(New York, August 11, 1997) -- Human Rights Watch/Helsinki today renewed its call for the immediate and unconditional release of Pavel Sheremet, a Belarusian journalist who has just declared a hunger strike. "The case of Sheremet, Dmitry Zavadsky and Yaroslav Ovchinnikov is now our top concern in Belarus," declared Holly Cartner, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki. Sheremet, a correspondent for ORT (Russian Public Television) Ovchinnikov, a cameraman, and Zavadsky, a driver, were arrested July 24 allegedly for illegal border crossing. "His arrest signifies the Belarusian governments' total lack of respect for free expression and demonstrates its deplorable refusal to restore the rule of law."
Jonathan Fanton, chair of Human Rights Watch/Helsinki's advisory committee, was in Belarus last week to release a 52-page report, Belarus: Crushing Civil Society. "After illegally stripping Sheremet of his accreditation, the Belarusian government is now prosecuting him under the pretext of border violations, when in fact this attack is in direct response to his professional work and his criticism of government policies," he stated. "This was our message to the procuracy, the presidential administration, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Minister of Justice."
Deputy Procurator General A.V. Ivanovsky denied Fanton's request to visit Sheremet in detention, citing the "stage of the investigation." In a meeting with Mr. Ivanovsky, Human Rights Watch stressed that even if Sheremet did illegally cross the Lithuanian-Belarusian border, his detention is illegal; violating border regulations is a minor offence for which the use of custody is clearly disproportionate. Ivanovsky replied that the local procurator's office decides which measure of restraint to apply and refused to interfere.
Attempts by the Belarusian authorities to justify the journalists' continued arrest have not allayed Human Rights Watch/Helsinkiµs concerns. "The fact that fifteen journalists who-like we did - protested Sheremetµs detention, were arrested and subsequently tried on the basis of an unlawful presidential decree, shows once more that stated commitments to press freedom by the Belarusian government are completely empty," declared Fanton, referring to the brief detention on July 31 and the fining of journalists in Minsk for holding an "unsanctioned demonstration" and chalking "Free Sheremet" on the sidewalk.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki earlier wrote to President Lukashenka protesting the revocation of Sheremet's accreditation by the Belarusian authorities. In the letter, dated July 22, Human Rights Watch characterized the allegations against Sheremet as "unfounded and ... designed to silence criticism of you and your government." Stripping Sheremet of his accreditation, tha same action taken against NTV correspondent Aleksandr Stupnikov in April, is in "flagrant violation" of article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki's delegation visited Minsk from July 28 to August 1, 1997, to present Crushing Civil Society to the Belarusian government. The report describes in detail a series of attacks on the media in Belarus. It also documents attempts by the Belarusian authorities to destroy nongovernmental organizations, arbitrary arrests and excessive police violence at and around demonstrations, and blatantly unfair trials.
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki has already written to the European Union urging that international organization to take appropriate steps with respect to Belarus.