Belarus: Last voices of peaceful dissent suppressed

The report Belarus: Suppressing the last voices of peaceful dissent says that vocal critics of the Belarusian regime risk long-term imprisonment after unfair trials due to a flawed criminal justice system.

The lack of an independent prosecution authority and judiciary has contributed to the imprisonment and subsequent convictions of high profile political opponents of President Lukashenka.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

"The Belarusian authorities seem hell-bent on shutting down any peaceful opposition, using increasingly draconian methods to do so.

"Human rights activists and journalists are coming under threat as all avenues of peaceful dissent are being closed down.

"President Lukashenka must stop trying to silence his opponents and gag his people."

The Belarusian government widely uses controversial legislation to restrict opportunities for NGOs, political parties, trade unions, journalists and individuals to express their peaceful opinion, says Amnesty.

For example, the use of official warnings in combination with a bureaucratic system of registration and a controversial set of guidelines has decimated the number of human rights organizations and equally stifles press freedom in Belarus.

Criminal insult and slander against the President of Belarus are an increasingly used criminal charge, which can result in long-term imprisonment.

In February 2005 representatives of human rights organisations expressed the fear that civil society "will be shut down", through the closure of most human rights organisations and media outlets before the end of 2005.

Amnesty International is concerned that their fear is grounded, looking at the apparent trend since the elections and referendum in October 2004, with examples of excessive control over civil society and clampdown on peaceful opposition occurring on an almost daily basis.

Amnesty International is calling on the Belarusian authorities to stop using criminal law to stifle peaceful opposition, to ensure that peaceful demonstrators are not imprisoned, harassed or ill-treated by police and to stop the deliberate pattern of obstruction, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders.

Imprisoned for his political beliefs - Mikhail Marinich

On 30 December 2004, 64-year-old former Minister for External Economic Relations Mikhail Marinich was sentenced to five years' imprisonment in a hard labour colony with confiscation of property.

In addition he was prohibited from assuming any managerial function linked to "material valuables" for the first three years after his release.

The court convicted him of embezzling computers which had been loaned by the US embassy to the NGO Delovaia Initsiiativa, which was chaired by Mikhail Marinich.

The US embassy had submitted documents to the court to say that it had no complaint and reportedly members of Delovaia Initsiiativa had given evidence that they had agreed that Mikhail Marinich should store the computers on his property.

Mikhail Marinich had resigned in July 2001 from the position of Ambassador to Latvia, Finland and Estonia.

He had put himself forward as a candidate in the September 2001 presidential elections, reportedly saying, "I do not find it possible to tolerate the system of dictatorship, economic degradation, abduction of politicians and constant violation of civil rights and freedoms."

Various international and national observers, who had followed the criminal proceedings and were present at the court hearing, observing the trial, cast considerable doubt on the fairness of the trial and the final court ruling.

In recent years Amnesty International has repeatedly expressed concern about the detention and subsequent convictions of high profile political opponents of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka.

Shortly after the conviction of Mikhail Marinich, a well-known local human rights lawyer, Hary Poganiaila, reportedly stated that the case against Mikhail Marinich was not a criminal case but a civil dispute, since the owner (the US Embassy) of the allegedly embezzled goods had not made any claims and their opinion had not even been heard.

"The question of whether or not goods were stolen is decided by its owner. In cases where the owner is unable to defend himself, the state has a duty to interfere, but first and foremost the owner has to be asked its opinion, and in this case the owner (the US Embassy) has clearly stated it makes no claims…Look at the cases of Andrei Klimov, Mikhail Chigir."

3 January 2005, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Amnesty International believes the charges were brought against Mikhail Marinch to punish him for his opposition political activities and silence his open criticism of the state authorities, and considers him a prisoner of conscience.

In August 2004 the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention was refused permission to visit him in pre-trial detention. His sentence of five years' imprisonment was reduced on appeal to three-and-a-half years in February 2005. Marinch was transferred to penal colony no. 8 in Orsha (Vitebsk region) at the beginning of March.

During the transfer he complained of feeling unwell on 4 March, but was not allowed to take his medication, because the pre-trial detention facility in Minsk had not sent his medical records with him.

On 7 March it was established that he had had a stroke. His lawyer and family were not informed, and only found out on 10 March, when a released fellow-inmate contacted a newspaper, which then called the family.

Various international organisations, including the European Union and the OSCE, expressed their concern about his health condition.

Although he was transferred to a Minsk prison hospital on 15 March, considerable concern remains about his access to adequate health care.

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