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A purely analytical perception...


Belarus

Another Place in Another Time

Continued from page 5

The Judicial System.

Presidential decrees have the force of law in Belarus. By law, the president is allowed to issue decrees only in urgent situations. In practice, however, President Lukashenka has issued dozens of decrees to widen his control. Subsequently, lawmakers have the task of bringing existing legislation into conformity with the decrees, which thus transcend the law.

The Constitutional Court, which, prior to the 1996 referendum, had functioned as a critical organ vis--vis the presidential administration, has become a presidential organ; the president appoints half of its members, including the chair. Furthermore, judges of the Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court can be and have been dismissed by the president.

Trials against hundreds of demonstrators have revealed serious irregularities in the administration of justice in Belarus. Defense witnesses have often not been allowed into the courtrooms at all, while verdicts have frequently been based on inconsistent police testimony. In many cases, the police officers who are the key witnesses for the prosecution have not even been present during the arrest and would accordingly be unable to witness the unlawful actions allegedly committed by the accused. In most cases, no lawyer is present at court hearings. If detainees insist on having a lawyer, they are warned that they would not benefit from this right. Since many detainees are not allowed to contact their families, it is impossible for them to obtain a lawyer of their choice.

In practice, there is no presumption of innocence. Those accused of a crime are held to be guilty unless proven otherwise.

On 3 May 1997, President Lukashenka issued Decree No. 12 on the activities of lawyers and notaries. The decree gives the Ministry of Justice the responsibility of licensing lawyers and obligates all practicing lawyers to become members of Belarusan bar associations, under the ministry’s control. This violates the independence of lawyers and the right of individuals to be defended by the lawyer of their choice. Moreover, it provides the ministry with power to exclude from the judicial systems undesirable lawyers. The license can be given for five years after which the ministry can renew it if the lawyer’s activities are found to be in consistence with legal regulations.

These measures have made it virtually impossible for individuals to be assisted and represented in courts in cases regarding conflicts with the authorities. This has particularly affected the victims of government oppression, such as demonstrators at rallies, representatives of trade unions and other opponents. Combined with the political partiality of judges, the decree appears a further step toward depriving citizens of their right to a fair trial.

From the summer of 1997, at least 20 formerly independent lawyers were refused entry into bar associations.

Conditions in Prisons and Detention Centers

Some 65,000 individuals were serving a prison term or awaiting trial in Belarus in 1997. Thus, the number of prison inmates in proportion to the total population was the second largest in former Soviet republics after Russia.

Only two prisons are divided into cells; other are labor colonies with capacities for 1,500 to 2,000 persons each. Some 25 percent of the convicted prisoners are serving a shorter term of 1-3 years, many of them for petty offenses (shoplifting, minor property damage, etc.).

Both prisons and labor colonies are overcrowded; prisons by approximately 38 percent and labor colonies by 100 percent.

Overcrowding is even worse in pre-trial detention centers. Moreover, detainees in such facilities are subjected to psychological and physical pressure.

According to figures gathered by the Belarusan Helsinki Committee in 1997, some 10,000 prisoners and detainees were suffering from tuberculosis, and 463 from AIDS.

Upon the decision of a prokurator, pre-trial detention can be prolonged for up to 1.5 years.

Juvenile Delinquency

Some 1,600 juvenile delinquents were serving prison sentences in reform schools in 1997. 85 percent of them had committed property crimes such as burglary or theft. Conditions in reform schools clearly contradict Article 28 of the UN Rules for the Protection of Juveniles Deprived of their Liberty, which states, among other things, that the detention of juveniles should only take place "under conditions that take full account of their particular needs, status and special requirements..." It appears as though it would be impossible, however, to change this situation quickly.

In pre-trial detention, minors are in constant contact with adult criminals, which exposes them to humiliation or even sexual assault. Meanwhile, the high rate of recidivism among minors - about 40 percent - is a further cause for alarm.

The Death Penalty

On 22 January 1998, President Lukashenka said in Moscow that 30 people had been executed in Belarus in 1997. Presidential Decree No. 21 "On Urgent Measures for Combating Terrorism and Other Particularly Dangerous and Violent Crimes" of 21 October 1997 widened the range of crimes for which capital punishment could be applied.

Social and Economic Rights

According to figures from the Independent Automobile Workers Union, the monthly salaries within that industry in October 1997 ranged from BYR 900,000 (USD 48) to 4,755,000 (USD 121). Generally, the average family income is below the official poverty level. There are many cases of wage arrears pending; often people have not been paid for several months.

Work-related accidents are frequent. In the automobile and agricultural machine industries, which employ about 190,000 persons, 802 accidents were reported in 1997. Between January and the end of November 1997, six persons were killed in work-related accidents, 12 were seriously injured, some of them sustaining permanent damage. The high accident rate is due to a lack of protective clothing, shoes and equipment; the non-observance of temperature regulations; and the use of outdated machinery. The health of many workers is damaged by dust, poisonous chemicals and noise.

The United States Government Views Belarus, Consular Information Sheet Dated July 6, 1998

Country Description: Economic and political reform in Belarus has stalled under the current government. Tourist facilities are not highly developed, and many of the goods and services taken for granted in other countries are not yet available. Localized street disturbances relating to political events may occur without warning, most frequently in the capital, Minsk. Bystanders face the possibility of arrest and detention.

Entry Requirements:

A passport and visa are required. A visa must be obtained before entering Belarus. Travelers who do not have a visa cannot register at hotels. U.S. citizens residing in Belarus are required to register with the local Office of Visas and Registration (OVIR). Failure to do so can result in fines and visits from local militia. U.S. citizens residing in hotels are automatically registered at check-in. Visa validity dates are strictly enforced; travelers should request sufficient time to allow for delays in arrival and departure. For more information concerning entry requirements, travelers should contact the Belarus Embassy located at 1619 New Hampshire Ave, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20009, tel. (202)986-1606 or the consulate in New York at 708 Third Avenue, 21st Floor, New York, NY, 10017, Tel. (212)682-5392.

HIV Testing Requirement:

Any person applying for a visa for a stay of more than three months must present a certificate showing that the individual is HIV negative. The certificate must contain the applicant's passport data, proposed length of stay in Belarus, blood test results for HIV infection, including date of the test, signature of the doctor conducting the test, medical examination results, diagnostic series, and seal of the hospital/medical organization. The certificate must be in both Russian and English and valid for three months from the date of the medical examination and testing.

 

Medical Facilities:

Medical care in Belarus is limited. There is a severe shortage of basic medical supplies, including anesthetics, vaccines and antibiotics. Elderly travelers and those with existing health problems may be at risk due to inadequate medical facilities. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services. U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. Travelers have found that in some cases, supplemental medical insurance with specific overseas coverage, which includes air evacuation, has proven to be useful. For further information, travelers may contact the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's international travelers' hotline at 1-888-232-3228, or their autofax service at 1-888-232-3299, or their Internet site at http://www.cdc.gov.

Crime Information:

Belarus has a medium rate of crime and common street crime continues to increase, especially at night and in or near hotels frequented by foreigners. Foreigners, and particularly foreign cars, tend to be targets of crime. Travelers should keep a copy of their passport in a separate location from their original. The loss or theft abroad of a U.S. passport should be reported immediately to the local police and the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. U.S. citizens can refer to the Department of State's pamphlet A Safe Trip Abroad for ways to promote a more trouble-free journey. Additional information on the region can be found in the brochure Tips for Travelers to Russia and the Newly Independent States. Both publications are available from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402.

Currency Regulations:

Traveler's checks are not widely accepted in Belarus. Most Intourist hotels accept either American Express or Visa credit cards. In addition, one hotel in Minsk, the Planeta, provides cash from Visa credit cards during business hours. Travelers face arrest if they attempt to buy items with currency other than Belarusian rubles.

Customs Regulations:

Belarus' customs laws and regulations are complicated and enforcement is highly arbitrary. It is important to declare all currency and valuable items upon entry to the country. Travelers should ensure that they keep a copy of the customs declaration for presentation at departure. All items which appear to have historical or cultural value, i.e. icons, art, rugs, antiquities, etc., may be taken out of Belarus only with prior written approval of the Ministry of Culture and payment of 100 percent duty. Failure to follow the customs regulations may result in penalties ranging from confiscation of the property in question and/or the imposition of fines to arrest and possible imprisonment.

Ground Transportation:

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions, which differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Belarus is provided for general reference only, and may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance:

Safety of Public Transportation: Fair
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

The roads in Belarus range from short stretches of highways where cars and trucks can exceed speeds of 120 km/h to dirt roads where 40 km/h is difficult to sustain. Visible and hidden dangers are profuse, including large potholes, the absence of roadsigns, and lack of service areas. Other hazards include unlit or poorly lit streets, inattentive and dark-clothed pedestrians walking on unlit roads, drivers under the influence of alcohol, and a common disregard for traffic rules. Driving in winter is especially dangerous because many roads are not properly cleared of ice and snow. Driving with caution is urged at all times.

Taxi service is prompt although fares vary greatly and the automobiles themselves are often in poor condition. Buses and trolleys are poorly maintained, unheated, uncooled, and usually crowded.

Aviation Safety Oversight:

As there is no direct commercial air service at present, or economic authority to operate such service, between the U.S. and Belarus, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has not assessed Belarus' Civil Aviation Authority for compliance with international aviation safety standards for oversight of Belarus' air carrier operations. For further information, travelers may contact the Department of Transportation within the U.S. at 1-800-322-7873, or visit the FAA Internet Home Page at http://www.faa.gov/avr/iasa.htm. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) separately assesses some foreign air carriers for suitability as official providers of air services. For information regarding the DOD policy on specific carriers, travelers may contact the Pentagon at (703) 697-7288.

Air travel within Belarus is often unreliable, with unpredictable schedules and difficult conditions, including quality of service below Western standards.

Drug Penalties:

U.S. citizens are subject to the laws of the country in which they are traveling. Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs are strict and convicted offenders can expect jail sentences and fines.

Registration and Embassy Location:

U.S citizens are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy and to obtain updated information on travel and security within Belarus. The U.S. Embassy in Minsk is located at 46 Starovilenskaya Ulitsa; telephone (375) 172-31-5000.

No. 98-90

This replaces the Consular Information Sheet dated January 2, 1997, to update the sections on Country Description, Entry Requirements, Medical Facilities, Currency Regulations, and Ground Transportation; to add sections on Customs Regulations and Aviation Safety Oversight; and to delete the section on Internal Travel.

Consular Information Sheets and Travel Warnings

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