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Image: Protests in Minsk, Belarus, on 25 March 2017 
Copyright: Спадар Бурак, via Wikimedia Commons

Human rights training in action in Belarus

Graduates of a one-year course on international human rights standards had their knowledge and skills thoroughly tested when hundreds of protestors and observers were detained in Belarus this spring.

Thursday, 24 August 2017, by humanrightshouse.org

Before, during, and after the events, alumni and participants from Bring International Standards Home, or BISH as it is commonly called, were involved in protecting the rights of people who were detained, prosecuted or beaten.

"When the arrests began, some residents of Krichev wanted to take part in peaceful solidarity actions. I actively advised these citizens, on how to minimise the legal risks and consequences of participating in such meetings. In a number of cases, arrests and administrative protocols were avoided," said graduate Siarhei Niarouny, who works in the legal service of the non-governmental organisation (NGO) "Belarusian Association of Journalists" in Krichev. 

When social unrest grew in Belarus from winter and into spring, over a presidental decree ordering a tax on being unemployed, the Belarusian civil society benefitted from the education of BISH lawyers and human rights defenders.

In what was interpreted as an attempt by the authorities to hinder the demonstrations and the publicity around them, foreign correspondents and journalists, opposition politicians, human rights defenders and activists were detained in the middle of March. Among them were BISH participant Marina Dubina, representative of the Green Network and the non-governmental organisation (NGO) Echome. On 15 March, she was detained for 14 days under administrative arrest, in which time she used her knowledge from BISH to monitor the condition of the detention facilities from the inside. 

“Now I will appeal against arbitrary detention, conditions of detention and issues related to unfair trial. During the arrest, I explained to people near me that there is a need to appeal against illegal actions. Many of them, unfortunately, had little faith and no hope for justice,” she said.

Read also about HRHF advocacy on Belarus: Belarus detains dozens amid “social parasite” protests.

Sporadic protests and civic actions during the winter reached a peak on 25 March, the day many in Belarus mark Freedom day – an unofficial holiday that commemorates the creation of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR) in 1918. Thousands of people took to the streets all over Belarus to protest. Hundreds were detained and several people were injured when the police used brute force in attempts to stop the demonstrations. 

Some 57 people preparing to peacefully monitor the protests were detained after a police raid on the offices of HRC "Viasna,” a member organisation of the Belarusian Human Rights House. Natalia Satsunkevich, volunteer at Viasna and a BISH participant was detained and is now aiding the organisation in the appealing process:

"I participated in the polling of people who applied to the "Viasna"; I helped to draw up complaints about detentions, as well as about conditions of detention in the detention centre and about the court rulings. I am also at the stage of appealing against the actions of law enforcement officers towards me," she said.

Read also: Prominent human rights defender detained as protests continue 

BISH alumni Andre Stryzhak was arrested for 10 days for a "rally on the porch of the court," and subsequently went on a hunger-strike. His wife Jauhenia Stryzhak, also a BISH graduate, actively advocated on behalf of her husband, and communicated with the administration of the detention centre so that her husband was given water, things of prime necessity, and to ensure that his rights were respected. She also sent appeals to the detention centre and posted detailed reports on Facebook. 

The knowledge acquired during BISH helped me a lot. It is not enough to feel that you are right, it is important to be able to justify and protect your rights, using legal norms, including international ones. I also consulted with colleagues, and they used their mechanisms and opportunities to expand the support that Andrei needed very much

— Jauhenia Stryzhak

Education with impact

At the beginning of June, 19 graduates of BISH gathered for the final session of the training, hosted at the Belarusian Human Rights House in Exile. The House is situated in Vilnius, Lithuania, to provide shelter and a meeting space for Belarusian human rights defenders to strategise and build capacity. The Human Rights House Belarus was registered in Lithuania in 2007 after trying to establish a House in Minsk for more than five years. Many of the founders of the House, among them Barys Zvozskau, who the House is named after, were also the initiators of the BISH education. Working on human rights issues in Belarus, it was paramount to get training in international human rights law and support in a network of like-minded people.  

Aleh Aheeu is now the coordinator of the educational programme. He says of BISH: 

"BISH has been going for more than 10 years. It is a flagship in the field of human rights education in Belarus, in terms of its duration, level, and the depth of the study material. BISH is characterised not only by a strong practical and academic component, but it is also accompanied by important post-training activities."

After taking the course, graduates enter into a vibrant alumni community of more than a 100 lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists from Belarus.

At the final session, Valentina Melnikova (Russian Research Center for Human Rights) emphasised the importance of meeting and learning from each other:

"In our countries there are typical legal problems that are not solved. But someone in the group has already faced a specific challenge in his or her country, and found an approach for its solution. Face-to-face communication, counselling, and communication of graduates with each other, with teachers, and with program experts are very important in this regard."

Even with clear tendencies of more and more States resorting to measures to limit democratic freedoms and the space for civil society, with Russia and Belarus at the forefront of this trend in Europe, graduates of the BISH education are not about to give up.

Siarhei Niarouny underlined: "When people will be interested in defending themselves and the rights of others, a critical mass will emerge that will contribute to changes in the general attitudes, including among officials. It can change the situation in Belarus.” He was supported by fellow participant, Marina Dubina: "It is important to try to influence and to change, to believe, to fight and not to give up."

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humanrightshouse.org

About BISH

The training is conducted with the aim to strengthen the Belarusian human rights community by improving the skills of relevant specialists, and increase knowledge on the rights to freedom of expression, association, assembly, and the right to be a human right defender, as well as the right to a fair trial.

The BISH project is a part of the "International Law in Advocacy" program. It is implemented by partner organisations from Belarus, Norway, Poland and Ukraine. Teaching is carried out by a professional team of Belarusian and international experts; the study materials are perfectly adapted to the national context of Belarus.

The interest in the BISH project is growing among every new set of participants. The last call for applications was a record in the history of the project: 73 applications were submitted for 22 places. The selected participants demonstrated really good results later during the training. 

Other Belarus articles on humanrightshouse.org

Belarus detains dozens amid “social parasite” protests (video interview)

Stop whipping up hysteria and atmosphere of fear in the Belarusian society

Freedom Day in Belarus: mass detentions and trials

Belarusian human rights defenders in Chernihiv to start the fourth cycle of BISH education programme

10-year Anniversary of International Law in Advocacy (ILIA)

True face of Belarus: Systematic repression

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