Human rights in Belarus

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Coat of arms of Belarus (official).svg
This article is part of a series on the
politics and government of
Belarus
A symbol of Belarusian opposition, this flag served as the national flag from 1991 to 1995.

Human rights in Belarus have been described as "poor".[1] The Belarusian government is criticized for human rights violations and its persecution of non-governmental organisations, independent journalists, national minorities, and opposition politicians.[2][3] In a testimony to the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice labeled Belarus as one of the world's six "outposts of tyranny".[4] In response, the Belarusian government called the assessment "quite far from reality".[5] As at 2017, the Viasna Human Rights Centre lists two political prisoners, down from 11 in 2016[6] currently detained in Belarus.

President Alexander Lukashenko has described himself as having an "authoritarian ruling style".[7] Western countries have described Belarus under Lukashenko as a dictatorship; the government has accused the same Western powers of trying to oust Lukashenko.[8] The Council of Europe has barred Belarus from membership since 1997 for undemocratic voting and election irregularities in the November 1996 constitutional referendum and parliament by-elections.[9]

Dozens of Belarusian government officials responsible for political repressions, propaganda, electoral fraud have been subject to personal sanctions by the United States and the European Union.

Belarusian legislation and official government position on human rights

Belarus Constitution and human rights

The current Constitution was drafted in 1994 and amended in 1996 and 2004 following a series of controversial referenda which were accompanied by mass protests of the opposition, arrests of activists, and were criticized by the West as undemocratic.

The Belarus Constitution centres around three key elements:[10]

  • the regulation of rights and freedoms
  • the establishment of a new state mechanism
  • the reworking of new laws and a new justice system

The Belarus Constitution guarantees the following rights to the people of Belarus:

  • the right to health treatment (free in state institutions)
  • the right to social welfare for the elderly, sick, disabled and non-earning households
  • the right to a free general education for all
  • the right to free professional technical training

Presidents position on human rights protection in Belarus

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko has stated that dictatorship in his country is impossible, adding that he personally does not accept liberal values imposed by the West. According to Lukashenko true dictators are Americans.[11] The head of state, during a meeting with heads of CIS mass media, stated that the right to life is the most important of all human rights and bombardment of Iraq by NATO forces using far-fetched allegations that Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons violated it.[12]

This is true that there are zones of influence of powers that be in the world. Let us assume that there are zones of influence of America, the European Union. But there are zones they cannot influence. They would like to turn these zones into the zones of influence. Indeed, they would like to rewrite history and bring these Arab states under total control. They want them to be under control in the future. Therefore, they started from the zones of influence. It was as easy as ABC in Tunisia and Egypt. It was more difficult in Libya. Perhaps, you noticed that they did not disturb Jordan, Israel and others. They switched over to Syria. Previously they interfered with Iraq, then Iran. It is not so easy. Leadership of these countries started to resist. And the global community understood the essence of their plan. After the events in Libya and Egypt, some allies of those who try to put these countries into disorder realized that the result was different from what they expected. They understood that it was possible to negotiate with Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak. It will be much more difficult to come to an agreement or even talk to those who came to power in these countries. They got a dose of their own medicine.

— A.G.Lukashenko[13]

In the summer of 2013 the Belarusian president said that the total surveillance and harassment of Edward Snowden by the U.S. and the EU is a violation of human rights.[14]

Alexander Lukashenko was member of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the Soviet occupation of Belarus but was not a member of any party ahead of his first presidential election.[15]

Official award for human rights protection in Belarus

The official Order of Friendship of People is presented for "a big personal contribution to the development and enrichment of the spiritual and intellectual potential of the Republic of Belarus [and] commitment to protecting human rights and social interests". The overall purpose of the Belarusian orders system is to reward "activities aimed at strengthening the power of the state [and] gallantry and intrepidity displayed while protecting the state".[16]

Position of major human rights organizations

Major human rights organizations have been criticizing Belarus and its human rights situation.

Belarus in major freedom indices
2017 2016 2015 2014 2013 2012 2011 2010 2009 2008 2007 2006 2005 2004 2003
Freedom in the World 5 Not free[17] 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free 5 Not free
Index of Economic Freedom Repressed Mostly unfree Repressed Repressed Repressed
Press Freedom Index (Global rank: 153)
52.43
(Global rank: 157)
54.32
(Global rank: 157)
47.98
(Global rank: 157)
47.81
(Global rank: 157)
48.35
(Global rank: 168)
99.00
(Global rank: 154)
57.00
(Global rank: 151)
59.50
(Global rank: 154)
58.33
(Global rank: 151)
63.63
(Global rank: 151)
57.00
(Global rank: 152)
61.33
(Global rank: 144)
54.10
(Global rank: 151)
52.00
(Global rank: 124)
52.17
Democracy Index 3.54 Authoritarian 3.62 Authoritarian 3.69 Authoritarian 3.04 Authoritarian 3.04 Authoritarian 3.16 Authoritarian 3.34 Authoritarian 3.34 Authoritarian 3.34 Authoritarian
Freedom of the Press (report) Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free Not Free
Polity data series Autocracy
World Index of Moral Freedom Insufficient Moral Freedom

Belarus’ human rights friendly rhetoric was not supported by genuine human rights improvements in 2016. The death penalty remains in use. Officials continue to prosecute human rights activists and critical journalists on spurious charges. Legislative amendments further restricted freedom of expression by expanding the definition of “extremism” and by banning dissemination of certain types of information among children under the false pretense of protecting them. International observers recognized some progress during the September parliamentary elections, but called for additional reforms.

— Human Rights Watch World Report 2017[18]

Severe restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, of association and of peaceful assembly remained in place. The government continued to refuse co-operation with the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Belarus. At least four people were executed and four people were sentenced to death.

— Amnesty International 2016/2017 Report[19]

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka secured a fifth term in the October 2015 presidential election, which failed to meet international standards, according to observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). (...) The government was rewarded for the steps it had taken to improve its still-repressive human rights situation when the European Union and the United States granted the country temporary relief from sanctions.

— Freedom House Freedom in the World 2016 Report[17]

International criticism of human rights in Belarus

United Nations

The UN Human Rights Council 2007 Report[20] notes that "the Special Rapporteur has encountered, for the third consecutive year, an absolute refusal to cooperate on the part of the Government of Belarus ... all efforts made to engage in constructive dialogue were fruitless"; "the situation of human rights in Belarus constantly deteriorated"; "The Government of Belarus did not consider any of the recommendations made by the Special Rapporteur" and treaty bodies (such as the Human Rights Committee).

The UN Special Rapporteur noted that "the political system of Belarus seems to be incompatible with the concept of human rights" and that "the Human Rights Council should either call for the democratization of the political regime and a change in the political behavior of the Government [of Belarus] or admit that Belarus' human rights record cannot be improved because the human rights violations are consistent with the political nature of the regime." The UN Special Rapporteur states that "Belarus does not respect its obligations under the international human rights instruments to which it has adhered" and reiterates his recommendation "that the Security Council should adopt appropriate measures to ensure the respect by the Republic of Belarus of its legal obligations, including:

  • "to immediately establish a group of legal experts to investigate whether senior officials of the Government of Belarus are responsible for the disappearance and murders of several politicians and journalists and make concrete proposals for their prosecution, in order to bring to an end the impunity enjoyed by those involved in such crimes;
  • to "finance ... assistance to the human rights defenders who have been politically harassed, oppressed or prosecuted";
  • "to investigate the apparent involvement of senior government officials in international organized crime and illegal arms sales, monitor the international financial cash flows of Belarus and, if necessary, freeze foreign bank accounts of those involved in illicit trafficking, and prosecute criminals."

The Special Rapporteur stressed that "present trading relations with Belarus do not grant a better quality of life to Belarusian citizens, but allow President Lukashenko's regime to remain in power by systematically violating human rights and threatening international security" and recommended that "the European Union and the United States of America should maintain travel restrictions for Belarusian officials" and all other member states should adopt similar measures. The UN Special Rapporteur noted that "the opinions and assessments of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus were confirmed and fully shared by the most important European or Euro-Atlantic organizations, namely the OSCE, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly", adding: "It is impossible to believe that all these people are wrong or biased."

The Resolution of the UN General Assembly[21] stated: "[t]he situation of human rights in Belarus in 2007 continued to significantly deteriorate, as documented in the reports of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, which found that systematic violations of human rights continue to take place in Belarus ..."

and expressed deep concern:

(a) About the continued use of [Belarus's] criminal justice system to silence political opposition and human rights defenders, including through arbitrary detention, lack of due process and closed political trials of leading opposition figures and human rights defenders;
(b) About the failure of the Government of Belarus to cooperate fully with all the mechanisms of the Human Rights Council, in particular with the Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Belarus, while noting the serious concern relating to the continued and systematic violations of human rights in Belarus ...

European Union

In March 2006 the European Council imposed sanctions on Lukashenko and other members of the Belarusian government, having "deplored the failure of the Belarus authorities to meet OSCE commitments to democratic elections ... and condemned the action of the Belarus authorities ... in arresting peaceful demonstrators exercising their legitimate right of free assembly to protest at the conduct of the Presidential elections ..."

On 10 April 2006, the Council adopted restrictive measures against Lukashenko, the Belarusian leadership and the officials responsible for the violations of international electoral standards and international human-rights law for the crackdown on civil society and democratic opposition, proposing a visa ban and possible further measures. Common Position 2006/362/CFSP provided that the economic resources of Lukashenko and key Belarusian officials identified for this purpose should be frozen.[22]

In its 8 November 2006 Declaration the Council stated that the European Union is "deeply concerned" about imprisonment of political leaders which show the "Belarusian authorities' repeated unwillingness to respect international human rights standards, especially the right to a fair trial. The European Union also expresses its concern about the denial of access of observers to the trial",[23] and in its 2009 Conclusions[24] it stated: "the Council deeply regrets the recent lack of significant progress in addressing its concerns in the area of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including as regards the crackdown on peaceful political actions ..."

United Kingdom

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office June 2008 Release on Belarus Human rights stated:

Belarus's human rights record since President Lukashenka came to power in 1994 has been poor. A September 2006 report ... by the UN Special Rapporteur ... on Human Rights, was highly critical of the situation. This is one of many reports to cite numerous human rights violations ... The situation continues to deteriorate, while the Belarusian authorities continue to ignore concerns raised by the EU and others ... Politically motivated arrests and detentions continue ... The UK and EU continue to raise human rights issues with the Belarusian government by way of regular EU statements, demarches by EU heads of mission in Minsk, and through international organizations including the UN and OSCE.[25]

United States

According to the United States Department of State, as of 2016 the main human rights problems of Belarus continued to be the following:

"citizens were unable to choose their government through elections; in a system bereft of checks and balances, authorities committed abuses; and former political prisoners’ political rights remained largely restricted while the government failed to account for longstanding cases of politically motivated disappearances."

Besides that, the US State Department pointed out abuses by the security forces, poor prison conditions, politically-motivated arrests, political interference in the work of the judiciary, restrictions of civil liberties and many other issues.[26]

The United States is pursuing a "selective engagement" policy with the government of Belarus, limiting access by the government to U.S. government officials at the assistant-secretary level and below and restricting U.S. assistance to the Belarus government.[27] On 19 June 2006, President George W. Bush declared a national emergency in connection with the actions of members of the Belarusian government (including Lukashenko), ordering sanctions against Lukashenko, other members of the Belarusian government and Belneftekhim for "undermining democratic process and constituting an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States".[28]

Belarus, according to the CIA a "republic in name, although in fact a dictatorship",[29] is viewed as a rogue state by the United States and European democracies — one whose conduct is out of line with international norms of behavior, and whose regime is considered to violate human rights.

The US Department of State repeatedly criticized the Lukashenko regime, describing it as "a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms".[30] Assessments by the United Nations, the United States and European and Euro-Atlantic organizations demonstrate Belarus's disregard for human rights, the subservience of Belarusian courts to Lukashenko's administration and members of Lukashenko's inner circle, and the use of the Belarusian judiciary as a tool for accomplishing improper political objectives and accommodating the interests of the regime. The United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the Belarusian political system is "incompatible with the concept of human rights".[31] Belarus has been called "the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe" by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.[32]

Belarus is subject to US sanctions for "undermining democratic process and constituting an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States".[33] It is also subject to sanctions imposed by the European Union for human rights violations.[34] Belarus has been determined to be a habitual violator of international human rights laws and accepted norms of international behavior by the UN, the US, the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, the Council of Europe, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, the European Council, the European Parliament, the European Commission, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. As stated by the UN Special Rapporteur on Belarus, "it is impossible to believe that all these people are wrong or biased".[30]

The 2008 U.S. Department of State Background Note: Belarus states:

[B]ilateral relations cooled following the election of President Lukashenka in July 1994. After the internationally unrecognized November 1996 constitutional referendum, which resulted in the dissolution of Belarus' legitimate parliament and the centralization of power in the executive branch, Lukashenko provoked a diplomatic crisis by ... confiscating diplomatic residences [of] the US, German, British, French, Italian, and IMF residences away from those missions ... In addition, Lukashenko used his newly centralized power to repress human rights throughout the country *** Since his election in July 1994 ... Lukashenka has consolidated power steadily in the executive branch through authoritarian means and has dominated all branches of government. He used a non-democratic referendum in November 1996 to amend the 1994 constitution to broaden his powers and illegally extend his term in office. *** In 2004, he engineered a fraudulent referendum that removed term limits on the presidency. *** In 2006, Lukashenka "won" another term in an undemocratic election. In January 2007, he further consolidated his rule through local elections that failed to meet international standards.

— U.S. State Department Background Note: Belarus

In mid-March 2008, responding to the Belarusian government's raiding of independent-media offices and the arrests of "undesirable" journalists, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack issued a statement condemning the crackdown: "The regime of Alexander Lukashenko has again shown itself as a brutal, authoritarian dictatorship that blatantly ignores human rights and fundamental freedoms."[35]

The 2008 State Department Belarus Report[36] noted grave, habitual abuses by the Belarusian government of human rights and disregard for the freedoms of speech, press, religion and association. It points out inconsistencies between Belarusian law and court rulings. The 2008 State Department report demonstrated the subservience of the Belarusian courts to the Lukashenko administration and the private interests of his inner circle, to such an extent that the "courts" in Belarus exist in name only.

Salient points are:

According to its constitution, Belarus is a republic ... In practice, however, power is concentrated in the presidency. Since his election in 1994 as president, Alexander Lukashenka has consolidated his power over all institutions and undermined the rule of law through authoritarian means, manipulated elections, and arbitrary decrees. Subsequent presidential elections have not been free or fair, and the 28 September, [2008] parliamentary election failed to meet international standards. [Members of] security forces ... continued to commit numerous human rights abuses. The government's human rights record remained very poor as government authorities continued to commit frequent serious abuses. ... The government failed to account for past politically motivated disappearances [of human beings]. Prison conditions remained extremely poor, and reports of abuse of prisoners and detainees continued.

The government further restricted civil liberties, including freedoms of press, speech, assembly, association, and religion ... Corruption continued to be a problem ... Religious leaders were fined, imprisoned or deported for performing services ...

In the section titled: "Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" the 2008 US State Dept. Belarus Report noted that while Belarusian law prohibits such practices; Belarusian KGB and other special forces disregard the law with impunity, detainees and demonstrators are subjected to beating. The State Department references the 2 September 2008 Report of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) on Conditions of Detention in Belarus which noted "substantial evidence" of the use of torture and mistreatment of suspects during criminal and administrative investigations.[37]

The section of the report entitled "Arbitrary Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence" noted that "the [Belarusian] law prohibits such actions; however, the government did not respect these prohibitions in practice"; while "the law requires a warrant for searches" the KGB "conducted unauthorized searches ... without warrants" with "numerous instances in which authorities searched residences and offices for clearly political reasons". It notes that "[t]he lack of independence of the prosecutor's office rendered due process protections meaningless".

The section entitled "Respect for Civil Liberties" noted that "the constitution provides for freedom of speech and of the press; however, the government did not respect these rights in practice..."; "limit[ed] free speech"; "continued to harass and arrest journalists"; "censored the media"; "fined, or jailed members of the media who publicly criticized the government"; "continued to use its virtual monopoly on television and radio broadcasting to disseminate its version of events and to minimize opposing points of view", and "took numerous other actions during the year to limit the independent press, including limiting access to newsprint and printing presses"; "restricted access to the Internet, and monitored e-mail and Internet chat rooms"; educational institutions were required "to teach an official state ideology that combined reverence for the achievements of the former Soviet Union and the country under the leadership of Lukashenka"; "authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations ... and issued heavy fines or jail sentences on participants of unsanctioned demonstrations"; "police and other security officials beat and detained demonstrators"; "the law provides for freedom of association; however, the government severely restricted it in practice"; "the law provides for freedom of religion; however, the government restricted this right in practice"; "the law allows citizens to speak freely about their religious beliefs; however, authorities continued to prevent, interfere with, or punish persons who proselytized for any religious group other than the Belarusian Orthodox Church."

On 12 June 2009 the Obama administration continued the sanctions against Belarus, pursuant to the "Notice on Continuation of the National Emergency With Respect to the Actions and Policies of Certain Members of the Government of Belarus and Other Persons That Undermine Democratic Processes or Institutions in Belarus".[38]

Opposing views

Critics such as the British Helsinki Human Rights Group have asserted that the U.S. was implicated in Georgia's Rose Revolution of 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution of 2004, suggesting that concern about Belarus is motivated by geo-political factors rather than desire for change in the country.[citation needed] However, non-governmental organizations such as the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and Amnesty International (unrelated to the U.S. government, the EU or George Soros) have also expressed concerns about the situation in the country.[citation needed]

Electoral process

The new Flag of Belarus introduced by Alexander Lukashenko following a controversial referendum in 1995

On 10 July 1994 Alexander Lukashenko was elected President of the Republic of Belarus. He won 80.3% of the vote.

As at 2017, no other presidential or parliamentary election or referendum held in Belarus since then has been accepted as free and fair by the OSCE, the United Nations, the European Union or the United States. Senior officials responsible for the organization of elections, including the head of the Central Elections Commission, Lydia Yermoshina, were subject to international sanctions for electoral fraud:

Lukashenko's official election results at presidential elections
9 September 2001 19 March 2006 19 December 2010
75.6% 83% 79.6%

December 2010 election

The presidential elections of 2010 was followed by opposition protest and its violent crackdown by the police. A group of protesters tried to storm a principal government building, smashing windows and doors before riot police pushed them back.[39] After attack of principal building protesters were violently suppressed. Several hundreds of activists, including several presidential candidates, were arrested, beaten and tortured by the police and the KGB

Lukashenko criticised the protesters, accusing them of "banditry".[40]

Police violence during the protests and the overall conduction of the election caused a wave of harsh criticism from the U.S. and the EU. More than 200 propagandists, state security officers, central election committee staff and other officials were included in sanctions lists of the European Union: they were banned from entering the EU and their assets in the EU, if any, were to be frozen.

Freedoms

Freedom of the press

Since the 2000s, Reporters Without Borders have been ranking Belarus below all other European countries in its Press Freedom Index.[41]

Freedom House has rated Belarus as "not free" in all of its global surveys since 1998, "Freedom in the World";[42] the Lukashenko government curtails press freedom, the organization says. State media are subordinate to the president. Harassment and censorship of independent media are routine.

Under the authoritarian president Alexander Lukashenko, journalists like Iryna Khalip, Natalya Radina, Pavel Sheremet have been arrested for their work. Independent printed media like Nasha Niva have been excluded from state distribution networks.

Freedom of religion

Jews are not the only minority who are alleged to have had their human rights violated in Belarus. On 25 March 2004, the Associated Press reported that a ban exists on home worship in the country and that members of four Protestant churches had recently asked the government to repeal a 2002 law which forbade them worshipping from their own homes, although they were members of legally registered religions.[43] The Christian Post reported in a 21 April 2005 article[44] that non-denominational, charismatic churches were greatly affected by the law, since none of these churches own buildings. Protestant organizations have also complained of censorship because of the ban on importing literature without approval by government officials.

According to Forum 18, textbooks widely used in Belarusian schools (as of 2002) contain anti-religious views similar to those taught in the USSR:

Religion does not teach a believer to strive to lead a dignified life, to fight for his freedom or against evil and oppression. This is all supposed to be performed for him by supernatural forces, above all, god. All that is left for the believer to do is to be his pathetic petitioner, to behave as a pauper or slave...Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception."

The organization also reported that charismatic Protestant churches (such as Full Gospel) and Greek Catholic and independent Orthodox churches (such as those unaffiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church) have encountered difficulty in registering churches.[45]

In 2003 Protestant groups accused the government of Belarus of waging a smear campaign against them, telling Poland's Catholic information agency KAI that they had been accused of being Western spies and conducting human sacrifice.[46] Charter 97 reported in July 2004 that Baptists who celebrated Easter with patients at a hospital in Mazyr were fined and threatened with confiscation of their property.[47]

Only 4,000 Muslims live in Belarus, mostly ethnic Lipka Tatars who are the descendants of immigrants and prisoners in the 11th and 12th centuries.[48] The administration for Muslims in the country, abolished in 1939, was re-established in 1994.

However, Ahmadiyya Muslims (commonly regarded as a non-violent sect) are banned from practicing their faith openly in Belarus, and have a similar status to groups like Scientology and Aum Shinrikyo.[49] There have been no major reports of religious persecution of the Muslim community; however, because of the situation in Chechnya and neighboring Russia concerns have been expressed by Belarusian Muslims that they may become increasingly vulnerable.

These fears were heightened on 16 September 2005 when a bomb was detonated outside a bus stop, injuring two people. On 23 September a bomb was exploded outside a restaurant, wounding nearly 40 people. Muslims are not suspected in the latter attack, which was labeled "hooliganism".[50]

Judicial system

Capital punishment

Europe holds the greatest concentration of abolitionist states (blue). Map current as of 2017
  Abolished for all offenses
  Retains death penalty

Belarus is the only European country still using capital punishment. The U.S. and Belarus were the only two of the 56 member states of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to have carried out executions during 2011.[51]

Political dissidents and prisoners

In December 2010, Belarusian special security forces attacked demonstrators, beat and injured many activists with batons and arrested more than 600 people after a rally in central Minsk to protest the outcome of elections widely seen by Western observers as fraudulent. In their joint statement, Hillary Clinton and Baroness Ashton called for the immediate release of the protesters (including at least seven opposition presidential candidates) and strongly condemned what they termed the "disproportionate" use of force against demonstrators.

Belarus has come under attack from Amnesty International for its treatment of political prisoners,[52] including those from the youth wing of the Belarusian Popular Front (a pro-democracy party). In a report dated 26 April 2005 Amnesty criticised Belarus for its treatment of dissidents, including a woman imprisoned for publishing a satirical poem.[52] Another political prisoner who has been in jail for four years (June 2001 – August 2005) is Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who was jailed on accusations on taking bribes from students' parents, although Amnesty International has stated on their website "His conviction was widely believed to be related to his scientific research into the Chernobyl catastrophe and his open criticism of the official response to the Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster on people living in the region of Gomel.".[53]

The United States Department of State issued a report on 14 April 2005 expressing concern about the disappearance (and possible execution) of the political activists Yury Zacharanka, Viktar Hanchar and Anatol Krasouski in 1999 and the journalist Dzmitry Zavadski in 2000, and continuing incidents of arrest and detention without trial. The State Department has also appealed to Belarus to provide information publicly about individuals who were executed.

A report dated 31 August 2005 from Amnesty USA claimed that, in addition to the Polish minority crisis earlier that year, three Georgians from the youth movement Kmara were detained while visiting Belarus.[54] The activists were detained on 24 August with Uladimir Kobets, from Zubr (a Belarusian opposition movement). According to the report, he was released after two hours after being told that the police operation was directed at "persons from the Caucasus".

The following activists and political leaders have been declared political prisoners at different times:

Extrajudicial use of judiciary

As noted in the 2008 U.S. Department of State Report, while the Belarus Constitution[56] provides for the separation of powers, an independent judiciary and impartial courts (Articles 6 and 60), the government ignores these provisions when it suits its immediate needs; corruption, inefficiency and political interference are prevalent in the judiciary; the government convicts individuals on false and politically motivated charges, and executive and local authorities dictate the outcomes of trials; the judiciary branch lacks independence, and trial outcomes are usually predetermined; judges depend on executive-branch officials for housing; and the criminal-justice system is used as an instrument to silence human-rights defenders through politically motivated arrests, detention, lack of due process and closed political trials.[20]

Although Article 25 of the Belarus Constitution prohibits the use of torture, in practice Belarus tortures and mistreats detainees; while Article 26 provides for the presumption of innocence, defendants often must prove their innocence; while Article 25 prohibits arbitrary arrest, detention and imprisonment, Lukashenko's regime conducts arbitrary arrests, detention and imprisonment of individuals for political reasons; while Article 210(1) of the Criminal Procedure Code provides that a search warrant must be obtained before any searches, in practice authorities search residences and offices for political reasons; while Article 43 of the Criminal Procedure Code gives defendants the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf, in practice these rights are disregarded. Prosecutors are not independent, and that lack of independence renders due-process protections meaningless; prosecutor authority over the accused is “excessive and imbalanced”.[34][20]

“Arbitrary arrests, detentions, and imprisonment of citizens for political reasons, criticizing officials, or for participating in demonstrations also continued. Some court trials were conducted behind closed doors without the presence of independent observers. The judiciary branch lacked independence and trial outcomes usually were predetermined”.[20]

The section of the Report entitled “Arbitrary Arrest or Detention” noted that although “the [Belarusian] law limits arbitrary detention ...the government did not respect these limits in practice [and] authorities continued to arrest individuals for political reasons”. It further notes that during 2008 “Impunity remained a serious problem”; “Police frequently detained and arrested individuals without a warrant”; “authorities arbitrarily detained or arrested scores of individuals, including opposition figures and members of the independent media, for reasons that were widely considered to be politically motivated”.

The section titled “Denial of Fair Public Trial” noted: “The constitution provides for an independent judiciary; however, the government did not respect judicial independence in practice. Corruption, inefficiency, and political interference were prevalent in the judiciary. There was evidence that prosecutors and courts convicted individuals on false and politically motivated charges, and that executive and local authorities dictated the outcomes of trials”.

“[Belarusian] judges depended on executive branch officials for personal housing.”
“A 2006 report by the UN special rapporteur on Belarus described the authority of prosecutors as “excessive and imbalanced” and noted “an imbalance of power between the prosecution and the defense.”
“defense lawyers cannot examine investigation files, be present during investigations, or examine evidence against defendants until a prosecutor formally brought the case to court”;
“lawyers found it difficult to call some evidence into question because technical expertise was under the control of the prosecutor's office”;

These imbalances of power intensified at the beginning of the year “especially in relation to politically motivated criminal and administrative cases.”

“[b]y presidential decree all lawyers are subordinate to the Ministry of Justice [and] the law prohibits attorneys from private practice.”
“[t]he law provides for the presumption of innocence; however, in practice defendants frequently had to prove their innocence;
” the law also provides for public trials; in practice, this was frequently disregarded; “defendants have the right to attend proceedings, confront witnesses, and present evidence on their own behalf; however, in practice these rights were not always respected”;
“courts often allowed information obtained from forced interrogations to be used against defendants”.

International documents reflect that the Belarusian courts that are subject to an authoritarian executive apparatus, routinely disregard the rule of law and exist to rubber-stamp decisions made outside the courtroom; this is tantamount to the de facto non-existence of courts as impartial judicial forums. The “law” in Belarus is not mandatory, but optional and subject to discretion. Nominal “law” which, in practice, is not binding is tantamount to the non-existence of law.

Labor relations

The situation for trade unions and their members in the region has been criticized by Amnesty UK,[57] with allegations that authorities have interfered in trade-union elections and that independent trade-union leaders have been dismissed from their positions.

In recent years, trades unions in the country have been subject to a variety of restrictions, including:[58]

Unregistered union ban

Beginning in 1999, all previously registered trade unions had to re-register and provide the official address of the headquarters (which often includes a business address). A letter from the management is also required, confirming the address (making the fate of the trade union dependent on the management). Any organization which fails to do so is banned and dissolved.

High minimum-membership requirement

In a measure which has also reportedly been used against Jewish human-rights organizations, the government announced that any new trade union must contain a minimum of 500 members for it to be recognized. This makes it difficult for new unions to be established.

Systematic interference

The International Labour Organization's governing body issued a report in March 2001 complaining of systematic interference in trade union activities, including harassment and attacks on union assets. Workers who are members of independent trade unions in Belarus have, according to Unison, been arrested for distributing pamphlets and other literature and have faced losing their jobs.

In 2014 Lukashenko announced the introduction of new law that will prohibit kolkhoz workers (around 9% of total work force) from leaving their jobs at will — change of job and living location will require permission from governors. The law was compared with serfdom by Lukashenko himself.[59][60] Similar regulations were introduced for the forest industry in 2012.[61]

Equality

Sexual orientation

Belarus legalized homosexuality in 1994; however, homosexuals face widespread discrimination.

In recent years, gay pride parades have been held in Minsk. One notable parade was staged in 2001, when presidential elections were held. However, according to OutRage! (a gay rights organization based in Britain), a gay-rights conference in 2004 was canceled after authorities threatened to arrest those taking part. The country's only gay club, Oscar, was closed in 2000 and in April 1999, the Belarus Lambda League's efforts to gain official registration was blocked by the Ministry of Justice. On 31 January 2005, the Belarusian national anti-pornography and violence commission announced that it would block two gay websites, www.gaily.ru and www.qguis.ru; they were said to contain obscene language and "indications of pornography".

Russian gay and lesbian organizations[citation needed] have alleged that the failure of a gay-pride parade in 2000 was due not to state-sponsored homophobia but to the Lambda League (the parade's organizer) itself, claiming that the organization was trying to seek publicity abroad rather than promote the human rights of homosexuals in the country.

In 1999, in an extraordinary conference entitled "The Pernicious Consequences of International Projects of Sexual Education", members of the Belarusian Orthodox Church reportedly accused UNESCO, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization of encouraging "perversion", "satanic" practices (such as the use of condoms) and abortion. One priest reportedly called for all homosexuals to be "executed on the electric chair".[citation needed]

In August 2004 the International Lesbian and Gay Association reported that the Belarusian authorities forced a gay cultural festival, Moonbow, to be canceled amid threats of violence; foreigners who participated in any related activities would be expelled from the country. In addition, neo-Nazi groups allegedly put pressure on the authorities to cancel the event. Bill Schiller, coordinator of the ILGCN, described the situation:

While the rest of Europe is moving forwards, this last dictatorship in Europe is trying to push its homosexual community into a 1930s Nazi style concentration camp", says Schiller. "Sweden and other democratic governments of Europe must react to the harassment, persecution and international isolation of human beings.

Ethnic discrimination

Antisemitism

Alexander Lukashenko was accused of praising Adolf Hitler in a Russian NTV interview in 1995, saying that:

The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from the ruins thanks to firm authority, and not everything connected with that well known figure, Adolf Hitler, was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and under Hitler it attained its peak.

This allegation was originally made by the Russian television channel NTV, on the basis of an interview given by Lukashenko to the German newspaper Handelsblatt in which Hitler was not mentioned. The original interviewer, Markus Zeiner, said "a tape of the interview had been quoted out of context and with the sequence of comments altered by the Russian media".[62]

In 2004, Charter'97 reported that on some government-job applications Belarusians are required to state their nationality.[63] This has been cited as evidence of state antisemitism in the region, as similar practices were allegedly used to discriminate[citation needed] against Jews in the USSR. They are also required to state information about their family and close relatives; this is alleged to be a breach of the constitution. Other countries (such as the United Kingdom) also ask applicants to state their ethnicity on application forms in many cases, although this information is usually used only for statistical purposes.

Belarus has been criticized by the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, many American senators and human-rights groups for building a football stadium in Grodno on the site of a historic Jewish cemetery. A website, www.stopthedigging.org (since shut down), was set up to oppose the desecration of the cemetery. The Lukashenko administration also faced criticism on this issue from members of the National Assembly and Jewish organizations in Belarus.

In January 2004, Forum 18 reported that Yakov Gutman (president of the World Association of Belarusian Jewry) accused Lukashenko of "personal responsibility for the destruction of Jewish holy sites in Belarus", accusing authorities of permitting the destruction of a synagogue to build a housing complex, demolishing a former shul in order to build a multi-story car park and destroying two Jewish cemeteries. According to the report, he was detained by police and taken to a hospital after apparently suffering a heart attack.

In March 2004 Gutman announced that he was leaving Belarus for the U.S. in protest of state anti-Semitism. His view was echoed by a July 2005 report by UCSJ that a personal aide of the President (a former Communist Party ideologue, Eduard Skobelev) had published anti-Semitic books and promoted guns to solve what he termed the "Jewish problem". In 1997, Skobelev was given the title "Honored Figure of Culture" by Lukashenko and put in charge of the journal Neman.

The UCSJ's representative in Belarus, Yakov Basin, wrote a report detailing the authorities' alleged anti-Semitism.[64] The only Jewish higher-education institute in Belarus (the International Humanities Institute of Belarusian State University) was closed in February 2004,[65] in what many local Jews believe is a deliberate act of antisemitism to undermine their educational rights and position in society. However, it is not the only educational institution to face closure in Belarus; the last independent university in the nation, the European Humanities University (a secular institution, which received funding from the European Union),[66] was closed in July 2004. Commentators have implied that this may be part of a wider move by Lukashenko to crush internal dissent.

Jewish observers cite antisemitic statements by legislators and other members of government and the failure of authorities in Belarus to punish perpetrators of antisemitic crime (including violent crime) as indicators of a policy of antisemitism in the state.[citation needed]

In 2007, Belarus president Lukashenko made a scandalous antisemitic comment about the Jewish community of Babrujsk:

"This is a Jewish city, and the Jews are not concerned for the place they live in. They have turned Babrujsk into a pigsty. Look at Israel - I was there."[67][68]

The comment provoked active criticism from Jewish leaders and in Israel; Lukashenko subsequently sent a delegation to Israel.

In 2015, Lukashenko made another scandalous comment during a three-hours-long TV address, criticizing the governor of the Minsk Region for not keeping Belarus’s Jewish population "under control." He also called the Jews "white boned," meaning they do not enjoy menial work.[69]

Polish minority crisis

On 3 August 2005, an activist working for the Union of Poles (representing the Polish minority community) was arrested and given a 15-day jail sentence and Lukashenko accused the Polish minority of plotting to overthrow him. The former head of the Union of Poles, Tadeusz Gawin, was later given a second sentence for allegedly beating one of his cell-mates (a claim he denies).

The offices of the Union of Poles were raided on 27 July 2005 in a crisis which came to the surface the previous day, when Andrzej Olborski (a Polish diplomat working in Minsk) was expelled from the country—the third such expulsion in three months. Poland had accused Belarus of persecuting the 400,000 Poles who have been a part of Belarus since her borders were moved westward after the Second World War.

Discrimination of Belarusian speakers

Members of the Belarusian-speaking minority of Belarus has been complaining about discrimination of the Belarusian language in Belarus, the lack of Belarusian language education and consumer information in Belarusian, all that despite the official status of Belarusian language as a state language besides Russian.[70][71]

In its 2016 country human rights on Belarus report, the US State Department also stated that there was "discrimination against ... those who sought to use the Belarusian language."[26] "Because the government viewed many proponents of the Belarusian language as political opponents, authorities continued to harass and intimidate academic and cultural groups that sought to promote Belarusian and routinely rejected proposals to widen use of the language," the report said[26]

Government-sponsored hostage-taking

One of the more notable examples of the Belarusian government's violation of human rights and international norms was the abduction, unlawful detainment and torture of American attorney Emanuel Zeltser[72] and his assistant, Vladlena Funk.[73] On 11 March 2008, Zeltser and Funk were abducted in London by Belarusian KGB agents. Both were drugged and flown to Belarus on a private jet belonging to Boris Berezovsky, a Russian oligarch and friend of Lukashenko who was wanted by Interpol for fraud, money-laundering, participation in organized crime and international financial crimes.[74] After landing in Minsk Zeltser and Funk were detained by Lukashenko's guard, according to the U.S. State Department.[75] They were transported to Amerikanka (the Stalin-era Belarusian KGB detention facility), where they were tortured, denied medication and told they would remain imprisoned indefinitely unless the U.S. lifted sanctions against Lukashenko. Zeltser and Funk were held hostage for 473 days and 373 days, respectively. Their seizure, torture and detention sparked international outrage and significant press coverage (apparently unexpected by Belarusian authorities).[76][77]

The U.S. Department of State and members of the U.S. Congress repeatedly demanded the release of the hostages. World leaders, the European Parliament and international human-rights organizations joined the U.S. call for the immediate release of Funk and Zeltser. Amnesty International issued emergency alerts on the "torture and other ill-treatment" of Zeltser.[78] Ihar Rynkevich, a Belarusian legal expert and Press Secretary of the Belarus Helsinki Commission, said in an interview: "This is yet another shameful case for the Belarusian judiciary for which more than one generation of Belarusian legal experts will blush."[79] A strongly worded letter from the New York City Bar Association to Lukashenko condemned KGB abuse of Zeltser and Funk and demanding their immediate release. The bar-association letter expressed "great concerned [sic] about the arrests and detention of Mr Zeltser and Ms Funk and the reports of physical mistreatment of Mr Zeltser" and stated that this was inconsistent with Belarus' obligations under international agreements, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention Against Torture and Other Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The letter also noted that the charges the KGB brought against Zeltser and Funk "appears to have no basis to it", lacks "any explanation or detail" and "concerns have thus been reported that this is a fabricated charge, created to justify their unlawful detention".[80]

Neither Funk nor Zeltser had been lawfully "arrested", "charged", "indicted", "tried" or "convicted" under Belarusian or international law. They were unlawfully seized and held hostage, in violation of international law and Belarusian law. During their detention Funk and Zeltser were subjected to torture and cruel, inhuman or undignified treatment, in violation of Article 25 of the Belarus Constitution;[81] U.S. law and international treaties, including the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages (the Hostage Convention);[82] the United Nations Convention Against Torture;[83] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR);[84] the United Nations Convention Against Torture (the Torture Convention);[85] and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).[84] Zeltser's and Funk's abduction, detention and mistreatment in KGB captivity was an attempt to coerce the United States to lift sanctions against Lukashenko (and other members of the Belarusian government) and against the Belarusian petrochemical company Belneftekhim (which they owned). Belarus's actions were gross violations of the law of nations and universally accepted norms of the international law of human rights, including laws prohibiting hostage-taking and state-sponsored terrorism.[86]

Yielding to the demands of the international community, Lukashenko released Funk on 20 March 2009 and Zeltser on 30 June (when a delegation from the U.S. Congress traveled to Belarus to meet with Lukashenko regarding the hostage crisis).[87] U.S. chargé d'affaires in Belarus Jonathan Moore commented after their release: "At no time have the Belarusian authorities ever provided any indication that the charges against Mr Zeltser and Ms Funk were legitimate. As a result, I can only conclude that the charges in this case are thoroughly without merit; and are the result of extra-legal motivation."[88]

Although the U.S. Department of State repeatedly said that it does not use its citizens as "bargaining chips", many in Belarus still believe that the U.S. made a deal with Lukashenko (inducing him to release the hostages in exchange for IMF credits to Belarus). Appearing on Russian TV network NTV, Anatoly Lebedko (Chairman of the Belarusian United Popular Party) said: "Washington was forced to pay ransom for its citizen [sic] by providing Lukashenko the IMF credits, pure and simple; in essence, this is hostage-taking, the practice, which is wide-spread in Belarus elevated to international level, where Lukashenko is not only sending a political message but demands monetary compensation for human freedom."[89]

See also

References

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  86. ^ Dubbed "terrorists arms depot" by the International League for Human Rights, Belarus has a history of close cooperation with and arms sales to rogue states, sponsors of terrorism. See also: Washington Post "Belarus's Terrorist Ties" 12 June 2004
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External links

  • FIDH website to inform about political prisoners in Belarus
  • Amnesty International's Key Human Rights Concerns In Belarus

Sources

Freedom of press
  • [1] Belarus ranked 16th worst ranked country on RSF Press Freedom index
  • [2] Freedom House ranks Belarus as "Not Free"
Gays and lesbians
  • [3] Gay Times country profile
  • [4] Asylum seeker wins, but still detained
  • [5] Belarus gays parade in election fever
  • [6] Gay and lesbian websites blocked in Belarus
  • [7] Orthodox Church organises homophobes
  • [8] ILGA – threats from Belarusian regime force organisers to cancel festival
  • [9] Failure of Gay Pride 2000
  • [10] Global Gayz – Belarus News and Reports, 2004–05
Polish minority crisis
  • n:Poland accuses Belarus of human rights violations Poland accuses Belarus of human rights violations
  • [11] Polish chief jailed again
  • [12] Belarus-Poland row escalates
Anti-Semitism
  • [13] Protests over Belarus Jewish graves.
  • [14] Belarus digs up Jewish graves
  • [15] President Lukashenko: in quotes
  • [16] Belarus lawmakers protest destruction of Jewish sites
  • [17] Forum 18 article
  • [18] Jews get by in Belarus, but they feel the authorities' watchful eyes
  • [19] Lukashenko aide continues anti-semitic publishing
  • [20] Belarus aide leaves country in protest at state anti-semitism
Neo-Nazi allegations
  • [21] Neo-Nazis continue attacking Belarusian oppositionists
  • [22] Minsk Neo-Nazis March To Commemorate Fallen Comrade
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