IHF FOCUS: elections; freedom of the media; freedom of association; peaceful assembly; judicial system and fair trial; torture, ill-treatment and police misconduct; prisons and detention facilities; death penalty and disappearances; freedom of religion; intolerance, xenophobia, anti-Semitism and hate speech; ethnicity; human rights defenders.
human rights record in
Criminal Code and economic legislation allowed for arbitrary accusations to be
made against any person. As a result, intimidation and manipulation of
critically minded officials was possible. High officials who had come to power
by undemocratic means showed little respect for the law, and retained the
conditions, under which the lives of people in
Continued violations of political, social and economic rights created an atmosphere of fear. According to data from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, in the first nine months of 2003, 2,560 Belarusian citizens (out of the total population of less than ten million people) had asked for political asylum abroad.
The accumulation of economic and political repression added to social problems, which included widespread alcoholism. Contributing to economic, ecological, demographic and moral losses, alcoholism constituted a serious threat to the stability and development of the society.
Among the most serious violations of civil and political rights were assaults on the right to association. Other common human rights abuses were violations of the standards for democratic elections and freedom of expression, restrictions on peaceful assembly and religious freedom, and violations of the right to fair trial. Further, police misconduct, including arbitrary arrest, ill- treatment and torture, continued, and unsolved disappearances in the past remained uninvestigated.
March 2003 local elections in
On election day, about 20% of people voted outside polling booths in full view of members of electoral commissions and others. Local authorities, heads of enterprises and others, who had no official assignment in the electoral process, were present at polling stations thus putting pressure on voters. So-called “electoral headquarters” established by local administrations interfered with the work of electoral commissions. Ballots were not secured from copying and in some cases ballot papers were produced manually for voters. The exact number of official ballots was not published. Most complaints about irregularities filed after the elections were ignored.
While almost all candidates violated the rules governing the financing of election campaigns, sanctions were applied only against opposition candidates.
Reports were received of tampering with voters' lists: the number of voters was decreased in those constituencies where candidates supported by the authorities were standing for elections in order to guarantee a 50% turnout, the hurdle for legitimate elections. In contrast, the number of voters was increased where independent candidates were expected to have strong support. Moreover, results of early voting were falsified at least on four occasions.
Observers were not allowed to monitor the formation of electoral commissions, the sealing of ballot boxes, counting of votes or absentee voting. Only NGO members were admitted as observers: no other individuals selected by NGOs were allowed to do that.
A special election
campaign was held in Belaazersk (Biaroza rayon,
A number of state-run media outlets published biased materials directed against candidates belonging to the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Narodnaja Hramada) and the Belarusian People's Front. Moreover, on 17-18 November, during the election campaign in Beloozersk, unknown individuals posted leaflets signed by a "group of voters." The leaflets instigated social division and infringed upon their honor and dignity. The texts of the leaflets resembled the aforementioned articles or were identical to them. Election observers filed complaints about this to the Prosecutor's Office of Biaroza rayon, the KGB department, the Belaazersk town electoral commission and the Central Electoral Commission. As of the end of 2003 it was not known if any measures had been taken to investigate who was behind this campaign.
Freedom of Expression and the Media
On 11 September the Ministry of Labor and
Welfare introduced a post of “deputy head for ideological work” for all
workplaces with more than 300 employees. The official duty of this officer was
to propagate the
In addition, on 23 September, the National High
School Institute of the
Freedom of the Media
Since the September 2001 presidential elections in
of May 2003, there were 1,411 periodicals, seven information agencies, 57 TV
channels, and 130 radio channels in
The Criminal Code included a chapter on “Crimes against the Order of Governance.” The code’s article 367 prescribed a prison sentence of up to five years for defamation of the president of Belarus, and article 368 a fine or up to three years imprisonment for insulting him. At least three journalists were convicted in 2001-2002 on criminal charges for having allegedly slandered the president in: Mikalai Markevich and Pavel Mazheika of the newspaper Pahonia as well as Viktar Ivashkevich of the trade union newspaper Rabochy served their terms of internal exile in 2002-2003. As of this writing, other journalists, among them Irina Makavetskaya and Irina Khalip, are under threat of facing the similar charges.
Also criticism of other authorities could be interpreted as an affront on them, a fact that substantially influenced the local election campaign in March 2003. Another powerful form of censorship was the right of authorities to issue warnings to media outlets that criticized them: after two warnings they could be closed down by court. Further, authorities could suspend media outlets without a court decision.
A number of other independent newspapers were also targeted: Predprinimatelskaya Gazeta was suspended for publishing BDG materials and for changing its official address; Navinki for its political satire and, as of the end of 2003, Narodnaya Volya and Vecherni Stolin were under threat of closure after they had been given warnings.
pressure from authorities and out of self-censorship to avoid troubles,
publishing houses refused to print the newspapers Region-Vesti (Svetlagorsk,
Local authorities stopped new regional media from establishing themselves by refusing “to adjust [their] official address,” which was required by law.
On 7 October, the Ministry of Information abrogated the licenses of the independent newspapers Belaruskaya Maladzezhnaya, Nasha Svaboda, Holas Pruzhan and Rabochy because these media had not published a single issue during a year.
Pressure from authorities on media outlets reached the extent that even papers published by school pupils were to be put under censorship.
Several journalists were fired for articles, which were critical of local policies and problems, and distributors of independent papers were punished.
The only generally available foreign newspapers and magazines were Russian.
and Russian TV-channels were free-for-all. Nevertheless, in 2003 Russian TV-channel
Kultura (Culture) was replaced by
Belarusian LAD. Some TV programs and
movies transmitted from
Authorities at all levels often refused to provide information on their activities to the public and media and excluded independent or critical journalists from discussions available to others.
In addition, there was a serious threat that non-governmental Internet sites could be closed down after the Minister of Information, Mikhail Podgayny, equated webmasters of independent news sites with pornographers. Users of Internet cafes were required to present their passports and the cafes’ administrations were obliged to monitor surfing of the net by users.
Freedom of Association
recent years, the Belarusian authorities have expanded their arsenal of
regulations and decrees pertaining to civil society. Presidential Decree No.
13, which was issued on
In 2003, the liquidations of NGOs, threats against human rights defenders and new governmental regulations amounted to a new orchestrated campaign against civil society. A number of NGOs were closed down for alleged violations of regulations relating to foreign aid and rules on registration. Two official warnings from the Ministry of Justice within one year were enough for the closure of an NGO. Due to innovations in the law, it was also possible to close down political parties and NGOs for one gross violation during a public event.
The Christian-Social Youth Union was closed for using a private apartment as its office and for mistakes made by the Ministry of Justice during its re-registration in 1999.
In August the BHC received an official reprimand from the Ministry of Justice for using the name of the organization which “does not correspond with that stated in the BHC statutes.” The warning was a result of the absence of inverted commas in the name on the letterhead, seal and stamp of the BHC. The NGO was also subjected to other form of harassment.
Tax authorities of the Moscow District in
Trade union activities were complicated by state pressure on their activists and leaders, a virtual ban on strikes and obstacles related to the registration of new trade unions.
No less than 500 founders were needed to establish a national or a regional trade union, and no less than 10% of workers (but at least 10 persons) to found a trade union at an enterprise. These demands seriously limited the possibilities of setting up new trade unions. At the same time, trade unions appeared on a territorial (instead of professional) basis under the aegis of local authorities and were controlled by them. State pressure upon the trade unions turned into open interference in their activities, including attempts to influence their elections at all levels.
Long-term (no less than two months) and complicated conciliatory measures were provided to precede a strike, and an application to strike had to be submitted three months prior to the planned date. President Lukashenka had the right to decide either to allow a strike or suspend it for up to three months on grounds of a threat to national security, public order, public health, and the rights and freedoms of others. Participants of illegal strikes could be dismissed from work on the grounds of absence from work, and trade union activists faced harassment.
Permission from city authorities was necessary to hold peaceful assemblies and demonstrations. Municipal authorities charged the organizers with additional costs to provide public order, and often moved demonstrations to suburban areas from city centers proposed by organizers, or banned them outright. Participants of unsanctioned assemblies faced police violence, administrative fines and arrest. In addition, authorities threatened to shut down associations holding demonstrations.
In June 2003, amendments were introduced to the
laws “On Political Parties” and “On Non-Governmental Associations.” They
brought legislation into line with Presidential Decree No. 11 of
Amendments were also introduced to the law “On
Assemblies, Meetings, Rallies, Demonstrations and Pickets.” These alterations
adjusted the law to the already mentioned Decree No. 11 and another Edict No.
36 “On certain measures to prevent emergency at mass events” dated
Judicial System and Fair Trial
to the Minister of Justice Viktar Galavanaw’s report of December, the
Belarusian judicial system employed 6,971 people. The system consisted of 154
district and city courts, six regional courts and the Minsk City Court.
Additionally, there was the
The right to appoint judges appertained to the
selection of candidates for a judicial placement was undertaken by the local
administration of the Ministry of Justice. A candidate then had to pass a
qualifying examination held by a judge’s qualification board and be recommended
for appointment by that board. If the Ministry of Justice accepted that
recommendation, the candidate was referred to the presidential administration,
which then made the final decision concerning appointment. At this stage,
candidates were also subject to confirmation by the Security Council of the
The administration of justice, together with all its institutions, namely the judiciary, the prosecutorial service and the legal profession, were undermined and not perceived as separate and independent from the executive power.
On 24 November, President Lukashenka signed Order No. 530 that added to the list of punishments, admonition and reprimands imposed on judges. The order also prescribed a warning for inadequate performance of the job, demotion in qualification for the term of up to six months, and dismissal. Earlier on, demotion in qualification could be applied only in the course of qualifying certification and depended on the level of professional knowledge, service, experience, and post: it could not have been used as disciplinary measure. This novelty provided the judicial assembly, which considered disciplinary measures against judges, with manifold possibilities of finding judges guilty. At the same time, the final decisions concerning dismissals of judges continued to be taken by the president.
rarely based their rulings on the Constitution and international covenants, and
the decisions of the
1996 referendum deprived citizens of their right to apply to the
The Belarusian Criminal Code provided for severe sentences, and recent amendments concerning bribery made these even harsher. In 2003, it became possible to confiscate almost the whole property of a corrupt public officer regardless of the well being of the person’s family. Confinement for bribery stretched from three months to six years versus three to six months before the amendments, which made a defendant dependent upon the arbitrariness of judges.
The main problem with the changes to the Criminal Code was, however, the expansion of the notion of an “office holder.” For example, a teacher taking an exam and a doctor issuing a prescription were considered “officers.” Consequently, sweets presented to a doctor could theoretically put him/her to jail for years. Moreover, the code contained a poorly defined article on speculation.
Torture, Ill-Treatment and Police Misconduct
Police continued to carry out arbitrary arrests and to ill-treat arrestees. Law enforcement officials resorted to physical and psychological abuse when cracking down on demonstrations, upon arrest, and during the preliminary investigations of criminal cases. Ill-treatment was also common in prisons.
In 2002-2003, numerous well-known public figures and representatives of intelligentsia were beaten by the police under the pretext that they were looking for criminals. Those beaten included: Professor Adam Maldzis, producer Yuri Haschevatski, stage director Valery Mazynski, actors Yaugen Kryzhanowski and Viktar Chornabaeu, academics Radzim Garetski and Yaugen Babosau, director of the National State Humanitarian Lyceum Uladzimir Kolas, and head of the human rights NGO Legal Assistance to Population Aleh Volchak.
Prisons and Detention Facilities
Conditions in Belarusian prisons, pre-detention and temporary custody facilities were humiliating and endangered the lives of detainees. Typically the space per detainee was less than 1 m², and the cells were dirty and rarely ventilated. The detainees were not given sufficient food and were not able to care for their hygiene properly. Those accused of violating internal rules of a facility were placed in special disciplinary cells, where conditions were even harsher, for example due to low temperatures and concrete floors covered with water. Detainees were also subjected to physical abuse. In some penitentiaries special police troops were allowed to practice hand-to-hand combat on prisoners. There were also instances when detainees were forced to work without pay. Complaints filed by detainees were regularly censored.
According to the Punishments Execution Committee of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, overcrowding was 20.8% above the maximum capacity in correctional colonies; in prisons it was 35.9%; and in pre-trial detention centers 26.8%. About 43% of prisoners and detainees were serving their terms under strict security and 24% under maximum-security regimes.
The spread of tuberculosis was a serious problem: 15% of all prisoners were infected, including those suffering from its most virulent form (about 10%). Moreover, 1,126 prisoners were HIV positive, constituting about 22% of all registered HIV positive cases in the country, 1,286 were drug addicts and 9,907 were chronic alcoholics. However, prisoners did not always receive the medical care or medicines they were in need of, including cases where they suffered from tuberculosis or AIDS. Over 25% of the convicts had mental disorders.
The BHC considered that the solution of overcrowding in prisons should begin with the reform of criminal legislation based on comprehensible democratic principles and commensuration of guilt and punishment. In addition, court practices should change and the dependence of judges on the executive abolished.
During 2003, four persons were sentenced to death. The Committee on Punishments of the Ministry of Interior refused to provide information on how many death sentences were executed in 2003.
In November, the Belarusian Parliament
submitted to the
While many disappearances in the past few years could be associated with social circumstances or criminal activity, a number of high profile disappearances were considered to be politically motivated. The whereabouts of Yury Zakharanka, former minister of interior; Viktar Hanchar, vice-speaker of Belarusian Parliament (XIII convocation); Anatol Krasowski, a businessman; and Dzmitry Zavadski, Russian public TV operator, remained unknown.
November, Christos Pourgourides, special rapporteur of the Committee on Legal
Affairs and Human Rights of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly
(PACE) visited Belarus to look into the high-profile disappearances and
prepared a preliminary memorandum on his findings. During the visit, Belarusian
officials thwarted Pourgourides’s plans to meet two persons presumed to have
information concerning the disappearances: Lieutenant Colonel Dzmitry
Pavlichenka and investigator Uladzimir Chumachenka. Pourgourides stated that he
considered that the official investigations into these disappearances had been
cloaked in controversy and lacked transparency, impartiality and any efforts of
good-faith to make progress. Pourgourides stated in his draft report that
Freedom of Religion
The Belarusian Constitution provided for freedom of religion and equality of all religious communities in the country, but in practice these principles were violated. The government openly backed and financially supported the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, which many citizens considered an integral part of Belarusian history and culture. Meanwhile, minority religious communities were subject to harassment.
A new law on religion entered into force at the end of 2002. The State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs claimed that the law, which was drafted in consultation with the Russian Orthodox Church, was aimed at protecting citizens from dangerous “sects” and “cults.” However, in reality it placed far-reaching restrictions on all religious activity.
to the preamble of the law, the Russian Orthodox Church played a “determining
role” in spiritual, cultural and state developments in
The implementation of the new law resulted in a drastically worsened situation of minority religious communities. The law required those religious groups that were registered with the authorities to re-register within two years. Some new requirements were imposed by the law. For instance, newly registered religious parishes had to have at least 20 members (the previous law required a minimum of 10 members). The BHC was concerned that smaller religious communities would not have sufficient resources to go through the lengthy and complicated re-registration process, and would instead opt to go underground.
The concordat signed on 13 June between the Belarusian government and the Belarusian Exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church promoted one faith over all other religions. The authorities refused to register a number of minority religious groups that were considered “non-traditional,” including all Orthodox groups that were not subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Activities of non-registered religious groups were banned by law. Those groups that were not registered with authorities, as well as some that had been granted registration, often experienced difficulties when they sought to buy or rent premises for worship. Moreover, there were numerous reports of members of minority communities who had been warned, fined or arrested for participating in religious meetings or singing religious songs in public places. The main victims were from small religious groups established in rural areas.
The state press contributed to spreading negative attitudes toward minority religions by engaging in offensive and prejudiced reporting. The independent press rarely covered the life in general of different religious organizations in the country but chiefly focused on problems relating to religious legislation and relations between the state and confessions. As a result, Belarusian society did not receive sufficient and objective information reflecting religious life of numerous confessions.
The law “On the Press and Other Mass Media” provided for media responsibility for dissemination of information that instigated religious enmity and divisions. However, some state-run media outlets violated freedom of speech as they repeatedly disseminated false information about religious organizations.
language question remained “political” in
During the February 2000 census, 74% of all people recorded the Belarusian language as their mother tongue, but only 37% said they spoke Belarusian. Belarusian-speakers were discriminated against in an unprecedented manner: only a small number of them were represented in state administration, law enforcement agencies and in parliament, where they mainly held unimportant posts.
Intolerance, Xenophobia Anti-Semitism and Hate Speech
The BHC reported cases of intolerance and anti-Semitism by the authorities.
Authorities did not denounce such acts and measures were not taken against the perpetrators.
Human Rights Defenders
Belarusian human rights organizations initiated positive developments in legislation and judicial practice, carried out educational programs and monitored human rights developments in the country. The BHC alone gave legal aid to over 2,000 individuals whose basic rights had been violated.
Local human rights organizations faced significant obstacles to their work particularly in the form of a sharpened process of liquidation of civil society’s structures and civil initiatives by the ruling regime.
In 2003, thirteen NGOs dedicated to the promotion of human rights were closed down on the basis of formal, petty or factitious irregularities. Their liquidation was undoubtedly politically motivated. As of the end of January 2004, cases against another eight organizations were pending in court, and other NGOs had received warnings and were under threat of liquidation. Moreover, individual human rights defenders were persecuted.
 Based on the Annual Report 2004 (events of 2003) of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, prepared by Dzmitry Markusheuski.
 Based on Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Elections of Members of Local Councils of XXIV Convocation - Results of the National Monitoring, at http://bhc.unibe.by; Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Bulletin, 25 November 2003, at http://bhc.unibe.by.
 RFE/RL Media Matters, Vol. 3, No. 31,
 See also IHF and Belarusian and Norwegian Helsinki Committees, “Stop the
Persecution of Civil Society in
 See also sections on Peaceful Assembly and Human Rights Defenders.
 See IHF and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, “Another Belarusian
Human Rights Organization, Legal Assistance to Population, has been
‘Liquidated’,” press release,
 For more information, see IHF and BHC, “The Criminal Case Against the
 Unless otherwise noted, based on the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (Hary Pahaniaila and Aleh Hulak), The Courts and Human Rights, 2003.
 See also section on Ethnicity.
 See also section on Prisons and Detention Facilities.
 Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, “
 See also section on Freedom of Association.