Lukashenko signs new amendments to the Criminal Code : Members of independent human rights NGOs at risk

Press release

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), expresses its deepest concern at the signature by President A. Lukashenko of amendments to the Belarusian Criminal Code, which strengthen penal responsibility concerning “acts against people and public security”.

These amendments were adopted very quickly following two readings before the Belarusian Parliament, respectively on November 23 and December 8, 2005 , and all deputies voted in favour of the text during the last hearing before the Upper Chamber. The amendments were signed by President A. Lukashenko on December 13, 2005 and should enter into force on December 20, 2005, after official publication.

The Observatory is alarmed at these amendments, which constitute blatant violations of international and regional standards in terms of freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association and represent a very serious risk for the existence of an independent civil society in Belarus.

The new amendments stipulate that anyone who organises activities in the framework of a suspended or liquidated association may face a fine and be arrested up to six months in prison. In serious cases (for which there is no definition), one can be subjected to a "restriction of freedom" sentence for a period up to two years . The Observatory fears that human rights defenders be particularly targeted by this new disposal, since most of independent human rights NGOs were liquidated during the past three years, and since reasons for liquidation were even broadened in the recent "Law on Public Association", adopted in August 2005 . As a consequence, it will become extremely difficult for independent organisations to exist as such and conduct activities.

Moreover, any person who provides training or any other type of education aiming at participating in "mass activities", or any person who funds such activities, may face a prison term up to six months, or be sentenced to a "restriction of freedom" sentence of three years (article 293). Also, any person who provides training or any other form of education, aiming at the participation in "group activities which seriously violate public order", or any funding or other material assistance of such activity, may be sentenced to prison up to six months and to a "restriction of freedom" sentence up to two years (article 342). However, there is no precision on the definition neither of a "mass activity" nor of a "group activity", and the Observatory fears that the vagueness of the terms may give the authorities a new opportunity to arbitrarily sanction members of independent organisations.

Furthermore, these amendments provide very serious infringements to freedom of information. Indeed, the new amendments stipulate that "providing false information to a foreign State or international organisations, concerning the political, economical, military or international situation of the Republic of Belarus, as well as on the judicial situation of Belarusian citizens or any power instance", is punishable by either a six-month prison term or a two-year "restriction of freedom" sentence. The amendments also state that any person who would communicate with foreign States or international organisations, "to the detriment of internal security, sovereignty or territorial integrity", as well as disseminate material with such content, could be sentenced to prison from six months to three years. If such information was distributed through mass media, the "perpetrators" could be sentenced from two to five years in detention. These provisions are a flagrant violation of article 5.c) of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 9, 1998, which states that "for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right to communicate with non-governmental or international organisations".

Finally, the new provisions stipulate that "people suspected of terrorism or vandalism may be detained during ten days before being charged".

The Observatory considers that these new amendments constitute an additional tool for the authorities to crackdown on the independent civil society, in particular in the context of the organisation of the next presidential election, which was advanced this week from July to March 2006.

In view of the blatant violations of international and regional human rights standards resulting from these provisions, the Observatory asks President Lukashenko to stop the publication process of these amendments, in order to prevent their entry into force.

More generally, the Observatory ask the highest Belarusian authorities to put an end to any kind of harassment against human rights organisations and their members; to put Belarusian legislation in conformity with the provisions of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, in particular with article 5.a), which states that "for the purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms, everyone has the right to meet of assemble peacefully", its article 6.b), which states that "everyone is free (...) to publish, impart or disseminate to other views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms" and the above-mentioned article 5.c); and to conform with international and regional standards relative to freedoms of association and expression, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the Document of the Copenhagen Meeting of the Conference on the Human Dimension of the Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE).

For more information, please contact : FIDH: 00 33 1 43 55 25 18 - OMCT: 00 41 22 809 49 39

Gaël Grilhot
Attaché de presse
Press Officer
+33-1 43 55 25 18
+33-6 10 60 05 57

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