INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS BELARUS UPDATE
INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS
Edited by Victor Cole
Vol. 5, No. 35
IN THIS ISSUE:
- Regime Rages On Against Independent Press
- Anti-Lukashenko Documentary Banned In Belarus
- Opposition Party Harassed By Justice Ministry
- Activist Jailed For Opposing Union With Russia
- Three Activists Detained For Commemorating National Poet’s Memory
- EU Urges Belarusian Parliament Not To Approve New Religion Law
- Jewish Leaders Seek Restoration Of Holy Sites
- Small Businessmen March Against Lukashenko
- U.S. Ambassador: There Is Still Time To Make A Choice
- HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPOSITION NEWS-
REGIME RAGES ON AGAINST INDEPENDENT PRESS
A leading independent newspaper in Minsk, thrice closed by authorities in the past five years, is once again under attack. Pavel Zhuk, editor-in-chief of Nasha Svaboda, published in Belarusian and Russian in newsprint and on the Internet, told a Belapan correspondent that after the authorities seized office equipment and ordered the newspaper to pay BYR 100 million (about $55,070) in punitive damages for “insulting the honor, dignity and business reputation” of Anatoly Tozik, chair of the Belarusian State Control Committee, all his efforts to publish the newspaper’s August 27 issue have failed. On the evening of August 26, Judge Anatoly Savich of the Moskovsky District Court of Minsk ruled to freeze Nasha Svaboda’s bank account. Zhuk believes that the fax containing the payment order sent to the printing house was intercepted by Lukashenko’s agents. He is trying to register another periodical. On July 26, Tozik filed a libel suit against the newspaper claiming that in its July 16 issue the newspaper published Mikhail Podolyak’s article titled “Confidential,” which smeared his reputation. Podolyak was fined BYR 5 million (about $2,750).
Belarusian governmental officials often avail themselves of libel laws. Although the exemption of public figures from libel suits, especially criminal libel suits, is standard law and practice in European democracies, they cling to the old Soviet paradigm of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” or “deliberately false fabrications defaming the social order” with a liberal dose of “l’etatc’est moi.” Their handling of public criticism of the government of any kind as a personal insult has meant that the corrective function of the media in society is destroyed, through the personal misuse of libel laws, both civil and criminal. The regime claims to recognize Belarusian citizens’ right to freedom of speech and freedom of information. But it openly flouts those guarantees with personal vendettas punishing those who try to put them into practice.
The publishing of Svobodnye Novosti, an independent weekly with a circulation of 36,000 copies, was also suspended on August 21, following an appeal to the Information Ministry filed by Sergei Atroschenko, the newspaper’s major shareholder. Atroschenko, who owns 60 percent shares in the weekly, insisted that the newspaper is unprofitable and is financed by the U.S. embassy in Minsk. “The American embassy does the Belarusian press a disservice and hampers the normal development of the media market in the country,” Atroschenko said. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry addressed the U.S. Embassy in Minsk with a request to confirm or deny information about its financing of the opposition press in Belarus.
The Svobodnye Novosti’s staff accused Atroschenko of foul play, charging him with trying to silence yet another opposition newspaper to please the Lukashenko regime.“The people who initiated the closing of this opposition newspaper have ensured state support at the highest level,” commented Alexander Ulityonok, Svobodnye Novosti’s editor-in-chief.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists called on Podgainy to resign. “Under your supervision, the Information Ministry has been transformed into a tool of suppression of freedom of the press. The Ministry’s interference in a private dispute between the founders of Svobodnye Novosti is just another proof to this,” the BAJ wrote in a statement. “Mikhail Vasilevich! Your words about adherence to democratic values are clearly not in line with your deeds. If you are unable to ensure the freedom of the media as a basic condition for pluralistic and democratic societies, please resign!”
Founded in 1991, Svobodnye Novosti is the oldest opposition publication in Belarus. Last September, Atroschenko contested the newspaper’s support of the opposition and its active involvement in the opposition’s election campaign. He announced plans to remake the newspaper into “a non-political, family reading” publication and appealed to the authorities to suspend publishing. The publishing was restored following “talks” between Alexander Ulityonok, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, and Mikhail Podgainy, chair of the State Press Committee.
On August 29, Alexander Ulityonok published first issue of Svobodnye Novosti Plus, a an independent
newspaper registered last year which will follow traditions of Svobodnye Novosti.
Meanwhile, the authorities continue to mount economic pressure on the remaining independent media in Belarus. Belpochta [The Belarusian Post Service], a state-owned monopoly, announced that in October 2002 it will raise by 38 per cent tariffs for its distribution services for independent media. “Under these circumstances,” commented Ivan Magera, executive director of BelKP-press, “The distribution of independent media outlets will cost more than their publishing.” (Interfax/ Belapan, August 22-30)
ANTI-LUKASHENKO DOCUMENTARY BANNED IN BELARUS
Belarusian authorities have banned the broadcast on the territory of Belarus Pavel Sheremet’s new documentary titled “Wild Manhunt-2.” The documentary attempts to investigate the story behind the missing opposition politicians Viktor Gonchar and Yuri Zakharenko, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, and journalist Dmitry Zavadsky who was a cameraman for ORT. The abridged version of the film was aired by the Russian public television station ORT on August 31. The episodes about Lukashenko and the results of his 8-year ruling were removed by the ORT leadership in order “not to worsen relations with the Belarusian leader.” In the final scene of his first documentary Sheremet says: “I know for sure that Sheiman, Sivakov and Lukashenko are criminals, who sooner or later will be punished.” (Charter 97, August 31)
OPPOSITION PARTY HARASSED BY JUSTICE MINISTRY
The United Civic Party (UCP) was warned by the Ministry of Justice in connection with numerous violations of the law which are sufficient for the Ministry to initiate proceedings to close the party down, Belapan reported on August 23. Mikhail Sukhinin, head of the Justice Ministry’s Department of Public Organizations, told a Belapan correspondent that although the Ministry has “all the reasons to liquidate the party, it has no intention to take such dramatic measures any time soon.” “We are giving the UCP an opportunity to deal with all the complaints,” the official said. “The most severe punishment the UCP should expect in the nearest future is another warning,” he added. [Two warnings in one year is sufficient for the authorities to close the party down. Ed].
In early August, the UCP’s Minsk headquarters were searched by a representative of the Prosecutor’s office of the Sovetsky District of Minsk. The official was reportedly looking for any printed materials that might insult the honor and dignity of the Belarusian leader. Anatoly Lebedko, the party’s chair, was summoned to the Prosecutor’s office and interrogated about the content of Hramadzianski Forum (The Civic Forum), a periodical published by the UCP, and other printed materials found in the UCP’s Minsk office.
A month earlier, Alexander Petras, first deputy of the Belarusian Minister of Justice, ordered an audit of the Party’s activities. The large-scale inspection has been launched right after the party’s leadership had appealed to the Supreme Court, requesting to annul the Ministry’s warning issued to the UCP for publishing information that allegedly “denigrates the honor and dignity of the head of the state, and contains unconfirmed and slanderous allegations.” Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper, carried in its April 27 issue an article titled “Return What Is Stolen!” written by Lebedko. The opposition leader accused Lukashenko of continuous defiance of the international law by supplying Iraq and other rogue states and terrorist regimes with high-quality military equipment in order to obtain hard currency. (Belapan, August 26)
OPPOSITION ACTIVIST JAILED FOR OPPOSING UNION WITH RUSSIA
Judge Tatiana Pavliuchuk of the Tsentralny District Court of Minsk charged Evgeny Afnagel, a member of Zubr, unregistered youth opposition movement, with violation of Art. 167, par. 2 (“participation in mass actions violating public order”) of the Belarusian Administrative Offences Code and sentenced him to ten days’ imprisonment. Protesting the court’s decisions, the activist went on a hunger strike.
Afnagel was detained outside his home in Minsk on August 23. His sentence was based on the evidence that included a TV footage shot by Russian journalists. He was the fourth person sent to jail in a week for opposing plans to unite Belarus with Russia. The police are still looking for others demonstrators, who held an unauthorized picket near the Russian embassy in Minsk on August 19, protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to merge the two countries. On August 21, Alexander Golub, Sergei Pezkin, and Igor Zakrevski were sentenced by the same judge to five days’ and Pezkin and Zakrevski to ten days’ imprisonment. (Belapan/ Charter 97, August 28-29)
THREE ACTIVISTS DETAINED FOR COMMEMORATING POET’S MEMORY
Yuri Belenki, the acting chair of the Conservative Christian Party of the Belarusian Popular Front, Vladimir Yukho, another party’s activist, and Slavomir Adamovich, a poet and opposition activist, were arrested near the Yakub Kolas monument in Minsk and taken to the Pervomaisky District Internal Affairs Directorate for publicly commemorating 120th anniversary of the famous Belarusian poet’ birthday, Viasna Human Rights Center reported. The activists were released a few hours later after the policemen filed reports on them. (Viasna Human Rights Center, August 25)
- RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN BELARUS -
EU URGES BELARUSIANS NOT TO APPROVE NEW RELIGION LAW
The European Union expressed serious concern about draft of the Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Organizations which was approved on June 27 by the House of Representatives, the lower chamber of the Belarusian parliament, and submitted to the Council of the Republic for final approval. “If the law receives final approval it will further weaken the freedom of conscience in Belarus,” the organization’s leadership said in a press release on August 26. The EU is concerned that the draft law will open up for discrimination of religious communities by dividing religions according to their “value to the society” and will provide a basis for censorship of religious literature by the authorities before distribution. “The law will be allow the government to control religious organizations and will make them subjects to sanctions for which circumstances are not clearly defined,” the European Union leadership said in the press release. “It is questionable whether the law - if approved - would be in accordance with international agreements to which Belarus has subscribed.” The European Union encouraged the Council of the Republic not to approve the law. (U.S. Embassy in Belarus, August 28)
JEWISH LEADERS ASK GOVERNMENT FOR SUPPORT
Jewish leaders in Belarus urged the Lukashenko government on August 26 to help Jewish comminutes restore synagogues, cemeteries and other revered sites in the country that once boasted a large Jewish community. In a letter to the presidential administration, 18 Jewish communities and organizations said that “the restoration of Jewish holy places would be the best proof of the relationship of the leadership to Jews in Belarus.” In their letter, the Jewish groups lamented the destruction of a 19th century synagogue in Minsk, that was torn down late last year with the sanction of the city government and the Culture Ministry, as well as the construction of a garage on the site of a ruined 16th century synagogue. They also urged the Belarusian authorities to restore a 17th century synagogue in Slonim, 100 kilometers north of Minsk, and the building of the famous Volozhin Yeshiva located 30 kilometers west of the capital. Citing a series of attacks in which Jewish graves were desecrated, Jewish leaders last month accused the government of turning a blind eye to growing anti-Semitism. Alexander Lukashenko responded by saying there was no anti-Semitism in Belarus. (Belapan, August 26)
- AT HOME IN BELARUS-
BUSINESSMEN MARCH AGAINST LUKASHENKO
About 1,000 businessmen demonstrated on August 26 in Minsk against the economic policy of Alexander Lukashenko, whom they hold responsible for the arbitrary taxes and red tape they say they are subjected to. In a resolution adopted in the course of the demonstration, they asked the Belarusian National Assembly, Lukashenko’s rubber-stamp parliament, to start an impeachment procedure against the country’s leader. The demonstration, which had been authorized by the authorities, proceeded without any notable incident. (Belapan, August 27)
U.S. AMBASSADOR: THERE IS STILL TIME TO MAKE A CHOICE
In an interview to Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, U.S. Ambassador Michael Kozak said that he is concerned about the current status of the U.S.-Belarus relations. Amb. Kozak said that during Amb. Pifer’s visit to Belarus this past February, the Belarusian government received a clear message that the relations between the two countries can be normalized in exchange for the liberalization of the political system in Belarus. “We have offered a step-by-step approach to normalize our relations and are prepared to discuss such steps in advance, so that neither side has to guess what its actions may entail,” the Ambassador said. “So far, the Belarusian government has not demonstrated the willingness to carry on this process and has not responded to similar offers from the European Union.”
Kozak said that if the Lukashenko government will continue to sell arms as well as transfer technology or provide training to the states or groups which are involved in terrorist activities or otherwise compromise the international security, it will undermine any other progress reached between the two countries. Almost every month Belarus sends a request to the United Nations for permission for flights to Baghdad, the Ambassador explained. The Belarusian government assures that the aircraft will carry medical supplies which Belarus wishes to donate to Iraq.
But it makes one wonder why a big aircraft with medical supplies has to fly from Belarus to Iraq, when Belarus itself experiences shortage of medical supplies, periodically asking others, including the U.S., for assistance, Kozak continued. “Iraq has the money to purchase medical supplies because the embargo does not cover them.”
The Ambassador also mentioned numerous publications about professional training of Iraqi officers in Belarus. “This information caused much concern because Iraqi air defense personnel had to be trained in using state-of-the-art weapon systems, which could only have one purpose: to shoot down American and British pilots flying patrols in accordance with UN decisions,” Kozak said.
Commenting on the OSCE AMG’s numerous run-ins with the Belarusian leadership, the U.S. Ambassador said that “if the Lukashenko government continues its efforts to push the OSCE’s mission out, it should be prepared for reaction from OSCE members.” “This is an issue not only for Belarus, which has made commitments to this international organizations and is not living up to them.” (Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta, June 11)
- INTERNATIONAL NEWS-
WATCHDOG RELEASES CORRUPTION INDEX
Bangladesh and Nigeria are perceived to be the countries with the world’s worst corruption problems, according to data from the Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog based in Berlin, released on August 28. Among the countries ranked least corrupt in its Corruption Perceptions Index were Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Iceland and Singapore. Belarus ranked as the 36th on the 102 nation list. The ranking was conducted by nine organizations including the World Bank, Columbia University, the Economist Intelligence Unit and PricewaterhouseCoopers. (The Wall Street Journal, August 29)