Results of the Third Belarusian Human Rights Forum. Valiantsin Stefanovich’s speech at the event.
In his speech at the Forum on October 26, deputy head of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" spoke about the human rights developments in Belarus since the previous Forum in 2010.
Three years have passed since the previous Human Rights Forum in September 2010. How has the situation of human rights changed during the time? At the beginning of my speech, I would like to recall the general context against which the 2nd Forum of the Belarusian human rights defenders was held in September 2010. The period between 2008 and 2010, marked by a decrease in the overall level of political repression and certain changes of the authorities’ rhetoric, has been labeled by many as the period of “liberalization”. It should be noted, however, that we have not seen any systemic changes, especially at the legislative level, over the period. Changes that could indicate a serious intention of the authorities to change domestic policy and the conduct of liberal political reforms in the country. However, the overall context gave some hope for, although slow, but improving of the situation. A hope for a gradual, slow drifting of Belarus towards Europe and the possible transformation to at least manageable model of democracy in the future.
The presidential elections that took place on a more or less peaceful backdrop ended with a crackdown on demonstrators in Independence Square in Minsk on December 19, 2010. These events marked the return of the country's authorities to the usual repressive model of governance, dashing all hopes of candidates for a possible thaw. The consequences of this unprecedented wave of mass repressions can be witnessed today.
It is the increasing political repression that has been the background of all developments over the last three years, which peaked in 2011, when the country was hit by a wave of arrests, searches and administrative detentions. The targets of persecution and pressure from the authorities were not only political opponents of the current government, but also independent journalists and editors of independent media, human rights defenders and human rights organizations. The searches took place at the offices of the Human Rights Center "Viasna", the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Center for Human Rights, in private apartments of human rights defenders Ales Bialiatski, Aleh Hulak, Raisa Mikhailouskaya, Alena Tankachova, Nasta Loika.
On the first night after the voting 7 of 10 candidates participating in the elections were arrested, beaten and placed in the KGB detention center, where most of them were held during the entire period of the investigation. For the first time in the history of Belarus a “rioting” criminal case was opened. The unprecedented number of persons held in custody in the KGB detention center and that of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and later in prisons, became a major challenge for the entire human rights community in the country.
We can only guess what was the motivation for such acts of the authorities, but today we can confidently report a significant regression in the field of human rights since the events of December 19, 2010. By its scale and effects, the post-election crackdown in 2011 in Belarus is equal to the worst times of formation of the Lukashenka regime in 1996-1999.
Despite the early release through pardon of the majority of political prisoners in August 2011, the issue of political prisoners remains unresolved: 9 political prisoners continue to be held behind bars (Mikalai Statkevich, Ales Bialiatski, Eduard Lobau, Mikalai Autukhovich, Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Yauhen Vaskovich, Artsiom Prakapenka and Andrei Haidukou). At least 33 people are subjected to a variety of restrictive measures resulting from their convictions, mainly preventive police supervision, which allows law-enforcement agencies to monitor political activity of these persons. In addition, a conviction denies the right to run in elections at all levels.
Criminal politically motivated persecution remains an urgent problem in modern Belarus since 1996 and apparently will remain so in the near future.
During these three years, we have witnessed the worst of illegal methods improved by the Belarusian security services: arbitrary preventive detentions, unlawful administrative arrests (a vivid example is "swearing obscenities" by participants of weekly silent protests), the use of torture and psychological pressure on prisoners to obtain clemency petitions, illegal restriction of the right of free movement, censorship, etc.
Meanwhile, illegal, from the point of view of national law, practices (I don’t touch the international law) after a period of testing often become a standard for the current legislation. Thus, these illegal practices receive a "legitimate" form. This was the case was with forced fingerprinting of all persons liable for military service, the practice of detention "for inaction" of the participants of silent protests, the ban on campaigning for a boycott during the latest parliamentary elections in 2012.
One should note the clearly repressive nature of the changes in the legislation in the last three years. These included changes and additions to the Criminal Code, amendments to the law on political parties, public associations, on peaceful assemblies. The Criminal Code was significantly “modified” in its part dealing with "high treason" crimes; this part of the Code has also been expanded with a new offense –“establishment of cooperation with a security service, security forces or intelligence agencies of a foreign state (with no signs of high treason); criminalization of obtaining and using foreign funding; responsibility for the calls for unsanctioned gatherings, if they result in deaths or a significant damage.
The basic fundamental civil and political freedoms, such as freedom of assembly, association, expression, and distribution of information, are extremely limited. These restrictions are set both at the legislative level and by existing practices. The law on mass events in reality makes it impossible to conduct legitimate peaceful assemblies, while the recent changes in the law adopted in 2011 equated joint inaction of citizens to mass activities that require permits from the local authorities. The law on public associations and political parties enables a differentiated approach to the registration of public associations and political parties, containing a set of artificial bureaucratic obstacles to the realization of freedom of association in practice. The problem of criminalization of activities on behalf of unregistered organizations is still topical. Despite the fact that in the period from 2008 to date, not a single case opened under Art. 193.1 of the Criminal Code reached court, the article of the Criminal Code is actively used to intimidate and pressure on civil society activists. Prosecutors and the KGB actively continue to issue official warnings over "violating the law" by acting on behalf of an unregistered organization.
The situation with freedom of expression is as poor. You and we have repeatedly witnessed censorship in the country, the existence of various “black lists”: musicians, artists and literary works. In recent years, the authorities began to very actively use the Law on combating extremism with censorship objectives. The album "Press Photo Belarus 2012" and a book of Ales Bialiatski’s literary criticism “Asvechanyia Belarushchynai” were labeled extremist products by a court, as they were "undermining the image of the Republic of Belarus".
It should also be noted that the situation with the spread of information and the right to receive it also contains a number of problems, including attempts to control the Internet (blocking websites or access to them at public institutions), problems with the accreditation of journalists working for foreign media, the presence in the Criminal Code of defamation articles (insulting the President, slandering the President, insulting an official, discrediting the Republic of Belarus). Frequent are detentions and beatings of journalists by law enforcement agencies, despite carrying out their professional duties during all sorts of socially significant events.
Of particular concern is the state of the prison system, the lack of public control over the Interior Ministry and other security services, which is a serious obstacle to the fight against torture and other cruel and inhuman treatment methods.
Some acts of national legislation governing the realization of civil and political rights do not meet international standards of human rights, which has been repeatedly stressed by conclusions of international expert groups and organizations, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe in particular.
Belarus is the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union, which still practices the death penalty. During the so-called "liberalization", we heard statements from senior government officials that Belarus had neared a moratorium on the death penalty. First of all, they were based on a sharp decrease in the number of death sentences since 1999. There was even a parliamentary group to study the possibility of a moratorium. However, it seems that these statements ended with the end of the "liberalization", and after the terrorist attack in Minsk subway in 2011 was used by the state-owned media to launch a fierce propaganda of the need to preserve this kind of punishment. The Kanavalau-Kavaliou trial is very indicative in this context, not only because it stirred the Belarusian society, forcing it to reflect on the death penalty, but also because it once again demonstrated all the shortcomings of the legal system and procedures for executions: lack of additional options for reviewing the sentences of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus before their entry into force, rapid execution of verdicts, inability to receive bodies by the relatives and failure to specify the places of burial. All these facts were given the proper assessment by the UNCHR, which for the first time ever found a violation of the right to life of Belarusian national Kavaliou, who was shot in 2012. It is worth noting that this was a second sentence executed in defiance of interim protective measures adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee. Belarus thus continues the policy of ignoring and disrespecting its international obligations in the field of human rights.
This is another urgent call to the Belarusian human rights community, as it decreases the efficiency of involvement of these mechanisms in the protection of human rights. The official position of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on the UNHRC’s decisions is non-recognition of the nature of these decisions, which is a flagrant violation of the provisions of the first Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, ratified by Belarus. Belarus openly ignores other UN mechanisms: it does not recognize the mandate of the Special Rapporteur appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, it does not comply with a decision of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, fails to report, including through publications in the state media, to the citizens on decisions adopted by the UN Human Rights Committee, violates the frequency of reporting on implementation of the ICCPR. The situation with the OSCE is no better: a vivid example is non-recognition of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus, as part of the OSCE Moscow Mechanism.
One can witness low efficiency of the use of international mechanisms for the protection of human rights against the background of low efficiency of national mechanisms. The country has not established effective mechanisms for the protection of human rights: there are no supervisory boards, including the boards of public monitoring of places of detention of citizens, there is no institution of the Ombudsman. Over the recent years, the legal profession has become more dependent on the Ministry of Justice, and lawyers who took a principled position on a number of politically motivated charges, including the events of December 19, were deliberately deprived of their licenses or excluded from the Bar Association. This grim picture is completed by the judicial system, which is highly dependent on the executive branch of government and is also an ineffective tool for the protection of human rights at the national level.
It should be noted that the very rhetoric of the authorities towards human rights issues is of mocking and populist character. The leaders of some countries, including of Belarus, are increasingly voicing attempts to revise the principle of the universality of human rights, arguing that human rights are an invention of Western civilization, that allegedly harms "distinctive" and "different" from other societies traditional and ancient values, and so "their" human rights standards are "alien" to us, because they represent a threat to our society. It should be noted that this kind of rhetoric can be mostly heard from the leaders of those countries, which are often criticized by the international community in connection with gross and systematic violations of human rights. Very often, “preserving traditional values”disguises usual discriminatory policy of the authorities towards minorities.
All of this rhetoric comes amid the policy of stigmatization of human rights defenders and human rights movement in general. These trends are characteristic of the post-Soviet space, but most clearly are present in Russia ("foreign agents") and in Belarus, the countries of Central Asia. The Belarusian authorities have for several years taken measures to marginalize human rights organizations, forcing them to the illegal field through deprivation of state registration, criminalizing activities of unregistered organizations, receiving foreign and internal financing of human rights activities. The case of Ales Bialiatski is a direct result of the deliberate policy of the authorities.
Summing up my speech, I would describe the human rights situation as stable and poor, with numerous systemic problems, whose solution requires large-scale internal political reforms. However, is this possible in a country where people are deprived of opportunities to participate in government through free and democratic elections, in a country where there is no competition in public policy as such, where there is no political pluralism and not enough transparency in the government and no control over the power concentrated in the same hands for almost 20 years? Of course, history has many examples of transformations to democracy of even worst political regimes, which have occurred under the influence of certain internal and external factors.
I can only say that the conservation of the above situation in the country is what really constitutes a threat to the development of society, leading to its degradation, instead of adherence to the international standards of human rights.