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A purely analytical perception...


Belarus

Another Place in Another Time

 

Continued from page 4

The Press

Indirect constraints on press freedom include repeated inspections by tax officers of many editorial offices and fines. Also, the state has a near monopoly over both the printing and distribution networks, which has caused difficulties for the independent press. For this reason, many have published in the neighboring state of Lithuania. On 18 March 1997 Decree No. 218 was issued, restricting the import and export of print, audio and video materials. It is believed that this was effected in order to restrict the import of independent newspapers printed outside Belarus.

Occasionally, representatives of independent or foreign press have been denied access to governmental press conferences.

Independent journalists have been intimidated and beaten. There exists sufficient evidence to believe that such abuses have been initiated by the government. The Belarusan Helsinki Committee received information on more than 30 cases of repression against local and foreign journalists in 1997.

" During protest marches on 2 April 1997, Irina Khalip, an employee of Imya, as well as Slavamir Adamovich and Valeri Shchukin were beaten with batons and kicked by militiamen and members of the Ministry of Interior special troops (OMON), and after being thrown down onto the pavement were pushed into police cars. The beatings continued at the Raion Militia Station. In October 1997, criminal investigation of the abuses was suspended because, according to the Minsk Prokurator (prosecutor) N. Kuprianou, "It was not possible to find out details about the physical abuse since it has been impossible to establish who caused it."

"On 21 October 1997, the Vitsebsk City Court sentenced journalists Juras Karpou, Baris Khamajda and Uladzimir Pljashchenka, all working with the unregistered newspaper Vybor, to ten days’ "administrative detention" in absentia. The accused heard about their sentences by chance. A few days earlier, authorities had searched the homes of Baris Khamajda, the editor of Vybor, and Uladzimir Pljashchenka, the leader of the unregistered organization Vybor. Similar searches were carried out at their working places. Some copies of the newspaper were confiscated together with 30 computer floppy disks, numerous articles and other materials. In August 1997, a criminal investigation had been launched against Vybor following publication of a satirical allegory in the paper. "

Freedom of Association and Peaceful Assembly

The Belarusan constitution guarantees freedom of association and peaceful assembly. Both rights, however, have been seriously violated by Belarusan authorities.

Freedom of Association

The right to form and join trade unions to defend one’s interests has been violated, and authorities have attempted to hinder NGO activities, particularly those dealing with human rights. Most forms of harassment have been indirect; rents have been raised arbitrarily, rental contracts terminated, and audits performed with the sole object of preventing such organizations from working. Trade union and NGO members have been harassed and intimidated and various pretexts have been used to impose sanctions on them.

" In October 1997, Nadziya Zhukova, the trial and demonstration coordinator of the Belarusan Helsinki Committee, was beaten by unidentified men in plain clothes. They threatened her with further physical violence, should she continue to participate in mass demonstrations and trials. In the same month, Tatjana Protska, chair of the Belarus Helsinki Committee, was arrested while carrying out investigations and given a court warning. "

" The Belarusan Soros Foundation (BSF) announced on 3 September 1997 that the Belarus government had forced its closure. Negotiations had failed to persuade the government to retract the politically motivated fines of approximately USD 3 million imposed on the BSF at the end of April. The fines, in conjunction with the freezing of BSF bank accounts, had prevented the BSF from operating since May. Before this, the government had declared the expulsion of BSF’s American director, Peter Byrne, and a presidential decree had effectively rescinded the BSF’s tax exempt status. The Ministry of Justice rejected technical amendments to the BSF charter, and the tax police launched investigations into possible criminal offenses committed by BSF personnel. In September, police confiscated property belonging to the BSF office valued at approximately USD 30,000. "

"The organization called "Children of Chernobyl", founded to help victims of the Chernobyl disaster, has in recent years been harassed by Belarusan authorities. After the organization refused to become part of a state relief program, its rent was raised twenty-fold, forcing it to move immediately to new premises. The authorities nevertheless continued to charge the organization for rent for four months after it had left the former premises. The organization also had to undergo several consecutive audits, although no irregularities were found. Then, in May 1997, the prokurator of the Moscow district of Minsk falsely announced on state television that "serious irregularities" had been discovered in the economic activities of the organization. Charges were raised against its leader, Gennady Grushevoy, and main bookkeeper. The organization believes it has been targeted because it encourages the idea of self-organization and independence from the state. "

As a result of the required re-registration of public organizations by the Ministry of Justice in 1996, the number of "legal" organizations sank from 700 to 400. Another re-registration of NGOs is expected to take place in 1998.

Trade Unions

The Belarusan government has put pressure on independent trade unions and other professional organizations and refused to register them. The Belarusan Helsinki Committee has documented more than 20 cases of persecution of trade unions or their individuals members.

"Under various pretexts, the Ministry Justice has refused to register the Independent Trade Union Congress. "

"The Central Raion Court in Mahiljou (Mogilev) has sentenced the local chairman of the Free Belarusan Trade Union, Sjarhej Abadouski, to five days in "administrative detention" for his activities. "

"On 1 December 1997, V. Makarchuk, chairman of the Democratic Transport Workers Union, and one of its members, V. Sadovnikov, declared a hunger strike in protest against abuses committed by the Minsk Metro Administration. On the same day, Evgeni Tretiak, a mechanic, also joined the hunger strike. For two years, the Minsk Metro had not fulfilled its obligations under the collective bargaining agreement and had refused to meet with trade union representatives. "

Peaceful Assembly

Presidential Decree No. 5 restricts freedom of peaceful assembly by opponents of the government. Applications have to be filed for public rallies ten days in advance, and many of them have been rejected.

The March 1997 decree labels demonstrations as constituting an "orgy of street democracy." It seriously restricts the organization and preparation of demonstrations; provides for strict rules to be observed by demonstrators and organizators; and establishes a system of fines for undesired demonstrations. Moreover, it prohibits demonstrators from using banners and other objects that "insult the honor and dignity of state"; and the use of flags or pennants which are not officially registered, or emblems, symbols, or posters the content of which is aimed at "damaging the state and public order, the rights and legal interests of citizens."

The decree also stipulates that authorities have the right to change the time and the place of the demonstration. e.g, in order to guarantee the "functioning of traffic, companies, institutions and organizations." Moreover, authorities can issue "additional regulations" covering the manner of carrying out the assembly "taking into consideration the local conditions;" and forbid the organizers to carry out preparatory activities such as announcing the time and place of the demonstration in the mass media, preparing posters and leaflets or using other means to publicize the demonstrations.

"On 12 December 1997, blue-collar workers held a rally in Minsk under the slogan "Against Misery." The rally had been sanctioned by the authorities. Despite this, persons in plain clothes but believed to operate under government orders beat some of the participants and took them away to an unknown place. "

"The Minsk Raion Court sentenced Tatsiana Vanina, chair of the women’s movement "Fatherland’s Rebirth" to a fine of BYR 30,000,000 (about USD 850). She was accused of having, "in her capacity as an organizer, permitted the use of unregistered symbols, the flag of the "Youth Front" and that of the Trade Union Congress, and "symbols such as insects and stuffed birds." The militia and the court found that the rally had violated civil order, sanitary regulations and the fire safety rules of the City of Minsk. Tatsiana Vanina was forcibly brought to trial, denied access to a lawyer, and no witnesses for her defense were heard. As of this writing, court officials were trying to confiscate Vanina’s property, since she did not have the money to pay the fine. The court was also trying to confiscate the property of Vanina’s husband in spite of a notarial agreement between the spouses for separate ownership of property. "

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