The September 2001 presidential elections brought an unusual level of international attention to Belarus--but human rights abuses there followed familiar patterns. There were state or state-sanctioned attacks on the independent press, human rights defenders, opposition politicians, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and peaceful demonstrators. President Alexander Lukashenka was reelected, although no intergovernmental organization recognized the elections as free and fair.
In June, credible evidence surfaced implicating state agents in the 1999-2000 unsolved "disappearances" of opposition figures Yury Zakharenka, Viktor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, and Dmitri Zavadsky. Two former procuracy investigators who had fled Belarus in May released documents to support their claims that a special death squad, "Almaz," had assassinated the four men.
The election campaign began inauspiciously, when the Belarusian government prevented Mikhail Chygir, the strongest opposition candidate, from running for president. In December 2000, the Belarusian Supreme Court reversed a decision convicting Chygir of abuse of power, but returned his case to a lower court. The pending investigation precluded Chygir from contesting the September vote.
Detentions of canvassers, police raids on candidates' offices, the denial of opposition access to the state media, and unbalanced election commissions seriously compromised the integrity of the campaign and elections. The opposition united behind Vladimir Goncharik of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus, but had little chance of beating the odds. Opposition and independent NGO representatives were disqualified nearly categorically from district election commissions.
In two July incidents, police in Grodno detained volunteers collecting nomination signatures for independent candidates and confiscated the signature sheets; candidate Valery Levonevsky was also detained.
Police raided four of opposition candidate Semyon Domash's campaign offices in July, confiscating newspapers. On August 25, police raided Goncharik's Mogilev campaign headquarters, seizing election materials and detaining the regional campaign coordinator. Two days later, the Central Election Commission notified Goncharik of campaign violations, such as distributing independent newspapers, and warned him that they would remove him from the ballot for further violations.
On September 2, police in Kobrin detained three schoolboys under fourteen years old for putting up Goncharik posters. Without contacting their parents, police questioned the children and threatened them with imprisonment.
Authorities strongly encouraged "early voting," which allowed ballots to be cast at polling places five days before election day without the presence of monitors, making possible widespread vote fraud. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) reported that four universities, including Belarus State University, Belarusian State Medical University, the University of Culture, and the Gomel Cooperative Institute cancelled classes and closed dormitories during election week. Rights groups accused authorities of taking these measures to force students to participate in "early voting" and to leave the cities before planned opposition demonstrations.
On September 10, the BHC filed a complaint with the Central Election Committee documenting more than one hundred pages of election violations and calling for the results to be invalidated. After the Central Election Committee rejected the complaint, the BHC appealed to the Supreme Court, which rejected the case on October 24.
In the pre-election period, Belarusian authorities systematically sought to cripple the independent press by confiscating newspapers and presses, bringing charges against editors and journalists, and detaining individuals for distributing newspapers. In July and August authorities seized printing equipment or newspapers from six different independent newspapers, and in August alone, police detained opposition activists for distributing seven independent newspapers. On election day the websites of several independent media outlets were inexplicably blocked.
Authorities particularly targeted Magic Publishing House, the independent publisher in Minsk of eighteen periodicals. During three raids in January and August, the tax police seized printing equipment, shut down printing presses, and confiscated issues of Nasha Svaboda (Our Liberty) and Rabochy (The Worker). Authorities installed the deputy director of the State Press Committee as acting director of Magic on August 27, obstructing Magic's independent operations.
The State Press Committee reprimanded the newspapers Narodnaia Volia (The People's Will) and Komsomolskaia Pravda Belarus on February 14 for publishing an article linking the arrest of opposition leader Mikhail Chygir's son, Alexander, to state harassment of opposition candidates. On February 20, the editors of the Krichev district independent newspapers Volny Gorod (Free City) and Nash Volny Gorod (Our Free City) were convicted of slander for publishing articles critical of the Russia-Belarus union. On March 13, the State Press Committee annulled the registration of the only Belarusian publication for sexual minorities, Forum Lambda.
Valery Shchukin, an opposition politician and journalist, received a three-month prison sentence in March for "malicious hooliganism." The charges derive from Shchukin's attempt in January to attend a press conference, when police violently barred him entry, inflicting serious injuries. Although Shchukin had press credentials, police said the event was open only to journalists from the state-run media.
The Ministry of Justice denied registration to the Youth Front, an opposition organization, on January 3, 2001, citing "irregularities" in its registration documents. On February 19, a Minsk court fined the group's leader, Pavel Syverinets, about U.S. $460 for organizing a demonstration.
Authorities routinely detained peaceful demonstrators of all ages, often under article 167 of the Belarusian administrative code, which prohibits the organizing of unauthorized protests or mass actions. On December 10, 2000, Human Rights Day, peaceful demonstrators were detained under article 167 in five cities. Sergei Bakun of the Brest Youth Front was sentenced to ten days' imprisonment; two United Civic Party activists in Vitebsk were fined the equivalent of U.S. $500 each.
During the annual March 25 Freedom Day demonstrations, twenty-five peaceful demonstrators were detained in Minsk alone. Pavel Syverinets and Ales Byalytski, chair of the Viasna Human Rights Center, were sentenced to fifteen days in prison. Ludmila Griazanova, an opposition politician, was fined approximately U.S. $100. At the rally in Grodno, a seventeen-year-old photojournalist was reportedly detained, beaten, and warned not to file his story.
Activists from the youth movement Zubr faced detention for staging demonstrations, painting anti-Lukashenka graffiti, and distributing opposition materials. Youth activists were detained--and in some cases interrogated--without counsel, fined, or imprisoned, in ten cities. Police detained children in at least four of these cities. On August 14, Zubr reported that a Borisov police officer brutally beat a thirteen-year-old for posting Zubr stickers.
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