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U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Belarus

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1997
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1996 - Belarus, 30 January 1997, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa1f18.html [accessed 28 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.
Released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, January 30, 1997

 

Belarus has a constitutional government with executive, legislative, and judicial branches. Since his election as the first President in July 1994, Aleksandr Lukashenko has steadily amassed power in the executive branch. May parliamentary elections, which international observers described as "less than free and fair," failed to elect enough members for a quorum. Repeat parliamentary elections held in December seated enough new members for the new legislature to begin deliberations in early 1996. Although the Constitution provides that the old Parliament retains its competency until replaced, President Lukashenko described it as illegitimate, and refused to work with it, leaving the country without an effective legislative body. The President repeatedly ignored limits on the authority of the executive branch, and the frequency and scope of his decrees increased as the year progressed. The President exercises executive power and appoints the Cabinet of Ministers and all executive heads of the six provinces. Presidential decrees have the force of law, except in those cases restricted by the Constitution and Parliament. A Constitutional Court was established in 1994 to adjudicate serious constitutional issues, but has no means to enforce its decisions.

The Committee for State Security (KDB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS), both answerable to the President, remained the chief law enforcement and police organs. Special formations of MVS troops on occasion used force against members of Parliament, opposition political gatherings, and union activities. The armed forces, which are not involved in law enforcement, continue to engage in hazing of recruits as it was practiced in the former Soviet Union. Members of the security forces committed numerous human rights abuses.

The economy is still largely state controlled, and it continued its steady decline since the breakup of the Soviet Union. Little privatization occurred, but prices on most goods were liberalized and subsidies to state enterprises were further cut. Industry and construction employ 40 percent of the labor force, and agriculture 20 percent. Major exports include machinery, transport equipment, and chemicals.

The government's human rights record worsened markedly as Belarus turned back toward Soviet-era authoritarian practices. The right of citizens to change their government was severely limited in the May parliamentary elections. However, as a result of the November and December polling a fully functioning Parliament was seated. Candidates nevertheless were hampered by presidential decrees limiting the activity of political parties and access to the media. The security services reportedly still closely monitored the activities of opposition politicians and other segments of the population. Security forces reportedly regularly beat detainees and prisoners.

Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, religions and movement all increased. The Government sharply curtailed the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively. The judiciary is not independent and has encountered difficulty acting as a check on the executive branch and its agents. Prolonged detention and delays in trials were common. Discrimination in employment and domestic violence against women remained significant problems.

Respect for Human Rights

Section 1 Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Political and Other Extrajudicial Killing

There were no reports of political killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of politically motivated disappearances.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The Constitution provides for the inviolability of the person and specifically prohibits torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. However, beatings by police and prison guards reportedly occurred regularly in detention centers and prisons. Law enforcement and prison officials may use physical force against detainees and prisoners if the latter are violent, have refused to obey the instructions of the prison administration, or have "maliciously violated the terms of their sentences." Law enforcement sources as well as former detainees report that investigators physically abused detainees in order to secure confessions. Although such behavior is against the law, the Government seldom, if ever, punishes people who commit such abuses.

In the armed forces hazing, the practice of severe harassment and abuse of new draftees by senior soldiers to maintain strict discipline, continues unchanged. Officers do not interfere with the practice.

Conditions in prison hospitals worsened, and the infection rate for tuberculosis in the prison population continued to climb. The MVS's single tuberculosis hospital was reportedly overcrowded, and patients were crowded into closed cells with little ventilation. One prisoner reported making repeated attempts to seek treatment for tuberculosis, but prison health officials allegedly misdiagnosed him on purpose so as not to be forced to send him to the already overcrowded hospital.

The Government limited prison visits by international humanitarian groups. The United Kingdom-based group Penal Reform International was granted access to a pretrial detention prison near Minsk but was denied access to maximum security facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Belarus has only slightly amended its Soviet-era law on detention. The Criminal Procedure Code provides that authorities may detain a person suspected of a crime for 3 days without a warrant. This period may be extended for up to 10 days, pending further investigation of a crime. On the basis of a local prosecutor's authority, detainees may be kept in pretrial detention for up to 3 months. Regional- and republic-level prosecutors may request extensions up to a maximum of 18 months. The law permits citizens to appeal the legality of an arrest either to the court or to the prosecutor's office. According to judicial sources, nearly 90 percent of all arrests are now contested.

By law a judge must initiate a trial within 3 weeks from the time charges are filed. However, the overloaded court system often does not meet this requirement, and months may pass before a defendant is finally brought to court.

Detainees may be allowed unlimited access to their legal counsel, and, according to the new Constitution, if they cannot afford counsel, a lawyer must be appointed free of charge. However, prisoners and lawyers alike report restrictions on consultations, and investigators may prohibit consultations between a lawyer and a client. Some detainees reported that investigators coerced them to sign statements waiving the right to an attorney during interrogation. The Government has failed to budget sufficient funds for defense attorneys to represent the indigent. Defense attorneys' fees are prohibitively expensive for many defendants. Since there are no legal provisions for bail and because there is no effective judicial oversight of prosecutors' actions, pretrial detention has in some instances lasted longer than 2 years.

The constitutional right of access to counsel and the requirement to charge detainees are frequently ignored. Free Trade Union President Gennady Bykov and Member of Parliament Sergei Antonchik were detained on August 21 and held incommunicado at an MVS military base for 3 days. Bykov and Antonchik, who were held in connection with the Government's breakup of a Minsk metro workers' strike, were neither arrested nor charged and were denied access to counsel for the period of their detention. The law does not provide for the right to a prompt judicial determination of the legality of detention.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The judiciary is not independent and is largely unable to act as a check on the executive branch and its agents. The Supreme Council passed legislation to support the independence of the judiciary, but these reforms are not scheduled to be implemented until 1996. Without major structural reforms, the independence of the judiciary from outside pressure cannot be achieved. Even the Constitutional Court, which according to the Constitution has an autonomous existence, has no means of enforcing its decisions. In December President Lukashenko issued an instruction to executive branch agencies that all of his decrees--even those struck down by the court as unconstitutional--must continue to be obeyed.

The criminal justice system, following the former Soviet model, has three tiers: district courts, regional courts, and the Supreme Court. Several modifications have been made, brought about by passage of the new Constitution, including direct presidential appointment of all local-level and military judges. The President also appoints the chairmen of the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, and the newly created Supreme Economic Court.

Parliament selects judges for republic-level courts on the basis of recommendations from the Ministry of Justice, based in part on examination results. However, many current judges and prosecutors were appointed in Soviet times when political influence pervaded the criminal justice system as it does today. Judges are dependent on the Ministry of Justice for sustaining court infrastructure and on local executive branch officials for providing their personal housing. Organized crime has had a significant impact on court decisions. There have been reports of judges granting lenient sentences to "connected" defendants.

Prosecutors, like the courts, are organized into offices at the district, regional, and republic levels. They are ultimately responsible to, and serve at the pleasure of, the Procurator General who is appointed by Parliament. On May 22, Procurator-General Vasily Sholodonov resigned, following press reports that the President's administration held information implicating him in financial misconduct. President Lukashenko appointed his successor, whose candidacy had not been presented to Parliament for debate by year's end.

Trials are generally public, although they may be closed on grounds of national security. Defendants have the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf. However, during their August 23 trial, Minsk metro strike organizers were denied the right to call witnesses on their behalf. According to the Constitution, the court appoints an attorney for defendants who do not have one, but defendants and judges alike report that court-appointed lawyers are frequently absent at interrogations and trials.

While the Constitution establishes a presumption of innocence, conviction rates have not changed from the Soviet era. Nearly 99 percent of completed cases result in convictions. Judges frequently send cases unlikely to end in convictions back to the prosecutor for "additional investigation," and prosecutors withdraw cases not likely to result in conviction.

Both defendants and prosecutors have the right of appeal, and nearly 60 percent of all criminal cases are appealed. On appeals, neither defendants nor witnesses appear before the court; the court merely reviews documents from the lower court's trial, and appeals rarely result in reversals of verdicts.

There were no reports of political prisoners.

f. Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

Electronic monitoring of residences and telephones reportedly continues. The KDB, the MVS, and certain border guard detachments have the right to request permission to install wiretaps but must legally obtain a prosecutor's permission before installation. The Government makes no secret of the KDB's activities or capabilities. On August 30 in a televised interview, President Lukashenko boasted of receiving intelligence service reports on opposition member of Parliament Gennady Karpenko's activities. Except in cases of pursuit, a prosecutorial search warrant is needed in order to enter a private home.

Section 2 Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Speech and Press

The Constitution provides for freedom of speech, but the Government often does not respect this right in practice. The executive branch of government, through the head of the president's chief directorate for public information, increased direct suppression of freedom of expression through its near total monopoly on the means of production and distribution of mass media and through its use of laws on slander. A defamation law makes no distinction between private and public persons for the purpose of lawsuits for defamation of character. A public figure who has been criticized for poor performance in office may ask a public prosecutor to sue the newspaper that printed the criticism.

The newspaper Svaboda was sued four times for publishing material critical of the Government. In late May Svaboda's bank accounts were frozen pending payment of a 45 million ruble fine assessed during a trial in which the newspaper was not represented. At year's end, the newspaper's official accounts remained frozen, although the newspaper has managed to continue publishing. After pressing criminal charges against the newspaper, deputy procurator general Kondratyev sent Svaboda an official warning that criticism of government employees in the performance of their duties would result in lawsuits and the closing of the newspaper. When Svaboda criticized a judge's decision as "not objective" in a case against opposition member of Parliament Sergei Antonchik, the judge in the case, Lyubov' Zholnerchik, sued the paper for one billion rubles for defamation of character.

Despite the passage of a press law in 1994 prohibiting the existence of a press monopoly, the Government maintained a virtual monopoly over the press since it owns nearly all printing and broadcasting facilities and manages the distribution of all print media through official outlets. There are some private newspapers printed in Belarusian and Russian. However, in December, on instructions from the Lukashenko administration, the monopolist state printing house cancelled the contracts of the leading independent newspapers Belorusskaya Delovaya Gazeta, Imya, and Svaboda. The newspapers contracted with a Lithuanian printing concern and continue to publish, but the state postal service, which distributes all other periodicals to suscribers, refused to distribute these newspapers.

The Government's direction of the issuance of radio frequencies and cable television licenses and the registration of radio stations, as well as its ownership of the country's only broadcast television station, amount essentially to complete control of the broadcast media. All mass media must register with the Government, which can use the registration requirements as an instrument of censorship since it can revoke registration at any time. This absence of independence encourages editors to practice self-censorship. In November President Lukashenko attempted to halt broadcasting of television programs featuring candidates for the upcoming parliamentary elections. The candidate made efforts to obtain air time on other television channels. Some succeeded.

President Lukashenko also issued decrees replacing the editors-in-chief of the four leading daily newspapers following the former editors' attempts to publish excerpts of a sensationalistic December 1994 report on corruption within the Lukashenko Government. According to both the press law and the newspapers' charters, the President had no authority to take such action. In the final week before the December 10 round of elections, Speaker of the old Parliament Myacheslav Grib sought to broadcast an apolitical get-out-the-vote message via state television, but was denied air time. Grib then attempted to broadcast his message via two independent Russian television stations which are rebroadcast in Belarus. However, the Ministry of Communications shut down the transmitters of these two television stations "for repairs."

The state-owned Belarusian Television and Radio Company (B-TR) runs the only nationwide television station and also controls frequencies and licenses for all broadcast media. The B-TR closed Minsk's independent Cable Channel 8 for the 3 months leading up to the parliamentary elections "for transmitter repairs." B-TR issued the station a license to reopen only after both rounds of elections were over and after station management officials agreed to a clause in their contract that the station would never broadcast political reporting. B-TR management on one occasion censored the remarks of two foreign Ambassadors on the independently produced television show "Praskpekt," a weekly political television newsmagazine broadcast on B-TR. The independent television studio Fit, which produced the program, was informed by B-TR management that if it did not censor the program, the B-TR would restrict the studio's access for the five other programs it produced for broadcast on B-TR.

The observance of academic freedom is mixed. University students and academics alike are free to pursue virtually any course of study or research. After enjoying considerable freedom to develop curriculums in the first years following independence, educators are now more restrained.

In August, 2 weeks prior to the start of the 1995-96 school year, President Lukashenko reportedly signed a decree ordering schools to return to Soviet-era textbooks. The decree claimed that post-Soviet textbooks were politicized and required their replacement with Soviet- era textbooks pending development of new curriculums. After educators and intelligentsia strongly objected to the move, President Lukashenko denied having signed the decree. Moreover, in response to their outspoken criticism of the decree, two deputy ministers of education, Tatiana Galko and Gennadiy Petrovsky, were fired. Following these actions, educators appear to be less outspoken in pursuit of academic reform.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Government restricts freedom of assembly. The Soviet law on demonstrations, which is still valid, requires an application at least 10 days in advance to local officials. The local government must respond either positively or negatively not later than 5 days prior to the scheduled event. Public demonstrations occurred frequently, but always under strict Government control.

On April 12, 16 hunger-striking members of Parliament were beaten by masked special police forces as they were forcibly ejected from the Parliament hall. Opposition members of Parliament were protesting the President's attempt to push through the legislature language for the May 14 referendum that they claimed would seriously jeopardize Belarusian sovereignty and give him the power to disband Parliament. In an April 20 televised press conference, the President warned that political groups could expect similar treatment if they incited political disturbances during the parliamentary election campaign. In addition, black-bereted special police troops roughly dispersed a small crowd which had gathered to protest the ouster outside Minsk's government house .

Police used truncheons in an attempt to disperse a crowd in independence square on July 27, Belarusian independence day. Following instructions that they claimed came from President Lukashenko, police detained five protestors for displaying the former Belarus flag and national emblem. (The flag and national emblem had been changed to resemble those of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic as a result of a May 14 referendum.) After initial attempts to disperse the crowd failed, the protesters were allowed, under heavy guard by special police forces, to march down Minsk's main street to join a rally in a nearby city park, which was not further impeded.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association. By the end of 1995, there were 36 registered political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

The Constitution provides for freedom of religion, and the Government generally respects this right in practice. However, a Cabinet of Ministers directive published on July 22 sharply limits the activity of foreign religious workers in Belarus. Citizens are not prohibited from proselytizing, but foreign missionaries may not engage in religious activities outside the institutions which invited them. Only religious organizations already registered in Belarus may invite foreign clergy. This new directive is already beginning to hamper foreign religious workers' efforts to proselytize; it seeks to limit them to providing humanitarian aid only.

The Cabinet of Ministers regulation is seen as a means of enhancing the position of the Orthodox Church with respect to the faster growing Roman Catholic and Protestant churches and also as a means of preventing nonmainstream religious movements from spreading. Announcement of the new rules was delayed to coincide with a visit from the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church. President Lukashenko has declared the preservation and development of Orthodox Christianity a "moral necessity." Fifty Polish Roman Catholic priests were reportedly denied registration as foreign religious workers. According to the new rules, bishops must receive permission from the State Committee on Religious Affairs before transferring a foreign priest to another parish.

Some difficulties still exist in transferring church property from state control back to the former owners. Progress involving repatriation of former Jewish property has been limited and inconsistent.

d. Freedom of Movement Within the Country, Foreign Travel, Emigration, and Repatriation

According to the Constitution, citizens are free to travel within the country and live and work where they wish. However, all adults are still issued internal passports, which serve as primary identity documents and are required for travel, permanent housing, and hotel registration.

The right to choose one's place of residence, although guaranteed by law, remains restricted in practice. Despite its formal abolition by the Soviet Government in October 1991, the "propiska" (pass) system survives in Belarus. All citizens are required to register their places of residence and may not change them without official permission. The authorities limit the number of residence permits in Minsk and the five regional centers of Brest, Grodno, Mogilev, Vitebsk, and Gomel. Government officials report that decisions are based solely on availability of housing and few citizens are denied permission to change their residence. However, police checkpoints at the approaches to all major cities are often manned by soldiers in full combat gear who randomly inspect vehicles. Citizens who appear to be of Central Asian descent report that they are stopped much more frequently than others.

The MVS's law on entry and exit requires those who wish to travel abroad to first obtain a "global" exit visa, which is valid from 1 to 5 years. Once a traveller has a valid visa, the law does not restrict travel. However, Free Trade Union President Gennady Bykov was denied permission to leave Belarus on September 6 to attend a union conference in another country following his detainment in connection with a Minsk metro workers' strike.

On September 7, President Lukashenko issued a decree recalling all diplomatic and official passports. The decree sharply limits the number of diplomatic and official passports and requires travellers to receive permission from the Government prior to their use. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed that the purpose of the recall is to prevent abuse of official status, but opposition members of Parliament claimed that the decree is intended to limit travel abroad only to trips approved by the executive branch--or even by Lukashenko himself.

According to government data, no citizen was denied permission to emigrate. Legislation restricting emigration by those with access to "state secrets" remained in effect, and any citizen involved in a criminal investigation was also ineligible to emigrate. Persons who have been refused the right to emigrate may appeal to the courts.

On September 12, the Belarus military shot down a gas balloon flying in an international race that flew over the border from Poland. The two American crewman were killed. An international commission is conducting an investigation into the incident. Belarus is cooperating with the international commission, of which the U.S. is a part.

The Government cooperates with the United Nations High Commisioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in assisting refugees. There were no reports of forced expulsion of those having a valid claim to refugee status.

Section 3 Respect for Political Rights: The Right of Citizens to Change Their Government

The right of citizens to change their Government was severely limited in the May parliamentary elections. International observers termed the elections "less than free and fair," citing inappropriate restrictions on campaigning and limits on the activity of political parties. The executive branch also influenced the outcome of the elections through its control of the mass media and its smearing of the opposition. Voters had limited information about the elections, parties, candidates, and their platforms. Only 119 of 260 seats were filled after the first two rounds of elections, far fewer than the two-thirds required for the Parliament to begin deliberations, because minimum turnout was not achieved. Repeat elections for the vacant seats were held in December, and despite what international observers termed "executive branch actions to discourage voter turnout," enough voters took part in elections to seat an additional 78 members, exceeding the quorum requirement.

Campaign spending in May and in the fall parliamentary voting was limited to about $50 (600,000 Belarusian rubles), provided by the Government, for each candidate. Political parties were not permitted to campaign for candidates, and presidential decrees restricted political gatherings and candidates' use of the mass media. A vicious "smear" campaign broadcast on state-run television in the final days of the campaign ensured that not a single candidate from the opposition Belarusian Popular Front was elected.

Although the Constitution states that the old Parliament retains its competence until it is replaced by a new legislature, President Lukashenko termed the old Parliament "illegitimate" and refused to permit it to take part in the governing of the country. President Lukashenko announced in an October 2 address to the nation that he had sent advisers to the provinces to persuade members of Parliament not to convene in Minsk the following day. Those efforts were successful, as Parliament was unable to reach a quorum. Independent press articles alleged that strong-arm tactics, such as the threat of losing jobs or privileges, kept many parliamentarians home.

There are no legal restrictions on women's participation in politics and government. However, with the exception of the judiciary, social barriers to women in politics are strong, and men hold virtually all leadership positions. There are two female ministers in the Lukashenko government, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Social Welfare. Of the 197 members elected to the new Parliament only 9 are women.

Section 4 Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations of Human Rights

Human rights monitors reported that the Government presented some obstacles when they tried to investigate alleged human rights violations. The Belarusian League of Human Rights, founded in 1992, reported that the courts continued, on the pretext of procedural grounds, to refuse to review its appeals to investigate alleged human rights violations. However, local human rights monitors noted that government willingness to discuss human rights problems increased in 1995, and international organizations were not hindered in visiting Belarus.

Section 5 Discrimination Based on Race, Sex, Religion, Disability, Language, or Social Status

The Law on Citizenship, passed by the Parliament, grants citizenship to any person living permanently on the territory of Belarus as of October 19, 1991. Those who arrived in Belarus after that date and wish to become citizens are required to submit an application for citizenship, take an oath to support the Constitution, have a legal source of income, and have lived in the country for 7 years. Parliament passed a new Law on Immigration and Migration which provides numerical limits on new citizens, but failed to budget funds for its implementation.

Women

Although statistics are not available, domestic violence against women continues to be a significant problem.

Knowledgeable sources indicate that police generally are not hesitant to enforce laws against violence and that the courts are not reluctant to impose sentences. The problem, according to women's groups, is a general reluctance among women to report incidents of domestic violence.

The law requires equal wages for equal work, and in practice, women are paid the same as men. However, they have significantly less opportunity for advancement to the upper ranks of management and government.

Children

The Government is committed to children's welfare and health, particularly as related to the consequences of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, and, with the help of foreign donors, gives them special attention. Families with children receive government benefits. Abuse of children does not appear to be a general societal problem.

People with Disabilities

A law mandating accessibility to transport, residences, businesses, and offices for the disabled came into force in 1992. However, facilities, including transport and office buildings, often are not accessible to the disabled. The Government, facing a deteriorating economic situation, failed to budget sufficient funds to implement these laws. When the Government slashed subsidies for most sectors of society, however, subsidies for the disabled were largely left in place.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution provides for the right of workers, except state security and military personnel, to form and join independent unions on a voluntary basis and to carry out actions in defense of workers' rights, including the right to strike. However, these rights are not generally recognized in practice. The Government used police and imported strikebreakers to break an August strike by Minsk metro workers.

The independent trade union movement is still in its infancy. Although several independent trade unions exist, the Belarusian branch of the former U.S.S.R.'s All-Union Central Council of Trade Unions--currently the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus (FTUB)--is by far the largest trade union organization. This trade union of 5 million members is not considered independent in practice since it often follows government orders.

In practice, workers are often automatically inducted into the FTUB, and their union dues are deducted from their wages. Independent labor leaders believe that the official trade unions' control over social functions usually performed by the state (such as pension funds) is an obstacle to the growth of true, independent trade unions.

The two major independent trade unions are the Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB), and the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP). The BNP and the SPB formed the Congress of Free Trade Unions of Belarus, which coordinates the activities of the two largest unions over 16,000 members and serves as a resource center for the free trade union movement.

On January 26, the FTUB staged a 1-day Soviet-style strike in which 20,000 workers gathered by enterprise, waved Soviet flags, and called for a recreation of the Soviet economy with full support for production, increased wages, and lower prices.

On August 17, the Minsk metro locals of both the SPB and the FTUB went on strike to protest late payment of wages and management's failure to abide by the terms of their collective bargaining agreement. On August 21, at the President's instruction, 23 striking metro employees were detained at gunpoint by special police forces. Over 60 metro workers who continued to support the strike were fired. SPB trolley bus drivers in the southeastern city of Gomel who struck in solidarity with Minsk metro workers were also fired.

SPB President Gennady Bykov, Member of Parliament and founding member Sergei Antonchik, as well as other metro strike leaders, were detained on August 21 for their involvement in the metro strike. Antonchik was released after being held incommunicado for 3 days (despite protection from criminal prosecution as a Member of Parliament), and Bykov was sentenced to 10 days in jail. On August 31, President Lukashenko issued a decree banning the activities of the SPB and the Minsk metro local of the FTUB. He also rescinded parliamentary immunities in the decree. The Constitutional Court ruled in late 1995 that these and other presidential decrees are unconstitutional. President Lukashenko instructed the executive branch to ignore this ruling, and the activities of the SPB remain sharply restricted.

Unions may freely affiliate with international bodies.

b. The Right to Organize and Bargain Collectively

Legislation dating from the Soviet era provides for the right to organize and bargain collectively. Since the economy is still largely in the hands of the State, unions usually seek redress at the political level. Workers and independent unions have recourse to the court system.

There are no export processing zones.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The 1994 Constitution prohibits forced labor, and there were no reports that it occurred.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Labor law establishes 16 years of age as the statutory minimum age for employment of children. With the written consent of one parent (or legal guardian), a child of 14 years may conclude a labor contract. Reportedly, the Procurator General's office enforces this law effectively.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The President's administration sets a minimum wage, which was raised once in response to inflation. On October 1, the monthly minimum wage was less than $6 (60,000 Belarusian rubles). The minimum wage is too low to provide a decent standard of living for a worker and family.

The Labor Code sets a limit of 40 hours of work per week and provides for at least one 24-hour rest period per week. Because of the difficult economic situation an increasing number of workers find themselves working considerably less than 40 hours per week. Often, factories require workers to take unpaid furloughs due to shortages of raw materials and energy, and lack of demand for factory output.

The law establishes minimum conditions for workplace safety and worker health; however, these standards are often ignored. Workers at many heavy machinery plants do not wear even minimal safety gear, such as gloves, hard hats, or welding glasses. A state labor inspectorate exists but does not have the authority to enforce compliance, and violations are often ignored. There is no provision in law allowing workers to remove themselves from dangerous work without risking their jobs.

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