“This is absolute cynicism”: Viasna member reported to Venice Commission and OSCE ODIHR about freedom of association in Belarus
On September 13, 2022, the International Round Table “Civil society: empowerment and accountability” co-organized by the Venice Commission and the OSCE/ODIHR under the auspices of the Irish Presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe took place in Strasbourg and online. One of the sessions was devoted to the different forms of participation of civil society organizations in public life. Viasna member Natallia Satsunkevich was among the speakers. She introduced the general situation in Belarus with freedom of association.
The human rights activist noted that the human rights situation in Belarus has always been difficult, and freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly have always been restricted at the national law level. However, the 2020 elections were followed by unprecedented reprisals on Belarusian society and a socio-political crisis, and the situation is deteriorating with every passing day. This has also affected the freedoms of associations, including the right to freely form, participate and freely exit them:
“There has been an almost complete removal of freedom of association in the country: the registration of new independent CSOs has been close to suspended, hundreds of CSOs are in the process of liquidation, citizens are forced to join progovernment organizations, and criminal cases have been opened against a number of civil activists and CSO representatives via the abuse of investigative powers. Belarusian citizens are subject to involuntary membership in ‘pro-government’ public associations known as GONGOs. These include the BRYU, the public association ‘Belaya Rus’ and trade unions belonging to the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus. Some people wanting to withdraw from these GONGOs or trade unions face difficulties and obstacles as unlawful demands are made, for example that special forms must be filled in (or they are threatened with dismissal), or simply because they do not know how to.” said Satsunkevich.
The human rights defender reminded, that the Belarusian authorities publicly announced in July 2021 the campaign on mass liquidation of ‘unwanted’ CSOs which affected nearly twenty percent of all organizations of this type. Over the past year, 857 organizations have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation in Belarus, as reported by Lawtrend in their monitoring of freedom of association. Many CSOs were forced to move abroad for security reasons and in order to continue their activities.
Natallia Satsunkevich also brought the example of the Human Rights Center Viasna as an illustration of repression against civil society and human rights defenders. For instance, Viasna was deprived of registration by the Supreme Court in 2003 for its active work in the defense and promotion of human rights in Belarus. After that, the UN Human Rights Committee twice ruled that the rights to freedom of association were violated and recommended that Belarus re-register Viasna—however, it never happened. Satsunkevich also mentioned the persecution of several members of the Human Rights Center:
“Throughout Viasna's history, its members and volunteers have been subjected to various forms of repression: detentions, fines, searches. Some have been fired from their jobs and expelled from universities. In 2011 the leader of the organization Ales Bialiatski spent three years in prison on a fabricated political case, allegedly for tax violations.
On September 6, 2022, the verdict was passed on the coordinator of Viasna's Volunteer Service Marfa Rabkova and volunteer Andrei Chapiuk. Marfa was sentenced to 15 years in prison, and Andrei—to six. Their crime is work in a human rights organization, helping people and coordinating volunteers.
Human rights defenders in Belarus face constant threats. This week my colleague Uladzimir Tseliapun from Mazyr received 10 days of arrest for sharing a critical post on Facebook. And the situation is getting worse. A total of seven Vesna members are now under arrest on criminal charges. The chairman of the organization Ales Bialiatski, the vice-president of FIDH Valiantsin Stefanovich, and the lawyer of the organization, Uladzimir Labkovich, are being held behind bars. They are accused of the fact that the organization is not registered, is not registered with the tax authorities, and does not pay taxes. This is absolute cynicism on the part of the authorities, in my opinion. In addition, human rights defenders face appalling conditions: shower once a week, one-hour walk, overcrowded cells, poor nutrition, lack of sunlight, lack of qualified medical care.
Despite the repressions, we continue our work. Just like other Belarusian democratic NGOs. I kindly ask everyone to write cards of support to my colleagues. Today, solidarity is very important, it is our weapon of support.”
According to Natalia Satsunkevich, her speech at the International Round Table was received very well by the other participants:
“Everyone expresses solidarity and support” human rights defenders said.