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  • European Commissioner discusses EU-Belarus cooperation with human rights defenders

    On Wednesday, 31 October, representatives of the Belarusian non-governmental and human rights organizations met with Mr. Johannes Hahn, European Union Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighborhood Policy. The meeting was also attended by the EU’s official representative in Belarus, Ms. Andrea Wiktorin.

    Председатель Белорусской ассоциации журналистов Андрей Бастунец также принимал участие в встрече.

    У сустрэчы браў удзел старшыня Беларускай асацыяцыі журналістаў Андрэй Бастунец.

    Belaru­sian NGOs and human rights orga­ni­za­tions were rep­re­sent­ed by a board mem­ber of the Human Rights Cen­ter «Vias­na» Valiantsin Ste­fanovich, Direc­tor of the Legal Trans­for­ma­tion Cen­ter Vol­ha Smalian­ka, chair­man of the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists Andrei Bas­tunets and the head of the inde­pen­dent trade union REP Henadz Fia­dyn­ich.

    The meet­ing focused on var­i­ous aspects of the human rights sit­u­a­tion in Belarus in the con­text of the planned sign­ing of agree­ments on bilat­er­al coop­er­a­tion between Belarus and the Euro­pean Union. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the country’s civ­il and human rights com­mu­ni­ty insist­ed that the Agree­ment reflect­ed human rights issues, not just eco­nom­ic and oth­er rela­tions.

    Valiantsin Ste­fanovich not­ed that, as before, the human rights sit­u­a­tion is char­ac­ter­ized by the absence of any pos­i­tive sys­temic change. In Belarus, there are still areas in which, in prin­ci­ple, there has been no progress.

    “We see no sig­nals from the gov­ern­ment towards the improve­ment in these areas. First of all, it con­cerns the changes in the elec­toral leg­is­la­tion, as well as the imple­men­ta­tion of the OSCE rec­om­men­da­tions that were made after the lat­est obser­va­tion mis­sion in Belarus,” said the human rights activist.

    Ste­fanovich men­tioned the work of the inter­de­part­men­tal group, which was estab­lished back in 2016, but its results have not been made pub­lic so far. Belaru­sian human rights com­mu­ni­ty sent their pro­pos­als for changes in the elec­toral leg­is­la­tion. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the cam­paign «Human Rights Defend­ers for Free Elec­tions», the chair­man of the Belaru­sian Helsin­ki Com­mit­tee Aleh Hulak per­son­al­ly pre­sent­ed them at a meet­ing of the inter­de­part­men­tal group. But noth­ing has been known about its work after the events of the spring of 2017.

    Infor­ma­tion pro­vid­ed to the Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the OSCE Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly Kent Härst­edt by the CEC Chair­per­son and the Pres­i­dent of Belarus dur­ing a meet­ing in Min­sk sug­gests that the imple­men­ta­tion of the OSCE rec­om­men­da­tions and amend­ments to the elec­toral leg­is­la­tion is not on the agen­da.

    “Thus, the pres­i­den­tial and par­lia­men­tary elec­tions in 2020 will take place in the legal frame­work that we have today. They have been crit­i­cized many times, by both rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the OSCE and human rights activists. Obvi­ous­ly, some elec­tion pro­ce­dures require imme­di­ate ref­or­ma­tion,” Valiantsin Ste­fanovich con­clud­ed.

    Mr. Hahn told the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of civ­il and human rights com­mu­ni­ty that dur­ing his meet­ing with Lidziya Yarmoshy­na, head of the Cen­tral Elec­tion Com­mis­sion, she once again said that any changes to the law on elec­tions are only pos­si­ble after amend­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion.

    “It’s quite a strange posi­tion, because we do not talk at all about chang­ing the elec­toral sys­tem. And it is not among the list of the ODIHR rec­om­men­da­tions. Some of the rec­om­men­da­tions deal with spe­cif­ic issues of elec­tion pro­ce­dures, in par­tic­u­lar the count­ing of votes. Of course, no changes in the Con­sti­tu­tion are need­ed in order to imple­ment them,” Ste­fanovich said com­ment­ing on the posi­tion of the Belaru­sian EMBs.

    The meet­ing also touched upon the lack of progress on the abo­li­tion or a mora­to­ri­um on the death penal­ty. The human rights activists not­ed that author­i­ties still refer to pub­lic oppo­si­tion, although no work is car­ried out on this issue in Belarus. In the con­text of the planned sign­ing of the Agree­ment, this theme appears par­tic­u­lar­ly acute, because Europe is a death penal­ty free area. The sit­u­a­tion with the death penal­ty in Belarus is con­trary to Euro­pean val­ues.

    Vol­ha Smalian­ka, direc­tor of the Legal Trans­for­ma­tion Cen­ter, not­ed short­com­ings of leg­is­la­tion reg­u­lat­ing the activ­i­ties of non-gov­ern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions in Belarus. She also addressed the prob­lem of changes in the leg­is­la­tion gov­ern­ing peace­ful assem­blies and the announced decrim­i­nal­iza­tion of activ­i­ty on behalf of unreg­is­tered orga­ni­za­tions, which is expect­ed to be replaced with admin­is­tra­tive respon­si­bil­i­ty.

    Chair­man of the Belaru­sian Asso­ci­a­tion of Jour­nal­ists Andrei Bas­tunets drew atten­tion to the prob­lems of mass media, as well as the sys­temic per­se­cu­tion of jour­nal­ists work­ing in Belarus with­out accred­i­ta­tion. The new changes in the law «On Mass Media» were dis­cussed at the meet­ing.

    The meet­ing also focused on the sub­ject of crim­i­nal pro­ceed­ings against the lead­ers of the inde­pen­dent trade union REP. An appeal in the case will be heard by the Min­sk City Court on Novem­ber 9.

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