and media
- One of the groups is active journalists working for independent media. And by some strange coincidence, all these journalists are women - chief editor of the ‘Narodnaya Volia’ newspaper Sviatlana Kalinkina, deputy editor of the ‘Narodnaya Volia’ Maryna Koktysh, a journalist of ‘Novaya Gazeta’ Iryna Khalip and editor of the charter97.org web-site Natalia Radzina. There is some symbolism in this: the president, the prime minister, the police chief, the KGB head, and the prosecutor general - all men – have been engaged in an insidious struggle against the female journalists who bravely and fiercely protect the right to receive and disseminate information. In order to put pressure on them, the so-called ‘hunting case’ was formally used. The journalists have been repeatedly called in for interrogations as witnesses, but it all just looks like what usually happens to the accused - searches, seizures of office equipment, moral and psychological pressure. Oddly enough, the person who argues that they slandered him is a general, former head of the KGB. And as you know, there are no ‘former’ KGB agents. For the human rights defenders it is clear that the case was cooked up, the main objective of the authorities being, with his hands the security forces, to defeat the three extremely popular sources of information in Belarus – the sites ‘Charter-97’, ‘Belarusian Partisan’ and the newspaper Narodnaya Volia’.
No doubt, the persecution of independent journalists causes great concern of human right defenders, we see in this another step by the authorities, aimed at limiting the spread of information. And it is a clear signal to all independent journalists - at any moment they could find themselves facing compromising materials and they can be first declared as witnesses and later as defendants, in case the authorities want it. Such a perspective is very justifiable for these journalists. Therefore, I urge the Belarusian society as much as possible to join in their defense.
Another part of the authorities’ campaign of pressure on freedom of speech is the adoption of the newly announced Internet Regulatory Act. Now we are all waiting for decisions by the Council of Ministers, which is to clear up the situation - what was meant by passing such a dim decree? Will this decision really make the Internet more secure and protect users from Internet-related crimes, or, as I strongly suspect, there are many pitfalls that could hinder the access of Belarusian citizens to independent information that is provided by hundreds of pro-democratic sites - human rights , youth, education, regional ones. It is very likely that it could first of all affect the sites, which are most popular, consistent and uncompromising with respect to the authorities’ attitude to human rights and democracy in Belarus.
The use of Article 369-1 of the Criminal Code, which provides liability for discrediting the Republic of Belarus, has already started. For example, one of the leading entrepreneurs, head of the Brest branch of the ‘Perspektyva’ public association, was warned of possible prosecution under the Article for 'biased comments in the media’, including foreign Internet resources. The list of these media sites includes racyja.by, perspektiva.org, charter97.org, euromost.org, svaboda.org, zapraudu.info. This is a real pressure on people. There is a risk that before, during and after the presidential election the criminal article shall be applied to civil activists and journalists.
Repressions against civil activists
- 18 May, 2010 will go down in the history of Belarus as the day of ‘cleansing’ the civil initiative ‘Havary Praudu’ (‘Speak the Truth’). It's disgusting that the authorities are struggling with purely peaceful civil initiatives, with arrests, searches, seizures and interrogations, again inventing some mythical claims. It is even more disgusting that one of our best writers Uladzimir Niakliayeu was detained. The man, who would have been protected and honoured by any other civilized country, was put in jail... Lukashenka, who has repeatedly disregarded the Belarusian language and Belarusian writers in his statements, who in my opinion knows very little of what culture and literature are, once again tried to declare that this country does not have any other prophets except him.
In addition, we are witnessing the case against a Vitsebsk activist Siarhei Kavalenka, who was sentenced to three years' probation. The restriction of freedom, the potential danger that hangs over his head, makes Kavalenka a politically repressed. Knowing his strong public stance, a sincere response to the truth, I am afraid that he can at any moment become a real prisoner. The authorities have tried to create a trap for Kavalenka, but in political terms, they have created a trap for themselves.
In the future, the list of persons convicted and imprisoned on political grounds in the country (to date we have six such people - Artsiom Dubski, Taras Surhan, Mikalai Autukhovich, Uladzimir Asipenka, Aliaksandr Laryn, Mikhail Kazlou) can be extended.
Recently, the prosecuting authorities initiated a criminal case against a political activist Ales Zarembiuk from the town of Masty (Hrodna region). The active young man who has created political competition in the area and launched a number of local civil initiatives, which were widely supported by local residents, was compromised and charged with fraud. This case is within a clearly political context. Ales Zarembiuk is not a new man in the socio-political activities. He has been active in youth organizations, then a member of a political party, then he was elected member of a district council, run in the recent local elections. And it was during the election when a new wave of persecution against him began.
It is impossible not to mention what happened in Navapolatsk – the search and seizure of office equipment in the office of the local human rights activist Dzmitry Salauyou, at the office, where the National organization Human Rights Center ‘Viasna’ tried to register twice last year. Salauyou observed the elections to local councils in Navapolatsk. The search was allegedly associated with the claims that some of the young people, who attended the office, made neo-Nazi inscriptions in the city. No doubt, the authorities’ aim is to halt the only independent place where civil and political activists held various political and cultural events. The same office was searched back in 2006. And now it is searched again, with the new presidential election near at hand.
All these attacks - on journalists, activists of regional public organizations and political parties in Minsk, Brest, Vitsebsk, Masty, Navapolatsk and many others - form a single picture of so to say the initial stage of the election campaign. I am afraid that we will face dozens more similar cases of forced termination of any public activity by the authorities. The cases may be extremely absurd, as it happened on 17 May with a group of anti-fascists who gathered in the building of the ‘History Workshop’ at 25 Sukhaya Street in Minsk. The screening of a documentary ended up in several detentions, including that of a Belgium national.
We see that the government have begun a pre-planned and well-prepared campaign of suppressing of civil activities ahead of the presidential election. And this is just the beginning. We must now, with the help of the international community, take every measure possible to stop the escalation of tension and hysteria created by the authorities ahead of the presidential election.
Issues of principle to the European community are not solved
- The litmus test in Belarus’ relations with the European community is the issue of the death penalty. On the one hand, it does not have such a significant effect on the relationship between the civil society and the authorities of the country, as the electoral laws do, but, at the same time, it has a great moral and symbolic dimension. The death penalty is part of an ideological set of the Belarusian authorities. That’s what has been happening after the 1996 referendum, where the issue was challenged. But we still remember the meaning of the referendum: the death penalty was then a ‘trailer car’, which actually veiled more important issues - reform of the Constitution, which led to the unlimited power concentrated in one hand. Maybe because of this it is so ‘dear’ for President’s heart. The ideological aspect of the death penalty still remains, along with the green-red flag, all the Komsomol-BRSM-pioneers and other post-Soviet insignia, a symbol of ‘cruelty and justice’ of power. This is precisely what the problem is about- over its political context the matter became extremely significant for the Belarusian authorities.
Due to the fact that for a year already the Belarusian human rights defenders have been actively campaigned against the death penalty, the problem itself has become more real and personalized: we have seen specific people behind it - sentenced to death and executed, and their relatives. The problem has become more understandable to the public. And the role of the government in this situation has become clearly disadvantageous. The severe defender of peace and order has become a revengeful hangman with a gun in his hand.
The issue of the death penalty has come to the forefront of Belarus’ relations with the Council of Europe. For our cynics, sitting in the government and operating in financial or post-Soviet political categories for ‘domestic consumption’, a Special Guest status or membership in the Council of Europe has never been so important. But in the end, they realized that the international reputation of the state, its membership in various international political clubs, is also money. But which will win – is not known yet.
The relations between the Belarusian government and the civil society have been carefully and thoroughly monitored by the EU structures. Today the European Union gives considerably more attention to its relations with Belarus, even in comparison with the previous elections. European officials, who have been engaged in the Belarusian issues for years, understand what is happening here. Therefore, the human rights situation, the death penalty, the civil liberties, which are so actively suppressed in Belarus, are not conducive to better relations with the EU.
The situation requires the activity of the civil society
- Today, every subject of the Belarusian civil society, without exception, journalists, human rights defenders, civil, political and trade union activists, should be active in pursuing their rights. Despite the malignance, obstinacy and insidiousness of the Belarusian authorities, we can achieve some progress. A harsh struggle is underway and the main objective of the executive authorities is to paralyze the Belarusian society and remain in power even for a long time. Despite the repressions, the Belarusian society must overcome the difficult situation, through its activity and self-sacrificingness. And this affects us all.