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Miklos Haraszti, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus, has called for reforms to the country’s laws and practices that for two decades have stifled freedom of expression.
“Critical opinion and fact-finding are curtailed by the criminalisation of content that is deemed ‘harmful for the State’; by criminal defamation and insult laws that protect public officers and the president, in particular, from public scrutiny; and by ‘extremism’ laws that ban reporting on political or societal conflicts,” Haraszti said in a 6 November statement.
Belarus anti-extremism law came into force in 2007. According to Article 14 of the Law On Countering Extremism, it is prohibited to publish and or disseminate extremist materials, even through the media. Information products propagandising extremist activities can be seized by the decision of state security services, law enforcement agencies, prosecutor’s office or courts. If deemed extremist, the court can order the materials be destroyed.
The threat for free speech lies in the broad definitions of “extremist activities” and “extremist materials”. Under Belarusian law, extremist activities include “degrading of national honor and dignity”. Such provisions are contrary to international standards of freedom of expression.
“Unfortunately, this is one of the indicators of the current legislation of Belarus – the absolute vagueness of definitions and the absolute possibility of law enforcement to interpret them as they want,” Andrey Bastunets, chairperson of Belarusian Association of Journalists, said.
Critical materials regarded as extremist can end up banned. In 2011, the Ministry of Information issued a warning to Autoradio for broadcasting a message “containing calls for extremist activities”. The warning concerned a phrase by Andrei Sannikau, candidate for the presidency in 2010, that “the fate of the country is solved in the square, not in the kitchen”. The Supreme Economic Court and the National Commission on Broadcasting upheld the warning and the radio was stripped of its frequency.
The law has led to frequent seizures of imported printed material and videos by Belarusian customs offices. Usually, the seized materials are examined to determine if the items are extremist, but it is unclear how to properly get any property out of impound. Often the rightful owners are forced to repeatedly ask for the return of their material.
One of the most sensational cases related to “countering extremism” was the recognition of Belarus Press Photo 2011 album as extremist materials in 2013. The album contained images that won in 2011 the National Press Photo contest — an open annual contest of press photography. In November 2012, 41 copies of the album were seized for expert examination at the border with Lithuania border from three photojournalists, who were organisers of the contest.
Then the Belarusian KGB’s Hrodna regional department initiated proceedings to categorise the album as extremist material. Ashmiany District Court decided that the publication under consideration was extremist. The court’s decision was based on the KGB’s report that “the choice of the photos for the photo album in the aggregate reflects only negative sides of the life of the Belarusian people, together with the author’s own insinuations and conclusions, which, with the view of the socially accepted norms and morals, insults the national honor and dignity of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, diminishes the authority of the state power organs, undermines the trust of foreign states, foreign and international organisations to them.”
As a result, the seized copies of the album were ordered to be destroyed. Further, the court decision served as grounds to withdraw the license from Lohvinau, the publisher of the album. At least 17 anti-extremism motivated seizures of publications have been carried out by Belarusian customs officers since then.
In 2014, the National Commission of Experts on Assessment of Information Productions Regarding Extremist Contents was established as a permanent body with regional subcommissions set up in the regions. Two-thirds of the National Commission’s members are state officials — including representatives of the KGB and customs — who often initiate proceedings to recognise a material as extremist. In the first six months of its existence, the National Commission considered over 100 different publications, 25 of which have been recognised as extremist.
In November 2015, Belarusian customs officers seized two publications for expert examination.
On 10 November 2015, Oleksandr Doniy and four other Ukrainian TV journalists were interrogated and searched by Belarusian officers at the Ukraine-Belarus border while traveling by car to Vilnius, Lithuania. The journalists, who were working for the cultural programme Last Barricade, were held for five hours. A total of 22 items were seized, including five copies of a documentary about the Ukrainian Revolution (1917-1921) and 11 books, among them Confession From a Condemned Cell, Marshal Zhukov and Ukrainians During World War II. The Ukrainian journalists have been accused of importing “extremist literature and audio productions”.
On 19 November 2015, a number of human rights books were seized by customs officers from Aliaksandr Hanevich who was returning to Belarus from Lithuania. Those were De-facto Implementation of International Human Rights Standards: The Experience of Belarusian ILIA Program Alumni, Enlightened by Belarusianness by Ales Bialiatski, My Fight by Valery Hrytsuk, The Death Penalty in Belarus and Pervasive Violations of Labor Rights and Forced Labor in Belarus.
Besides the anti-extremism law, the grounds for stifling freedom of speech are contained in the Law On Mass Media. In the beginning of 2015, the new Article 51.1 was incorporated that set the procedure for restricting access to online information resources. It can be carried out extrajudicially by the decision of the ministry of information upon the request of any state body if the online resource disseminates information prohibited by law. The law also prohibits propaganda of extremist activities. Blocking websites can follow only one violation of the law, within three months since it occurred. This concerns access to both Belarusian and foreign websites viewed in Belarus.
In 2015, the ministry of information has restricted access to 40 websites, 11 of them have been blocked for disseminating extremist materials.
Mapping Media Freedom
Ales Bialiatski, a Belarusian human rights defender, was released from prison on Saturday after almost three years behind bars on politically motivated charges.
“My release came as a surprise. I was not expecting anything like that. There was a usual routine check in the morning and they took me to work with other prisoners. But around 9 a.m. I was summoned to the prison director’s office, where they told me I am being released due to an amnesty,” Bialiatski said during the press conference in Minsk today.
Bialiatski, the chair of the Human Rights Centre Viasna and a vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), was arrested on 11 August 2011 in Minsk and later sentenced to 4.5 years in prison for alleged tax evasion. He did not admit guilt and stated the funds in his bank accounts abroad were in fact spent for activities of Viasna and supporting victims of human rights abuses in Belarus.
“I am not sorry for those three years I spent in prison. This is the price you pay for making Belarus a free and democratic country. If we want to improve our life and drag Belarus out of the swamp it has been in for 20 years already, we need to be active and not to be afraid of repressions civil society faces. I knew what I was in prison for, that is why it was easy for me emotionally,” Bialiatski said.
In fact, it was not always easy. “Political prisoners in Belarusian jails are kept in different conditions than other prisoners. For instance, no one was allowed to talk to me, even if it was a friendly chat about weather or football, a person who approached me could be punished by the prison authorities. That was just one of many examples of physiological pressure political prisoners face in jail,” he said, describing his time behind bars.
He symbolically crossed his name out of the list of Belarusian political prisoners on a campaigning T-shirt his colleagues wore while he was in jail.
“So, Bialiatski is out, but seven more are still there. Belarus has to become a country without political prisoners. I demand from the authorities to release all political prisoners and stop prosecuting people for their political views,” Bialiatski said.
Bialiatski expressed his gratitude to “tens of thousands of people” from Belarus and around the world who supported him during his time in prison and campaigned for his release. Bialiatski also said he is not going to leave the country and he is determined to continue his human rights work.
There will certainly be ground for that as Belarus continues to have a poor human rights record. Most commentators inside the country do not see Bialiatski’s release as a sign of any genuine improvement of the human rights situation, but merely a step of “good will” that can ensure possible renewal of a dialogue with the European Union.
“The EU is clearly looking for ways and platforms for a dialogue with Belarus. Europe certainly wants to decrease tensions in the region and stabilize the situation that was created because of Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. And it can be strategically important for the EU not to allow Belarus turn completely pro-Russian. The problem is the authorities of the country refuse to talk to the Belarusian civil society, and what we have started seeing is the West is ready to give in to the government of Belarus and ‘sacrifice’ participation of active NGOs in a possible dialogue. This will be a huge mistake. Lukashenko is going to deceive Europe once again, and we can see another clampdown on civil society of the country after the presidential elections of 2015,” Uladzimir Matskevich, a Belarusian methodologist and analyst, says.
“I am really happy Ales is out of prison – but I can hardly say he is ‘free’. We are all not free here. Bialiatski’s release is certainly great, but it does not signal any change. The authorities keep tight control over society. Dictators act this way; they need to show they are capable of strict punishment and mercy; they need to show acts of both time to time to manifest they are in charge. This is perhaps what we see with Ales’ release. The opposition is still too weak and disengaged to break through this vicious circle,” Matskevich said.
Authorities in Belarus have been targeting human rights activists ahead of this weekend’s start of the International Ice Hockey Federation’s world championship in Minsk.
At least 17 political and civic activists were detained between 26 April and 6 May to prevent the organising of protests during the championship, which begins on 9 May. Another five are either in detention or being sought for questioning by police. All have been accused of minor hooliganism and sentenced to administrative detention of up to 25 days.
Such “preventive arrests” are common in Belarus. One of the activists, Pavel Vinahradau, who is known for his numerous detentions, opted to leave Minsk until the end of the championship. He had previously been summoned by the police: “They made it clear that either I go to Berezino (a small town 100 km outside Minsk) till 3 June, or I go to Akrestsina (a detention centre in Minsk). I choose Berezino,” Vinahradau wrote on Facebook.
A website called Totalitizator asks its visitors make predictions about which activists will be detained next, for how many days and on what charges. For people who follow political news in Belarus it is not difficult to make a choice.
Potential foreign “troublemakers” are also being kept away from the tournament. On Wednesday, Martin Uggla, a human rights activist from Sweden, was denied entry to Belarus when he was detained at Minsk-2 National Airport. According to temporary visa-free travel requirements, hockey supporters with valid game tickets do not require visa. Despite the fact Martin had one, border guards told him he was being prohibited from entering the country.
Belarus’ president Alexander Lukashenko is known for his love for hockey – and his unfulfilled desire of a real international profile. Consistent tensions with the Western democracies and an unwillingness to ease his authoritarian grip has deprived Lukashenko’s international relations of impact. Fifty-six of the president’s last 100 international visits were to Russia and Kazakhstan, though he has travelled to Turkmenistan, Venezuela, China and Cuba, as well.
The ice hockey championship in Minsk is set to become Lukashenko’s marquee performance on the world stage. That is why the government is rounding up activist voices. Lukashenko wants to present a calm, hospitable and prosperous country led by a wise and caring leader. The picturesque façade cannot hide the problems afflicting Belarus: An unsustainable economy hooked on huge Russian subsidies and a dismal human rights record.
Belarus remains the only country in Europe that still imposes the death penalty. On 18 April, 23-year-old Pavel Sialiun was, according to reports, executed. Sialiun’s case is still under review by the UN Human Rights Committee.
Nine political prisoners are still in jail in Belarus, including well-known human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, and former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich. A recent report by FIDH says they are in a critical situation. Many dissidents suffer regular restrictions to “their means of support, quality of food and medical assistance”, including being deprived of meetings with relatives and subject to limits on correspondence.
“Politically motivated persecution of civil society representatives and of the opposition is a general trend, and the limitations on political and civil rights of Belarusian citizens are pervading, both in national legislation and in practice,” says another statement by 12 human rights groups that represent the ice hockey championship participating countries.
But people who raise these issues are not welcome in Minsk these days. Even foreign journalists who are accredited for the championship are obliged to receive a separate accreditation at the Belarusian Foreign Ministry if they wish to cover issues other than hockey while in Belarus.
But many in the country fear the real issues to cover will appear after the championship is over on 25 May.
“Putin invaded the Crimea four days after the Sochi Olympics. Let’s see if Lukashenko will be that quick with another clampdown on civil society. But I am sure he will settle all accounts with us after the championship,” a leader of one Belarusian NGOs told Index in Minsk last week.
Next year, the country will vote in the presidential election. So there is more ice to come in Belarus after international hockey is gone.
An earlier version of this article specifically stated that both Ales Bialiatski and Mikalay Statkevich have been deprived of meetings with relatives and subject to limits on correspondence. While this may have been true in the past, we have not been able to confirm that this is currently happening to the pair.
Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has said in a press conference in Minsk today that human rights defender Ales Bialiatski could be released from prison soon. This came in response to Ales Lipay, editor of BelaPAN news agency, asking about the possibility of amnesty for Bialaitsky, who has been imprisoned since 2011. He is accused of evading taxes on 90,000 US dollars.
“That damage was repaid to the state long ago with citizens’ donations; there were cases in Belarus when business people who faced economic charges were released after repaying much bigger sums. In neighbouring Russia, President Putin released Mikhail Khodorkovsky who was charged with causing the state damage of 500 million US dollars,” Lipay suggested in his question.
“This is a serious argument,” Lukashenko replied. “This has nothing to do with politics or Biliatski’s views. I swear I have never known him personally […], but taxes are a sacred thing.”
According to Lukashenko, if the information about the damage allegedly caused by Bialiatski being repaid is true, amnesty can be considered. He also suggested other political prisoners, like former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich, can be released if they apply with a relevant plea for a presidential pardon.
“Lukashenko’s statement shows he thinks about the issue of political prisoners; he definitely aims at solving this problem without any damage to his image as a strong leader,” Tatsiana Raviaka, Bialiatsky’s colleague at the Human Rights Centre Viasna, told Index. “The reason Lukashenko might want to solve it now is reputational as well, because Belarus is hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship in 2014, and looks into ‘clearing’ its record on political prisoners.”
Raviaka says there could be a slight “warming” of the overall human rights situation in Belarus as the authorities tend to “play the liberalisation game a couple of years before the presidential elections.”
“That was the case in 2008, before the severe clampdown came in late 2010; now we can face the same period of relative easing of the situation before the 2015 campaign. I think the firm position of the EU on the release of political prisoners as a pre-condition for any dialogue with the Belarusian authorities has also played its role. Besides, I am sure Lukashenko is following the developments in Ukraine, and he sees that further ‘tightening the screws’ can lead to serious protests,” she adds.
According to Raviaka, it is possible Bialiatski could be released, as “it is entirely the issue of political will”.
Ales Bialiatski is the chair of the Human Rights Centre Viasna, and a vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights. He was arrested on 4 August 2011 and later sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. Despite charges of tax evasion, the country’s civil society and the international community see his prison sentence as punishment for his principled stance in support of human rights in Belarus.