WORLD REPORT 2000 - Republic of Belarus

Human Rights Developments

On July 20, Belarusian President Lukashenka entered a two-year extension of office granted in a controversial November 1996 referendum. The controversy surrounding President Lukashenka's legitimacy caused the government to up its campaign against its perceived opponents throughout the year, cracking down hard on civil society, and especially against demonstrators, the independent media, and nongovernmental organizations. In a new, deeply disturbing phenomenon, prominent opponents of the government "disappeared" under highly suspicious circumstances.

Three prominent opponents of the government and an independent publisher disappeared in 1999, with strong suggestions of state security services involvement. Tamara Vinnikova, former chair of the national bank, who had been arrested in January 1997 on embezzlement charges, disappeared on April 8. Vinnikova had been held under house arrest, guarded at all times by live-in KGB agents, her telephone calls and visitors strictly screened.

On May 7, former interior minister, Yury Zakharenka was last seen being bundled into a car by a group of unidentified men. His wife later told reporters that for two weeks prior to his abduction, Zakharenka had complained of being tailed by two cars. Zakharenka had appealed to law enforcement agencies in early 1999 not to obey orders from the president after July 20 and had also been in the process of forming the Belarusian Union of Officers, a potentially powerful body.

On September 16, Viktor Gonchar, vice-speaker of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet, and Anatoly Krasovsky, a businessman and head of the "Krasika" publishing house, did not return home from a local sauna. Gonchar's wife reportedly contacted city authorities without result. Gonchar had been due to address a sitting of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet on September 19 regarding the OSCE-mediated talks with the government.

The government yet again targeted the independent print media. In September, in a clearly politically motivated move, authorities closed Naviny [The News] for publishing an article entitled, "Who Lives in the Little Palaces?" The article intimated that a country cottage outside Minsk belonged to Secretary of State Security Victor Sheyman. On September 24, a Minsk court ruled in favor of Sheyman in a libel suit, fining Naviny 10 billion Belarusian rubles (U.S.$33,300), and the author of the article the equivalent of U.S.$16,600. The average monthly wage in Belarus is approximately U.S.$30 per month. On September 29, authorities seized paper reserves belonging to Naviny while the newspaper's printers and distributors refused to handle the newspaper further.

In November 1998 intruders had broken into Naviny's editorial offices and stolen computer hard-drives containing databases and a complete archive of the newspaper. No other items of value were taken, suggesting a political motive.

On February 15, the State Press Committee announced official warnings to six independent newspapers: Belaruskaya Delovaya Gazeta (The Belarusian Business Paper), Svabodnye Novosti (Free News), Naviny , Narodnaya Volya (The People's Will), Pagonya (The Emblem), and Imya (The Name). Most of the newspapers had carried advertisements for alternative presidential elections, an action the Ministry of Justice considered a call for the overthrow of the state. Imya's owners, who received a warning for publishing an article on elections, closed the newspaper in August, citing government harassment as the prime reason. On October 4, the State Press Committee canceled the registration of nine independent newspapers, including Naviny 's just-founded successor, Nasha Svaboda (Our Freedom), Belaruskiye Novosti (The Belarusian News), Novogrudskiy Kurier (The Novogrudok Courier), Politsobesednik (The Political Interlocutor), and Kurier (The Courier) for failing to gain the approval of local authorities to operate.

On September 9, authorities launched widespread tax inspections against all major independent newspapers, a tactic often used in the past to censor critical coverage or financially harass independent publications.

In a positive move, on December 22, 1998, the Supreme Economic Court ruled against the Belarusian State Press Committee in its accusation that the Nasha Niva (Our Land) newspaper had been using an incorrect spelling of the Belarusian language for which the newspaper had been threatened with closure. The court fined the State Press Committee the equivalent of U.S.$24.

Authorities continued to crack down on academic freedom. On January 19, 1999, the Gorky Agricultural Academy expelled students Denis Bobikov and Anatol' Britsen, members of an independent student association and the editors of an independent student magazine. Ostensibly expelled for "public drunkenness" and "hooliganism," the charges were believed to be the result of their independent activities. Authorities systematically blocked independent educational initiatives by denying organizers access to premises on spurious grounds such as fire inspections, or even citing an unspecified "epidemic."

Belarus did not abolish or suspend use of the death penalty. By August 5, the state had executed twenty-nine prisoners in 1999.

On January 22, President Lukashenka announced an amnesty for 34,000 inmates of Belarusian jails who fall into certain social categories such as pensioners and victims of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The amnesty, the second of its scale under Lukashenka's tenure, purported to relieve overcrowding in Belarusian jails, yet did little to address the key reason for prison overcrowding: Belarus' extremely high incarceration rate.

On May 16, voting concluded in "alternative" presidential elections, organized by a coalition of Thirteenth Supreme Soviet members, opposition parties, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to protest the extension of President Lukashenka's term of office. They featured two candidates, the exiled leader of the Belarusian Patriotic Front, Zenon Pazniak and jailed former prime minister, Mikhail Chygir. Election organizers declared the process invalid due to governmental interference. This included the arrest or occasional assault of the organizers and participants, and multiple spot searches of opposition party and NGO premises. For example, on March 1, police violently assaulted and arrested shadow electoral commission head, Victor Gonchar, on charges of holding an illegal meeting in a private cafe, for which he served ten days in detention. Prior to his release, Gonchar was charged with "abuse of office," a case which, by the time of his disappearance in September, had not been brought to trial.

Mikhail Chygir, the former prime minister, was arrested on March 30 on charges of embezzlement. Authorities accused Chygir of impropriety in making a loan in 1995, when he was head of the Agro-Industrial Bank. The timing of the arrest, before the May alternative elections in which Chygir was a candidate, points to a political motive, as does the authorities' refusal to grant bail.

On January 27, the government moved to disrupt the work of political parties, trade unions, and NGOs with a presidential decree forcing them to re-register via an onerous bureaucratic procedure before July 1. The decree punished representatives of unregistered organizationswith fines and imprisonment, and greatly increased the minimum number of members needed to register trade unions and political parties. Although the re-registration deadline was extended, of the 2,502 organizations subject to re-registration, only 1,537 applied to be re-registered, with the government rejecting 211 of these applications.

On December 15, 1998, the Belarusian House of Representatives passed an election law barring those convicted of an administrative or criminal offense from standing for public office. Many feared the law would be used to exclude from future elections opposition figures found guilty of minor offenses connected with public demonstrations. Since local council elections, held on April 4, were boycotted by the opposition, the law's effect had yet to be witnessed in Belarus.

On February 5, members of the Russian National Unity Party (RNE), a neo-Nazi group that advocates Slavic supremacy, viciously assaulted three activists of the pro-democracy coalition, Charter 97. The activists-former deputy foreign minister Andrei Sannikov, Dmitry Bondarenko, and Oleg Bebenin-encountered a group of youths wearing arm bands with the RNE insignia. A verbal altercation ensued when Bondarenko refused to accept an RNE leaflet, whereupon the youths attacked the three men, focusing in particular on Sannikov; they beat him unconscious, causing three broken ribs, a broken nose and multiple bruises. A passing police car declined to intervene or transport Sannikov to a hospital. Although an official investigation was instigated, as of this writing the assailants remain at large.

Throughout 1999, authorities harassed Vera Stremkovskaya, who is a defense attorney and the director of the Human Rights Center, an NGO. In late 1998, the Minsk bar association threatened to strip Stremkovskaya of her license to practice law following comments she allegedly made at an NGO meeting in October 1998 in New York. In December 1998, during her defense of Vasily Starovoitov, an elderly and infirm commercial farm director, Stremkovskaya came under concerted attack. Three separate criminal charges were filed against her, and she received a strict reprimand from the bar association, simply for questions she asked in court. In addition, Stremkovskaya was charged with criminal libel charges for expressing concern in court on April 15 about the whereabouts of forty bottles of cognac confiscated from Starovoitov's farm.

On May 30, fifty-four people were trampled to death when a sudden, violent storm drove a crowd of several thousand young people to flee an open-air festival and concert for shelter at a nearby metro station entrance. President Lukashenka blamed democracy for the tragedy: "We treat all this democracy too freely-go where you want, do what you please. Tragedies happen when there is no order." On September 10, in response to the tragedy, Lukashenka issued a new decree on public events that added a variety of new limitations beyond those set out in the restrictive 1996 law on demonstrations.

On July 22, the trial of Andrei Klimov began. Klimov was a deputy of the Thirteenth Supreme Soviet and in 1998 served on a committee that investigated constitutional violations committed by President Lukashenka. Klimov was charged with large-scale embezzlement, but the timing of his arrest in February 1998, the day after he distributed a letter summarizing the committee's investigation, strongly suggested that the charges were politically motivated. As of this writing, Klimov remained in jail as the trial continued.

Defending Human Rights

On September 9, the Ministry of Justice informed the Mogilev Human Rights Center that the center could not defend individuals or groups or prepare or publish reports, and warned the center that its "exposure of human rights violations" could interfere with the work of state bodies. However, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, which faced similar obstacles, successfully re-registered without changes to its mandate on September 9.

Re-registration hampered many local human rights groups' ability to work effectively. On October 4, ten police officers raided the offices of Spring 96 without a warrant and seized the group's computers, printers, photocopier, and the latest edition of their human rights bulletin. Human rights workers were often caught up in the dragnet of arrests during police crackdowns on the alternative presidential elections. Ales' Bilatsky, head of Spring 96, spent ten days in jail in March for participating in an "illegal" demonstration. Vera Stremkovskaya was told by the Minsk bar association to choose between human rights work or her work as a lawyer, although despite continued harassment, as of this writing, she continued to work in both capacities.

The Role of the International Community

United Nations

On August 20, the government of Belarus made a public commitment before the United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights to improve its human rights record radically. It committed to an extensive program of change, including signing and ratifying the European Convention on Human Rights, holding free and fair elections in 2000, and permitting equal access for all to state media. A written report to the sub-commission on these and other commitments was promised by August 2000.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)

The year 1999 witnessed extensive engagement by the OSCE with the Belarusian government, including a much more active and visible response to human rights violations from its Advisory and Monitoring Group (AMG) in Minsk than had been observed in 1998. The AMG began visiting political prisoners, intervened publicly on high-profile cases-notably the arrests of Mikhail Chygir and Victor Gonchar-and made a concerted effort to engage the government and opposition in dialogue.

In a February report to the Permanent Council, OSCE Representative on Freedom of Media Freimut Duve criticized the restrictive practices of the Belarusian State Committee for the Press, an issue that he also highlighted in a March trip to Minsk. In a July statement to the Permanent Council, Duve supported efforts aimed at dialogue on 2000 parliamentary elections, but cautioned that free and fair elections could not be achieved "without major changes in the freedom of media."

From December to March, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights worked with the AMG on a program to train domestic election monitors. Meanwhile, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly sent repeated delegations to the country and issued two resolutions on Belarus in 1999 calling for steps to organize democratic parliamentary elections in 2000.

Council of Europe

As of this writing, there had been no rapprochement between the Council of Europe and Belarus, whose special guest status with the Parliamentary Assembly was suspended in January 1997. On June 9, the Council of Europe called upon the government to release Mikhail Chygir, and drew attention to the absence of minimum democratic standards in Belarus, the restoration of which would be a necessary "first step" toward rebuilding relations with the Council of Europe. A September statement also expressed concern over the spate of disappearances and called for their prompt investigation.

European Union

Relations between the European Union (E.U.) and Belarus improved slightly, with the return in February of E.U. member state ambassadors to Belarus and a May E.U. decision repealing the visa ban on Belarusian government officials. Nonetheless, the E.U. remained critical of the human rights situation in Belarus, issuing repeated condemnations of the arrests and disappearances of key opposition figures and urging the government to enter into dialogue with the opposition and establish conditions for free and fair parliamentary elections in 2000. In an April statement on Belarus before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the E.U. condemned "state interference in trials, the pressure imposed on judges, the long terms of pre-trial detention, and . . . the conditions of imprisonment." These views were echoed in a March 11 resolution by the European Parliament.

United States

Although the U.S. ambassador returned to Minsk in September, relations between the countries remained strained, with the U.S. government repeatedly condemning human rights conditions in Belarus. On March 31, the State Department condemned the arrest of Mikhail Chygir and called for his immediate release; it repeated this demand in April, when Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott met with former deputy foreign minister Andrei Sannikov. The meeting was designed "to demonstrate . . . strong support for those in Belarus struggling to restore democracy." The U.S. government also issued repeated statements calling on the government to initiate an unconditional dialogue with the opposition; in September, it echoed the concern of other international bodies over the disappearances of Gonchar, Vinnikova, and Zakharenka.

Relevant Human Rights Watch Report:

Violations of Academic Freedom in the Republic of Belarus, 7/99