Joint concern about new restrictions on civil society in Belarus
Eight international human rights NGOs sent a letter of concern to the Belarusian Parliament today urging to quash the package of legislative amendments that severely restrict freedom of assembly and association and restrict foreign financial support for NGOs.
Thursday, 20 October 2011
Download the letter in the English and Russian languages to the right.
The representatives of Amnesty International, ARTICLE 19, Civil Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders, Human Rights Watch, the Human Rights House Foundation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and 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) sent a letter to the Belarusian Parliament urging to quash the package of legislative amendments, recently approved by the House of Representatives, that restrict freedom of assembly and association and restrict foreign financial support for NGOs.
On 3 October 2011, the House of Representatives, the lower house of the Belarusian Parliament, adopted a set of restrictive legislative amendments to a number of Belarusian legislative acts, which criminalizes receiving foreign funding for NGOs, further restrics freedom of peaceful assemly and expands State Security Committee (KGB) powers. The amendments were voted in complete secrecy, thus eliminating any possible input from civil society groups. Final adoption scheduled to start on 21 October 2011.
Article 21 of Law on Public Associations, as amended, prohibits Belarusian NGOs from keeping funds in banks and other financial institutions on the territory of foreign states. Additionally, administrative penalties can be applied to NGOs that accept foreign donations ‘in violation of law’. In a similar fashion, the Criminal Code of Belarus, as amended, establishes criminal liability for receiving any foreign grants or donations ‘in violation of the Belarusian legislation’. Such regulations may be interpreted widely, rather than narrowly, and may result in indiscriminate persecution of any activist or civil society group that receive foreign funding. By creating further restrictions in relation to receiving funding from abroad, the new legislation will inevitably push civil society groups to the margins of the law and will make their operation in Belarus close to impossible.
The amendments to the Law on Public Gatherings further restrict freedom of peaceful assembly. According to the proposed new regulation, any kind of pre-planned public gathering in a place agreed upon in advance now constitutes ‘a picket’ and can be therefore considered violating 'the order of organisation or holding mass gatherings'. Additionally, organizers are required to report ‘financial sources’ used for the event, and are not allowed to spread information about the event, including through social networking sites, until the official permission is granted to conduct it (according to existing regulation, such permission can be issued no earlier than five days prior to the event).
The amendments to the Law on State Security Agencies allow for significant expansion of the powers of KGB. If these draft amendments become adopted, the Committee will be able to gain access to any kind of premises, including private residencies, at any moment. It will also allow for KGB agents to be exempt from liability in all cases of use of force against citizens.
We believe that the new amendments constitute a grave threat to civil society in Belarus and have no place in legislation of a country which has, for more than a decade, been a party to several key international human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Hugh Williamson, Executive Director, Europe and Central Asia Division
Human Rights Watch
Mary Lawlor, Director
John Dalhuisen, Deputy Director, Europe and Central Asia Programme
Bjørn Engesland, Secretary General
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Maria Dahle, Executive Director
Human Rights House Foundation
Souhayr Belhassen, FIDH President
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director
Civil Rights Defenders
Agnès Callamard, Executive Director