The Belarusian authorities should immediately reverse a decision to evict the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) from its office and instead extend its lease for another year, Human Rights Watch said today. The government has arbitrarily cancelled the organization’s lease, interfering with its work and trying to force its closure. The committee’s head is expected to make a fresh plea for a lease extension in a meeting with the Presidential Administration today.
On December 19, 2006 the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which was founded in 1995 and is the country’s only registered human rights organization, was notified by the Administrative Service of the President of Belarus that its rental contract would be cancelled in one month’s time. No reasons were given for the decision. Eviction would deny the committee a registered address, giving the authorities a legal pretext to close the organization.
“This is another blatant attempt to silence the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and what’s left of civil society in Belarus,” said Holly Cartner, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should drop the eviction proceedings and renew the committee’s lease at once.”
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee is under significant pressure from the government which has made repeated attempts since 2004 to fine it for allegedly evading tax payments on tax-exempt grants from the European Union. In 2005, the committee was forced to shut down its network of regional offices. Then, in December 2006, court authorities entered its Minsk office, from which it provides legal assistance to the public, and confiscated office equipment. The Ministry of Justice is currently seeking to officially suspend the committee’s activities for its alleged tax evasion, but no court date has yet been set.
Belarusian law requires non-governmental organizations to be registered at a legal address. Loss of such an address would give the Ministry of Justice grounds to initiate liquidation proceedings against the committee. Given the attitude of the authorities towards its work, the committee considers the eviction to be part of the ongoing effort by the government to shut it down.
The Administrative Service indicated that after January 26, 2007, committee staff would be barred from the office, which the Belarusian Helsinki Committee has occupied legally since 1998. Since the December 19 notice, the committee has repeatedly tried to extend the office lease for another year through negotiations with the Economic Department of the Administrative Service of the President. In Belarus, a tenant is given the preferential right to renew a lease if the tenant has no outstanding rental debt with the contractor. Yet, despite the committee having paid its rent in full and the presence of vacant office space in the same building, the government has refused to renew the lease.
Since being evicted from its offices, the organization has continued its work from a private apartment. Belarusian Helsinki Committee chairperson Tatyana Prot’ko will meet today with the head of the Economic Department of the Administration of the President to renew the committee’s request for the lease to be extended. The committee is also considering legal action.
“The Economic Department of the Administration of the President should honor the request of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and extend their lease,” said Cartner. “Belarus should stop the crackdown on civil society and independent human rights defenders.”