Amid the continuing application of death sentences, the harassment of human rights defenders and independent journalists, and a new censorship law clamping down on internet freedom, the Government of Belarus shows no imminent sign of bettering its human rights record, a United Nations expert has declared.
“In 2014, the Belarus Government made welcome efforts to ease the tensions and human rights crisis which evolved in the region,” the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Republic of Belarus, Miklós Haraszti, said today in a press release.
“However,” he added, “despite the expectations of the international community, expressed both bilaterally and multilaterally, the internal human rights situation in Belarus shows no signs of improvement.”
In a five-point media statement summing up the human rights situation and delineating the ongoing abuses still faced by many in Belarus, Mr. Haraszti, an independent expert who serves in his individual capacity, noted that rights to peaceful assembly and association remained “severely restricted” by the authorities who continued to prosecute rights defenders.
“Crackdowns and disbanding of demonstrations resulted in an increased number of arbitrary detentions and so-called preventive arrests of civil society actors,” the UN expert explained.
One activist, Pavel Vinogradov, was arrested fifteen times over the course of the year, Mr. Haraszti continued. Meanwhile, the case of another activist, Elena Tonkacheva, demonstrated “the pervasive harassment of human rights defenders” across the country.
Ms. Tonkacheva, a citizen of the Russian Federation, has been residing in Belarus since 1985 from where she runs the Centre for Legal Transformation, also known as LawTrend, a civil society organization providing reports on the human rights situation in the country to independent media and UN human rights mechanisms, said the expert.
On 30 October, the Government cancelled her residence permit and subsequently issued a deportation order against her – an administrative decision based on an alleged infraction of speeding while driving. Ms. Tonkacheva has since lodged an appeal against what Mr. Haraszti has described as the “clearly disproportionate measure” taken by the Government.
“Unfortunately, Ms. Tonkacheva’s case is typical of the authorities’ recourse to fabricated charges to silence human rights defenders and the fragile independent media in Belarus,” the UN expert said. “I now urge Belarusian authorities to immediately stop all administrative procedures and to reinstate her rights.”
Against that backdrop, Mr. Haraszti warned that the country had entered a “radically new phase of oppression” of free speech following the Government’s imposition of an internet clampdown. Since 19 December, Belarusian authorities have been blocking the country’s main independent websites Ñharter97.org, Belapan.by, Naviny.by, BelarusPartisan.org, as well as several others, the expert noted.
The new directive “practically puts all forms of internet-based communications under direct governmental censorship and jurisdiction,” he continued. “The new regulation places responsibility on the online resources for any material or comment considered to be ‘harmful to the interests of the state;’ and it authorizes government instances to issue warnings over content at their will.”
The UN expert also stated that Belarus remained the only country in Europe which retains the death penalty, having carried out three executions in 2014 with the latest being in October. Those facing the death penalty, and their relatives, are not informed of the scheduled date of execution, and following the execution, the relatives are not informed of where the body is buried.
In addition, Aleksandr Hrunou, the latest victim of the Government’s death penalty policy, was executed despite his appeal to the UN Human Rights Committee, which had extended a request to put the execution on hold while it reviewed the case. Similar circumstances also surrounded the executions of the two other death row inmates killed earlier this year.
Mr. Haraszti explained that since the first review of the human rights situation in Belarus, undertaken in 2010, the Government had refused to accept a number of “important recommendations” and, even among those it had accepted, rarely followed through with implementation, including a commitment to respect minimum standards in carrying out the death penalty.
In April, he said, the Universal Period Review (UPR) process, which involves a review of the human rights situation of all UN Member States, would be reviewing Belarus for the second time, offering the country another opportunity to improve its track record.
“This is a window of opportunity for Belarus to set its human rights record straight, to place human rights at the centre of any ongoing and future change in its relationship with bilateral and multilateral partners,” Mr. Haraszti concluded.
“Freedoms of assembly, association, and expression are prerequisites for free and fair elections; the Government should as of now align its law and practice to international standards, and guarantee the independence of civil society organizations and the media, by enabling them to operate legally, and free from harassment or reprisals.”