Observatory condemns continued harassment of Viasna
February 20, 2014
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has received new information and requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Belarus.
The Observatory has been informed of the continued harassment of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and the rejection by the Court of a complaint challenging the blackmailing of its website www.spring96.org.
According to the information received, on February 18, 2014, the Central District Court of Minsk considered a complaint filed by Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Chairman of “Viasna”, challenging the decision by the Prosecutor General’s Office to restrict access to “Viasna”’s website, www.spring96.org on the grounds that “actions on behalf of the human rights organisation ’Viasna’, that do not comply with the established procedures of state registration, are contrary to the legislation of the Republic of Belarus”. The decision was based on Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits organising or participating in the activities of unregistered organisations.
At the hearing, Mr. Stefanovich defended his rights as one of the authors of HRC Viasna’s website and challenged the illegal restriction on the dissemination of information. He argued that the Prosecutor’s Office had no reason to blacklist the website, as materials posted on it do not violate the law, but on the contrary contribute to improving the legal culture in Belarus.
The Central District Court of Minsk eventually held that Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich had no legal standing: since he is not the owner of www.spring96.org, he may not suffer a damage from the blacklisting the website. Mr. Stefanovich can file a private complaint within 10 days but cannot appeal the decision in cassation. The Deputy Chairman of “Viasna” said that he intended to send a complaint to the United Nations Human Rights Committee once he will have exhausted all domestic remedies available to him.
The Observatory expresses its concern about the decision of the Central District Court of Minsk to reject the complaint filed by Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich, which gives full effect to the previous decision of the Prosecutor General’s Office to blacklist “Viasna”’s website.
The Observatory denounces the court decision as a means to curtail human rights activities of ”Viasna” and to infringe upon the right to freedoms of association and expression in Belarus, in violation of international law.
On December 16, 2013, Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich was informed by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus, that “Viasna”’s website had been introduced into the list of resources with restricted access by decision of the same in August 2011, on the grounds that “actions on behalf of the human rights organisation ’Viasna’, that do not comply with the established procedures of state registration, are contrary to the legislation of the Republic of Belarus”.
Until December 16, 2013, authorities had refused to disclose to “Viasna” the maker or the basis of the decision to restrict public access to its website. Mr. Stefanovich contacted the Operative Analytical Centre (an agency under the authority of the President of the Republic of Belarus), the Republican Unitary Enterprise for Oversight of Telecommunications, and the Ministry of Communications and Information. Each body either declined to give any information, referred Mr. Stefanovich elsewhere or advised him to contact all other agencies with the authority to restrict access to a website.
It was not until he had contacted all the agencies empowered to issue such a decision that Mr. Stefanovich received a response from the office of the Prosecutor General, disclosing that they had made a decision in August 2011 to put www.spring96.org on the list of resources with restricted access. Other websites on the list include those dealing with pornography, promoting extremist activities or violating copyrights, and five opposition or critical minded websites. Those sites have the access blocked from the State, education and cultural institutions.
In August 2007, the UN Human Rights Committee declared that the November 2003 decision of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus to dissolve “Viasna” is a violation of the right to freedom of association and called on authorities in Belarus to re-register and compensate “Viasna” in accordance with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Government of Belarus is yet to comply with the recommendation. Furthermore, it has refused several requests by “Viasna” and many other organisations to be registered.
Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus provides for grounds for the restriction of the activities of associations – aiming to change the constitutional order or advocating war, social, national, religious and racial hatred. Unarguably, the activities of “Viasna” do not fall into any of these categories.
Furthermore, the mention of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code in the General Prosecutor’s answer to their request amounts to a form of intimidation against “Viasna”, which has been continuing its legitimate and peaceful activities despite a constant pressure. The Observatory has repeatedly qualified Article 193.1, which penalises acting on behalf of an unregistered organisation, as a provision violating both the Constitution and international human rights law. The Council of Europe Venice Commission concluded in October 2011 that Article 193.1 of Belarus’ Criminal Code, violates the provisions of international law. According to the Venice Commission, freedoms of association and expression are of vital importance in any democratic country, and any restrictions on them should be well justified.
Please write to the Belarusian authorities, urging them to:
i. Remove all restrictions on “Viasna”’s website immediately and unconditionally since this restriction is arbitrary as it only aims at curtailing “Viasna”’s human rights activities by reducing its online presence and discrediting its existence and work by grouping it together with publishers of pornography and extremists;
ii. Put an end to any censorship - including print, audio, televisual and online – of “Viasna”’s communication materials, as well as of all other human rights defenders in Belarus;
iii. Repeal Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus;
iv. Put an end to any kind of harassment - including at the judicial level - against all human rights defenders in Belarus and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their work without unjustified hindrances;
v. More generally, conform with the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 9, 1998, especially:
its Article 1, which states that “everyone has the right, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strive for the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms at the national and international levels”,
its Article 6 (b) and (c), which states that “Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others […] as provided for in human rights and other applicable international instruments, freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms and [...] to study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters”.
and its Article 12.2, which provides that “the State shall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, against any violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or her legitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration” ;
vi. Conform with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the First Protocol thereto, both of which have been ratified by Belarus; especially Article 22: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions for the protection of his interests.”
vii. Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms in accordance with international human rights standards and international instruments ratified by the Belarusian Republic.