Human rights in Belarus: conference in Geneva underlines systemic repression of critical voices
On 12 June, the Human Rights House Foundation organised a conference on the human rights situation in the Republic of Belarus. The conference exposed the systemic nature of human rights violations by the Belarusian Government.
Monday, 18 June 2012, by HRHF Geneva Office
Conference on Belarus in GenevaThe conference was held a week before the 20th session of the Human Rights Council and the presentation of the High Commissioner’s report on Belarus, and was co-sponsored by Belarusian Human Rights House in exile, Vilnius, Human Rights Watch, CIVICUS, FIDH and Amnesty International. Panellists were Belarusian human rights defenders, and included disbarred lawyers, representatives of Belarusian NGOs and relations of political prisoners in Belarus, who highlighted the need for a Special Rapporteur on Belarus through their critical dialogue and first hand experience with human rights violations in Belarus. The main issues raised – the right to freedom of association, arbitrary detention, and the use of torture and ill treatment – demonstrate the systemic nature of human rights violations and the sense of impunity of the Belarusian Government in regards to United Nations human rights mechanisms.
UN SPECIAL RAPPORTEUR NEEDED
The overarching consensus reached by panellists and participants at the conference was that a Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus is the only appropriate mechanism for monitoring human rights abuses in the country, because the Belarusian Government does not cooperate with UN human rights mechanisms.
Tatsiana Reviaka, working at Viasna and Head of the Belarusian Human Rights House, explained that the UN is the only organisation that civil society can participate with because the Belarusian Government won’t engage with civil society, “in the country, there is a certain attitude of state officials when we refer to UN resolutions and other regulations that contain obligations for our country in the framework of the UN”. Reviaka also explained that in response to the execution of Andrei Zhuk and Vasily Yuzepchuk, whose complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee requesting interim measures had been ignored, Minister for Internal affairs, Anatoly Kuliashou, said “I do not live by the United Nations laws. I live by the laws of my country. Our legislation is of priority. …Today, we live in accordance with our legislation and not with norms brought from outside the country”.
Panellist and Director of Belarusian NGO ‘Platform’, Andrei Bandarenko believes that: “The situation in Belarus can’t be controlled at all, we can’t make any conclusions or recommendations to make changes. The only thing that can help us is a Special Rapporteur on Belarus, this would help us to monitor the reality because the authorities don’t use facts”. The panel demonstrated that the systemic nature of human rights abuses in Belarus represents a major hurdle for civil society and other activists in carrying out their work, and in advocating for change. A Special Rapporteur on Belarus would directly monitor the institutionalised repression of critical voices and violations of human rights in the country. This mechanism would report on human rights violations, assist victims, protect critical voices, improve capacity-building in Belarusian society, and direct greater attention to the human rights situation in Belarus within the UN.
RIGHT TO FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION: recent amendments to legislation and restrictions to registration
The right to freedom of association constitutes one of the “key problems” in Belarus today, according to panellist Olga Smolianko, from the Legal Transformation Centre/Foundation for Legal Technologies Development. She described the difficulties faced by non-profit organisations in gaining registration from the Belarusian Government, which criminalises the work of unregistered organisations. Denial of registration is a tool used by authorities to systematically repress critical activists or calls for democratic transformation; “if it (an organisation) is not sympathetic to our government (by their goals and founders), then it is not registered”. Legislation criminalises the work of unregistered organisations, and as such, denial of registration not only forces an organisation to perform their work underground, but also places its members under threat.
The arbitrary detention of Viasna Chairman, Ales Bialiatski (right) since August 2011, on charges of tax evasion, demonstrates the real consequences of the Belarusian Government’s restrictive policy. Viasna, the largest human rights NGO in Belarus, was denied registration 3 times, and as such its legitimate work was driven underground; it had no choice but to use personal bank accounts to obtain funding from abroad, a practice that had been criminalised by the Belarusian Government in October 2011, and which thereby constituted ‘tax evasion’. By systematically denyingregistration to Viasna, the Belarusian Government criminalised its legitimate work and attempted to silence its criticism. Tatsiana Reviaka commented on this institutionalised repression, stating that, “these mechanisms are aimed at restricting any public activities, including human rights and political activities”.
ARBITRARY DETENTION: situation of political prisoners and right to legal counsel
There are currently thirteen political prisoners in Belarus, who have been sentenced to several years imprisonment. However the number of arbitrary detentions is much greater when short-term arbitrary detentions (10-15 days) are considered. Administrative arrests, which lead to short-term detentions, are less visible than long-term imprisonments, but are indicative of the systemic nature of the Belarusian Government’s repression of critical voices. Since the protests in December 2010 in response to the outcome of the presidential election, there has been a significant rise in the number of arbitrary detentions in Belarus. The panel emphasised that most of these are related to peaceful protest, and are particularly prominent in times of high political tension. Lawyer Tamara Sideranka, who was disbarred for representing 2010 presidential candidates Neklayev and Michalevich, cited the events of March 4 which saw over 100 young people arrested at a concert and detained for several hours, they were denied the right to contact their families, the right to the required documentation from the authorities, and were verbally humiliated. This is just one case among many; Reviaka spoke of how the common and long-standing practice of arbitrary detentions in Belarus has diminished its importance in the eyes of the people - it is no longer seen as a tragedy. However the suffering invoked by arbitrary detention is not limited to time spent in detention; many have their civil and political rights restricted when they are conditionally released, making them susceptible to re-arrest, and criminal records hinder them from finding employment.
Mikalai Statkevich has been arbitrarily detained since December 2010. He was a presidential candidate for the 2010 elections when he was attacked and arrested on election day.
His wife, Maryna Adamovich spoke of the conditions suffered by Statkevich; he remains in detention, under high level security conditions for “not fulfilling requirements of prison conditions.” He has been exposed to threats to his health and intimidation by being forced to share a cell with a tuberculosis sufferer, and later, with a man convicted of killing political opponents. Access to legal counsel is granted to Statkevich onlythrough a glass window in the prison, and he is not permitted to speak to people on the outside. Statkevich’s case illustrates the systemic repression of critical voices through arbitrary detention in Belarus, and exposes the degradation and ill-treatment inherent to this system.
SYSTEMATIC USE OF TORTURE AND ILL-TREATMENT
Torture is employed as a method of obtaining specific confessions. Prisoners are subjected to electric shocks, and forced, with physical abuse, into degrading and painful postures for searches. Sapelka recalled the extreme measures and emotional pressure placed upon Sannikau during his detention, who was led out to meet him with a gun to his head.
Sapelka underlined that the secrecy surrounding executions also consititutes ill-treatment; “it’s a true matter of torture, no-one knows when the death sentence is implemented and where.” Panellists’ push for torture to be defined and criminalised in Belarusian legislation indicates that reform is needed at a government level to address the systemised human rights violations.
HRHF Geneva Office
Belarus is putting itself aside of the internat…
In a joint report, the Belarusian Human Rights House and the Human Rights House Foundation underline the lack of willingness by the Belarusian authorities to fully cooperate with the United Nations human rights system. The report also stresses the consequences.
- Bialiatski’s verdict left unchanged : 4,5 years in prison
- Pressure and threats to life and health – the news of political prisoners
- Imprisoned human rights defender Bialiatski penalised for the third time
- UN calls for release of all political prisoners
- Use of death penalty in Belarus continues despite international pressure
- Belarus frees jailed opposition leader
- Belarusian political prisoner’s right of correspondance restricted