At the beginning of 2004, the Minister of Justice officially announced that 51 organisations had been closed down through judicial proceedings in the course of 2003, when several decrees severely restricting freedom of association were also adopted.39
This repressive trend continued in 2004.
Restrictive tax legislation40
On 4 October 2004, presidential decree nÂ° 495 of 30 September 2002 was modified to abolish the property rent tax benefits granted to NGOs and political parties. NGOs and political parties that rent offices must from now on pay the same rents as commercial organisations, an impossible situation for many of them. Furthermore the health and epidemiological services and local administrative authorities must give prior authorisation for the use of private homes as offices.
Crackdown on independent NGOs41
Continued harassment of Viasna
Although the registration of the human rights NGO Viasna was cancelled through legal proceedings in 2003, its members remained active and consequently continued to be subjected to harassment in 2004.
Harassment of Mr. Dzimtry Salawyow
On 1 March 2004, the office of the Navapolatsk prosecutor informed Mr. Dzimtry Salawyow, chairman of the Viasna office in Navapolatsk, that if he were to represent or act on behalf of Viasna he could face charges.
On 7 May 2004, Mr. Salawyow was arrested in the Navapolatsk city centre whilst participating in a peaceful demonstration urging for the circumstances of the disappearance of political opposition members in 1999 and 2000 to be publicly clarified. He was charged under Article 167.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which punishes "violations against order, organising and participating in mass demonstrations".
On 10 May 2004, the Navapolatsk Court of Justice acquitted him on grounds that no administrative offence had been committed.
On 24 June 2004, Mr. Salawyow was arrested again while he was distributing leaflets against the referendum decreed by President Lukashenko on the renewal of his term of office. On 19 August 2004, the Administrative Commission of the Navapolatsk Executive Committee took legal action against Mr. Salawyow with the Navapolatsk court under Article 173.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences, which forbids the "distribution of published material that does not carry the publisher's imprint". The Navapolatsk court then revoked this decision, considering that the Commission had not respected procedural rules.
On 14 October 2004, the same Commission again charged Mr. Salawyow on similar grounds. He was sentenced to a fine of 95,000 roubles (34 euros).
Arrest of Mr. Valentin Stefanovitch
On 1 September 2004, Mr. Valentin Stefanovitch, a lawyer and vice-president of Viasna, was arrested whilst trying to defend a schoolboy who was violently beaten up by the security forces during a peaceful demonstration held in Minsk. This demonstration was organised by school students to claim for the right to education in the Belarus language. Mr. Stefanovitch was taken to the police station and released the same day with no explanation.
Harassment of the Brest branch
On 29 September 2004, the police entered the Viasna offices in Brest without a warrant and confiscated 137 copies of a booklet listing the violations of human rights perpetrated in Brest in 2003 and 2004. Mr. Vladimir Vyalichkin, president of the branch, was accused of "carrying out activities for an unregistered organisation" under Article 167.10 of the Administrative Code. As at the end of 2004, the case was still pending.
Harassment of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights42
Judicial proceedings against the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights43
In August 2003, the Belarus Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (BHC) received a warning from the Ministry of Justice for using letterhead paper and a stamp failing to comply with the statutes of the association.
The BHC was accused of tax fraud following an investigation carried out by the Moscow District in Minsk tax inspectors between August 2003 and January 2004. These accusations related to funds received from the European Union's Technical Assistance Programme (TACIS) between 2000 and 2002. The Tax Inspection of the Moscow District in Minsk based its decision on Decree No. 8, adopted in March 2001, providing for the "Receipt and Use of Foreign Financial Assistance" and the "omission to register foreign financial assistance" (Article 12). However, in accordance with the General Rules agreed by Belarus and the European Union in the "Memorandum on Financing" of 10 May 2004, this financing is exempt from tax and Decree No. 8 does not apply to foreign financial aid allocated under this programme.
On 27 January 2004, the Committee, required to pay 385,000,000 Belarus roubles (135,000 euros) by the Tax Inspection of the Moscow District of Minsk, appealed against this decision to the Minsk Tax Inspection.
On 29 March 2004, the Minsk Tax Inspection overruled the first decision and referred the case to the Tax Inspection of the Moscow District in Minsk, which reduced the amount to be paid to 155,000,000 roubles (55,520 euros). The BHC lodged an appeal against this decision with the Minsk Economic Court, which heard the case on 1, 9 and 14 June 2004. During the hearings, the Tax Inspection based its arguments on Presidential Decree No. 460, adopted on 22 October 2003, which refers to the "obligation to obtain the approval of the national authorities prior to the implementation of any national agreement". The BHC argued that the Decree had been adopted after the signature and implementation of the TACIS programme and that consequently it did not apply in this case, whilst the Tax Inspection stated that the Committee should retroactively comply with the terms of the Decree. The BHC also contested the impartiality of a senior official of the Ministry of Economy who was called as an independent expert by the judge.
On 23 June, after several hearings, the Economic Court dismissed the decision of the Minsk Tax Inspection and ordered the Moscow District Tax Inspection in Minsk to refund the money that had already been paid by the BHC (190,000 roubles – 67 euros), stating that the latter had acted in complete legality.
Nevertheless, as at the end of 2004, the BHC remained subject to financial investigations carried out by the Ministries of Justice, Tax, Economy and Foreign Affairs.
Furthermore, on 17 March 2004, on the basis of the findings of the investigation by the Moscow District Tax Inspection in Minsk, the Department of Financial Investigation of the Ministry of Finances opened a criminal case against Mrs. Tatsiana Protsko, president of the BHC, and Mrs. Tatsiana Rutkevitch, BHC chief accountant, for tax evasion. Both of them risk up to seven years' imprisonment and confiscation of their possessions. As at the end of 2004, the proceedings against Mrs. Protsko and Mrs. Rutkevitch remained pending.
Also, during summer, the Belarus public television channel BT broadcast a report accusing Mrs. Protsko of having purchased a car and a home using money that had been obtained through tax evasion. She initiated legal proceedings against BT arguing for the defence of her dignity, honour and professional reputation. However, the Minsk District Court refused to register her complaint.
Lastly, following the announcement of the organisation of a referendum on the renewal of the term of office of the Belarus President, the BHC wrote to the State authorities and the Supreme Court on 6 September 2004 to point out that the presidential decree for holding this referendum was anti-constitutional. The Supreme Court deemed the BHC action illegal and on 16 September 2004, the Ministry of Justice approached the Court to wind up the BHC. The Supreme Court suspended the investigation due to lack of evidence and referred the request back to the Ministry of Justice for further information. As the Ministry did not respond to the Court's request within the notified two-week period, the case was finally closed.
Harassment of Mr. Garry Pogoniaïlo and Mrs. Tatiana Revyaka
On 16 September 2004, Mr. Garry Pogoniaïlo, vice-chairman of the BHC and the lawyer for several families of disappeared, and Mrs. Tatiana Revyaka, a member of Viasna, were arrested whilst participating in a peaceful gathering in front of the Prosecutor's office in commemoration of the fifth anniversary of the disappearance of Mr. Viktor Gontchar, former Vice-President of Parliament and former director of the Central Committee of Elections, and of Mr. Anatoly Krasovsky, a businessman close to Mr. Gontchar. They were distributing booklets on the report by Mr. Christos Pourgourides, Special Rapporteur of the Council of Europe, which formed the basis for the adoption of a resolution by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe during in its April 2004. Mr. Pourgourides' report, in particular, recommended adopting sanctions against Belarus due to the lack of progress in clearing up the murders of Mr. Youri Zakharenko, former Minister of the Interior who disappeared on 7 May 1999, of Messrs. Gontchar and Krasovski, who disappeared on 16 September 1999, and of the journalist Dimitri Zavadski, who disappeared on 7 July 2000.
The police took Mr. Pogoniaïlo and Mrs. Revyaka to the Minsk Central Department of Internal Affairs and accused them of contravening Article 173.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences which prohibits the "distribution of publications that carry no reference to the publisher and aim at harming society and the State, and the rights and interests of citizens".
They were both released after three hours of detention, and sentenced by the Administrative Committees of the General Administration to the pay a fine of 95,000 roubles (34 euros).
Moreover, on 30 November 2004, Mr. Garry Pogoniaïlo was informed that he was being prosecuted by the Minsk Prosecutor's Office for accusing the President of the Republic of having committed "serious crimes" punishable under Article 267.2 of the Criminal Code. In an interview with a journalist of the Swedish television channel TV4 on 18 August 2004, Mr. Pogoniaïlo accused President Lukashenko of being likely involved in the disappearance of several opposition members and denounced the lack of rigour in the investigation process. Customs officials confiscated the videocassette of the interview from the TV4 journalist when he left Belarus. This case remained pending as at the end of 2004.
Judicial liquidation of the Minsk Independent Society of Legal Research44
The Minsk Independent Society of Legal Research was dissolved on 29 January 2004 for violation of Article 72 of the Code of Civil Procedure, on grounds that this Article forbids NGOs to represent one of the parties during a trial.
In the course of 2003, the Society had received three warnings for granting legal consultations to non-registered NGOs and for representing associations that were being prosecuted. These three warnings resulted by law in a liquidation lawsuit.
Civil Initiatives' dissolution remains in force45
On 17 June 2003, the NGO "Civil Initiatives" had filed a complaint with the United Nations Human Rights Committee following its legal disbanding.
In spring 2004, the Human Rights Committee requested the Belarus Government to justify the liquidation of this NGO. However, no reply had yet been received by the Commission as at the end of 2004 and the dissolution of this organisation therefore remained in force.
Detention of Mr. Yuri Bandazhevski46
Mr. Yuri Bandazhevski, an internationally renowned scientist specialising in medical research on nuclear radioactivity and former director of the Medical Institute in Gomel, revealed in his research the harmful effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the population of Belarus, in contradiction with the official claims by the authorities. He also criticised the misuse of Health Department funds, which he said should have been used for research in this area.
On 18 June 2001, Mr. Bandazhevski was sentenced to eight years imprisonment on the grounds that he sought bribes from the parents of pupils at the Gomel Institute.
On 31 May 2004, the Belarus Criminal Court commuted his prison term into a "restriction of freedom" sentence for good conduct.
At the end of 2004, Mr. Bandazhevski was living in Gyzgany, Grodnesnk district, where he is obliged to work as a guard in a local collective farm (kolkhoze), whereas the complaint he filed with the United Nations Human Rights Committee had still not been examined.
[Refworld note: This report as posted on the FIDH website (www.fidh.org) was in pdf format with country chapters run together by region. Footnote numbers have been retained here, so do not necessarily begin at 1.]
41. See Annual Report 2003, Press Release of 22 April 2004 and Report of the international fact-finding mission: Belarus: The 'liquidation' of independent civil society.
42. See Annual Report 2003.
43. See Annual Report 2003 and Urgent Appeals BLR 001/0604/OBS 046 and 046.1.
44. See Annual Report 2003.