Human Rights Watch/Helsinki charged today that Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenka has reversed nearly all the advances in the field of human rights and rule of law that had marked the perestroika era and the early 1990s. In presenting Belarus: Crushing Civil Society today at a press conference in Minsk, Jonathan Fanton, chair of the Human Rights Watch/Helsinki advisory committee is calling on the Belarusian government to cease its relentless attacks on free expression and association.
The 52-page report documents government assaults on civil society, that target primarily the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs). After banning all public discussion from the state-owned media, the government is now driving all independent media outlets out of business. Throughout the last few years, it has closed two independent radios and a television station . It has marginalized the independent print media by misusing its monopoly on publishing houses and issuing arbitrary tax regulations.
As part of the effort to curtail media freedoms, journalists, especially television reporters, have been attacked while covering demonstrations. The report notes that the campaign against the Russian broadcast media is especially fierce because Russian television dares to criticize Belarusian government policy and offers the only television news alternative to the closely-controlled Belarusian news. The arrest of ORT journalist Pavel Sheremet, together with two colleagues, Dmitry Zavadsy and Yaroslav Ovchinnikov, on July 26 on charges of "border violations" is merely the latest case in a clear pattern of governement harassment of journlaists. Sheremet had been filming at the Belarusian border, allegedly in violation of article 80 of the Belarusian criminal code. Given the harassment of journalists generally in Belarus, and the targetting of Sheremet in particular (his accreditation had been revoked earlier this month), Human Rights Watch/Helsinki believes the government is using article 80 as a pretext to silence Sheremet and to send a signal to like-minded journalists. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki therefore views the arrest of Sheremet and his crew as politically motivated and calls for their immediate and unconditional release.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki also details the harassment of NGOs through questionable tax audits and outrageous rent hikes for those NGOs housed in government-owned buildings. For example, as a result of an apparently politically motivated campaign against the Children of Chernobyl - a humanitarian organization which provides aid to victims of the Chernobyl disaster - the organization has had to stop its humanitarian support program to kindergartens, orphanages and the physically handicapped.
In late April 1997, the Belarusian government imposed a $3 million fine on the Belarusian Soros Foundation, after which the Foundation-which had invested $13 million into educational projects and the development of the civil society in Belarus-suspended its activities in the country. According to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, "this can be only interpreted as an attempt to force the foundation to close its office in Minsk and deprive numerous NGOs of their main source of financial support."
A presidential decree of March 5, 1997, limits yet another outlet for free expression: peaceful mass demonstrations. The decree seriously compromises the staging of demonstrations, and establishes numerous vaguely worded rules and obligations for participants and organizers, which can be used to arbitrarily restrict freedom of assembly. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki condemns the exorbitant fines on demonstrators and organizers levied recently after blatantly unfair trials. Excessive use of force by police to break up peaceful demonstrations is designed to spread terror among protestors and bystanders, rather than an attempt to maintain or restore public order.
In response to severe criticism from a variety of international organizations and governments, the Belarusian government wrote to the European Union (EU) in April 1997 promising to restore democracy and respect for human rights, and agreed to start a dialogue with the opposition on constitutional change, under the auspices of the EU and other international organizations. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki asserts that to date, these are empty promises.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki calls on the Belarusian government to:
Reestablish the independence of the judiciary to ensure effective judicial protection of human rights and freedoms -in accordance with international standards- against decisions and actions of the executive and legislative powers;
Immediately end measures aimed at establishing a complete state monopoly on information. In particular, cease using the state monopoly on print and distribution services to marginalize the independent media. Also, Decree No. 218 on the import and export of information should be rescinded and its provisions removed from the draft law on the mass media. Similarly, the draft law should set out an appeals process for journalists whose accreditation has been revoked.
In addition, Ministry of Communications plans to restrict the use of private telephones should be halted; confiscations of written, taped and video materials should be ceased; and independent journalists should be granted sufficient access to government information;
Cease all forms of government- initiated or supported harassment of independent media and individual journalists. In particular, cease politically motivated rent hikes; physical and verbal attacks on journalists; and end restrictions on the use of publishing houses;
Immediately release Pavel Sheremet, Dmitry Zavadsy and Yaroslav Ovchinnikov;
Restore the accreditation of television journalists Pavel Sheremet and Aleksandr Stupnikov, as well the latter's residence permit;
Reestablish Radio 2, Radio 101.2, and independent Belarusian television stations;
Cease performing politically motivated audits of NGOs and discontinue other forms of harassment of NGOs, such as raising their rents unreasonably or forcing them to move out of their offices;
Establish sufficient guarantees to exclude political criteria from playing a role in the admission and dismissal of lawyers from bar associations;
Rescind the arbitrary provisions in Presidential Decree No. 5 restricting public demonstrations;
Ensure that demonstrations can be organized and carried out in accordance with international law and human rights standards, and without unnecessary police intervention;
Ensure that in cases of police interventions law enforcement agencies employ only those measures that are strictly needed to restore public order and that police do not arbitrarily arrest or beat demonstration participants and non-participants; and
Cease the harassment and intimidation of deputies of the 13th Supreme Soviet and political opponents of the government, including at work places, universities and schools.
Human Rights Watch calls on the Russian government to:
Encourage the Belarusian government to implement the above recommendations, using its good offices and its exceptional relationship with Belarus;
Following references to human rights and press freedoms in the Belarus-Russia union treaty, to continuously seek guarantees from the Belarusian authorities for respect for human rights;
Within the context of the Belarus-Russia union treaty, establish an independent human rights commission to investigate violations of human rights in Belarus;
Support the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe in their efforts to restore democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus.
Human Rights Watch calls on the European Union and the Council of Europe to:
Increase support and assistance for civil society in Belarus, especially by encouraging the organization of seminars on human rights and the rule of law for NGOs, judges, lawyers and law enforcement officers; and by organizing seminars to promote media freedoms and discourage censorship that would include government officials, representatives of both the state-owned and independent media, and human rights NGOs.