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Human Rights Watch World Report 1998


Human Rights Developments

The Belarusian government stepped up its campaign to crush civil society and opposition activitiesin 1997 and ignored international pressure to restore respect for human rights and the rule of law. In the first half of the year, the government sought to silence opposition by sanctioning police violence to break up opposition demonstrations; detaining and fining opposition leaders, demonstrators, and passers-by; harassing journalists; and threatening newspapers and nongovernmental organizations with closure. In the second half of the year, the government's campaign targeted several journalists and political opponents of the president with politically motivated criminal charges.

The new constitution, adopted in a highly controversial referendum in November 1996, subordinated the legislature and judiciary to the executive, thereby significantly broadening President Lukashenka's powers. President Lukashenka disbanded the Supreme Soviet (the old parliament) and hand-picked a new parliament (the National Assembly) from deputies who had remained loyal to him. He also altered the Constitutional Court making more than half of its members presidential appointees.

The referendum, the union treaty with Russia, and Lukashenka's repressive policies triggered a series of street protests by the Belarusian opposition in the first months of 1997. Seeking to end what he called an "orgy of street democracy," on March 5 President Lukashenka issued a decree restricting demonstrations that, among other things, forbade the use of unregistered flags, as well as posters and other objects deemed to insult the honor and dignity of officials of the state. The decree also established a system of exorbitantly high penalties for violations of the decree, especially by participants and organizers of demonstrations. As of this writing, the National Assembly was working on a draft law on demonstrations containing the same provisions as the presidential decree.

Police regularly broke up demonstrations, arbitrarily arresting both participants and bystanders and using excessive violence that seemed aimed more at spreading terror than at restoring or protecting public order. Police also beat up and detained numerous journalists during demonstrations in early 1997. On March 14, police prevented a demonstration altogether, arresting scores of bystanders, including elderly women and children as young as fourteen years old, who later faced trial on fabricated charges. Almost all court hearings in cases related to demonstrations were blatantly unfair. Judges refused to allow testimony by defense witnesses and based their decisions on testimony from police officers. Hundreds of people were sentenced to between three and fifteen days of administrative detention and fines from U.S.$100 to U.S.$800. (The average monthly salary in Belarus is less than $100.)

The Belarusian government used arbitrary rent increases and audits to intimidate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and in particular targeted Children of Chernobyl, a humanitarian NGO that helps victims of the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. In late 1996, the government raised the organization's rent twenty-fold and conducted an audit in March. A preliminary report of the audit, issued in May, contained highly speculative accusations against the founder of the organization, Gennady Grushevoy. On the basis of the report, a Minsk prosecutor announced on public television that criminal proceedings had been instituted against Grushevoy, who was in Germany at the time of writing as he feared immediate arrest upon return to Belarus.

In an apparent attempt to deprive Belarus' nascent civil society of one of its main sources of financial assistance, the Belarusian authorities ordered an audit of the Belarusian Soros Foundation and subsequently imposed a U.S.$3 million fine for alleged currency exchange violations. After unsuccessfully attempting to find a compromise with the Belarusian government, the Soros Foundation closed its office in Belarus on September 3.

President Lukashenka eroded the independence of lawyers in a decree obliging all lawyers tobecome member of lawyers' collegia, which are tightly controlled by the Ministry of Justice. The decree also established that lawyers could receive a required license only after passing an exam with a qualification commission, which is headed by the Minister of Justice. In an act of political harassment, the ministry stripped Mechislav Grib, a deputy of the disbanded Supreme Soviet, of his license on July 7, claiming it had a right to do so because a court had convicted him for organizing an opposition rally in violation of the March 5 decree.

The crackdown on the independent media intensified in 1997. Having banned public discussion from the pages of the state-owned press, the Belarusian government moved its campaign of harassment to the independent print media. The authorities audited several independent newspapers in late 1996 and handed down punitive and disproportionate fines on grounds of questionable validity. The State Committee on the Press issued warnings and threatened to close various newspapers for their publication of articles that allegedly violated the press law but fell well within the limits of freedom of speech. In August, the Minsk prosecutor's office opened criminal investigations against Izvestiya (a leading Russian newspaper) correspondent Alexander Starikevich and the newspaper Svaboda for an article the correspondent wrote in that newspaper, which called for mass protests against Lukashenka's government. The Belarusian government considered the article to be libelous and to call for the violent overthrow of the government.

On several occasions, the Belarusian government used legislation to attack freedom of the press. On March 18 it issued a decree banning the import and export of information deemed to threaten "the national security, rights and freedoms of individuals, health and morale of the population, and environmental protection." On June 25, the lower house of the National Assembly approved draft amendments to the press law that would codify the decree into law. The law would also empower the State Committee on the Press to close media outlets, should they violate the press law, and to ban publications deemed libelous of the Belarusian president and other state officials. Finally, foreign media could distribute their products only with the approval of the State Committee on the Press and could only set up representative offices with approval of both the committee and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In an apparent attempt to block the wide circulation of information critical of his government, President Lukashenka specifically attacked Russian television transmissions, which can be received in most of Belarus. The authorities several times forbade Russian television journalists to transmit video materials of opposition rallies and, on March 24, 1997, stripped Alexander Stupnikov, correspondent for Russian independent television, of his accreditation and expelled him from the country for alleged systematic distortion of information about events in Belarus. On July 7, Pavel Sheremet, Russian Public Television (ORT) Minsk bureau chief, was stripped of his accreditation for similar reasons.

On July 26, several days after they filmed a program intending to demonstrate the transparency of the Belarusian-Lithuanian border, Belarusian police arrested Pavel Sheremet and two of his crew members on charges of having "unlawfully crossed the border." President Lukashenka-making far-fetched claims that new, high technology border security equipment was being tested in the area-charged that Sheremet was working not for ORT but for a foreign intelligence agency. Belarusian police arrested yet another ORT crew on August 16. Like Sheremet's crew, the journalists had also intended to film the border but were arrested a short distance from their destination. They were charged with "attempted border violations" and held in detention. After pressure from Russia, Belarusian authorities released all the journalists relatively quickly, with the notable exception of Sheremet, who was finally released on October 8, having spent seventy-fourdays in custody. ORT correspondent Anatoliy Adamchuck (of the second crew) and Sheremet's cameraman, Dmitri Zavadsky, were pressured into writing letters to President Lukashenka requesting their release. After his release, Zavadsky claimed that the letter circulated by the Belarusian authorities, which contained his confession and apologies, significantly differed from what he indeed had written. On August 20, the Belarusian government announced that ORT's accreditation had been annulled and accused ORT of organizing "a political provocation against the country's leadership." As of this writing, the trials of the journalists had yet to begin.

Members of the disbanded Supreme Soviet and of political parties, among the main organizers of protest rallies, came under constant government attack. Numerous deputies were detained and beaten during demonstrations, and sentenced to administrative detention and fines, and one of them was beaten up by unknown men in his home. The prosecutor's office launched criminal investigations against at least three deputies. One of them, Vladimir Kudinov was charged with giving a bribe of U.S.$500 and sentenced to seven years of imprisonment in August, a case that Belarusian human rights activists claim was political rather than criminal. On August 29, deputy Viktor Gonchar, head of the Supreme Soviet committee that investigated unlawful actions by the Belarusian president, was forcibly taken to the prosecutor's office in Minsk and charged with libeling President Lukashenka. He was released after questioning. Similarly, political motives seemed apparent in criminal proceedings against former Central Bank director Tamara Vinnikova, who was arrested in early 1997 on economic charges.

The Right to Monitor

In 1997 the government targeted the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC). Several BHC members were arrested during demonstrations in March, April and June. One of them was acquitted in court while the others received warnings, fines or sentences of administrative detention. Police beat up two monitors of the organization during demonstrations on March 14 and April 2. The BHC came under renewed attack on October 20, when twenty-one-year-old Nadezhda Zhukova, a trial and demonstration observer, was assaulted and threatened with reprisals after leaving the Leninsky District Court by three men who identified themselves as "young Belarusian patriots," which raised suspicion that they were members of the pro-presidential Belarusian Patriotic Youth Movement that openly advocates violence. Further evidence suggested police collusion in the assault. In a clear case of harassment, on October 23, Tatiana Protko, the head of the BHC, while interviewing a dismissed collective farm manager in Mohilev region, was arrested on charges of obstructing the work of local officials who had arrived to "measure" the farm manager's home. The charge was later changed to "illegal personal assumption of government authority." However, at her trial the following morning, the case against her was dismissed.

Government policies aimed at marginalizing the independent press seriously limited the circulation of information on the human rights situation in Belarus. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was not aware of restrictions placed on monitoring by international human rights groups.

The Role of the

International Community

The international community responded swiftly to the sharp decline in the human rights situation in Belarus. In October, Belarus reported to the U.N. Human Rights Committee (HRC) on its implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. As of this writing, theHRC has yet to issue its final recommendations, but in its preliminary concluding observations the committee noted that Belarusian citizens seem to be under "police pressure reminiscent of the era of the former Soviet Union" and urged the Belarusian government to lift its restrictions on a variety of civil and political rights.

European Union

The European Union (E.U.) reacted to the November 1996 referendum by sending a fact-finding mission to Belarus to investigate the circumstances of the referendum in January. Based on the conclusions of this mission, the E.U. Council of Ministers conditioned economic cooperation programs with Belarus on concrete steps to establish the rule of law. With this aim, a working group-involving E.U. mediators and representatives of the Belarusian government and the opposition-was created to discuss a new constitution that would guarantee a true separation of powers and human rights. On September 15, the E.U. Council of Ministers suspended the dialogue indefinitely, stating that President Lukashenka had not acted in good faith and had obstructed the dialogue.

Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe suspended Belarus' special guest status in late January 1997 in reaction to the November 1996 referendum. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) sent a fact-finding mission to Belarus from April 15 to 18 which concluded that "there is every indication that the [Belarusian] authorities are constructing a system of totalitarian government." The OSCE delegation recommended that a permanent OSCE representation be established in Minsk to monitor the human rights situation and advise the Belarusian government on promoting democracy. Although the Belarusian government agreed to the presence of such an OSCE representation, it obstructed the establishment of the office by suspending negotiations on July 18, 1997. Only on September 18, after the E.U. had suspended its dialogue with the Belarusian government, did Belarus agree to resume negotiations.

Inexplicably, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, having suspended Belarus in April for establishing the National Assembly "through a process whose legality is questioned," promptly reinstated the country just before the September Inter-Parliamentary Conference in Cairo. Belarus authorities exploited this move in their attempts to reinstate Belarus as a special observer in the Council of Europe.

United States

Following the November 1996 referendum, the United States reassessed its policy toward Belarus. Considering that Belarus' poor human rights record had reduced the framework for constructive relations, the Clinton administration adopted a policy of selective engagement, limiting government contacts to a minimum while continuing to work with democratic institutions, such as the independent media and NGOs.

Relations were strained further when, first, Peter Byrne, Executive Director of the Belarusian Soros Foundation, was refused entry into Belarus on March 16, and a week later Serge Aleksandrov, the U.S. Embassy's first secretary, was expelled from the country for his alleged participation in an opposition demonstration. The Clinton administration protested the expulsion, expelled a Belarusian diplomat and requested that the new Belarusian ambassador to the U.S. delay his posting.

Relevant Human Rights Watch report:

Republic of Belarus: Crushing Civil Society, 8/97

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