WORLD REPORT 2001 - Republic of Belarus

Human Rights Developments

Respect for human rights deteriorated as Belarusian president Lukashenka maintained his grip on power and the government staged deeply flawed parliamentary elections. Another well-known opposition figure "disappeared" in July, while the year witnessed a spate of political show trials. In the run-up to parliamentary elections the government intensified its crackdown on the opposition, which struggled to remain unified in calling for a boycott. Due to extensive election violations, no intergovernmental organization recognized the election results.

On July 7, Russian Public Television (ORT) cameraman Dmitri Zavadsky traveled to Minsk-2 airport where he was to have picked up a colleague, but Zavadsky never arrived. Police found his car, reportedly wiped clean of fingerprints, in the airport parking lot. Not active in politics, Zavadsky rose to prominence in 1997, when he spent three months in jail following arrest while filming at the border in a controversial incident. Zavadsky's nonappearance was widely attributed to the government's campaign to intimidate the media prior to the parliamentary elections.

In December 1999, Tamara Vinnikova, thought to have been detained in April 1999, reappeared in Western Europe. Vinnikova told the media she had fled the country because she feared for her life. There was no news as to the welfare or whereabouts of three others-former interior minister Yury Zakharenka, opposition activist Victor Gonchar, and publisher Anatoly Krasovsky-who were also last seen in 1999.

At a March 25 demonstration police detained over 200 persons, including thirty journalists, three Polish parliamentary officials, and a U.S. employee of the local OSCE office. Although the journalists and officials were released after a few hours, police confiscated video and audio recordings. At other demonstrations police arbitrarily and sometimes violently arrested participants.

In the first of a series of politically motivated trials of opposition activists in 2000, the Belarusian Supreme Court on January 14 sentenced former minister of agriculture Vasily Leonov to a four-year prison term for "bribery" and "abuse of power." On March 17, a Minsk court sentenced Andrei Klimov, entrepreneur, leading government critic, and member of the disbanded Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, to six years of imprisonment for "embezzlement" in a decision considered politically motivated. Klimov was arrested one day after he distributed a letter detailing constitutional violations committed by the Lukashenka administration. Klimov was severely beaten by prison guards on December 13, 1999, and appeared barefoot in court in torn clothes. He was later hospitalized and diagnosed as suffering from concussion.

On May 19, a Minsk court sentenced ex-prime minister Mikhail Chygir to three years of imprisonment for "abuse of power," suspended for two years. Chygir had been arrested shortly after his announcement that he would run in the "alternative" presidential elections held in May1999 and spent over six months in pretrial detention. In September, authorities launched a fresh criminal investigation against him, this time for tax evasion while Chygir worked for a German company in Moscow in 1996.

On June 19, a Minsk court sentenced veteran opposition activist and Thirteenth Supreme Soviet deputy Valery Shchukin and the chair of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP), Nikolai Statkevich, to suspended jail terms for "organizing and participating in mass actions that violated public order" during the October 17, 1999, Freedom March that turned violent. Both men were also barred from participating in the October 2000 parliamentary and June 2001 presidential elections.

Independent trade unions came under increasing pressure from the government. Members of the Independent Trade Union of Belarus faced continual pressure at their workplace to join state unions or lose their jobs. Members typically smuggled copies of the Independent Trade Union newspaper Rabochi (The Worker) into their place of work under their clothing. On December 16, police detained seven members of the Independent Trade Union of Steel Workers and confiscated 3,000 copies of Rabochi outside the entrance to the Minsk Automobile Plant.

Months of OSCE-mediated negotiations between the opposition and the government failed to ensure free or fair parliamentary elections on October 15 or broader media access. Central to the dispute was a deeply flawed electoral code, adopted on January 31, that ignored all of the OSCE-recommended amendments. The code failed to address the imbalance of power between the president and parliament or to include opposition representatives on the various local election commissions. While media access for the opposition was guaranteed on paper, in practice this was not observed. The opposition, grouped under the Congress of Democratic Forces, announced a boycott of the elections. Open calls to boycott elections are outlawed under article 167(3) of the administrative code. The police detained over one hundred people under this article; others were harassed and fined.

At a September 16 rally marking one year since the disappearance of Viktor Gonchar and Anatoly Krasovsky, unidentified men tried to seize three opposition leaders whose parties are boycotting the October elections. On September 21, four masked individuals broke into and raided the headquarters of the BSDP. On September 22, the Election Commission released a list of the 574 candidates registered to run in the elections; most of the opposition candidates were refused registration. Belarusian authorities declared the elections a success, with overall turnout 60.6 percent, but the opposition claimed widespread election violations and an actual turnout of 45 percent, and thus a successful opposition boycott.

On December 17, 1999, authorities passed a law amending the already restrictive law on the press, forbidding the publication of information on unregistered nongovernmental organizations, political parties, and trade unions. A December 7, 1999, decree amended the law on public associations, banning NGOs and political parties from using the words "Belarus," "Republic of Belarus," "national," and "popular" in their titles.

Authorities continued to threaten to close independent newspapers. On May 29, the State Press Committee issued warnings to the Belaruskaia Delovaia Gazeta (Belarusian Business Paper) and Narodnaia Volya (The People's Will) for "abusing" freedom of information.

On September 13, authorities seized the entire print run of Rabochi-12,000 copies-and detained editor-in-chief Viktor Ivashkevich and three others, including the director of the offending printing press, for publishing articles detailing the opposition's plans to boycott the parliamentary elections. On September 21, two individuals were detained in Homel for distributing the same issue of Rabochi, and 16,500 copies were confiscated.

Defending Human Rights

The government continued to harass human rights activists and NGOs. A series of unsolved burglaries of NGO offices, in which unknown raiders stole computer equipment, raised suspicion of state involvement.

On December 17, 1999, unknown persons raided the Minsk offices of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, removing three computers that stored the organization's database. Police reportedly reacted with lethargy to the raid, while a previous break-in and robbery four months earlier remained unsolved.

Belarusian authorities continued to harass independent human rights lawyer Vera Stremkovskaia, threatening her with disbarment from the Minsk bar association and interrogating her clients. On May 31, unidentified raiders broke in to the newly established Center for Human Rights, of which she is president, removing computer equipment and a photocopier.

On March 7, Oleg Volchek, head of the Minsk-based Public Legal Aid organization, informed a press conference that his organization was being evicted from its premises for the fourth time in the past eighteen months. He said that the Ministry of Justice had a month earlier revoked his organization's license to provide legal aid to individuals, allowing assistance only to legal entities. The organization had initiated an independent investigation into the fate of Yury Zakharenka and the 1999 Nemiga metro stampede tragedy. On May 20, raiders broke into the Public Legal Aid organization's offices, stealing computer and office equipment.

On September 5, the Belarusian Association of Journalists was forced to abandon an independent press festival in Vitebsk when authorities rescinded permission to use a local community center.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

On January 31, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women met in New York to consider the third periodic report on Belarus. While the report focused largely on gender inequality, especially in political life, one committee expert expressed concern about the lack of freedom of expression in general.

On June 12, the U.N. special rapporteur on the independence of the judiciary visited Belarus, meeting with relevant government officials, judges, and lawyers, along with law professors and human rights groups. The Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights met at its fifty-second session in August and, soft-peddling its criticism, stated that Belarus' human rights record was "mixed."

Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The OSCE's Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk spent much of the year in fruitless negotiations between the government and the opposition to resolve the political impasse over parliamentary elections. The OSCE issued several protests about the arrest and trialof leading opposition figures and the arbitrary detention of peaceful demonstrators. The OSCE technical assessment mission said of the October parliamentary elections, "The minimum requirements were not met for the holding of free, fair, equal, accountable and open elections." The European parliamentary troika-the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the European Parliament, and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe-concurred with that statement.

Council of Europe

Though Belarus' special guest status in the Council of Europe remained suspended, on July 31 a Parliamentary Assembly delegation paid an official visit to Belarus to assess whether conditions existed for free and fair elections. The delegation concluded that the Council of Europe should not send observers to the parliamentary elections, citing "disappointment" with Belarus' lack of progress, although surprisingly, the assembly later agreed to send a limited mission.

European Union

The European Union voiced concern over the arbitrary and violent arrest of demonstrators, along with the trials of opposition activists. It cosponsored negotiations between the opposition and the government over the parliamentary elections. In November 1999, the Belarusian government gave formal approval, following slight amendments, to a 5 million euro program aimed at developing civil society.

United States

The U.S. government continued its policy of selective engagement, funding independent media outlets, supporting pro-democracy initiatives, and providing no direct aid to the government. On July 3, in recognition of labor rights violations, the U.S. stripped Belarus of its trade status, known as the Generalized System of Preferences, worth U.S.$26.7 million in 1999 to Belarus. The State Department regularly condemned the prosecution of opposition activists and called for charges against Mikhail Chygir, among others, to be dropped. The State Department called the parliamentary elections "not free, fair, or transparent" in an October 16 statement.