Human Rights Developments
Defending Human Rights
The Role of the International Community
Respect for human rights deteriorated as Belarusian president Lukashenka maintained his grip on power and the government staged deeply flawed parliamentary elections. Another well-known opposition figure "disappeared" in July, while the year witnessed a spate of political show trials. In the run-up to parliamentary elections the government intensified its crackdown on the opposition, which struggled to remain unified in calling for a boycott. Due to extensive election violations, no intergovernmental organization recognized the election results.
On July 7, Russian Public Television (ORT) cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky traveled to Minsk-2 airport where he was to have picked up a colleague, but Zavadsky never arrived. Police found his car, reportedly wiped clean of fingerprints, in the airport parking lot. Not active in politics, Zavadsky rose to prominence in 1997, when he spent three months in jail following arrest while filming at the border in a controversial incident. Zavadsky's nonappearance was widely attributed to the government's campaign to intimidate the media prior to the parliamentary elections.
In December 1999, Tamara Vinnikova, thought to have been detained in April 1999, reappeared in Western Europe. Vinnikova told the media she had fled the country because she feared for her life. There was no news as to the welfare or whereabouts of three others-former interior minister Yury Zakharenka, opposition activist Victor Gonchar, and publisher Anatoly Krasovsky-who were also last seen in 1999.
At a March 25 demonstration police detained over 200 persons, including thirty journalists, three Polish parliamentary officials, and a U.S. employee of the local OSCE office. Although the journalists and officials were released after a few hours, police confiscated video and audio recordings. At other demonstrations police arbitrarily and sometimes violently arrested participants.
In the first of a series of politically motivated trials of opposition activists in 2000, the Belarusian Supreme Court on January 14 sentenced former minister of agriculture Vasily Leonov to a four-year prison term for "bribery" and "abuse of power." On March 17, a Minsk court sentenced Andrei Klimov, entrepreneur, leading government critic, and member of the disbanded Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, to six years of imprisonment for "embezzlement" in a decision considered politically motivated. Klimov was arrested one day after he distributed a letter detailing constitutional violations committed by the Lukashenka administration. Klimov was severely beaten by prison guards on December 13, 1999, and appeared barefoot in court in torn clothes. He was later hospitalized and diagnosed as suffering from concussion.
On May 19, a Minsk court sentenced ex-prime minister Mikhail Chygir to three years of imprisonment for "abuse of power," suspended for two years. Chygir had been arrested shortly after his announcement that he would run in the "alternative" presidential elections held in May1999 and spent over six months in pretrial detention. In September, authorities launched a fresh criminal investigation against him, this time for tax evasion while Chygir worked for a German company in Moscow in 1996.
On June 19, a Minsk court sentenced veteran opposition activist and Thirteenth Supreme Soviet deputy Valery Shchukin and the chair of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP), Nikolai Statkevich, to suspended jail terms for "organizing and participating in mass actions that violated public order" during the October 17, 1999, Freedom March that turned violent. Both men were also barred from participating in the October 2000 parliamentary and June 2001 presidential elections.
Independent trade unions came under increasing pressure from the government. Members of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus faced continual pressure at their workplace to join state unions or lose their jobs. Members typically smuggled copies of the Independent Trade Union newspaper Rabochi (The Worker) into their place of work under their clothing. On December 16, police detained seven members of the Independent Trade Union of Steel Workers and confiscated 3,000 copies of Rabochi outside the entrance to the Minsk Automobile Plant.
Months of OSCE-mediated negotiations between the opposition and the government failed to ensure free or fair parliamentary elections on October 15 or broader media access. Central to the dispute was a deeply flawed electoral code, adopted on January 31, that ignored all of the OSCE-recommended amendments. The code failed to address the imbalance of power between the president and parliament or to include opposition representatives on the various local election commissions. While media access for the opposition was guaranteed on paper, in practice this was not observed. The opposition, grouped under the Congress of Democratic Forces, announced a boycott of the elections. Open calls to boycott elections are outlawed under article 167(3) of the administrative code. The police detained over one hundred people under this article; others were harassed and fined.
At a September 16 rally marking one year since the disappearance of Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky, unidentified men tried to seize three opposition leaders whose parties are boycotting the October elections. On September 21, four masked individuals broke into and raided the headquarters of the BSDP. On September 22, the Election Commission released a list of the 574 candidates registered to run in the elections; most of the opposition candidates were refused registration. Belarusian authorities declared the elections a success, with overall turnout 60.6 percent, but the opposition claimed widespread election violations and an actual turnout of 45 percent, and thus a successful opposition boycott.
On December 17, 1999, authorities passed a law amending the already restrictive law on the press, forbidding the publication of information on unregistered nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and trade unions. A December 7, 1999, decree amended the law on public associations, banning NGOs and political parties from using the words "Belarus," "Republic of Belarus," "national," and "popular" in their titles.
Authorities continued to threaten to close independent newspapers. On May 29, the State Press Committee issued warnings to the Belaruskaia Delovaia Gazeta (Belarusian Business Paper) and Narodnaia Volya (The People's Will) for "abusing" freedom of information.
On September 13, authorities seized the entire print run of Rabochi-12,000 copies-and detained editor-in-chief Viktor Ivashkevich and three others, including the director of the offending printing press, for publishing articles detailing the opposition's plans to boycott the parliamentary elections. On September 21, two individuals were detained in Homel for distributing the same issue of Rabochi, and 16,500 copies were confiscated.
Republic of Belarus
Bosnia and Hercegovina
United Kingdom / Northern Ireland
Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
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Copyright © 2001
Human RIghts Watch