HRW – Human Rights Watch (Author)
Belarus continued its slide toward Soviet-style repression of fundamental human rights in a year that witnessed two political show trials and, as of this writing, promised yet more. Additionally, the government closed the last remaining daily independent newspaper and stepped up an at times violent campaign against opposition activists, including minors, especially at demonstrations. The Ministry of Justice stripped prominent defense lawyers of their licenses to practice law for defending political cases.
Characteristic of this general contempt for international law, on June 10 the Lukashenka government evicted more than twenty foreign ambassadors from the European Union, the United States, Japan and other countries from their residences outside of Minsk on the pretext of needing to carry out urgent repairs. When the ambassadors refused to leave, their telephone lines, electricity, and gas supplies were cut and ditches were dug across the main entrance road to prevent vehicular access.
Government complicity was evident in at least one politically motivated assault. On December 23, 1997, two unidentified men broke into the film studio of Yuri Khashchevatsky and beat him unconscious, breaking his nose and his foot in three places, and leaving him with a concussion, multiple bruises, and abrasions. Khashchevatsky directed An Ordinary President , an openly satirical documentary about President Lukashenka that authorities subsequently banned; the assault occurred two days after the film was broadcast on German television. No valuables or equipment were stolen or damaged. Police closed the investigation in June without result.
In an evident attempt to intimidate and deter young political activists from opposition political activity, the Belarusian government turned a court hearing on graffiti into a political show-trial: on February 24, following a five-day hearing, a Minsk court handed down an eighteen-month sentence in a strict regime labor camp to nineteen-year-old Alexei Shidlovsky and a suspended eighteen-month jail term to sixteen-year-old Vadim Labkovich for writing anti-presidential graffiti in the provincial town of Stolbtsy. The two teenagers had spent nearly six months in pre-trial detention, during which prison guards reportedly beat Shidlovsky. The government ignored appeals from the international community to release the pair or grant clemency.
Peaceful public protest remained a dangerous exercise in 1998. The government codified into law a 1997 presidential decree that had severely curtailed freedom of assembly rights, and police continued arbitrarily to arrest and assault demonstrators. Minsk authorities moved several demonstrations from the city center or simply denied permission to hold them, citing the new law. During the Labkovich-Shidlovsky trial, police arrested a total of nine persons for “disobeying the orders of a police officer” or for “holding an unsanctioned demonstration.” Authorities arrested and jailed for fifteen days Yury Maroz, who had stood alone outside the courtroom, holding a placard calling for the teenagers’ release. A peaceful opposition rally on March 22 resulted in the mass arrest of demonstrators.
On April 2, the authorities staged a rally in central Minsk to commemorate the signing of the Russia-Belarus Union treaty a year earlier. Members of the Belarusian People’s Front (BPF) and its affiliated Youth Front organized a small counter-demonstration, sang pro-independence songs and later peacefully dispersed. Men in plainclothes subsequently emerged from parked cars and beat and detained about forty BPF and Youth Front members, including its leader, Pavel Syverinets and fifteen-year-old Dmitri Vaskovich. The pair were charged with “malicious hooliganism” (which carries a maximum five-year prison term) for allegedly forcing performers off the stage, singing songs, shouting slogans, and breaking a microphone. Vaskovich was released after three days, during which police beat and threatened him; they gave him food and water only once in three days in an attempt to coerce him into incriminating Syverinets. In May, Vaskovich received a warning, while Syverinets was held until June 3 and released pending trial, which had yet to begin at the time of this writing.
In 1998 the Belarusian government intensified its campaign against the independent print media. On November 24, 1997, the Higher Economic Court closed the last remaining independent daily newspaper, Svaboda [Freedom], following the accumulation of more than ten warnings resulting from political articles. On November 19, the State Press Committee issued warnings that two articles published in Svaboda that month violated article five of the Law on the Press and other Mass Media, because they supposedly incited “social intolerance” and “hostility between society and the authorities.” One of the articles drew parallels between Belarus today and 1937; the other accused the president of incompetence and criminal activity.
Warnings to other independent outlets raised fears that they too would be closed. In November 1997, the independent weekly newspaper, Imya [The Name] received an official warning for publishing satirical collages of the president and other government officials which expressed the “obvious aim of politically and personally discrediting the state leaders.” The collages featured the heads of the president and other high-ranking Belarusian political figures, along with top Russian oligarch bankers and politicians, including President Boris Yeltsin, transposed onto the bodies of women, card players, or prisoners.
On May 29, the State Press Committee issued a warning to the weekly independent Belarusian-language newspaper, Nasha Niva [Our Cornfield] , for violating article six of the press law, which forbids the mass media from “deviating from the generally accepted norm of language use.” The warning relates to the traditional spelling used by Nasha Niva that predates a 1933 ruling altering the Belarusian spelling system; the ruling was intended to bring the language closer to Russian. On August 12, Nasha Niva appealed the warning to the Higher Economic Court. The court subsequently convened a commission of language experts from the Institute of Linguistics which, on September 22, rejected the State Press Committee’s allegations. As of this writing, a formal ruling in Nasha Niva’s favor had yet to be issued.
A confidential government memorandum leaked to the press in April confirmed suspicions that the government sought to stifle non-state media by withholding official information. The memorandum, entitled “On Strengthening Countermeasures [Against] Articles in the Opposition Press,” outlined three ways to counter anti-government media coverage: banning government officials from passing official documents to non-state media; banning officials from commenting on official documents to the “opposition mass-media;” and forbidding state enterprises from placing advertisements in “opposition newspapers,” from which important revenue for these papers is generated. The memorandum also referred to a March 17 letter from President Lukashenka and a specialpresidential order. President Lukashenka confirmed the memorandum’s authenticity on May 5 in a speech, stating that the memorandum’s author should have given the directives orally and not in written form.
January saw the culmination of the trial of Russian ORT television journalists, Pavel Sheremet and Dmitri Zavadsky. In August 1997 authorities arrested Sheremet and Zavadsky while filming a news story on the Belarus-Lithuanian border. Although initially released with a fine, the journalists were arrested a few days later following the broadcast of the material that they had filmed, then later released. On January 28, a court in the border town of Oshmyany sentenced Sheremet and Zavadsky to one and a half years of imprisonment, suspended for one year. Human Rights Watch believes the state chose to prosecute the pair because of the role they played in exposing the lack of border demarcation, a subject of official sensitivity.
On December 20, 1997, the Council of the Republic (upper house of parliament) adopted amendments to the press law. One amendment punishes publications for articles that “insult the honor and dignity” of government officials, and could affect those who put forward legitimate criticism of state officials. Another amendment codified a prior presidential decree restricting the import and export of information deemed to threaten “the national security, rights, and freedoms of individuals; health and morals of the population; and environmental protection.” The law now sanctions the administrative prosecution of all distributors of a newspaper found to have violated these vague standards, the banning of such publications, and suspension of an individual’s right to engage in media activities should he violate the law.
The government actively invoked the law as amended, enforcing the ban on importing “harmful” information. For example, on May 2, Belarusian authorities confiscated 900 copies of Belaruskiye Vedemosti [Belarusian News] and several hundred copies of other political articles at the Belarus-Ukraine border, presumably for their political content. Belaruskiye Vedemosti is published in Poland.
Whereas the amended 1997 law set out only administrative sanctions, in June, the Chamber of Representatives (lower house of parliament) adopted a draft law to criminalize insulting, libeling, and slandering the president. According to the June draft, such slander would be punishable by a maximum four years of imprisonment. The bill also provides for penalties for the use of placards in public places or spreading information in the media that infringes on presidential honor or dignity. As of this writing, the law had yet to be formally adopted.
In 1998, the Ministry of Justice continued to disbar politically active attorneys or attorneys who defend politically sensitive cases, taking advantage of a 1997 presidential decree that placed bar associations under much tighter Ministry of Justice control and forced all lawyers to become bar members.
On February 25, the Ministry of Justice revoked Nadezhda Dudareva’s license to practice law. Dudareva had been noted for representing clients connected with the opposition movement and for her outspoken criticism of the government. She purposefully did not join a bar association in order to evade censure for her work defending political cases and to continue to work free of charge, which bar association members are forbidden to do. The official reason given for her disbarment, a thinly veiled pretext, was that she allegedly put pressure on a judge during a trial in 1997. She lost her license the day after the sentencing of Labkovich and Shidlovsky, in whose defense she had worked.
On March 24, the Ministry of Justice removed Garry Pogonyailo from the Minsk city bar association, immediately following his client Pavel Sheremet’s unsuccessful appeal. Pogonyailo defended some of the highest-profile political cases in Belarus, including former National Bank chair, Tamara Vinnikova. He had received two reprimands from the Minsk city bar association for protesting Vinnikova’s degrading treatment in custody and for protesting procedural violations in Sheremet’s case.
On October 12, Deputy Minister of Justice Viktor Golovanov informed Vera Stremkovskaya, whose clients include Viktor Klimov (see below), that she would be stripped of her license to practice law for comments she made on human rights violations in Belarus at a meeting of human rights activists in New York three weeks earlier. As of this writing, Stremkovskaya’s disbarment had yet to be enforced.
In February, Belarus added another political prisoner to its jails when police arrested Andrei Klimov. Klimov was an active and vocal member of a special committee of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet (the parliament President Lukashenka disbanded in 1996), formed to investigate constitutional violations by the president. On February 10, Klimov distributed a letter summarizing the commission’s findings to the procurator, the police department, the tax inspectorate, and all local government heads. On February 11, police arrested him on charges of embezzlement and of carrying out entrepreneurial activities without a license; the timing of the arrest points to a political motive, as does the authorities’ refusal to permit bail. As of this writing, Klimov remained in pre-trial detention.
While several human rights organizations were active in Belarus, they operated in an openly hostile environment. The high incidence of arrests and beatings at demonstrations, combined with due process violations at subsequent trials of demonstrators, reinforces the need for independent observers. However, the arbitrary nature of arrests at or following demonstrations in Belarus has meant that these observers themselves are arrested. At least six observers from the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) were detained during demonstrations in 1998, although after varying periods in detention, all, following verification of their identity and role as observers at the demonstration, were released without charge. Police failed to find the perpetrators of an October 1997 assault on former BHC trial observer Nadezhda Zhukova, despite her assailants evident government affiliation; they appeared to be members of the Belarusian Patriotic Union of Youth, a pro-presidential, government-sponsored youth organization that, in its previous incarnation, named Direct Action, openly advocated violence. Human rights activists reported a lack of cooperation from government officials, especially in response to requests for information.
Retaliating against the June evictions, the E.U. and the United States recalled their ambassadors, and Belarusian ambassadors accredited to the E.U. and the U.S. were ordered to return to Minsk. In addition, the E.U. and the U.S. imposed visa travel bans on the entire Belarusian government from the president downward.
The United Kingdom embassy, in its capacity as head of the E.U. presidency, from January to July, sent an observer to the Shidlovsky-Labkovich trial and issued a statement appealing for clemency. In February, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for Shidlovsky and Labkovich’s release and also condemning arbitrary arrests, threats against journalists and the beating of Yury Khashchevatsky. The E.U. announced in March a five million ECU (U.S.$6 million) Civil Society Development program to provide assistance to the non-state media, human rights NGOs, and higher education institutions.
Council of Europe and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)
The Council of Europe maintained its position on Belarus’ membership application, frozen since the country’s observer status was suspended in January 1997. In February, the OSCE opened its much delayed Advisory and Monitoring office in Minsk. The office’s activities included conducting seminars on democracy and free and fair elections, along with holding consultations with victims of human rights abuses and advising the government on law formation. In April the OSCE’s media representative, Freimut Duve, initiated a dialogue on freedom of speech with Foreign Minister Ivan Antonovich.
In November, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued its concluding observations on the fourth periodic report by Belarus. The committee expressed concern on a wide range of issues, including allegations of ill-treatment of persons by police and other law enforcement officials during peaceful demonstrations. The committee stated that the human rights situation in Belarus had “deteriorated significantly” since that country’s last report in 1992 and that “remnants of the former totalitarian rule persist” there.
On August 19, the Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities issued a resolution expressing deep concern at the unlawful detention, imprisonment, and harassment of Belarusian political leaders, journalists, and human rights defenders for criticizing or commenting on abuses of power by the government. The resolution criticized more generally the concentration of power in the executive branch of government and the undermining of the independence of the judiciary.
The United States continued to maintain pressure on the Belarusian government to respect human rights by limiting contact with it and supporting civil society projects. The U.S. provided the largest amount of funds to the independent media in Belarus. Its Minsk embassy played an active role in highlighting abuses and raising them with the Belarusian government, and sent observers to the Sheremet and Shidlovsky-Labkovich trials. The State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1997 provided a comprehensive analysis of the human rights situation in Belarus.
Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:
Republic of Belarus: Turning Back the Clock , 7/98