July 1998 Vol. 10 No. 5 (D)
Government control over the state media, restrictions on the circulation of the independent press and the lack of independent broadcast media that dare carry programs critical of the president or of government policy gave street demonstrations greater significance as a forum for the public expression of opposition sentiment. The government has since introduced rules on demonstrations that necessitate cumbersome and onerous bureaucratic hurdles that must be overcome to hold even the smallest public gathering. Indeed, in February 1998 a solitary demonstrator with a placard was imprisoned for fifteen days for breaking such rules. In addition, the government has sought to intimidate peaceful demonstrators through arbitrary mass arrests, beatings and prison terms. Lawyers have been stripped of their licence to practice law, students expelled and school teachers and university lecturers warned or fired for organizing or participating in opposition demonstrations deemed to have violated stringent government rules. Such rules permit the authorities to change the time, location and even the number of participants of a given demonstration. Even the symbols to be used by demonstrators must be registered to avoid government sanctions.
President Lukashenka's government has sought to control the content, access to, distribution, and even the personnel of independent newspapers, magazines and the broadcast media. The largest independent newspaper was closed in November 1997 while others operate at great risk of closure, should they publish articles that openly criticize the government. An informal policy of non-disclosure of official information to the independent press is now brazenly enforced, following a confidential government memorandum that was leaked to the press in April. State-owned newspapers' content is also tightly controlled, with recalcitrant editors facing dismissal. Out of fear of punitive sanctions and fines, the independent broadcast media no longer carry news programs.
Plainclothes state security agents have been implicated in the beating, kidnaping and/or threatening of a number of journalists, members of non-governmental organizations and those connected with the opposition. Victims have attempted to bring the perpetrators of such crimes to justice, often with clear evidence of state involvement, yet Human Rights Watch is not aware of a single instance in which these assaults has resulted in a prosecution. This failure by Belarus law-enforcement agencies reinforces the supposition that they are carried out by state agents operating in plainclothes with complete impunity.
Individuals affiliated with opposition political groups have been systematically intimidated and punished: this pattern has encompassed politically active youth, prominent and active demonstrators, lawyers who defend demonstrators or work on politically sensitive cases, and deputies to the disbanded Thirteenth Supreme Soviet.Measures employed by the government against these people include criminal and administrative prosecution and non-criminal sanctions, including disbarment from the legal profession, dismissal from teaching jobs, and expulsion from school or university. Whereas the Belarusian Peoples' Front (BPF) had previously been targeted, in the past twelve months this alarming campaign has turned its focus to the youth wing of the BPF, the Malady Front (The Youth Front). Young people have been beaten, arrested, threatened, intimidated and expelled from university on disproportionate charges of graffiti-writing or participating in an illegal demonstration; at play as well may be their membership in, and openly expressed support for, the Youth Front. Police and security service employees have beaten and ill-treated members as young as fifteen years of age.
In addition to conducting regular field research missions to Belarus and publishing reports, Human Rights Watch has presented its findings in person to Belarusian government officials and in letters to them. In August 1997, we presented our report, "Crushing Civil Society" to, and conducted meetings with, Natalya Drozd, head of the Department for Human Rights and International Cooperation at the Foreign Ministry, Mr. Pogdayny of the presidential administration, Minister of Justice Gennadiy Vorontsov, Deputy Procurator General Aleksandr Ivanovsky, Deputy Chair of the Supreme Court, Vladimir Ptashnik, and Presidential Parliament Deputy Yury Kulakovsky. Some officials reacted to our findings with denial and outright rejection. Others highlighted the fact that unlike many former Soviet republics, there is no ethnic conflict in Belarus and that this "achievement" should be recognized. Still others expressed a desire to respect international obligations, but underscored that time was needed to achieve this goal. A point-by-point response to our report promised by Ms. Drozd in August had yet to be received as of this writing.
Since August 1997, Human Rights Watch has issued seven letters of protest to the Belarusian government, highlighting our concerns over human rights violations in cases featured in this report.1 As of this writing, Human Rights Watch has yet to receive an official response from the Belarusian government to any of these letters.
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