UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urges Belarus to address systemic violations
The present report is submitted in accordance with Human Rights Council resolution 17/24, in which the Council requested the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor the human rights situation in Belarus and to present to the Council, in an interactive dialogue at its twentieth session, a comprehensive report on the human rights situation in Belarus following the presidential election of 19 December 2010.
The report covers the period from 19 December 2010 to 23 March 2012. The High Commissioner presented an oral report on the situation to the Council at its eighteenth session.
The situation of human rights has significantly deteriorated in Belarus following the presidential election. The Government's response to a mostly peaceful demonstration in Minsk, contesting the electoral process, was followed by a massive crackdown on political opponents, human rights groups and independent media. Overall, more than 600 people were arrested and detained on or shortly after election day; 43 opposition leaders, activists and independent journalists were sentenced, including five out of nine opposition candidates.
Since the election, the human rights situation has further deteriorated, particularly the rights to freedoms of association, assembly and expression, and the right to a fair trial. Allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody, impunity of perpetrators, violations of due judicial process and pressure on defence lawyers persist. The lack of an independent judiciary and a national human rights institution aggravate the human rights situation and impede progress.
The High Commissioner makes recommendations aimed at addressing systemic challenges, as well as urgent human rights issues. As the Office of the High Commissioner was not allowed access to Belarus, the present report is based on a variety of sources, including information provided by the Government.
Freedom of association and human rights defenders
59. According to article 22.1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his/her interests. Nevertheless, the Criminal Code criminalizes the “organization of unregistered public associations” (art. 193.1). Throughout the period under review, human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations were subjected to various forms of pressure, including arrests, interrogations, office raids and confiscation of materials, as well as acts of intimidation linked to contacts with international and intergovernmental organizations. These actions violate the Covenant, as well as articles 5(c), 9.4 and 12 of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.
60. As an indication of the seriousness of the human rights situation in Belarus, a case of reprisal against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee for cooperation with the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers was included in the report of the Secretary-General on cooperation with the United Nations, its mechanisms or representatives in the field of human rights.47
61. In the spring of 2011, several human rights defenders (citizens of the Russian Federation and Ukraine) from the International NGO Observation Mission to Belarus were deported from Belarus; some had not been allowed to enter the country.48 For example, on 16 March 2011, the Head of the Mission, Andrei Yurov (Russian Federation), was briefly detained by Belarusian law enforcement agents under part 2 of article 371 of the Criminal Code (“Illegal crossing of State borders by a person previously denied entry into the country”).49
62. The Human Rights Centre Viasna has also been repeatedly targeted by the authorities. Since cancelling its registration in 2003, the Belarusian authorities threatened Viasna Chairman Ales Bialiatski (also the Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights and a member of the Belarusian Association of Journalists) with criminal prosecution for “unauthorized NGO activity” (Criminal Code, art. 193.1). The latest warning was issued in April 2011. On 20 December 2010, KGB officers reportedly raided the Viasna offices, seized computers and documentation, and detained 10 staff members, who were released later the same day. On 4 August 2011, Mr Bialiatski was again arrested, placed in a pretrial detention centre of the Ministry of the Interior and charged with tax evasion. On 24 November, he was sentenced by the Pershamayski District Court in Minsk to four and a half years of maximum security imprisonment and his property confiscated.50 Mr Bialiatski was convicted for “concealment of incomes on an especially large scale” (Criminal Code, art. 243.2). The court ruled that Mr Biliatski had intentionally avoided paying taxes from the money he allegedly kept in bank accounts abroad; the court disregarded the fact that the money was not Mr Bialiatski‟s personal income. He appealed against the verdict, which was, however, confirmed on 24 December 2011 by the Minsk City Court. In February 2012, Mr Bialiatski was taken to Babruysk correctional colony No. 2.51 Another Viasna member, Valiantsin Stefanovich, was also found guilty of tax evasion and, on 16 December 2011, the court in Minsk sentenced him to a fine for having concealed income.
63. The defamation campaign launched by Government-controlled media against leaders of the political opposition also targeted human rights defenders and journalists. For example, the Internet website “Traitors” (www.predateli.com), which is linked to the group of supporters of the incumbent President,52 contains names and pictures of human rights activists, journalists and opponents of President Lukashenka and is considered part of a smear campaign aimed at silencing dissidents.
IV. Conclusions and recommendations
73. The information collected and its analysis suggest a pattern of serious violations of human rights since 19 December 2010. A number of actions, on 19 December 2010 and in the aftermath, were clearly aimed at curtailing the rights to freedoms of association, assembly and expression, and the right to a fair trial. To date, allegations of torture and ill-treatment in custody, impunity of perpetrators, violations of due judicial process and pressure on defence lawyers persist. The lack of an independent judiciary aggravates the situation and impedes progress.
74. Despite the release, in August and September 2011, of a number of those imprisoned in connection with the events of 19 December 2010, amendments to several laws have further restricted civil and political rights. This situation indicates that the deficiencies pertaining to human rights in Belarus are of a systemic nature. They need to be addressed by the authorities through a comprehensive approach, which would include a review of the legislation, policies, strategies and practice pertaining to human rights.
75. While presenting the oral report of the High Commissioner to the Human Rights Council at its eighteenth session, the Deputy High Commissioner made several preliminary recommendations to the Government of Belarus. As those recommendations remain largely unimplemented, OHCHR reiterates them, broadening their scope and adding additional ones. The High Commissioner thus recommends that the Government of Belarus:
(a) Immediately and unconditionally release remaining political opponents, activists and journalists who were not involved in any violence in the events of 19 December 2010 and its aftermath;
(b) Conduct an impartial, credible and objective investigation of the circumstances in which the above persons were arrested and detained, and take steps to promptly rehabilitate them;
(c) Conduct a comprehensive, transparent and credible investigation into all reported cases of torture and ill-treatment, and bring those responsible to justice; ensure in all circumstances the physical and psychological integrity of detained and imprisoned persons; and establish an independent national preventive mechanism for the prevention of torture at the domestic level;
(d) Ensure the full implementation of the rights to freedom of association and assembly, in accordance with international law, and put an immediate end to all forms of political and administrative pressure on and harassment of political opponents;
(e) Put an immediate end to all forms of pressure on and harassment of civil society organizations, as well as individual human rights defenders; and release immediately and unconditionally Ales Bialiatski, and withdraw charges brought against him and other human rights defenders;
(f) Take measures to ensure that civil society organizations have the freedom to perform their tasks; revoke the official warnings issued against civil society organizations, and cease the practice of issuing such warnings;
(g) Put an immediate end to all forms of pressure on journalists and media workers; withdraw all charges against journalists prosecuted for their professional activities, and take measures to rehabilitate them; and recall official warnings issued against newspapers and cease such practice;
(h) Ensure freedom of expression and create a legal environment and practices conducive to the effective freedom of the media; eliminate the practice of censorship and self-censorship; and ensure that Internet control measures are minimal and that regulations do not lead to censorship of electronic media and freedom of speech;
(i) Ensure full compliance with international standards for due process and fair trial; put an immediate end to all forms of pressure on judges, lawyers and members of the bar; and ensure that the bar is free and independent of all forms of administrative control by the Government;
(j) Cooperate fully with all United Nations human rights mechanisms, and fully implement all recommendations made at the universal periodic review and by treaty bodies and special procedures;
(k) Cooperate fully with OHCHR, including by providing access to an OHCHR technical team to visit Belarus and to engage directly with the relevant authorities and civil society actors;
(l) Establish a national human rights institution in compliance with the Paris Principles;
(m) Establish a moratorium on all executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty, and ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights;
(n) Initiate a comprehensive review of the overall legal framework, including the Criminal Code, as well as the laws amended in 2011, bringing them into line with the State’s international human rights obligations, and, in doing so, seek international expertise available from the United Nations, OSCE and the Council of Europe;
(o) Study the findings and observations reflected in the report of the OSCE election observation mission in Belarus, the report of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism Rapporteur58 and the report of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights on trial monitoring in Belarus,59 and implement fully the recommendations made therein.