WORLD REPORT 1997 - Belarus

Human Rights Developments

Censorship and harassment of the independent media and trade unions, police brutality during public demonstrations, and presidential incursion on the power and independence of the parliament and judiciary punctuated the ever-worsening status of human rights in Belarus during 1996.

The anti-democratic tenor of the year was set by President Lukashenko=s announcements that he would remain in office longer than the maximum two terms stipulated by the constitution, and Ado away with@ the Aunnecessary@ parliament. In December 1995 he issued a decree ordering government officials to ignore all decisions of the Constitutional Court that overturned presidential decrees; in June 1996 he proposed that the court=s jurisdiction be vastly curtailed, and that the president appoint half the justices.

The government maintained a virtual monopoly over the media in 1996. Following the cancellation of their printing contracts in late 1995, three leading independent newspapers were forced to use printers in neighboring Lithuania. The only independent cable station was closed before the parliamentary elections on the pretext of needing transmitter repairs, but was allowed to reopen after agreeing never to broadcast political reports. In September, an independent rock music radio station that broadcast news was forced off the air due to Ainterference with government frequencies.@ Five independent weeklies had their bank accounts frozen. Individual journalists were also subjected to harassment in 1996, including physical attacks on Russian television reporters and the wife of a correspondent for Radio Liberty=s Russian Service.

The government also directly interfered with dissident activities. During an April 26 march commemorating the tenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster, more than 200 of the close to 50,000 marchers were arrested and, after summary trials usually held inside their jail cells, given administrative sentences of three to fifteen days. Police beat many of the demonstrators, as well as innocent passersby, at the rally and again at police headquarters. The next day, Juri Khadyka and Vyacheslav Seivchuk, two leaders of the Belarusian Popular Front, a political opposition party that had sponsored the march, were arrested and eventually charged with organizing a mass disturbance. Similar beatings and arrests occurred at a demonstration held outside the president=s office on May 30, which had been organized to protest the continued detention of Khadyka, Seivchuk and seven other Ukrainians who had been imprisoned after the April 26 march.

Harassment of trade unions also continued in 1996. Following a subway workers= strike in August 1995, which special troops forcibly dispersed, all of the picketers were fired. Formal applications to hold pickets were subsequently rejected or severely restricted in size, and all unions were required to reregister with the government, in violation of International Labor Organization treaties. True to the presidential decree banning all trade union activities Ain the interest of preserving public order,@ in May 1996 leaders of Poland=s Solidarity trade union who were meeting in the Belarusian capital, Minsk, were detained and then deported by police.

The Right to Monitor

While local human rights organizations were not the direct subject of intimidation, government censorship of the independent press limited dissemination of information about human rights conditions in the country. In April, the Justice Ministry sent a letter to the Belarusian Popular Front, which had been openly critical of the government=s human rights record, warning that it risked being banned. Police also illegally searched the party=s office and arrested those present. The Belarusian Soros Foundation continued as in 1995 to be attacked in the government-owned media for its funding of independent newspapers and organizations working to promote democracy in the country. In addition, a presidential decree requiring the reregistration of all private organizations inhibited human rights monitoring. Human Rights Watch/Helsinki was not aware of restrictions placed on monitoring by international human rights groups.

The Role of the International Community

In June, the International Labor Organization submitted a list of recommendations to the Belarus government concerning normalization of relations with trade unions and reported on violations of Belarusian trade unions= rights to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.


The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe conducted a number of investigations into the government=s respect for human rights as part of its review of Belarus=s application for membership in the council, which was pending in 1996. The European Parliament and the OSCE sent observers to the November and December 1995 parliamentary elections. In January the Parliamentary Assembly of the OSCE issued a report on its findings that criticized limitations placed on media coverage of the candidates. In May, a delegation of the European Parliament, in conjunction with a committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, appealed to Belarus authorities to refrain from harassing members of political parties and others who voiced dissenting opinions publicly.

In 1995 the European Union and Belarus signed a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), of which respect for human rights and democratic principles is a essential element, and parts of the European Union worked actively to improve Belarus= compliance with its human rights obligations. In June the European Parliament=s Foreign Affairs Committee asked the European Council of Ministers to postpone the entry into force of an underlying interim agreement Auntil there is evidence of an improvement in respect for the rule of law and democratic principle@ in Belarus, but the European Parliament=s Committee on External Relations recommended in July that the interim agreement be approved by the European Parliament. In May the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing its concern about media censorship in Belarus and called on the European Union to support efforts to secure the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience there. In June the European Parliament adopted another resolution expressing regret about the worsening human rights situation in Belarus; as of this writing it had made no final decision on final ratification of the PCA.

The United States

The U.S. record regarding human rights in Belarus was mixed. The State Department=s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995 was comprehensive and accurate and, in the wake of police brutality at public marches and government closure of an independent newspaper, the State Department actively urged the Belarusian government to observe its international obligations to comply with human rights standards. The State Department failed to issue any public protest when Belarusian Popular Front leaders Zenon Pazniak and Sergei Naumchyk were imprisoned in Belarus, but in August the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service granted the two men political asylum. Moreover, in November 1995, only seven weeks after the Belarus military shot down and killed two American balloonistsCan act that the White House had labeled as deliberateCthe U.S. Defense Department approved a $1,000,000 military aid package to assist Belarusian participation in NATO=s Partnership for Peace exercises.