New Amnesty International report: crackdown on CSOs persists in Belarus
Governments across the world are increasingly attacking non-governmental organizations (NGOs) by creating laws that subject them and their staff to surveillance, nightmarish bureaucratic hurdles and the ever-present threat of imprisonment, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.
Laws Designed to Silence: The Global Crackdown on Civil Society Organizations reveals the startling number of countries that are using bullying techniques and repressive regulations to prevent NGOs from doing their vital work. The report lists 50 countries worldwide where anti-NGO laws have been implemented or are in the pipeline. Belarus is not an exception.
In Belarus, NGOs are required to register with the Ministry of Justice and are subjected to strict state supervision and working for those NGOs whose registration request is rejected (often arbitrarily) is a criminal offence. The Law on Associations gives the government ample room to arbitrarily deny registration to organizations, even for minor issues. Those acting on behalf of an unregistered organization can face criminal charges. Consequently, more and more Belarusian organizations are registering abroad, or conducting some or all of their activities abroad for fear of prosecution.
In Belarus, NGOs that accept foreign donations “in violation of law” face administrative penalties and individuals face prosecution for receiving any foreign grants or donations “in violation of the Belarusian legislation”. A 2015 decree 120 further tightened governmental control over foreign donations as it introduced tougher and more vaguely worded prohibitions on the use of foreign aid, stricter reporting requirements for foreign donations, and gave the Department of Humanitarian Affairs broad powers to oversee the use of foreign funding, including by preferential treatment for state approved humanitarian projects.
In Belarus, amendments to various pieces of legislation have increased state control over civil society’s activities, particularly their ability to obtain funding. Since 2011, the Law on Associations has prohibited associations from keeping funds in banks and other financial institutions abroad. This restriction applies to associations but not to individuals, commercial enterprises, foundations or institutions. In 2011, it was used against Ales Bialiatski, chair of the Human Rights Centre Viasna, who was arrested and sentenced to four-and-a-half years’ imprisonment on charges of “concealment of income on a large scale”, confiscation of his property “including belongings registered in the name of other persons” and a fine of BYR721 million (USD82,700) for alleged unpaid taxes and BYR36 million (USD4,100) in state costs. The charges were politically motivated and intended to obstruct his legitimate work as a human rights defender. He was convicted after a grossly unfair trial that did not meet international standards of fairness and was conditionally released in June 2014 after almost three years in prison.
Ales Bialiatski, Human Rights Centre Viasna (Belarus)
“The Belarusian government continues to create a hostile environment for CSOs and limits their capacity to work. The decree on Foreign Gratuitous Aid of 2015 does not provide for the possibility of receiving and using foreign gratuitous aid for human rights-related work. The legislation even prohibits the use of foreign gratuitous aid for holding workshops and conducting other forms of educational work and training open to the public... it is virtually impossible to seek and receive funding for human rights work within the country, since the private sector is wary of providing such funding out of fear of being persecuted by the authorities.
“Even so, NGOs are still trying to carry on.... I would like to remind the government about their positive obligations to create the conditions for associations to assemble peacefully and to eliminate undue interference with the activities of associations and the restriction on freedom to assemble peacefully. The international community must pressure the Belarusian authorities with regard to their international civil rights obligations, especially the right to freedom of association. It is also important to guarantee access to financial aid, aimed at the development of civil society in Belarus.”