Amnesty International Report 2004 - Belarus
|Publication Date||26 May 2004|
|Cite as||Amnesty International, Amnesty International Report 2004 - Belarus , 26 May 2004, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/40b5a1ef0.html [accessed 27 March 2015]|
Covering events from January - December 2003
Investigations into a number of high-profile "disappearances" were halted without adequate explanation. The authorities closed down human rights organizations and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and suspended several privately owned newspapers. The independent trade union movement was targeted and its leaders were imprisoned. Numerous protesters were detained for non-violent opposition activities. There remained several long-term prisoners of conscience. Domestic violence was widespread. The courts continued to pass death sentences.
Relations remained strained with the international community, which repeatedly criticized Belarus for violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms. In April the UN Commission on Human Rights expressed deep concern about human rights violations in Belarus, including "disappearances", arbitrary arrest and detention, and the harassment of individuals engaged in opposition activities. A range of intergovernmental bodies echoed similar concerns throughout 2003.
There was no progress in determining who was responsible for the "disappearances" of leading opposition figures Yury Zakharenko and Viktor Gonchar, businessman Anatoly Krasovsky and journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. Criminal investigations were halted in January and February, reportedly without substantive reasons for the decisions being provided to the families concerned. After campaigning by the families, investigations into the "disappearances" were reopened – in June for the case of Yury Zakharenko; in July for Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky; and in December for Dmitry Zavadsky.
Human rights defenders
Throughout 2003 human rights defenders faced a heightened campaign of harassment and intimidation by the authorities. Several prominent human rights organizations were closed after receiving two or more official warnings from the Ministry of Justice. Warnings were issued for spurious violations of a controversial law that tightly regulated the activities of civil society. A large number of other NGOs were refused registration or had their registration annulled for equally questionable reasons. The spate of closures elicited considerable international condemnation.
- On 8 September the prominent human rights organization, Legal Assistance to the Population, was closed by Minsk City Court. The organization had received two official warnings in the previous year, for providing free legal assistance to members of the public who were not members of the organization and for using a different organizational symbol from that submitted at registration.
- On 28 October the Belarusian Supreme Court ruled to close the influential human rights organization Spring-96. The Court cited various alleged violations of the law including, among other things, the legal representation of persons not members of the organization, not charging membership fees and irregularities in registration documents.
Freedom of the press
The Ministry of Information regularly employed a similar system of official warnings and suspensions to keep in check the privately owned press. Several influential newspapers were suspended. Others were burdened by crippling defamation suits brought by state officials.
- On 29 May Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazetawas closed for three months by the authorities after three warnings for alleged violations of the press law. In June it reappeared for two editions under the mastheads of newspapers Ekho and Salidarnasts before the authorities again stopped it going to print. Ekho was then suspended for three months, Salidarnasts fined the equivalent of US$2,000, and the director of their publishing house dismissed. Another privately owned newspaper, Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta, was suspended for three months in June after publishing an article about the case.
Detention of protesters
Numerous peaceful protesters were detained as prisoners of conscience solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly. They risked ill-treatment by the police at the time of arrest, and frequently received prison sentences of up to 15 days or fines.
- At least 24 protesters received short prison sentences when the authorities enforced a concerted clampdown on peaceful protests in March. On 12 March former Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Sannikov, Charter-97 human rights activists Ludmila Gryaznova and Dmitry Bondarenko, and small business leader Leonid Malakhov were sentenced to 15 days' imprisonment for their role in organizing a demonstration in Minsk the same day. Two further participants were later convicted and sentenced to prison terms for similar offences.
Violations of trade union rights
The International Labour Organization criticized repeated violations of workers' rights throughout the year. On 19 November it announced the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into allegations of abuses of workers' rights in Belarus, a procedure used only in the most serious cases. Independent trade unionists complained that they were imprisoned, harassed and dismissed, that their right of association was severely restricted, and that the state interfered in the internal affairs of several trade unions and of the national trade union federation.
- On 18 September Leninsky District Court in Minsk sentenced the President of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, Alyaksandr Yaroshuk, to 10 days' imprisonment for contempt of court. He had criticized the decision of the Belarusian Supreme Court to close down the Trade Union of Air Traffic Controllers of Belarus in a newspaper article in August. On 17 October the union's lawyer, Vladimir Odynets, was sentenced by a court in Minsk to five days' imprisonment, also for contempt of court and reportedly in connection with his representation of Alyaksandr Yaroshuk.
- On 30 October the President of the Belarusian Automobile and Agricultural Machinery Workers' Union, Alyaksandr Bukhvostov, was detained by police in central Minsk for staging an unauthorized but peaceful protest against alleged government interference in the union's internal affairs. A court in Minsk sentenced him to 10 days' imprisonment later the same day.
Long-term prisoners of conscience
- In March Nikolai Markevich and Pavel Mozheiko, editor and staff writer of the privately owned newspaper Pagonia, were released early from respective 18- and 12-month sentences of "restricted freedom". They had been convicted by a court in the town of Grodno in June 2002 of libelling President Lukashenka in an unpublished newspaper article in which they raised widely held concerns about government involvement in "disappearances".
- In June Viktor Ivashkevich, editor of the influential trade union newspaper Rabochy, had his two-year sentence of "restricted freedom" reduced on appeal to one year. In September 2002 a court in Minsk had convicted him of libelling President Lukashenka in a newspaper article. He was released in mid-December.
- The health of imprisoned scientist Professor Yury Bandazhevsky reportedly deteriorated during the year. Family members who visited him in the UZ-15 labour colony in Minsk said that he was suffering from depression. He had been sentenced to eight years' imprisonment for alleged bribe-taking in June 2001, but it was widely believed that he was convicted because he had criticized official responses to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor catastrophe of 1986.
Violence against women
Domestic violence remained prevalent and women seeking justice continued to face numerous obstacles. Belarus submitted a report combining its fourth, fifth and sixth periodic reports to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in anticipation of examination of the report by the Committee in January 2004. The report described the various measures taken to implement recommendations made by the Committee in 2000 to prevent and eliminate violence against women, particularly domestic violence. Belarus outlined its National Plan for Gender Equality 2001-2005, which contained measures to address the issue. These included research, the establishment of crisis and advice centres for victims of domestic violence, and public awareness campaigns.
At least one prisoner was believed to have been executed in 2003, although accurate information on the death penalty was difficult to obtain. The Deputy Chairman of the Supreme Court said in October that two men were sentenced to death in 2003, although other sources suggested the number could have been five.
- On 13 May the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that the secrecy surrounding the death penalty in Belarus amounted to inhuman treatment of the families. Prisoners are executed in secret and the families are not provided with information about the time of the execution or the location of the burial sites of the deceased. In the cases Bondarenko v. Belarus and Lyashkevich v. Belarus, the Committee ruled that these practices "had the effect of intimidating or punishing families intentionally leaving them in a state of uncertainty and mental distress"