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Belarus: Human Rights Concerns for the 61st Session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights

Objective  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution condemning the government of Belarus for the further consolidation of state repression. A strong resolution is merited given that the Commission in 2004 saw fit to adopt a resolution on Belarus that has not been acted on, and Belarus has not cooperated with the Special Rapporteur appointed in 2004. The new resolution should call on Belarus to take steps to reverse the continuing erosion of respect for internationally recognized human rights standards. The resolution should extend the mandate of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Belarus, and require Belarus and all other states to offer him their full cooperation. Anything less than a firm commitment to the Special Rapporteur's continuing work would be to reward the government of Belarus for its obstructive stance.

Background  
 
For the past decade the administration of President Aleksandr Lukashenko has eroded civil and political rights. Independent media and civil society groups survive, but are shrinking under sustained pressure from the authorities. State manipulation turned Belarus’ elections into empty exercises: elections in 2004 were not free and fair, and produced a parliament with no opposition representatives. The legacy of “disappearances” of perceived opponents, for which the government refuses to pursue meaningful accountability, continues to taint the administration and to sour its foreign relations. Belarus finds itself largely isolated internationally for its record on human rights, while the government shows no sign of feeling compelled to address the causes of that isolation.  
 
Politically-motivated Prosecutions. Politically-motivated trials of opposition activists again took place in 2004. At the end of the year Mikhail Marynich, an opposition politician and former government minister, was convicted of embezzlement and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The criminal investigation of Mr. Marynich initially on quite different charges, as well as the repudiation of claims against him by the owner of the property said to have been embezzled (the U.S. State Department), strongly suggested political motives behind the prosecution. In August Belarus refused the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention access to Mr. Marynich.  
 
In September, Valery Levonevsky, a member of the coordination committee of “Free Belarus,” and his deputy Aleksandr Vasiliev were convicted of defamation, both receiving two-year prison sentences.  
 
Pressure on Independent Media and Political Parties. The long-standing government pressure on independent newspapers (the only independent media sector with political news content) intensified in the run-up to the October 2004 elections. Around a dozen print media outlets were suspended within the preceding two months, mostly for violating largely formalistic registration requirements. For example, changes to the publishing schedule of the newspaper Navinki was one of the grounds for its three-month suspension by the Ministry of Information. Some printing houses were pressured to stop printing independent newspapers. Journalists who criticized the government faced prosecution. In September a court convicted Alena Raubetskaia, editor-in-chief of the Birzha Informacii newspaper, on defamation charges after the paper criticized the referendum on lifting presidential term limits.  
 
A climate of intimidation accompanied the election and referendum campaigns, including police raids on opposition offices, the brief detention of two opposition candidates, detention or harassment of campaign workers, as well as coercion applied to students and other groups to take part in the elections. International observers determined that the elections were administered in a manner that “sought to actively exclude candidates representing a diversity of interests,” with non-registration and deregistration on highly arbitrary or formalistic grounds greatly affecting opposition political party candidates.  
 
Restrictions on Assembly. The authorities’ response to opposition attempts to stage meetings and demonstrations remained excessively restrictive and heavy-handed. Notably, during the week after the elections and referendum, opposition activists organized demonstrations to protest the official results. Police beat and detained dozens of protesters, among them Anatoly Lebedko, the leader of opposition United Civil Party. Lebedko required hospital treatment.  
 
Unresolved “Disappearances.” The 1999-2000 “disappearances” of high-ranking officials Yury Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky and TV cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky remained unresolved. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in April 2004 concluded that senior Belarusian officials may have been involved in the disappearances and that steps had been taken “at the highest level of the State” to cover up the true background. It called for a truly independent investigation by the competent national authorities, including criminal investigation of the alleged involvement of three high-level government officials.  
 
Recommendations  
 
The Commission on Human Rights should adopt a resolution that would:

  • Extend for another year the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus.


and call on the Belarusian government to:

  • Fully cooperate with the Special Rapporteur. The Commission should in the strongest terms reprimand Belarus for its refusal to cooperate with the mechanism throughout the first year of that mandate.  
     
  • End politically-motivated prosecutions of political opponents. The Commission should raise concerns about the Belarusian government’s continued prosecutions of political opponents on charges that appear to be politically motivated. The Commission should call for a review of the prosecutions of Mr. Marinich, Mr. Levonevsky and Mr. Vasilyev.  
     
  • Cease harassment of independent media. The Commission should raise concerns about the pressure applied to independent print media, including the prosecution of individual journalists on such charges as defamation of the president. The rules for suspending or closing media outlets should be clearly defined and not include political considerations.  
     
  • Abolish unjustifiable restrictions on association and assembly. Political parties should be allowed to function free of harassment and the arbitrary actions of state authorities. In regulating public assembly and the actions of its police and security forces, Belarus should seek conformity with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as other relevant international standards.  
     
  • Pursue meaningful investigation and prosecution for unresolved “disappearances.” In line with the Commission’s Resolution 2004/14, the Government of Belarus should ensure that all necessary measures are taken to investigate fully and impartially all cases of forced disappearance, summary execution and torture and that perpetrators are brought to justice before an independent tribunal and, if found guilty, punished in a manner consistent with the international human rights obligations of Belarus.

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