Human Rights in Belarus

Updated 29 June 2016

Introduction
The Belarusian government continues to severely curtail freedoms of association, assembly, and expression, and the right to a fair trial. Harassment of human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers by the authorities continues, including arbitrary bans on foreign travel. Allegations of torture and mistreatment in custody persist. The UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Belarus calls the restrictions on human rights “systemic and systematic”. In February 2016 the EU lifted almost all its sanctions against Belarus. The sanctions that had been put in place a decade earlier, due to the poor human rights climate in the country, were lifted mainly as a result to the release of political prisoners by president Lukashenko in August 2015. The EU stated that it thus acknowledged the positive steps taken by Belarus in improving EU-Belarus relations. The lifting of the sanctions has been widely criticized by all human rights organizations, as in reality the human rights climate in the country has not improved.

The Situation for Human Rights Defenders in Belarus
Working with civil and political rights in Belarus is associated with very high risks. Human rights defenders and journalists face persecution from authorities, imprisonment, arrests, interrogation, tax inspections, and are sometimes denied from leaving the country. Lack of legal registration with the authorities can lead to imprisonment, and receiving money from abroad for human rights work is illegal, if not passed through the authorities, and can lead to a prison sentence. The arbitrary detention and sentencing of opposition activists and human rights defenders on trumped charges for “hooliganism” and other misdemeanors are frequent. In November 2011, a court sentenced leading human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski, to four-and-a-half years in prison on politically motivated charges of tax evasion. However, with assistance and support from the international community, he was released from prison in June 2014 a full 20 months before the end of his prison term.

Ten Rights in Focus

The right to life and physical integrity

Prisons in Belarus are overcrowded and standards are poor. Torture and other inhuman behavior are prohibited under the constitution but torture is a regular feature of the prison system. Security forces and police reportedly resort to torture while conducting investigations. Accusations of torture rarely lead to any criminal investigations. The penitentiary system is a closed one thus making monitoring virtually impossible. Prisoners and relatives are not informed when the execution is due and the relatives receive no notification of the pending execution. The bodies are not returned to relatives and are buried in unmarked graves.

Belarus has not signed the Additional Protocol II of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) regarding the abolition of the death penalty. It remains the only country in Europe that enforces the death penalty. One day after the EU announced that the sanctions against Belarus would be lifted, due to the improved human rights climate in the country, Belarus handed down yet another death penalty.

The right to liberty and security of person

Arbitrary detentions are a common feature of the criminal process. According to the Belarusian Criminal Process Code, the reasons for detaining a person do not have to be presented during the detention, which is contrary to Article 9 of the ICCPR. A person detained on suspicion of a crime can be held for up to 10 days without formal charges, and 18 months after the filing of charges. The police continue to arrest without warrant, detaining those who participate in demonstrations for hours. It is common practice to arbitrarily arrest and detain individuals for political reasons especially in connection to public events such as protests.

The right to a fair trial and an effective remedy

According to legislation in Belarus, the judiciary should be independent, with access to a fair trial. However, in practice the judiciary functions as an instrument of the regime and in many cases those who are brought before the courts are done so on politically motivated charges that often lack compliance with international provisions. Prosecutors and judges often charge and convict people on a false or spurious basis. The right to a fair trial is not respected, especially in politically motivated cases. Often opposition activists are not permitted to meet their lawyers when arrested and lawyers that defend dissidents can be exposed to threats and risk being expelled from the bar association. The targeting of lawyers greatly intensified after the presidential elections in 2010. The Belarusian bar is supposed to be independent but in reality is under the control of the Ministry of Justice.

The right to respect for private and family life

The respect for private and family life is not provided for in practice in Belarus. The authorities violate these rights on a regular basis through security structures as well as state media. State media is used to undermine opposition and civic activists by presenting personal details of these persons in a negative manner. Security forces, such as the KGB, widely use terror tactics such as searching private homes and offices without obtaining a prior warrant and are also known to carry out secret searches. Furthermore, communications emanating to and from organisations and individuals critical to the regime are closely monitored and intercepted.

The right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion

Impediments to the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in Belarus are closely connected to the right to freedom of expression. The regime targets and combats independent thinking. Freedom of religion is ensured in the Constitution of Belarus. However, the authorities favor the status of the Belarus Orthodox Church by stating it to be the official religion of Belarus. In order to operate legally in Belarus, religious groups must register with the authorities. The government consistently denies registration to religious groups they consider non-traditional. The activity of religious groups who fail to register is punishable by two years in prison under Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code.

The right to freedom of expression

Despite the fact that the Belarusian Constitution provides for both media freedom and freedom of expression, this right is heavily limited. Belarusian media laws do not meet international standards and do not protect media organisations from state interference. State media is subordinated to the president, and harassment and censorship of independent media are routine. Independent media is also subjected to discriminatory practices concerning distribution, access to information and other vital areas. The Belarusian Television is the only nation-wide channel in Belarus. The channel broadcasts propaganda and politically biased material. Some Russian TV-channels are aired in Belarus; however these are mainly tools for propaganda from the Russian state.

Independent journalists face threats, arrests, and prison sentences based on falsified charges. Social media is occasionally blocked and newspapers are constantly under threat of closure. Media laws create real impediments for independent media. According to the law, the authorities can arbitrarily close down outlets and censor reporting. The government can furthermore close down publications if they receive two warnings within a year even for minor violations. The Criminal Code of Belarus includes criminal responsibility for the slander and defamation of the President. Under Belarusian law, libel is a criminal offense.

As independent press is under pressure, the use of the Internet has increased in importance as a source of news. However, in December 2014, the Media Law was amended so that the state can tighten control over the Internet and distribution of media products online. These tough new rules are very vague and leave lots of space for arbitrary use.

The right to freedom of assembly and association

The Belarusian authorities continue to violate freedom of assembly by prohibiting demonstrations and public actions. Article 35 of the Belarusian Constitution guarantees the right to peaceful assembly that does not specifically violate public order or the rights of other citizens. Detailed provisions on holding mass events are laid down in the Law on Mass Events. The complicated authorisation procedure and the vast possibilities available to authorities to determine if a location is suitable for holding demonstrations often leads to arbitrary denials of mass actions. In reality, demonstrations planned by parties other than state authorities or state-friendly organisations are more often than not banned, or on rare occasions redirected to remote locations.

New regulations were introduced at the end of 2011 with further limitations to the freedom of assembly, prohibiting, among other things, gatherings that have been arranged via social media, requiring event organisers to report financial sources for mass events and expanding the powers of law enforcement officials to limit access to the event site and conduct searches of participants. Unauthorised demonstrations are often harshly dealt with by security with arrests, beatings and other violent acts all too common. Pre-emptive arrests are also used prior to demonstrations.

Freedom of Association is also heavily restricted, and the practice of denying registration of public associations, religious groups and political parties prevails. According to Belarusian law, all public associations must be registered with the Ministry of Justice. Basically all organisations critical to the government are denied registration. Activities within unregistered organisations are furthermore deemed criminal according to Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code (violations of the article are punishable with up to two years imprisonment). Because registration of organisations is in most cases denied by the authorities, it constitutes a serious violation of the freedom of assembly.

The rights to protection against hate speech and war propaganda

As in many other countries in the region, homophobia exists in Belarus amongst citizens as well as public figures. Government officials on all levels use tough rhetoric when mentioning LGBT-persons and homosexuality. Even the political opposition has in many cases not behaved any better than the regime in this regard, spouting negative statements about the LGBT community or showing little or no interest in LGBT-issues; mirroring the negative attitudes among voters towards LGBT issues. Discrimination against Roma is prevalent in Belarus. Negative reporting on the Roma community also regularly occurs in Belarusian media.

The right to political rights

Alexander Lukashenka has been the president of the country since 1994. He has systematically over the years consolidated power to ensure his tenure in office. His presidential decrees have the status of law, and in 2004, Lukashenka held a referendum that led to a change in the constitution removing the two-term limit for the president. The separation of powers, present in democratic societies, is absent in Belarus.

The rights of citizens to vote for a president, a parliament, or in any other way participate freely in political life are  virtually non-existent in Belarus. Elections have been conducted with serious shortcomings reported in terms of media exposure of candidates, intimidation and other reprisals against opposition candidates; rigged votes, observers being obstructed, and other such violations. Authorities have prevented and obstructed political rallies and also necessary signature quota collections for candidates. Employees of state companies have also been forced to vote in advance.

Opposition activists are subject to harassment and are often prevented from distributing promotional materials and from conducting routine activities. On October 11th 2015 Lukashenka was elected president for the fifth time. The elections were considered far from democratic, as the opposition had no real opportunity to build any kind of public profile due to the state owned media and the impossibility of the opposition to get any access to it. People involved in activities with the opposition often risk losing their place at university or their jobs.

The right to protection against discrimination

There is no specific anti-discrimination law in Belarus, defining “discrimination” in a comprehensive way. Belarusian law prohibits discrimination based on gender, race, disability, language and social status. The possible grounds for discrimination are listed only in the Labour Code, but the list does not include sexual orientation, leaving persons discriminated on the basis of sexual orientation without legal protection. Homophobia is widespread and harassment, discrimination and hate crimes against LGBT-people are frequent. LGBT-groups are denied permission to hold public events and LGBT-organisations are also denied registration. The latest attempt by GayBelarus to register in January 2013 led to the persecution of the organisation’s activists and police raids at LGBT-clubs.

Discrimination against Roma and the ethnic Polish minority is also present in Belarus. Furthermore, people with disabilities face challenges in regards to social inclusion in education and the job market. With respect to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, Belarus has officially expressed its intention to sign and ratify it, but as of the time of writing has not done so. Belarusian law provides for protection against discrimination of women in many areas. However, Belarusian remains a highly patriarchal society. As a result women face discrimination in various forms and societal spheres. Furthermore, Belarus has not yet introduced legislation on domestic violence and marital rape.

The Role of Civil Rights Defenders in Belarus
Civil Rights Defenders is closely monitoring developments in Belarus and raises awareness on the human rights situation in Belarus internationally. We have worked with Belarus since the 1990s.

We are in close contact with local human rights defenders and human rights organisations who are invited to our events and workshops, such as Defenders Days. We conduct international advocacy, campaigns and awareness raising activities on the Belarusian human rights situation, such as our efforts directed to release the previously imprisoned leader of the human rights organisation Viasna, Ales Bialiatski. We furthermore prepare reports on the human rights situation that are distributed to international decision-makers, and react on cases of pressure against human rights defenders and journalists.

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Download the country report here: Human Rights in Belarus.

Categories: Country Reports.
Tags: Human rights.
Regions: Belarus and Eastern Europe.