Belarus: Human Rights Bodies Closed Over a Quotation Mark
Organisations have been closed down for such minor irregularities as having a different street address from that registered, and the absence of quotation marks surrounding their names on their letterheads.
In a 'crackdown' on non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the ministry of justice issued 810 'written warnings' in 2003, six times as many as in the previous year. NGOs are required to officially register and can be closed down if they receive two such warnings in one year.
Amnesty International said:
'On a daily basis human rights defenders in Belarus face obstacles in exercising their rights to freedom of association and assembly as well as violations of their right to receive and impart information about human rights.'
A disturbing number of NGOs, directly and indirectly engaged in the promotion and defence of human rights in Belarus, have been closed on the basis of controversial legislation and regulations, widely considered as restrictive, by a judiciary whose independence has been repeatedly called into question by the international community. None of the organisations that have been closed down or people who have been arbitrarily detained or fined were able to appeal successfully in court.
Amnesty International said:
'The fear is that as more and more organisations are closed down, human rights defenders will be targeted on a personal basis, as they are no longer part of recognised, 'registered' organisations.'
Restrictions on the freedom of expression have not been favourable for the promotion of human rights and civil liberties. Access to most media is therefore increasingly not available to human rights defenders, including independent trade union activists. Raising awareness about human rights and disseminating information about alleged human rights violations in Belarus has become increasingly difficult.
Last year several influential newspapers were targeted by the authorities and had their publication suspended. Others were burdened by crippling defamation suits brought by state officials. On 16 December 2003 Viktor Ivashkevich, editor of trade union newspaper Rabochy, was released after serving a one-year sentence of 'restricted freedom', having been convicted of slandering the president in an article alleging corruption. The article was never published due to its entire print run being confiscated.
Amnesty International warned:
'The next target seems to be internet-based publications, one of the only media outlets currently able to function more or less independently.'
The publication of Amnesty International's report comes at a time when the human rights situation in Belarus is under consideration by the UN Commission on Human Rights which is currently convening for its 60th session in Geneva (15 March - 23 April).
Amnesty International calls on the Commission to urge the Belarusian authorities to:
- end harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders;
- undertake an immediate review of laws, regulations and administrative practices relating to the registration and activities of NGOs;
- end the practice of detaining people solely for the peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to freedom of expression and association;
- cooperate fully with the human rights mechanisms of the UN, including through issuing a standing invitation to the Special Procedures of the Commission.
The publication of this report marks the start of Amnesty International's web-based campaign to stop the silencing of human rights defenders around the world.