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Belarus: Letter to the McDonald's Corporation regarding Evidence Used in Trial

Mr. Jim Skinner
Chief Executive Officer
McDonald's Corporation
2111 McDonald's Drive
Oak Brook, IL 60523

Dear Mr. Skinner,

We are writing to request your assistance in clarifying information that has been brought to our notice about the impact of pro-democracy demonstrations on a McDonald's outlet, located at Prospect Nezavisimosti, 23 in Minsk, Belarus in December 2010. This information has been used by the Belarusian government as a key element in the trial and conviction of a demonstrator.

We are writing to you as it is our understanding that McDonald's directly owns and operates this outlet, a point on which we would appreciate your confirmation.  

As you are most likely aware, on the night of December 19, 2010 and subsequent nights, thousands of people took to the streets of Minsk protesting what they considered to be an unfair election. One of the main protests took place in Minsk's Independence Square, not far from the McDonald's outlet on Prospect Nezavisimosti.

On April 26, 2011 the Pervomaysky District Court of Minsk convicted Dmitry Bondarenko, who partook in those pro-democracy protests, on public disorder charges and sentenced him to two years imprisonment. We understand that in the context of the criminal prosecution against Bondarenko, the prosecution introduced evidence that the McDonald's outlet on Prospect Nezavisimosti, 23 made a decision to close early on December 19 and incurred a financial loss as a result of the early closure. This information was presented to the Court in document form which was attributed to McDonald's Corporation. Human Rights Watch does not have a copy of the document and we understand that the defense was not given a copy either.

This information is relevant because the prosecution claims Bondarenko's actions on the night of the December 19 protests constituted a violation of public order and thus under Belarus law he was subject to severe penalties for his part in the demonstrations. According to Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, for an offense to be classified as violation of public order, it must be accompanied by an active refusal to adhere to lawful orders of law enforcement and include actions which lead to the disruption of public transport or the work of companies or organizations. It would appear that evidence relating to the closure and financial loss of the McDonald's outlet was introduced by the prosecution to try to secure Bondarenko's conviction on serious criminal charges.

We would welcome your input as we try to clarify the circumstances of this case. In particular it would be very useful to know whether:

  • a) The McDonald's outlet, located at Prospect Nezavisimosti, 23 in Minsk, made a decision to close early on December 19, 2010;
  • b) The McDonald's outlet, located at Prospect Nezavisimosti, 23 sustained any damage or harm attributable to the protestors on December 19, 2010;
  • c) McDonald's or any of its affiliates was approached by the Belarus authorities to make a statement, testify or provide any evidence regarding a decision to close early on December 19, 2010;
  • d) If so, would you provide us with a copy of any such statement given or made to the authorities;
  • e) McDonald's or its affiliates is aware that the early closure of the McDonald's outlet, located at Prospect Nezavisimosti, 23 was introduced as evidence in trials against participants in the protests in December 2010;
  • f) You are aware of the existence and contents of the document presented to the Court attributed to McDonald's corporation;
  • g) We could be provided with a copy of the document presented to the Court, or being used by the prosecution to support charges of public disorder by participants in the protests;
  • h) McDonald's is engaged in or planning any legal actions to obtain compensation for any economic losses linked to the pro-democracy demonstrations on December 19, and if so the details;
  • i) McDonald's has in place any policies or protocols to advise or guide outlets in making a decision to close or not in the event of large public events, including demonstrations, taking place in the vicinity, and if so if we could be provided with copies.

Human Rights Watch has researched and documented what occurred around the protests in Minsk on December 19, 2010 and subsequent action taken by the authorities against protestors, and we would like to set out here our understanding of events.

On the night of December 19, 2010, after the results of the election were announced, thousands of people took to the streets protesting what they considered to be an unfair election. (The February 2011 report by the inter-governmental organization the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe found that the election was deeply flawed: http://www.osce.org/odihr/75713.) The largely peaceful protests were swiftly broken up by the riot police, who beat hundreds of people and severely injured several, including two former presidential candidates.  Over the course of the next two months, more than 700 people were sentenced to administrative detention for ‘participating in an unsanctioned gathering.' More than 40 people, including former presidential candidates and leading opposition activists, were charged with the criminal offences of ‘rioting' or ‘public disorder' and are on or awaiting trial. Some are still in detention and have either limited or no access to legal counsel. As of the end of April 2011, nine protestors have been convicted and six sentenced to up to four years of imprisonment. The trials of at least nine people, including two former presidential candidates, on public disorder charges commenced on May 5, 2011.

The completed trials, which were monitored by human rights activists (for example, activists from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Viasna), were marred by numerous due process violations, and on objective assessment led to convictions which should have been hard, if not impossible, to sustain based on the evidence presented in court. In one case, for example, the main evidence against an opposition leader, sentenced to four years in a high-security prison on riot charges, was that he used his hand to hit a wooden police barrier.

At the trial defense and prosecution witnesses testified to the non-violent nature of the events and to Bondarenko's behavior during the protests. This also correlates with multiple eye witnesses accounts of the events, received by Human Rights Watch, which assert that what took place on December 19 was a largely peaceful gathering of unarmed people, quickly and violently dispersed by the law enforcement personnel. During the trial Bondarenko's defense counsel put on record that most organizations and companies located on and near Independence Square did not interrupt their normal business hours on the night of December 19.

The post-election crackdown on civil society and independent media, led by President Aliaksandr Lukashenka, is far from over, and the human rights situation in the country is deteriorating rapidly. Three independent newspapers might be facing closure and a number of leading human rights organizations operate under a constant risk of criminal prosecution. Independent foreign and domestic journalists are being harassed on a regular basis and a number of independent monitors from outside Belarus have been expelled from the country, in some cases, directly from a court room where they were monitoring trials. Some of the lawyers representing the December election protesters have been stripped of their license. More information on the post-election crackdown in Belarus can be found in our March 2011 report, March 2011: "Shattering Hopes: Post-Election Crackdown in Belarus" https://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2011/03/14/shattering-hopes-0.

We welcome any further information you can provide about the company's role in this case and would be happy to discuss this issue further at your convenience.

Sincerely,

Rachel Denber
Acting Director

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