Hundreds of peaceful demonstrators were detained, including prisoners of conscience. Many were severely beaten by police. At least 84 people were reportedly under sentence of death and 33 people were reportedly executed.

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka continued to exercise total control over most aspects of government. The main law enforcement bodies – the Committee for State Security (KGB) and Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) – were both answerable to the President.

Political unrest, in the form of protests and demonstrations, increased during the year. Police responded with violence, forcibly breaking up peaceful opposition demonstrations.

Military service remained compulsory; there are no provisions for conscientious objection in the Constitution.

Prisoners of conscience were among hundreds of protesters arrested after peaceful protests. On 22 March up to 50 men and women were arrested and beaten by police following a peaceful demonstration in the capital, Minsk, to mark the 80th anniversary of the independence of Belorussia (the former name of Belarus). Among those detained were journalists and members of the opposition Belorussian Popular Front (BNF), including Boris Khamaida and Vladimir Pleshchenka. A 15-year-old boy, Pavel Rakhmanov, was also arrested. Seven people were convicted of shouting censored slogans and insulting the President, but were not given custodial sentences. Five members of a local human rights group, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, were briefly detained.

On 2 April a large anti-government demonstration was forcibly broken up by police who arrested more than 50 protesters. Vyacheslav Sivchyk, secretary of the BNF, was arrested and reportedly beaten severely by police. The next day he was sentenced to 10 days' imprisonment under the Administrative Code of Belarus. Pavel Severinets, leader of the BNF's Youth Front, was arrested and faced up to five years' imprisonment on charges of "instigating mass disorder", "organization or participation in group actions violating the public order" and "hooliganism". Both men were prisoners of conscience.

Four other prisoners of conscience were arrested during the 2 April protest and charged with similar offences. Alyaksandr Kashenya and Ivan Abadovsky reportedly received sentences of 10 and 15 days' imprisonment respectively. Leonid Vasyuchenko and Dmitriy Vaskovich were reportedly held after arrest. Dmitriy Vaskovich was allegedly beaten in custody to force him to implicate Pavel Severinets and other detainees in criminal acts during the protest. More than 50 other people, about one third of them reportedly minors, were detained for several hours and in some cases overnight. Some were convicted on 3 April of charges relating to their participation in an unauthorized demonstration. They were released after the court ruled either to fine them or to issue them with a warning.

Two other prisoners of conscience, 19-year-old Aleksey Shidlovsky and 16-year-old Vadim Labkovich, both members of the BNF's Youth Front, stood trial in February on charges of "malicious hooliganism" under Article 201(2) of the Belarusian Criminal Code and "abuse of state symbols" under Article 186. They had been detained since August 1997 for allegedly writing anti-presidential and anti-government graffiti on the walls of public buildings, and for allegedly replacing the national flag of Belarus on the town administration building with the banned red and white flag which is a symbol of the opposition and of the BNF. On 24 February the Minsk Regional Court sentenced Vadim Labkovich to a suspended prison term of 18 months and Aleksey Shidlovsky to 18 months' imprisonment in a strict regime colony. There were reports that Aleksey Shidlovsky was severely beaten by prison guards in the pre-trial detention centre (SIZO) in the town of Zhodino and had to spend a month in the prison medical ward.

Following a peaceful demonstration on 25 April to commemorate the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, police reportedly arrested up to 40 demonstrators and allegedly beat some of them in detention (see below).

Human rights lawyers and advocates were persecuted by the authorities. Vera Stremkovskaya, a human rights lawyer, was called to meetings with officials at the Ministry of Justice, and at both the Belarusian and the Minsk City Collegium of Advocates, in an attempt to put pressure on her and to initiate a process to disbar her. It appeared that the persecution and harassment of Vera Stremkovskaya were politically motivated.

The government officials also accused Vera Stremkovskaya of revealing case information about three of her clients – Andrey Klimov, Vasiliy Starovoitov and Vladimir Kudzinnov – which they alleged constituted a violation of lawyers' ethics. The clients, all businessmen and former members of parliament of the 13 Supreme Soviet, dissolved by President Lukashenka, were imprisoned on charges of bribery. It was alleged that the real reason for their imprisonment was that they had publicly criticized the President's policies. They were prisoners of conscience. In September there were reports that Vladimir Kudzinnov had been ill-treated in Minsk colony uzh 15/1.

On 8 June lawyer Alyaksey Filipchanka reportedly set himself on fire outside the Novopolotsk City Court building to protest against violations of human rights and the judicial process in Belarus. He died in August.

Restrictions on freedom of expression continued to lead to trials of prisoners of conscience. In January Pavel Sheremet and Dmitry Zavadsky, Russian television journalists, were sentenced to suspended prison terms of two and one and a half years respectively (see Amnesty International Report 1998). They were convicted of conspiracy and illegally crossing thestate border. Pavel Sheremet was also convicted of "exceeding his professional powers as a journalist resulting in damage to the public interest".

Many opposition supporters were beaten by police during arrest and in pre-trial detention. Vyacheslav Sivchyk was reported to have been severely beaten by police on 2 April. He needed hospital treatment for concussion. Fourteen-year-old Anton Taras, arrested at the April rally commemorating the Chernobyl disaster, was allegedly forced by police to put on a gas mask he had worn symbolically during the rally. They then stopped the air supply until he began to suffocate, a torture method known as "elephant". No investigations were known to have been carried out into allegations of torture or ill-treatment.

The death penalty continued to be used extensively. However, information about the death penalty was hard to obtain as it is classed as a state secret. President Lukashenka reportedly stated in January that 30 people had been executed in 1997. At least 84 people were reportedly under sentence of death. The Deputy Procurator General of Belarus was reported to have said that 33 people were executed between January and August.

Prisoners facing imminent execution included five prisoners held in SIZO No. 1 in Minsk: Ivan Fomin, Sergey Protiraev, Igor Sklyarenko, Mikhail Glushenok and Sergey Zababurin. Ivan Fomin and Mikhail Glushenok were reportedly tortured and forced to sign confessions. Four of them were thought to have received unfair trials. According to reports, prisoners under sentence of death in SIZO No. 1 in Minsk were regularly ill-treated, including by being beaten with a wooden hammer. The death sentence on F. Verega was commuted to 15 years' imprisonment by the Supreme Court in January.

Amnesty International called for the immediate and unconditional release of all prisoners of conscience, including any demonstrators detained solely for peacefully exercising their right to freedom ofassembly. It urged prompt and impartial investigations into allegations of ill-treatment and for anyone responsible to be brought to justice.

The organization called on the authorities to stop the apparent practice of censuring and silencing human rights lawyers by taking away their licences, including the attempts to disbar Vera Stremkovskaya. Amnesty International called on the authorities to reinstate all human rights lawyers, including Nadezhda Dudareva and Gary Pogonyailo, who had previously been disbarred solely because of their human rights activities.

Amnesty International urged the government to abolish the death penalty and to declare a moratorium on executions. It called on the President to grant clemency to all those under sentence of death.

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