Last Updated: Thursday, 23 October 2014, 08:40 GMT

U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belarus

Publisher United States Department of State
Publication Date 30 January 1995
Cite as United States Department of State, U.S. Department of State Country Report on Human Rights Practices 1994 - Belarus, 30 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6aa4118.html [accessed 23 October 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.
 

 

On July 10, Belarus elected its first President, Aleksandr Lukashenko, who convincingly defeated incumbent Prime Minister Vyacheslav Kebich in what international observers generally considered to be a free and fair election. Popular frustration with economic conditions contributed to the heavy vote for Lukashenko, who ran on a populist, anticorruption platform.

Under the new Constitution, adopted by the Supreme Soviet (parliament) in March, the President exercises executive power and appoints the Cabinet of Ministers and all executive heads of Belarus' six provinces. Presidential decrees have the force of law, except in those cases restricted by the Constitution and Parliament. A Constitutional Court was created and has begun to adjudicate serious constitutional issues.

The Committee for State Security (KDB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS), both organs answerable to the President, remained the chief law enforcement and police organs. Although the security services reportedly still monitored closely the population's activities, they reduced overt interference in the private lives of citizens. However, special formations of MVS troops intimidated some opposition gatherings, and police reportedly used excessive force on detainees. The armed forces, which are not involved in law enforcement, continue the practice of hazing as it was practiced in the former Soviet Union.

Belarus' economy is still largely state controlled; however, the Lukashenko administration freed prices of most goods and cut subsidies to many state industries. Little privatization has occurred thus far, and foreign trade is still oriented towards other parts of the former Soviet Union. Industry and construction employ 40 percent of the labor force, and agriculture 20 percent. Major exports include machinery, transport equipment, and chemicals.

Belarus' transition from Soviet-era authoritarian institutions toward fully democratic ones remains uneven, and human rights abuses continue. The presidential election, as noted, was free and fair, but the judiciary is not independent and is unable to act as a check on the executive branch and its agents. Police and prison officials regularly beat detainees and inmates without fear of punishment, and prison facilities are substandard and dangerous to inmates' health. The Government continued to restrict freedom of speech and press, peaceful assembly, religion, and movement to varying degrees, and to impede the formation of independent trade unions. Discrimination and violence toward 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 politically motivated killings.

b. Disappearance

On January 15, members of the Lithuanian security services, who reportedly acted in collusion with the Belarusian MVS, abducted in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, where they had been visiting, two Lithuanians wanted by Lithuanian authorities for their alleged involvement in the January 1991 coup attempt in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pair were transported to Lithuania, reportedly without permission from the Belarusian Procurator General's office and in apparent violation of the bilateral extradition treaty between Lithuania and Belarus.

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

The new Constitution provides for the inviolability of the person, and specifically prohibits torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading punishment. 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." Beatings by police and prison guards reportedly were regular occurrences in detention centers and prisons. Although such behavior is against the law, the Government seldom, if ever, punishes people who commit such abuses. In the armed forces, the practice of hazing new recruits continues unchanged. Hazing, or dedovshchina, is the practice of severe harassment and abuse of new draftees by senior soldiers to maintain strict discipline. Officers do not interfere with the practice, since it precludes them from having to become involved in disciplining troops.

Conditions in prison hospitals near Brest and Orsha were substandard. Prisoners with tuberculosis were crowded into closed cells with little ventilation. Extreme overcrowding in the tuberculosis hospital near Brest prevented prisoners from avoiding the disease. A women's prison near Orsha suffered an outbreak of dysentery, which spread throughout the camp.

d. Arbitrary Arrest, Detention, or Exile

Belarus has only slightly amended its Soviet-era law on detentions. The Criminal Procedure Code provides that police 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. According to judicial sources, nearly 60 percent of arrests are 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 will 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. The Government has failed to budget sufficient funds for defense attorneys representing the indigent. Defense attorneys' fees also 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.

Exile is not practiced.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

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.

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. Judges are dependent on the Ministry of Justice for sustaining the court infrastructure, and on local 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. Without further major structural reforms, the independence of the judiciary from outside pressure cannot be realized.

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. Prosecutors as a rule are very influential because they supervise all criminal investigations and because court proceedings are not conducted in an adversarial manner. Moreover, courts are still extremely deferential to prosecutors' actions, petitions, and conclusions.

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. The court appoints an attorney for defendants who do not have one.

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 also withdraw cases not likely to result in conviction.

Both defendants and prosecutors have the right of appeal. On appeals, neither defendants nor witnesses appear before the court; the court merely reviews the protocol and other documents from the lower court's trial. Less than 4 percent of cases in one province were overturned.

There were no known political prisoners.

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

Electronic monitoring of residences and telephones reportedly continued. 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 installing it. 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 it is not observed in practice. The executive branch of government continued to use laws on slander to suppress freedom of speech, particularly criticism of its policies and of government officials. The defamation law makes no distinction between private and public persons for the purposes of lawsuits on 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 Femida was sued for printing the text of deputy Evgeniy Novikov's speech in Parliament. Although Novikov was a deputy speaking from the Parliament's podium, the procurator said that Novikov was expressing a personal opinion at the time and that the newspaper was liable for printing slander.

Galina Naumchik was sued for printing an interview with Novikov in the newspaper Dobryj Vecher. Novikov was also sued for his remarks. Prime Minister Kebich's security advisor, Gennadiy Danilov, successfully sued publications that had printed accounts critical of his activities and was awarded about $500 (5 million rubles).

Despite the passage of a press law in 1994 prohibiting the existence of a press monopoly, the Government maintained a virtual economic 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, however, some private newspapers printed in Belarusian and Russian.

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 over the 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 March the Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied accreditation for Aleksandr Starinkevich, Belarusian correspondent for the Russian newspaper Izvestia. Izvestia, widely read by elite Belarusians, was carrying critical reports concerning a proposed monetary union with Russia. In May, 17 journalists protesting the Ministry's decision signed an appeal which was published in the parliamentary newspaper Narodnaya Gazeta. The incoming Lukashenko Government later approved Starinkevich's accreditation. President Lukashenko said he supports a free press as long as it is responsible and helps his presidency. During the first round of presidential elections, the government of Prime Minister Kebich tried to stop the printing and distribution of the opposition newspaper Svabada, which printed articles critical of the incumbent Prime Minister, and closed two radio stations which criticized him. The free trade union newspaper Svobodnyj Profsoyuz also had difficulty in getting its editions printed on a regular basis.

On November 25, Belarus declared two Turkish diplomats persona non grata, accusing them of activities not in accordance with their diplomatic duties. In connection with this activity, two Belarusian journalists were detained at KDB headquarters and questioned, one for 4 hours, and the other for 5 hours. Although they were released without being charged, they were warned that providing "sensitive" information to foreign diplomats for a fee could carry criminal penalities.

Belarusian newspapers were prevented from publishing the text of a sensationalist report delivered on December 20 in open session of Parliament by deputy Sergei Antonchik, who accused members of the Lukashenko Government of corruption. The text of the report was excised from the newpapers during typesetting, and the papers were published with blank columns where the Antonchik report was to have been printed. Subsequently, the Government canceled the printing contracts of eight major independent newspapers, causing them to cease publication for the remainder of the year. The Lukashenko Government asserted that since these newspapers received state subsidies, they were not part of the free press and were subject to state control. Igor Ossinsky, the editor of Sovietskaya Belorussia, which first attempted to print the report, was removed from his position by Presidential decree on December 23.

b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The Soviet law on demonstrations, which is still valid, requires an application at least 10 days in advance to local officials. They must respond either positively or negatively not later than 5 days prior to the scheduled event. Public demonstrations occurred frequently. A march by strikers in February proceeded without incident despite very heavy police presence in the streets of Minsk. During Victory Day celebrations in July, formations of special "Omon" police forces physically prevented members of the opposition Belarusian National Front (BNF) from laying wreaths at the Minsk victory monument. The Supreme Soviet Chairman requested an investigation into the action, but no results have been made public.

On September 8, the BNF held a public demonstration in Minsk to commemorate the anniversary of the 1514 battle of Orsha. Although it had applied for a permit a month in advance, officials denied permission for the rally after all preparations had been made. Since the city council did not inform the BNF of the prohibition 5 days before the event as required by law, the BNF went ahead with its plans for the rally. Although the police presence was heavy and intimidating, the demonstration took place with minimal conflict between police and demonstrators.

The Constitution provides for freedom of association. By the end of 1994, the Ministry of Justice had registered 26 political parties.

c. Freedom of Religion

The new Constitution provides for freedom of religion, which is generally respected in Belarus, including the freedom to proselytize. Citizens practice the two mainstream religions in Belarus--Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism--without any interference from the Government.

However, religions which the Government considers to be outside the mainstream have had to overcome bureaucratic roadblocks as well as explicit prohibition. The Salvation Army had a representative in Minsk from January until July 1994, who departed from Minsk claiming that the Government, citing Soviet-era laws that prevent social service organizations from engaging in religious activities as well as the converse, had refused to register the Salvation Army as a religious group. One missionary group reportedly circumvented this law by claiming that it was a book-study group, even though only one book was studied. Hare Krishna members were accused of being a cult, not a religion. A member of President Lukashenko's staff accused them of subverting the youth of Belarus, but opposition to their registration was later dropped.

Some difficulties still exist in transferring church property from state control back to the former owners. Minsk's Jewish community received a more suitable building for its synagogue, although it failed to reacquire the former main synagogue of the city which remains the home of the Russian Drama Theater.

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. 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 Belarusians 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. However, according to government officials and other sources, officials based their decisions primarily on the availability of housing, with fewer denials than previously.

The MVS' law on entry and exit, which took effect on January 1, 1994, authorized the issuance to all Belarusians of "global" exit visas, good for from 1 to 5 years and valid for travel to all countries. Shortly after the new law took effect, the authorities received so many applications for exit visas that an enormous clerical backlog ensued. On March 14, the Government temporarily suspended the requirement for exit visas, so all citizens who had passports could travel freely. This suspension of exit visa requirements was scheduled to end on December 31, 1994.

According to data for the first 9 months of the year, 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. Emigrants who have been refused the right to emigrate may appeal to the courts.

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

Citizens began to have the right to change their government when in July they elected Aleksandr Lukashenko as the first President of Belarus for a term of 5 years in generally free and fair elections. Power was transferred peacefully from the incumbent Prime Minister to the new President. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for March 1995. Suffrage is universal for all citizens over the age of 18, but participation is not mandatory. Since the Constitution requires that a presidential candidate obtain at least 50 percent of the votes cast, two rounds were necessary for President Lukashenko to win. Turnout was over 70 percent for both rounds.

The new Constitution outlines the structure of a presidential type of government. The Supreme Soviet (parliament), unchanged since 1990, passed three laws in October, granting the President authority to reshape the Cabinet of Ministers, to redirect the sluggish economy, and to appoint provincial governors who, in turn, appoint subordinate officials. Previously, governors were directly elected by the voters.

There are no legal restrictions on women's participation in politics and government. However, social barriers to women in politics are strong, and men hold virtually all leadership positions. Out of the 360 members of Parliament, 9 are women. There are two female ministers in the Lukashenko Government, the Minister of Health and the Minister of Social Welfare.

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

Human rights monitors reported that the Government presented 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. The League has close contacts with a variety of international organizations involved in human rights, but its president reported having difficulty in obtaining permission to travel outside of Belarus to attend international symposia on human rights.

International organizations were not hindered in making visits to Belarus.

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

The law on citizenship, passed by the Supreme Soviet, 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, know the Belarusian language ("enough for communication"), take an oath to support the Constitution, have a legal source of income, and have lived in the country for 7 years. Parliament debated new laws on immigration and migration which would provide numerical limits on new citizens.

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.

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.

Section 6 Worker Rights

a. The Right of Association

The Constitution upholds 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, the independent trade union movement in 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 (formerly the Independent Miners Union of Belarus) and the SPB formed the Congress of Free Trade Unions of Belarus, which coordinates the activities of the two largest unions' nearly 16,000 members.

No major strikes occurred in 1994. According to the Chairman of the BNP, a number of small-scale strikes did occur, but they were not planned. Government regulations requiring notice of at least 100 days in advance of a strike has prevented the Congress of Free Trade Unions from acting on a larger scale.

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.

The right to organize and bargain collectively was reportedly violated when N.

A. Grinchik, the full-time union chairman at the Minsk Tranzistor factory, was denied regular access to the union offices at the plant. Police and the plant's management reportedly harassed the free trade union leadership, as when local free trade union chairman Ramaev was detained for over a month while they investigated the alleged embezzlement of 10,000 rubles (about $1). When workers at the firm Fondok (formerly the Bobruiskdrev Wood Products Plant) chose to change allegiance from the official trade union to the free trade union, the management continued to deduct union dues from workers' wages for the official trade union. Workers and independent unions have recourse to the court system.

c. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The 1994 Constitution prohibits forced labor, and it is not known to occur.

d. Minimum Age for Employment of Children

Current 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 Supreme Soviet sets a minimum wage, periodically raised in response to inflation, which is effectively enforced. At year's end, the monthly minimum wage was $3 (30,000 Belarusian rubles). The minimum wage is too low to provide a decent standard of living.

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. A State Labor Inspectorate exists but does not have the authority to enforce compliance, and violations are often ignored.

Search Refworld

Countries