A CARICATURE OF AUTOCRACY - CIVIL SOCIETY CAUGHT IN A STRANGHOLD

05/09/2001
Report
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On the eve of the presidential elections of 9 September 2001, the legal, administrative, police and judicial noose restricting the activities of civil society, NGOs, political parties, trade unions and independent media has tightened.

The current government has shown signs of nervousness in the run-up to the elections, manifested by increased repression of all sectors of civil society whose opinions are divergent or critical of the President’s policies. In this context, on 16 August 2001, the Ministry of Justice declared as illegal the Centre for Civic Initiative (NGO group active in the creation of a network of independent observers of the presidential election), even though this project had benefited from public assistance and is supported by the local OSCE delegation. Thus the Belarus regime has further distanced itself from the international community and these practices disqualify the results of the 9 September elections even before they have taken place and despite the fact that all the opinion polls foresee Lukashenko as the absolute winner.

The international FIDH and OMCT joint mission to Belarus from 14 to 21 July 2001, undertaken on behalf of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders underlines in its report of even date the political and constitutional context currently prevailing in the country and the obstacles to freedom of association and action for human rights defenders.

With the arrival in power of President Lukashenko in 1994, and even more so since 1996, the human rights situation has gone steadily downhill. Indeed, in carrying out constitutional reforms, he attributed to himself wide ranging powers, which, in conjunction with the dissolution of the 13th Supreme Soviet, have put a de facto end to the principal of separation of powers. The President governs Belarus, which has become a caricature of autocracy, by means of decrees restricting fundamental freedoms in total contradiction with international human rights protection instruments, and of the Belarus Constitution which recognizes their superiority.

The right to create, join and be affiliated to associations is systematically disregarded. The example of trade unions is significant (restricted registration, interference in internal elections, creation of trade unions controlled by management...). The right to solicit and receive funds and the right to research and publish information on human rights is also violated. Independent press in particular is strictly controlled by the President and his presidential administration (restricted access to official information, instructions to state administrations and enterprises to avoid giving advertising income to independent media, control over the big printing presses, discriminatory tariffs for presenting and distribution of newspapers, confiscation of publications, etc.).
The freedom to meet and demonstrate is governed by particularly restrictive measures. In Minsk, for example, authorized demonstrations (including strikes) can usually take place in only one place designated by the authorities, situated 3 km from the town center. Authorization to hold a demonstration must be requested 15 days in advance without any guarantee that it will be granted. Inscriptions on banners are strictly controlled (and must be registered) and the use of certain symbols (such as the traditional (historical) Belarus flag) is forbidden. Decree No. 11 adopted in May 2001, a few months before the presidential elections, forbids simple citizens and other non-registered movements from holding such demonstrations and multiplies the motives for forbidding them. Moreover, demonstrators are frequently accused of hooliganism.

There is an orchestrated effort to gag all freedom of expression and opinion. On 18 June 2001, Yuri Bandazhevsky, a world famous scientist specializing in medical research on nuclear radioactivity was sentenced to eight years of hard labour for a common law offense (bribery). This sentence is an example of the (policy drift) deviation of the current regime. Far from establishing his guilt, he was arbitrarily punished for his research on the negative effects of the Chernobyl disaster on the population, and most of all, for denouncing the embezzlement of ministerial funds destined for research in this area while he was the president of the ad hoc commission of enquiry.

Even more than the state of freedom of association, this report highlights other serious abuses. Belarus is high on the list of countries applying the death penalty and where ill treatment and torture are frequent occurrences in prisons and preventive detention centers. Finally, elimination or "forced disappearance" of opposition members forms part of the Belorussian regime’s standard practice.

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