Valiantsin Stefanovich: No political will to implement conditions for Belarus membership in Council of Europe
There is no political will to implement conditions for Belarus’ membership in the Council of Europe, said Valiantsin Stefanovich, deputy head of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" on April 21 in Strasbourg during a meeting of the PACE’s Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy. The hearings were held in preparation of the report of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus Andrea Rigoni.
Valiantsin Stefanovich told about the current human rights situation in Belarus. At the beginning of his speech, he said that today the country witnesses the development of two parallel and are not yet interconnected processes: on the one hand, the intensification of foreign contacts of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry both with representatives of individual EU member states and with the EU as a whole, on the other hand, a complete lack of progress in the field of human rights within the country.
“Talking about the human rights situation in Belarus, we tend to use the phrase - a serious but stable. Indeed, human rights violations in our country have long become systemic and systematic. Speaking of systematic violations of human rights, I mean the extremely limited nature of the basic civil and political rights in national legislation,” said the human rights activist.
He named the main problems related to civil and political rights in Belarus.
Valiantsin Stefanovich reminded that many of the laws adopted in this field have been criticized by both Belarusian human rights activists and international organizations. In particular, the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe has repeatedly pointed out in its conclusions to the general constitutional and international law provisions of the Law "On Mass Events" or Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (providing for imprisonment for up to two years for carrying out activities on behalf of unregistered public, religious and other organizations or foundations). Despite the criticism, the authorities continue to pass laws that have a significant impact on citizens’ rights. In December 2014, Belarusian Parliament adopted amendments to the law on mass media, helping to block any websites without a court order. Even before its entry into force, a number of independent Internet resources were subjected to blocking. In addition, there is ongoing repression against freelancers cooperating with foreign media without accreditation, which is simply impossible to obtain.
It is also almost impossible to get permission to hold a peaceful assembly. “In Minsk, there are only only four allowed demonstrations a year. In other cities, they are almost absent, but the few that are allowed are held in places located far from the city center, in remote parks, or in an empty stadium, and their organizers are required to cover all expenses related to their conduct,” said Mr. Stefanovich.
There are arbitrary detentions, which have become a traditional means of repression for the authorities. “It is no surprise that the same opposition activists suddenly start using foul language in public places on the eve of important political events, be it Putin’s visit to Minsk, elections or the hockey championship. The result is the same - mass arbitrary detentions and arrests for up to 25 days,” he said.
Of particular concern to human rights defenders is the fact that the country’s prisons continue to hold political prisoners – Mikalai Statkevich, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Artsiom Prakapenka, Yauhen Vaskovich and Yury Rubtsou. “The recent actions of the authorities show a clear reluctance to address this problem. In particular, five days before the end of his sentence Dziadok was sentenced to one more year in prison; Rubtsou faced new criminal charges; Prakapenka was denied pardon, despite his request,” stressed Valiantsin Stefanovich.
He also expressed concern that with the approach of the elections repression against the political opposition and civil society will be strengthened. He cited examples of attacks on human rights defenders, which have increased in recent years in the regions of the country: a search and seizure of office equipment in the office of human rights defenders in Mahilioŭ, an attempt of intimidation and pressure on human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka in Homiel.
There is one more issue of significance for the Council of Europe: Belarus is the last country in Europe to apply the death penalty. Last year, human rights activists documented four death sentences, three of which were enforced; the first death sentence has already been passed this year.
“Belarusian human rights activists, like anyone else, would like to see Belarus a member of the Council of Europe. The pursuit of a full membership in the Council of Europe would mean that the Belarusian authorities shared the value-based approach to the issue of human rights and would indicate the beginning of an actual rapprochement with Europe. However, at the moment we do not see the political will of the country’s leadership aimed at the implementation of the necessary conditions for Belarus’ membership in the Council of Europe – the abolition or a moratorium on the death penalty, the ratification of the European Convention on Human Rights and recognizing the competence of the European Court of Human Rights,” concluded Viasna deputy chair.
The meeting of the Committee on Political Affairs and Democracy was also attended by a representative of the movement "For Freedom" Ales Lahvinets and Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives of the National Assembly Mikalai Samaseika.