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  • Key Notes from Civil Society Parallel Forum in Minsk

    The speakers at the briefing included Ales Bialiatski (head of the Human Rights Center Viasna), Yuri Dzhibladze (representative of the Civic Solidarity Platform and the Center for the Development of Democracy and Human Rights (Russia)), Maria Dahle (Human Rights House Foundation (Norway)), Aisha Jung (Amnesty International (Great Britain)), and Sasha Koulayeva (head of the East Europe and Central Asia Desk of FIDH (France)).

    Mik­lós Haraszti said he was glad to vis­it Belarus even as an expert at a side event of the OSCE; how­ev­er, he remarked the unwel­com­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tion of the Belaru­sian offi­cials.

    “Their stand­ing stays the same: Belarus does not rec­og­nize the man­date of Spe­cial Rap­por­teur and do not intend to coop­er­ate.”

    Mik­lós Haraszti expressed his hope that after the OSCE event the human rights sit­u­a­tion in Belarus will change for the bet­ter.

    Maria Dahle, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Human Rights House Foun­da­tion, spoke about the glob­al ten­den­cies in human rights defense in Belarus and in the region, under­lin­ing increas­ing and more sophis­ti­cat­ed pres­sure on human rights defend­ers.

    “Human rights defend­ers are increas­ing­ly under threat in this part of the world, but it’s not only here, it is glob­al decline in rights and free­doms. Repres­sions are going on for many years in coun­tries such as Rus­sia, Azer­bai­jan, and Belarus in this region. Repres­sions are becom­ing more fre­quent and more severe. The author­i­ties are becom­ing more sophis­ti­cat­ed in the meth­ods they use against civ­il soci­ety.”

    “We see harass­ment, attacks, the use of leg­is­la­tion to crim­i­nal­ize the work of human rights defend­ers. They put restric­tions on trav­el, on fund­ing, in par­tic­u­lar, on for­eign fund­ing and oper­a­tions of orga­ni­za­tions. And this is some­thing sys­tem­at­ic in the region.”

    Accord­ing to Maria Dahle, the most tar­get­ed groups in the region are human rights defend­ers work­ing on women’s rights, minor­i­ty rights, rights of LGBT peo­ple and sex­u­al minori­ties, and human rights defend­ers work­ing on cor­rup­tion issues.

    “Peo­ple in pow­er don’t want to lose pow­er. There is polit­i­cal pow­er, finan­cial pow­er, they don’t want to lose the ben­e­fits that they have. What they do is they seek to silence the inde­pen­dent crit­i­cal voic­es that are try­ing to increase the space of rights and free­doms with the civ­il soci­ety, to par­tic­i­pate in the devel­op­ment of the soci­ety. We see the spread of fear, the spread of self-cen­sor­ship, and we see the reduced activ­i­ties by civ­il soci­ety as an effect, as a con­se­quence of these actions by the gov­ern­ment.”

    “We see this shrink­ing space for civ­il soci­ety, we there are oth­er NGOs, GON­GOs, tak­ing over the space – gov­ern­men­tal­ly orga­nized NGOs, set up to sup­port the government’s nar­ra­tives and poli­cies. They are dis­re­spect­ing the nor­mal nar­ra­tive and the call for to [pro­mote] human rights, free­doms, what is done by inde­pen­dent civ­il soci­ety.”

    The chair­per­son of HRC Vias­na Ales Biali­ats­ki under­lined the unique char­ac­ter of the Forum, stat­ing that this is the first event in 13 years, gath­er­ing human rights defend­ers and civ­il activists from dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions and regions.

    “Ahead of the ses­sion of the PA OSCE, we decid­ed to unite our voic­es and reit­er­ate our views of the exist­ing human rights issues in Belaru­sian soci­ety. The civ­il soci­ety has recent­ly adopt­ed the “Posi­tion of Belaru­sian Human Rights Orga­ni­za­tions” list­ing the cur­rent prob­lems: polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, death penal­ty, large-scale repres­sions in spring this year that touched civ­il soci­ety and civ­il activists, and sys­temic vio­la­tions of human rights under­go­ing in Belarus.

    We state there is lack of mea­sures aimed to improve human rights sit­u­a­tion at sys­temic lev­el. The Repub­lic of Belarus did not take efforts to imple­ment urgent restora­tive mea­sures, which Belarus human rights com­mu­ni­ty has repeat­ed­ly demand­ed. Any moment, the sit­u­a­tion might regress, get worse. So, our Forum is such a call, in the first place, for Belarus gov­ern­ment to imple­ment inter­na­tion­al human rights oblig­a­tions.

    We also call on the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty to keep an eye on human rights in Belarus.  Belarus is a coun­try neigh­bor­ing to Euro­pean states, and part of col­lec­tive sys­tems, like OSCE. More­over, Belarus has under­tak­en cer­tain oblig­a­tions in the sphere of human rights, so it has to observe them. This our gen­er­al mes­sage, and we hope it will be lived up to.

    Our Forum is attend­ed by var­i­ous rep­re­sen­ta­tives, includ­ing deputies of the Par­lia­men­tary Assem­bly, Vice Chair of the PA OSCE, and Mr Haraszti is present here, as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of many author­i­ta­tive inter­na­tion­al human rights orga­ni­za­tions. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, there are no Belaru­sian offi­cials here. This agains under­lines that today they are not striv­ing to sit at a vir­tu­al or real nego­ti­a­tion table to dis­cuss burn­ing issues exist­ing in Belarus,” said the human rights defend­er.

    Yuri Dzhi­bladze under­lined the impor­tance of the event:

    “If I had been told a year ago that we would orga­nize an inter­na­tion­al con­fer­ence here today – I would not have believed. Thanks God, today it is con­ve­nient for Belarus author­i­ties to take sym­bol­ic steps. With­out chang­ing the nature of the pow­er and the polit­i­cal sys­tem, but still take these steps: allow the Spe­cial Rap­por­teur, even with con­di­tions, to vis­it the coun­try; to allow the Forum. It is good that none Belaru­sian civ­il soci­ety leader is in prison. And even I have been able to come to Belarus for the first time with­in six years, as I had been under entry ban before.

    The speak­er remarked that the human rights sit­u­a­tion and the rule of law are in decline cur­rent­ly, as gov­ern­ments and politi­cians and even rep­re­sen­ta­tives of inter­na­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions shift atten­tion to safe­ty issues linked with real prob­lems – ter­ror­ist threats, migra­tion cri­sis and war in the East of Ukraine.

    “The whole com­plex of prob­lems dis­tracts atten­tion from human rights, and on the oth­er hand, it is suc­cess­ful­ly used by author­i­ta­tive lead­ers in many coun­tries of the region.”

    “At the back­ground it fol­lows that the voice of civ­il soci­ety is grow­ing espe­cial­ly sig­nif­i­cant. Many OSCE mem­bers, PA mem­bers, politi­cians from dif­fer­ent coun­tries share our views and can ground on our con­clu­sions, rec­om­men­da­tions, doc­u­ments that allows them to coun­ter­act to neg­a­tive ten­den­cies. That is why civ­il soci­ety and human rights defend­ers and activists are increas­ing­ly exposed to harass­ment, pres­sure, attacks and risks. We in fact deal with unprece­dent­ed pres­sure, with the nar­row­ing space for civ­il soci­ety all over the world, and we have to pay more and more atten­tion to this issue, to sup­port, to sol­i­dar­i­ty, to defense of our col­leagues along­side with fight­ing neg­a­tive ten­den­cies,” said Yuri Dzhi­bladze.

    Head of the East­ern Europe and Cen­tral Asia Desk of FIDH Sasha Koulaye­va remarked the step for­ward tak­en by Belarus author­i­ties with the polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and geopo­lit­i­cal chal­lenges faced by the coun­try, and that the Forum did take place.

    “I have to under­line that after the Forum guests leave, our atten­tion on Belarus will be espe­cial­ly intense, as expe­ri­ence shows the cycling nature of repres­sions in the coun­try. 

    “An impor­tant issues us that no sys­temic changes have tak­en place that would pre­vent human rights vio­la­tions in future, which has been proved by the spring events this year, when not only peace­ful assem­blies were bru­tal­ly dis­persed, but the fol­low­ing tri­als demon­strat­ed depen­dence of the judi­cia­ry on the exec­u­tive author­i­ty. In this con­text, one can­not speak of real progress.”

    Sasha Koulaye­va remarked they could not help greet­ing the release of sev­er­al peo­ple from jail, how­ev­er, the very release shows quite a volatile treat­ment of the judi­cia­ry:

    “It is unclear how peo­ple charged with such seri­ous crimes could be set free that eas­i­ly, with­out expla­na­tions. As well as the ques­tion is open how the oppo­si­tion leader Mikalai Statke­vich, arrest­ed before the demon­stra­tion, was released from the KGB deten­tion facil­i­ty with­out any expla­na­tions, when the need [to hold him there] expired”.

    The FIDH rep­re­sen­ta­tive also men­tioned the issue of remain­ing death penal­ty in Belarus:

    “This is a tough chal­lenge to the whole OSCE region, since only two coun­tries in the space keep the prac­tice of cap­i­tal pun­ish­ment. And the depen­dence of the judi­cia­ry, which I men­tioned before, is obvi­ous at every stage of sen­tenc­ing a per­son to death penal­ty: from the moment of deten­tion, to grant­i­ng a lawyer at an ear­ly stage, con­di­tions of impris­on­ment, and final­ly, the pos­si­bil­i­ty of appeal which in fact does not exist.”

    Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive Aisha Jung stressed that her orga­ni­za­tion con­demned the mass repres­sions in March and April.

    “The response of the author­i­ties to the peace­ful protests was extreme even by the Belaru­sian stan­dards.”

    “Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al has doc­u­ment­ed now for many years and spo­ken up against the vio­la­tions of free­dom of assem­bly, asso­ci­a­tion, and expres­sion in Belarus. This lat­est wave of repres­sion sig­nals at dis­ap­point­ing regres­sion by the author­i­ties, in response to which Amnesty Inter­na­tion­al strength­ens its calls that these rights have to be respect­ed and pro­tect­ed and for Belaru­sians to get orga­nized and par­tic­i­pate in peace­ful protests with­out inter­fer­ence.”

    Aisha Jung also men­tioned the issue of death penal­ty in Belarus along­side with 40 years’ anniver­sary of Amnesty’s cam­paign against death penal­ty:

    “In that time we see huge glob­al momen­tum towards abo­li­tion both inter­na­tion­al­ly and also in the post-Sovi­et space, leav­ing only Belarus sole exe­cu­tion­er in Europe and in for­mer Sovi­et Union. Quot­ing the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty on this sub­ject: “Belarus simul­ta­ne­ous­ly demon­strates total dis­re­gard to its insti­tu­tions, with five men exe­cut­ed since 2016, three of whose cas­es were pend­ing at the Human Rights Com­mit­tee.” It’s the high­est num­ber of exe­cu­tions since 2008.

    Secre­cy sur­round­ing the death penal­ty in Belarus amounts to ill-treat­ment of the fam­i­lies, and Amnesty calls for the secre­cy to be lift­ed and fam­i­lies to be called to final meet­ings; to ensure clar­i­ty on the dates of exe­cu­tion, and fur­ther dis­clo­sure of bur­ial sites of their loved-ones.”

    When in Novem­ber 2016 three per­sons were exe­cut­ed, Amnesty launched an inter­na­tion­al cam­paign call­ing for an imme­di­ate mora­to­ri­um on death penal­ty.

    “I have the results of that cam­paign here: we’ve gath­ered over 18 thou­sand sig­na­tures from around the world call­ing on the Belaru­sian author­i­ties to intro­duce an imme­di­ate mora­to­ri­um on death sen­tences with the view to full abo­li­tion. Amnesty is opposed to death sen­tences under any cir­cum­stances. It con­sti­tutes inhu­mane and degrad­ing treat­ment and is a vio­la­tion of the right to life. … We remain com­mit­ted to see full of abo­li­tion of death penal­ty in Belarus and this will be focus of our wok for the next cou­ple of years, along­side the 40-year anniver­sary of our cam­paign­ing on this issue.”

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