The United Nations should appoint a special rapporteur on Belarus, a leading human rights group said today.
The call coincides with reports that Belarusian intelligence services are using the Internet to monitor pro-democracy activists in neighboring states with the aim of gleaning information to mount prosecutions of the regime’s critics. Such operations, which violate the Council of Europe’s Budapest Convention on Cybercrime, were apparently instrumental in the case of Ales Byalyatski, the head of Viasna (Spring), the country’s largest human rights group.
Over the past year the former Soviet republic has experienced continuing deterioration in civil liberties and the integrity of its political institutions, especially judicial independence, according to the new Nations in Transit survey from Freedom House.
The US-based rights and democracy monitor rates Belarus as an authoritarian regime, which last year regressed on four out of seven indicators, including Civil Society, Judicial Framework and Independence, Corruption and Democracy. Only Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are worse performers.
Belarus will be on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council at its session commencing June 18, precisely a year since the body expressed concern over an unprecedented wave of rights abuses.
“There is sadly no shortage of human rights abuses for the council to discuss,” says Yulia Gorbunova.
“Government harassment campaigns have targeted human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers. Opposition activists are regularly subjected to arbitrary arrests and sentenced to detention for ‘hooliganism’ and other misdemeanor charges; often as a preventative measure to stop them from participating in protests or performing their activities,” she writes.
The situation demands the appointment of a special rapporteur on Belarus.
Siarhei Kavalenka is a case in point.
“In January 2010 Kavalenka (right), a political activist and small businessman from Vitsebsk, climbed a 40-metre high New Year tree in the centre of the city and hung a red and white flag as a symbol of the Belarusian opposition,” Andrei Aliaksandrau, a former vice-chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, writes today for Index on Censorship
If he had climbed the tree for any other reason, he might have faced a minor administrative trial and got away with a fine. But a red and white flag, once a national symbol and now an oppositional hallmark so much hated by the authoritarian government, cost Kavalenka a criminal conviction and a three-year suspended sentence.
On 19 December 2011, on the first anniversary of Belarus’s controversial presidential elections, Kavalenka was detained again, accused of violating the probation rules. Two months later the judge announced the verdict: 25 months in prison.
Many voices inside and outside Belarus and have demanded that the Belarusian authorities release Siarhei Kavalenka together with all other political prisoners. But the government of Belarus remains deaf to these appeals. Kavalenka has been refused civil medical assistance and is treated by prison doctors. In April, the authorities started force feeding him to keep him alive.
“Defense lawyers hesitate to take on ‘political cases’ out of fear of getting disbarred or losing their license,” notes Gorbunova, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Nearly all non-governmental organizations that are critical of the government operate under a constant threat of either being shut down or having their members jailed.”
Belarus security forces recently assaulted and detained Ina Studzinskaja, a freelance correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Radio Svaboda service:
Studzinskaja was in Svetlahorsk covering a meeting of opposition political leaders when she was physically prevented from filing a report via phone and then taken to a local police station. At the police station she was questioned and detained for three hours before being released uncharged.
“This most recent incident displays the importance of media organizations to shine a light on these abuses and to defend the rights of journalists who are targeted by authorities for simply doing their jobs,” said RFE/RL President Steven W. Korn.
The repression of Belarus’ political opposition after the “fraudulent presidential election” in December 2010 continued in 2011, the Freedom House report notes, as hundreds of activists were harassed, detained, and sentenced.
“In June and July, the regime responded with extreme force to a new series of demonstrations that adopted deliberately innocuous tactics like wordless clapping,” it notes. “This second wave of repression, accompanied by the politically motivated arrest and sentencing of well-known human rights activist Ales Bialiatski [Ales Byalyatski], had driven Belarus’s remaining activists deep underground by year’s end.”
Bialiatski, vice-president of the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation, should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize, Carl Gershman, president of the National Endowment for Democracy, told a major democracy forum this week.
“The NED is the leading US supporter of the independent press, Internet-based media and human rights groups in Belarus,” the group’s Nadia Diuk told a U.S. Congressional hearing. “having supported hundreds of programs to assist civic groups, political prisoners and their families, the initiatives of numerous youth groups, and the work of religious freedom advocates.”
Human rights and democracy advocates are calling on the International Ice Hockey Federation to abandon a proposal to allow Belarus to host the 2014 Ice Hockey World Championship in Minsk. The Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) and Freedom House recently released an open letter signed by 23 distinguished Belarus experts and leading European Parliamentarians, calling on the IIHF to suspend its plans until Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka unconditionally releases and rehabilitates all political prisoners and acts in accordance with accepted standards of governance.
The imminent Euro 2012 soccer tournament in neighboring Poland and Ukraine is also drawing attention to Belarus.
“Today we are living in peace and freedom in Germany, and in the European Union, but sadly not in the whole of Europe: for in Ukraine, and in Belarus, people are still suffering under dictatorship and repression,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a speech last month to Germany’s lower house of parliament.
One year ago, the Belarus policy community lost one of its brightest stars, Vitali Silitski (right), director of the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies (BISS). To honor his memory, please join us for an in-depth review of the current situation in Belarus with a panel of Belarusian civic activists and journalists.
The event is co-sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy.
This event, originally scheduled for Wednesday, May 13, is now Monday, June 18, at 12:00 p.m.
Tatiana Kouzina is the executive director of the Belarus Institute for Strategic Studies. A graduate of the European Humanities University (EHU), she has extensive experience in managing international projects in the field of education and research. Previously, she worked as EHU’s head of international and public relations office and as coordinator of its French-Belarusian department of Political Science and European Integration.
Sergej Satsuk is a journalist working in the non-state media field in Belarus since 1998. From 2000 to 2006, he was in charge of investigative journalism at the Belaruskaia Delovaya Gazeta, and in 2004 launched the Agency for Investigative Journalism under the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In 2006, Satsuk, with a group of other journalists, launched Ezhednevnik, the first Belarusian electronic newspaper.
Olga Stuzhinskaya is the director of the Office for a Democratic Belarus, a Brussels-based non-governmental organization. Stuzhinskaya is also a member of the Steering Committee of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and a coordinator of the Forum’s Working Group 1.
Rodger Potocki is senior director for Europe at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), where he has overseen NED’s Belarus portfolio since 1997. He has published on Belarus in the Journal of Democracy and Transitions Online, and lectures on Belarus at the Foreign Service Institute.
Matthew Rojansky is the deputy director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment. An expert on U.S. and Russian national security and nuclear weapons policies, his work focuses on relations among the United States, NATO, and the states of the former Soviet Union.
Balázs Jarábik is an international development executive as well as political analyst, strategist, and adviser. He heads the Kiev based office of Pact, Inc., overseeing civil society and independent media development projects in Belarus and Ukraine.