Human Rights Defenders in Belarus are severely persecuted: Statement of Thomas Hammarberg, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights
In Belarus, the crackdown on opposition politicians, civil society groups, human rights defenders and media continues. While no less than seven hundred demonstrators were arrested in the evening after the elections of 19 December, several of them have now been brought to court, have faced unsubstantiated charges and received extreme sentences.
The presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who was badly ill-treated, has now been sentenced to five years of hard labour for having protested against election fraud. Others who stood trial with him got between three and three and a half years in prison.
The charge was “organising mass disturbance”. The court held the well-known activists among the 30 000 peaceful demonstrators at Independence Square responsible for the broken windows on the House of Government caused by a small number of hooligans some distance from the main and orderly demonstration.
False charges against peaceful demonstrators
No proof has been shown for such a link between the peaceful mass demonstration and the violent actions by a few at the doors of the government site. The connection was rather that the police – after having failed to protect this building - responded by attacking the peaceful demonstrators with brutal, excessive force.
The politicised court procedures have been accompanied by stigmatising statements by government officials. Human rights defenders have been accused of being traitors and a fifth column. These attacks acquired a particularly senseless and menacing dimension after the terrorist attack at Minsk metro station on 11 April – as if there was any connection between this awful crime and human rights defence. One of those targeted was Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”.
Human rights defenders targeted
There have been numerous reported cases of intensified restrictions of general activities of human rights defenders and activists. They have been harassed and repeatedly questioned by law-enforcement officers. Private homes of leading members have been searched, warnings issued against individuals and organisations, and computers and data storage devices confiscated. The offices of major human rights defence organisations, such as Belarusian Helsinki Committee and Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, and of independent media have been searched.
The Ministry of Justice has requested that two independent newspapers should be closed and individual members of the journalists’ association and other media professionals have received official warnings from both the Belarus KGB and the Prosecutor’s office.
These repressive actions represent an intensification of the previous restrictions against independent civil society groups. A Presidential decree from 1999 obliging NGOs to re-register has resulted in many of them being deleted from the official register - they were prevented from re-applying and subsequently closed down.
Registration rules used as an instrument of repression
This decree also placed constraints on the activities of non-registered NGOs that continued to operate. Criminal liability was introduced for member activities, imposing sentences of up to two years imprisonment. This offence was then included in the Criminal Code as Article 193.1 and has become an instrument for exerting pressure and control over human rights actors. UN proposals that it be repealed have been ignored.
Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, and at present it does not meet the requirements for membership. One consequence is that its citizens cannot benefit from support from the Council’s mechanisms and programs in support of human rights, democracy and rule of law.
It is all the more important that the fate of the Belarusian people is not forgotten, and that we extend constructive support to civil society in this European country.
- Login to post comments