Human rights NGOs urge HRC to maintain scrutiny on Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

(Letter sent 12 May 2019)
To Permanent Representatives of Member and Observer States of the UN Human Rights Council:
We, the undersigned international human rights organisations, urge your delegation to maintain scrutiny on the human rights situation in Belarus, including by ensuring the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus at the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC), and seeking preventive measures to ensure against an increase in human rights violations ahead of upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections in Belarus.
The human rights situation in Belarus will be considered by the HRC during its 41st session between 24 June and 12 July 2019. Since the creation of the Special Procedures mandate in 2012, Belarus has refused to cooperate with the mandate holder. The legislative and policy environment that gave rise to widespread human rights violations in Belarus, and originally lead to the HRC creating the mandate, in most part remains in place.
Nevertheless, the Special Procedures mandate, created and renewed under item 4 of the HRC’s agenda, has been an essential and positive mechanism. When widespread violations occur with impunity in Belarus, there is no recourse to justice at a regional level as Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe. Equally, Belarus only occasionally submits itself to a review by a United Nations Treaty Body; for instance, Belarus was recently reviewed by the Human Rights Committee, a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights by its State parties, though this was for the first time in over 20 years.
The Special Rapporteur, therefore, remains a near-solitary mechanism for bringing regular international attention to the serious human rights situation in Belarus. The mandate is particularly important for Belarusian civil society, not only as a means for reporting human rights violations but also for the preventive role that the mechanism plays, with Belarus knowing that its actions are being monitored and reported on at an international level.
Such prevention is being called on by Belarusian civil society at the moment. There are fears that upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections in Belarus will be a pretext for a spike in human rights violations against human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, online activists and others, as has happened systematically during electoral periods in the past. As many will remember, it was the spike in violations that took place directly following the 2010 presidential elections that led to the creation of the current mandate. States are urged to seek guarantees from Belarus that such violations do not take place again.
In his final report to the United Nations General Assembly, in September 2018, the previous United Nations Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Belarus wrote that “the cyclically recurring heavy crackdowns on peaceful demonstrators, the harassment of journalists and of human rights defenders and the frequent arrests of political opponents constitute the retaliatory, punitive part of human rights violations. The underlying oppressive legal framework is also designed to repress any form of expression of dissent, and to prevent or paralyse public debate not only on civic and political issues but also on economic and social ones, such as employment opportunities, wages and pensions, addiction, trafficking and corruption.”
Since the creation of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur in 2012, there has been no improvement in the human rights situation in Belarus. Legislative and systemic restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression and association remain in place, and violations of civil and political rights are coupled by economic and social rights’ violations. Although they downgraded “unregistered” involvement in nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) from a criminal offense to an administrative one and have released most high-profile political prisoners, the authorities continue to pressure human rights defenders, independent journalists, bloggers and opposition activists, using the court system to harass them, impose preventive or administrative detention and levy severe fines.
Lawyers defending cases considered sensitive by the authorities are also exposed to retaliatory measures, such as summons by the Ministry of Justice to appear before a commission to verify their qualifications, which can lead to their expulsion, on the grounds of changes to the legal framework that have gradually placed Belarusian bars, and lawyers themselves, under the direct authority of the Ministry of Justice.
On the issue of the death penalty, the government of Belarus has not shown a real willingness to cooperate with international human rights mechanisms and continues to issue death sentences and execute prisoners in violation of international standards. The many requests of the Human Rights Committee to suspend executions continue to be ignored and the rights of persons sentenced to death continue to be violated at all stages of the proceedings and during detention.
States should, therefore, send an unequivocal message to Belarus. The HRC can – and should – welcome the positive signs from Belarus and encourage their broadening, including its new-found willingness to follow-up reviews by Treaty Bodies with direct engagement with civil society on the implementation of Treaty Body recommendations. Belarus can be encouraged to more systematically, effectively and meaningfully, engage with civil society, including in the preparation of its national reports ahead of its next Universal Periodic Review, and its review by the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, as well as in developing a mechanism for implementation of the recommendations given by the Human Rights Committee.
However, the HRC should also be clear that dialogue alone is not sufficient, and that Belarus’ many systemic human rights challenges need to be addressed with unambiguous and systemic action.
We urge the HRC to maintain international scrutiny over the human rights situation in Belarus by renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur until tangible steps are taken by the government of Belarus, including:
● Full cooperation with UN human rights mechanisms, allowing the Special Rapporteur to visit Belarus, and concrete steps toward implementing the recommendations of the Special Rapporteur and other UN mechanisms, including the Human Rights Committee.
● Preventive steps to ensure that the upcoming Parliamentary and Presidential elections do not see an increase in human rights violations, as in past electoral periods.
● An end to the harassment and intimidation of independent journalists, human rights defenders, activists, government critics, and civil society organisations, including by dropping politically motivated criminal cases against them, and registering independent human rights organisations and other NGOs that apply for registration.
● A commitment to bring the legislation of Belarus in line with international human rights standards including on the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of association and peaceful assembly and put an end to politically-motivated prosecutions.
● The introduction of a moratorium on executions with a view to full abolition of the death penalty.
Members of the UN Human Rights Council would fail their commitment to Belarusian human rights defenders and other repressed critics/dissenting voices if they abandon their position that the mandate of the Special Rapporteur will be renewed at least until there are demonstrated guarantees that the steps mentioned above would be genuinely implemented by the country’s authorities.
We thank you for your attention and would welcome opportunities to provide any further information about the human rights situation in Belarus.
Amnesty International
Civil Rights Defenders
Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH)
Source: humanrightshouse.org

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Special Rapporteur to brief UN Human Rights Council on situation in Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

The United Nations Human Rights Council will hold its forty-first regular session from 24 June to 12 July 2019 in Geneva, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, will open the session on Monday, 24 June and will update the Council on the situation of human rights worldwide and on the activities of her Office.  During the three-week session, the Council will examine over 100 reports on a wide range of issues presented by 24 human rights experts, groups, and mechanisms.
Among these, the Council will be briefed by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, Anaïs Marin.

“Based on the information collected, the Special Rapporteur cannot attest to important improvements in terms of respect for human rights in Belarus,” said Ms. Marin in her first report, which was prepared for the Council’s summer session.

The Rapporteur describes the “systemic and systematic human rights violations present in law and in practice.” The findings of the Special Rapporteur indicate the absence of significant improvements and the necessity for the Government of Belarus to clearly demonstrate its commitment to addressing longstanding criticism by introducing concrete durable changes. Based on her conclusions, the Special Rapporteur addresses recommendations to the Government of Belarus and the international community.
Anaïs Marin succeeded Miklós Haraszti, who served as the UN Rapporteur on Belarus from 2012 to 2018.
As in previous years, the Government of Belarus has not recognized the mandate of the Special Rapporteur. Commenting on the latest resolution by the Council, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Anatol Hlaz called it absurd.

“The resolution is absurd, both in its design and on the merits. We do not accept this document as it is politicized and distorting the real state of affairs in our country,” he said.

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PACE rapporteur condemns execution in Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

http://spring96.org/en/news/93244 2019 2019-06-19T11:14:40+0300 2019-06-19T11:14:40+0300 2019-06-19T11:14:40+0300 en http://spring96.org/files/images/sources/pace.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

Titus Corlatean (Romania, SOC), PACE’s General Rapporteur on the abolition of the death penalty, has strongly condemned the execution of Aliaksandr Zhylnikau in Belarus.
“I deeply regret this execution, which took place despite the appeals of many – including my predecessor as General Rapporteur – when his sentence was handed down. It is currently unclear whether Viachaslau Sukharka, sentenced at the same time as Mr Zhylnikau, has also been executed. If he has not, I call urgently on the authorities not to proceed with his execution,” he said. “Regardless of the gravity of the offence and the public interest in imposing a proportionate sanction, European democratic standards prohibit the use of the death penalty in all circumstances.”
“Belarus has once again shown that it does not fully subscribe to basic European standards, and its use of the death penalty continues to prevent the development of deeper relations with the Council of Europe. I reiterate my call on the Belarusian authorities to introduce a moratorium on the death penalty, as a matter of urgency, and as a first step towards its full abolition. It is the only way forward.”
Source: assembly.coe.int

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Belarus Allows Iranian Christian Convert To Remain In Country

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

Mehrdad Jamshidian. Photo: svaboda.org

Belarusian authorities have allowed an Iranian man who converted to Orthodox Christianity and is wanted by Tehran on murder charges, to remain in the country.
The chief of the Department for Citizenship and Migration, Alyaksey Byahun, told RFE/RL on June 17 that Mehrdad Jamshidian, who was earlier ordered to leave Belarus, may stay in Belarus.

“The Interior Ministry has decided to permit an Iranian national, Mehrdad Jamshidian, to stay in Belarus by granting him an appropriate status based on humanitarian principles,” Byahun said.

The UN Committee on Human Rights has said that Jamshidian would be at risk of torture and the death penalty, with no guarantee of a fair trial if he were transferred to Iranian custody.
In May, Belarusian authorities released Jamshidian from nearly a year-long detention and ordered him to leave the country within three months. Jamshidian has lived in Belarus since 1993. He was arrested by Belarusian migration officials in 2018 on grounds that he had violated immigration laws.
On May 14, a court in Minsk rescinded the order to deport Jamshidian to Iran, where he could face the death penalty on charges of apostasy because of his renunciation of Islam to become a Christian.  The court also ruled, however, that Jamshidian must leave Belarus for a country of his choice within three months. Jamshidian’s family said he had suffered a heart attack while in custody and that his Belarusian wife, with whom he has three children, did not work because she was recovering from cancer surgery.
Jamshidian’s Iranian passport expired in 2016 and he did not apply for a new one out of fear of being punished by authorities in Iran. Belarus had rejected multiple requests from Jamshidian for political asylum and protection since 2013. Without a new passport, he has been unable to apply for legal residence in Belarus since 2016.
Jamshidian converted to Christianity in 2002 while living in Belarus, a fact that apparently only became known to Iranian authorities years later. The renunciation of Islam is a crime punishable by death in Iran. Tehran has insisted Jamshidian faces no repercussions due to his religion.
However, he was placed on Interpol’s wanted list in 2012 at Tehran’s request for allegedly murdering his mother and brother during a visit to Iran. Jamshidian denies the charges, saying he was in Belarus at the time of the murders. He also claims his relatives do not consider him a suspect. He was arrested twice in Belarus on the Interpol warrant, in 2012 and 2013. But Belarus rejected Iran’s requests for his extradition because of what they said was insufficient evidence presented by Iranian authorities.
Source: rferl.org

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EU “reaffirms strong opposition to capital punishment” in response to new execution in Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

Aliaksandr Zhylnikau. Photo: tut.by

The European Union has condemned the recent execution of death row prisoner Aliaksandr Zhylnikau in Belarus and urged the authorities to introduce a moratorium on the application of the death penalty.

“The European Union expresses its sincere sympathy to the families and friends of the victims of the crimes committed. At the same time, the EU reaffirms its strong opposition to capital punishment in all circumstances and calls on Belarus to introduce a moratorium on executions as a first step towards abolition,” Maja Kocijancic, Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/European Neighbourhood Policy and Enlargement Negotiations, said in a statement.

The statement stresses that the death penalty violates the inalienable right to life enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is the ultimate cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment. “The continued application of the death penalty goes counter Belarus’ international commitments,” the EU said.

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Council of Europe condemns latest death sentence execution in Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

http://spring96.org/en/news/93203 2019 2019-06-14T11:39:15+0300 2019-06-14T11:39:15+0300 2019-06-14T11:39:15+0300 en http://spring96.org/files/images/sources/council-of-europe.jpg The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna” The Human Rights Center “Viasna”
The Human Rights Center “Viasna”

The Council of Europe condemns the execution of the next death sentence in Belarus, the spokesperson of the organization wrote on his Twitter.
“We condemn another execution in Belarus, which was reported by human rights activists,” Holtgen said.
Holtgen stressed that the Council of Europe yet again calls on the Belarus’ authorities to impose a moratorium on the death penalty.

We condemn another execution in #Belarus, as reported by rights defenders. Death is no justice. We reiterate our call on the authorities to impose a moratorium on the application of #deathpenalty as the first step towards its abolition.
Daniel Holtgen

Yesterday Viasna HRC reported the execution of another death sentence in Belarus disregarding the fact that the UN HRC was considering his individual complaint and an appeal to be filed to the General Prosecutor on reconsideration of his case.

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Joint position of human rights organizations to subsequent round of EU-Belarus dialog

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

Belarusian human rights organizations issued a joint position on the verge of the next following round of EU-Belarus dialog.
On the basic human rights situation in Belarus (2018-19)
Belarus’ human rights community1 supports the continuation of the human rights dialogue between the European Union and the Republic of Belarus and believes that it is important to note the following in the run-up to its next round:
In one of the few positive developments in recent years, the government adopted a National Human Rights Plan, which gave rise to certain hopes in the human rights community that the institutional and legislative framework for defending and promoting human rights would improve. Unfortunately, the implementation of the plan has been largely inefficient, among other reasons, because of a lack of involvement of civil society organisations in its preparation, implementation and preliminary evaluation.
We would also like to note the positive practice of involving representatives of the human rights community in events held by state institutions to discuss important human rights issues, including legislative amendments, formats for cooperation within international human rights mechanisms. At the same time, we regret to note that not all interested human rights organisations are involved in the discussions. In addition, not a single proposal by the Belarusian human rights community for amending Belarus’ national legislation has been implemented.
Human rights organisations welcome the fact that Belarus has submitted its first periodic report in the last 20 years to the UN Human Rights Committee and support the recommendations adopted by the Committee as well as recommendations by the other treaty bodies.
We consider the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the subsequent approval and implementation of the National Action Plan for implementing the Convention until 2025 as a positive step. We also note the rather active involvement of organisations of people with disabilities in the development and discussion of the National Plan and the draft Law on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. At the same time, we note the superficial nature of the reforms from the standpoint of human rights, the low priority given to issues of legal capacity, rights protection mechanisms, protection against discrimination, and deinstitutionalization or a complete refusal to consider them.
In spite of these steps, we want to emphasize that significant positive changes in the legislative, institutional and practical dimensions of the promotion and protection of human rights in Belarus have not taken place over the past year.
Thus, the authorities have so far not made any serious progress in establishing a national human rights institution; comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation has not been enacted, effective mechanisms for ensuring equality and protection against discrimination have not been established; discrimination against vulnerable groups, in particular, the Roma, LGBT people, women, etc. persists.
The death penalty continues to be applied in Belarus. Despite a certain openness of the parliamentary working group on the death penalty, the results of its activities so far have not been reported to the general public, plans for its future work are unknown.
On the independence of the judicial system, there are still a number of problems that affect the independence of judges and the exercise of the right to a fair trial. The judiciary continues to be under the strong influence of the President and his Administration, in particular, on matters of the appointment, dismissal and disciplinary punishment of judges. In Belarus, there is no real independence and self-government of bar associations and freedom to pursue legal profession. The Ministry of Justice has the broadest powers of administration over the practice of law, in particular, as it grants access to this field through licensing and monitors the activities of both individual lawyers and bar associations as an institution.
In 2018, regulations were amended to substantially expand the government’s control over the Internet in Belarus. In particular, authorities introduced a requirement for news websites to apply for registration as online media. Without this status representatives of news websites lose the status of journalists. In addition, a requirement for users of forums to undergo an identification procedure was put into place. Journalists cooperating with foreign media outlets without the foreign ministry’s accreditation continue to be punished. According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists, at least 118 such cases were recorded in 2018, with the fines totalling about 44,000 euros.
Last year, there were more instances of pressure on journalists and bloggers using a number of anti-defamation articles of the Criminal Code as well as regulations against extremism. Criminal penalties remained a sentencing option for slandering (Article 188), insulting (Article 189), slandering the president of the Republic of Belarus (Article 367), insulting the president of the Republic of Belarus (Article 368), insulting an authority figure (Article 369), discrediting the Republic of Belarus (Article 369.1).
National regulations continue to unduly restrict the right to peaceful assembly. The enactment of amendments to the Mass Events Law in 2018 that introduced a notification system for certain types of assemblies can hardly be described as progress. After the adoption of the Council of Ministers Directive No. 49 as a follow-up measure, the situation regarding freedom of peaceful assembly for the country’s citizens deteriorated still further, as the costs of organizing assemblies stipulated by the directive became a serious hindrance to the exercise of constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
Significant restrictions on the freedom of association remain, in spite of certain steps to improve the situation in this area, in particular, the abolition of criminal penalties for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations (Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code). The procedure of the state registration of public associations, parties, their organizations, as well as foundations is complex and burdensome, leaving state registering bodies the option of arbitrarily denying registration to any nascent organization. Opportunities for non-commercial organizations to receive funding from both domestic and foreign sources are significantly limited. The existing restrictive practices raise concerns about the justice ministry’s announced plans to add a provision to the Law on Public Associations that would require public associations to publish reports about the spending of the donations they receive.
We welcome the abolition of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code and regard it as an important and necessary step towards improving the situation regarding freedom of association in Belarus. At the same time, we state that the replacement of criminal prosecution for activities on behalf of unregistered organizations with administrative liability indicates the absence of political will to ensure real freedom of association in our country.
Mikhail Zhamchuzhny, recognized by the Belarusian human rights community as a political prisoner, remains behind bars.
In the run-up to the House of Representatives elections expected to take place in the autumn of 2019, we would like to note the lack of any progress in implementing recommendations by the OSCE/ODIHR for reforming electoral regulations, which are not sufficiently robust for holding free and democratic elections.
There are serious problems affecting the implementation of economic and social rights in Belarus. Forced labour is widely spread, in forms such as compulsion to take part in free work in the interests of the state (so-called subbotniks, harvesting work, etc.), the compulsory isolation of citizens suffering from alcoholism in treatment and labour therapy centres, the forced labour of “obliged persons,” forced labour in residential institutions under the guise of “labour rehabilitation”. Simultaneously, the government continues to exert pressure on members of independent labour unions.
People continue to be expelled from Belarus to countries where they may face torture and/or the death penalty in violation of international and national norms. This may be done using simplified expulsion or deportation procedures, not extradition procedures, which offer more serious procedural guarantees. This essentially amounts to disguised extradition (for example, of Mehrdad Jamshidian2, Ismail Nalgiyev3).
In connection with the above, Belarus’ human rights community recommends:
1) that EU institutions:
should continue viewing human rights as an important item on the agenda of the Human Rights Dialogue and involve representatives of the Belarusian human rights community in the Human Rights Dialogue;
help create and develop platforms inside of Belarus for communication between governmental agencies and the human rights community for the efficient implementation of Belarus’ human rights commitments;
should support Belarus’ efforts to implement the recommendations of the UN Human Rights Committee and other treaty bodies, as well as other steps by the government aimed at securing a real improvement of the human rights situation in Belarus, in particular, provide expertise and other assistance to help the country reform regulations and the practice of their application based on the rich experience of EU member states;
should continue to support Belarus’ civil society in its efforts to defend and promote human rights in Belarus;
should include human rights components in all projects carried out in Belarus with the financial support of the European Union and involve civil society representatives in their discussion and implementation.
2) that Belarus’ authorities:
should take active steps to improve national regulations in order to bring them into conformity with international human rights standards;
should continue involving a broad range of representatives of the Belarusian human community in the discussion of amendments to regulations affecting human rights and freedoms;
should create standing platforms for cooperation between state bodies and the human rights community to generate proposals for improving the human rights situation;
should involve civil society in drafting periodic reports for UN treaty bodies and within the framework of the Universal Periodic Review as well as in assessing the current and devising the future National Human Rights Plan;
should replicate the positive examples and results of the dialogue on the rights of people with disability in all areas of human rights.
The Belarusian Helsinki Committee
The Viasna Human Rights Centre
The Belarusian Association of Journalists
The Centre for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend)
The Assembly of Pro-democratic Non-governmental Organisations
Pravavaya Initsyyatyva (Legal Initiative)
Initsyyatyva (Initiative) FORB
The Office for the Rights of People with Disability
The Belarusian Documentation Centre
The Belarusian Human Rights House
1 The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Vyasna Human Rights Centre, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Centre for Legal Transformation (Lawtrend), the Assembly of Pro-democratic Non-governmental Organisations, Pravavaya Initsyyatyva (Legal Initiative), Initsyyatyva (Initiative) FORB, the Office for the Rights of People with Disability, the Belarusian Documentation Centre, the Belarusian Human Rights House.2 https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2019/05/blogger-and-human-rights-defender-ismail-nalgiev-extra-judicially-deported-from-belarus/3 https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2019/05/blogger-and-human-rights-defender-ismail-nalgiev-extra-judicially-deported-from-belarus/

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Mass Media Situation in Belarus in 2018. Report by BAJ

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

The Belarusian Association of Journalists has published an annual Monitoring Report 2018 on the situation in the field of media.
MAIN TRENDS
In 2018, the Belarusian authorities intensified pressure on independent media and journalists. This happened despite the liberalization policy declared by the authorities and the dialogue on human rights with the European Union and the United States.
The main events and trends in 2018 included:
– changes in the mass media legislation involving tightening government control;
– criminal prosecution related to freedom of expression (the case of Regnum journalists; criminal prosecution of the blogger Piatrukhin; the case of the head of the BelaPAN news agency Ales Lipaj closed because of his death; the “BelTA case”, which ended with the conviction of Maryna Zolotava, editor-in-chief of the most popular Belarusian website TUT.BY,);
– extrajudicial blocking of popular online news resources in Belarus;
– increased pressure on freelance journalists for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation;
– using counter-extremist legislation to restrict freedom of expression (especially, online).
These actions by the authorities were, rather, not a “new attack on the media,” but a continuation of a targeted and consistent policy of the Belarusian state aimed at establishing maximum control over the information space in the country. In 2018, the “Belarusian segment of the Internet” became the primary target.
Having taken full control over the television and radio broadcasting (with the exception of a few foreign media operating in the country, including the Polish TV channel Belsat and ousted independent print media, whose cumulative weekly circulation is less than the daily circulation of the Presidential Administration newspaper SB Belarus Segodnya, into a ghetto, the authorities have been trying to strengthen control over the Belarusian segment of the Internet, in which the state-owned media are obviously losing to independent resources.
Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted by the Information Analytical Center under the Presidential Administration, in Belarus, the Internet as a source of information is catching up in popularity with television.
The leading Belarusian portal TUT.BY outpaces by a huge margin (by ten folds) the popularity of government-owned online resources, including the news agency BelTA (which probably became the real reason for the “BelTA case”, directed primarily against the competitors of this state news agency).
Experts regard the attempts by certain circles in power to solve the problem of the Internet by tightening state control over it as a strategic mistake from the point of view of national security in the media sphere. The ousting of independent media from the information space will not lead to an increase in the popularity of government-owned media, but to an increase in the presence of Russian media in the country. Today, the extent of their influence on the audience is already huge: over sixty percent of the products of some of the leading Belarusian TV channels included by the government in the publicly available mandatory TV package are Russian-made.
Instead of trying to stifle independent voices, the authorities, at least from an instinct of self-preservation, should promote the development of non-government media in Belarus.
CHANGES TO THE MEDIA LEGISLATION
In June 2018, the National Assembly of the Republic of Belarus (the Belarusian parliament) adopted a law on amending the media legislation, significantly extending state control over the Internet space in Belarus.
The law, in particular:
– introduces the voluntary registration of online resources as mass media, but retains the unreasonably complicated authorization procedure for this registration;
– deprives the online resources that failed to pass the registration barrier, the rights of the media, and their correspondents the journalistic status, while extending to them all the liabilities provided for by the Law on Mass Media;
– maintains the extrajudicial procedure for blocking online resources by the Ministry of Information and introduces additional grounds for this (for example, using an online resource for carrying out activities prohibited in accordance with the Belarusian legislation);
– binding the online resources to identify commentators on their pages and on forums and to conduct moderation of their comments under the threat of liability for them.
The professional community criticized the amendments to the mass media law.
Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, also expressed his concern over them. “Many of the provisions are excessive and disproportionate and could result in the curtailing of freedom of expression,” Désir said in a statement.  .
New rules that introduce additional responsibility for the owners of online resources have also been introduced into the Administrative Code (Article 22.9 “Violation of the law on mass media”). A fine has been established for the distribution of “prohibited” information. The maximum amount of the fine is 200 base values (about 2,000 euros) for the websites registered as mass media, and 100 base values for the online resources that do not have the media status. At the same time, the legislation does not provide for the list of prohibited information and approaches to its definition. The control over the compliance with legislation on the media in this area has been assigned to police officers.
CRIMINAL PERSECUTION RELATED TO FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
The “Regnum case”
On February 2, the Minsk City Court made findings of guilt in the criminal case against Yury Pavlovets, Dmitry Alimkin and Sergey Shiptenko, three Belarusian authors who were published in Russian media (the so-called “Regnum case” named after the Russian news agency which had published their articles). The court found them guilty of deliberate actions aimed at inciting national hatred or discord committed by a group of persons (Article 130 (Part 3) of the Criminal Code) and sentenced them to the five years’ imprisonment with a three-year reprieve in the execution of the sentence. The convicts were released in the courtroom. If they do not commit violations of public order during the reprieve and comply with court orders, the court can release them from serving the sentence.
The “Regnum case” was instigated on the basis of a letter of the Ministry of Information to the Investigative Committee about the. The defendants were under arrest for 14 months – from the moment of their detention in December 2016.
“These sentences would be appropriate for dangerous criminals, to deter them from reoffending, but not for bloggers who were prosecuted for expressing controversial views,” said Johann Bihr, the head of Reporters Without Borders’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia desk. “Under international standards on freedom of expression, there is no justification for such disproportionate sentences. We call for their convictions to be overturned on appeal.”
Yury Pavlovets and Sergey Shiptenko appealed the verdict, but the Supreme Court upheld it.
The case of Ales Lipaj, the head of BelaPAN
On June 12, 2018, a criminal case was instituted against Ales Lipaj, the head of the leading Belarusian independent news agency BelaPAN, on intentional income tax evasion on an especially large scale in 2016-2017 (Article 243 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus). A search was conducted in the apartment of Ales Lipaj, during which documents and professional equipment were seized. Belarusian human rights organizations have declared the political background of the case and associated it with the general trend of increasing pressure on non-state media and online resources in Belarus.
In early August, the instigation of the “BelTA case”, in which two leading BelaPAN employees were charged, confirmed this conclusion.
Soon, on August 23, Ales Lipaj died at the age of 52. On September 12, the criminal case against him was discontinued in connection with his death.
“The BelTA case” and criminal prosecution of the editor-in-chief of the TUT.by portal Maryna Zolatava
On August 7–9, the editorial offices of the news agency BelaPAN, the portal TUT.BY and several other media outlets, as well as the apartments of some of their employees were searched. During the searches, professional equipment and storage media were seized. About twenty journalists were detained and questioned by investigators; eight of them were sent to the temporary detention center for up to three days.
The reason for the large-scale “special operation” was the unauthorized use by some journalists of the passwords to the subscription-based news feed of the website of the state news agency BelTA. It should be noted that the materials of the BelTA website are in free public access, and the media used them in accordance with the rules set by BelTA.
Nevertheless, criminal cases were initiated against fifteen journalists under Article 349 (Part 2) of the Criminal Code (unauthorized access to computer information, while acting out of other personal interest, causing significant damage).
The actions of the investigators drew protests from human rights activists, journalistic organizations and international bodies including the Council of Europe, the European Union, and the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
At the end of 2018, criminal cases against fourteen journalists were dropped. The administrative action was brought against them in the form of large fines and an actual coercion to pay compensation to the state-owned media – BelTA and the newspaper of the Presidential Administration, SB Belarus Segodnya. The compensation amounts ranged from 3,000 to 17,000 rubles (1,250 to 7,000 euros). BAJ regards the payment of compensation as a forced step on the part of journalists in order to avoid a much tougher punishment under the criminal article and other adverse consequences associated with criminal liability.
Maryna Zolatava, the editor-in-chief of the online portal TUT.BY was the only defendant charged in the “BelTA case”. Moreover, she was charged under another article – the omission to act (Article 425 of the Criminal Code).
On March 4, the Zavodski district court in Minsk found Maryna Zolatava guilty and sentenced her to a fine of 7,650 rubles (more than 3,000 euros); it also ordered the collection of court fees in the amount of 6,000 rubles (2,500 euros) in favor of BelTA.
“Conviction & fining of Marina Zolotova, editor of @tutby, along with disproportionate measures of law enforcement against @belapan & @tutby agencies in 2018, may exert chilling effect on independent media in #Belarus”, twitted Harlem Désir, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media.
“The way the authorities persisted with this case, which was out of all proportion from the outset, shows their determination to undermine the state media’s rivals”, said Reporters Without Borders after the conviction of Maryna Zolatava.
RESTRICTION ON ONLINE FREEDOM
On January 24, 2018, the Ministry of Information decided to restrict access to the popular online resource charter97.org.
The Ministry justified this decision by an alleged publication of prohibited information on the website. By the “prohibited information” the Ministry meant some “materials containing information the dissemination of which could harm the national interests of the Republic of Belarus, … articles indicating the date and venue of a mass event, a permission to hold which was not received at the time of publication, … the distribution through the website charter97.org of information products of a resource, which was recognized as an extremist material by a court decision and included in the Republican list of extremist materials.”
The Belarusian Association of Journalists noted that the blocking of charter97.org was the second decision of the Ministry of Information within a month to restrict access to popular information resources in Belarus (at the end of December 2017, it decided to block belaruspartisan.org). In both cases, the decisions to restrict access to the websites were taken in a non-transparent, out-of-court way, without disclosing which materials provided the reasons for blocking.
Using “anti-extremist” legislation to restrict freedom of expression
In 2018, the imposition of administrative sanctions against journalists and activists for publishing on social networks became more frequent. For this, they used Article 17.11. of the Administrative Code, which provides for liability for dissemination of information products that contain appeals for extremist activities or promote such activities.
The freelance journalist Alexander Dzianisau was fined 612.5 Belarusian rubles for reposting two videos about the participation of Brest anarchists in a protest rally, the “March of parasites”, in 2017.
Alexander Horbach and Mikalaj Dziadok were fined for posting symbols recognized as extremist on social networks. Meanwhile, on the contrary, in their materials, both of them criticized manifestations of neo-Nazism. So, Mikalaj Dziadok was fined for a post in which he condemned the fact that some people who were well-known in Belarus had taken photos with members of a group whose emblem was recognized as extremist in Belarus (these photos were given as an illustration).
FINES FOR COOPERATION WITH FOREIGN MEDIA
The prosecution of freelance journalists for cooperation with foreign media without accreditation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has intensified. The courts used Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code to fine journalists.
Article 22.9 (Part 2) of the Administrative Code provides for liability for the illegal production and / or distribution of media products. According to BAJ, journalists cannot be held accountable under this article, since the liable party under it is not journalists, but the editorial staff of the media.
In 2018, journalists were held liable under this article at least 118 times (which is more than in the previous four years taken together). The total amount of fines exceeded 100,000 rubles (about 43,000 euros).
In 2018, in most cases, the journalists who collaborated with Belsat TV channel were persecuted. Belsat forms a part of the Polish television but positions itself as the first independent television channel in Belarus.    
INCREASE IN THE STATE MEDIA FUNDING
On December 30, 2018, the law “On the republican budget for 2019” was signed. In accordance with it, 151,211,151 rubles (about 63 million euros) were allocated to finance state-owned media in 2019. This is almost one third more than in previous years. The allocation of funds occurs on a non-competitive basis.
RATINGS, INDICES, STATISTICS
The international human rights organization Freedom House in its ranking of freedom in the world in 2018 ranked Belarus among the non-free countries and assessed the degree of media freedom and Internet freedom in the country as the lowest (1 point out of 4). At the same time, “Press Freedom Status” and “Net Freedom Status” of the state were defined as “Not Free”.
In the latest press freedom rating of the international organization Reporters Without Borders, published in April 2018, Belarus ranked 155th among 180 states https://rsf.org/en/ranking/2018, down two positions from the previous rating.

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Death convict executed in Belarus on the verge of II European Games

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

Death convicts Aliaksandr Zhylnikau and Viachaslau Sukharko during an appeal hearing at the Supreme Court. May 29, 2018

On the verge of the II European Games in Minsk, Aliaksandr Zhylnikau is executed by shooting. The coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against Death Penalty in Belarus” Andrej Paluda was informed about it by the relatives of the convict.
Yet the fate of another defendant in the case, Viachaslau Sukharka, is unknown. However, the record shows that the sentences are carried out simultaneously for all sentenced to death within one case.
On May 30, a lawyer visited Aliaksandr Zhylnikau in the detention facility, where they drafted an appeal to the Prosecutor General for reconsideration of the case based on newly discovered facts. Today, on June 13, the lawyer went to the detention facility in order to proceed with the appeal, however, she was told that Aliaksandr Zhilnikau “has served his sentence.” The lawyer inquired if that meant that he had been executed. This presumption of her was confirmed. The official notice on the execution of the sentence will be sent to relatives by the Minsk City Court in accordance with the procedure.
Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Committee is in the process of considering an individual complaint of Aliaksandr Zhylnikau registered on December 24, 2018 with number 3082/2018.
The Committee addressed the Belarusian authorities with a request to take urgent measures and to avoid carrying out the death sentence prior to the consideration of the convict’s complaint by the Committee.

“I absolutely resent this approach. On the one hand, the country wants to be closer to Europe, to be called a European country, it hosts the II European Games, and on the other hand, it does not share the human rights values and remains the last country in Europe and the former Soviet Union where people are executed by shooting,” said Andrej Paluda.

In December 2015, a tragedy occurred in Minsk – a young guy and his girlfriend were found murdered in their apartment. The ex-girlfriend of the young man, kindergarten teacher Alina Shulhanava, unable to accept the fact that her partner left her for another woman, decided to punish her rival. The actual doers (Viachaslau Sukharka and Aliaksandr Zhylnikau) took it too far – they murdered both the man and his new partner. Right after detention it became known that the perpetrators were also involved in the murder of a resident of Kalodziščy, who let a room in his house to one of the murderers.
On May 29, the Supreme Court considered the appeal of Aliaksandr Zhylnikau. At first, the man got a life sentence, but after reconsideration of the case by the Minsk City Court, the sentence was substituted for the death penalty. However, the last instance at the national level left the sentence unchanged, and the complaint was dismissed. Then, assisted by human rights defenders, the convict sent an individual complaint to the UN Human Rights Committee.
The Amnesty International called on people from all over the world to appeal to the Belarusian authorities to stop the executions of Aliaksandr Zhylnikau and Viachaslau Sukharka, declare a moratorium on executions, and to commute all death sentences to imprisonment.

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UN Special Rapporteur reports absence of significant improvements in human rights situation in Belarus

Source: Viasna Belarus Human Rights Center in English

Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin. Photo by reform.by

The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin delivered a report according to her mandate. The report describes the systemic and systematic human rights violations present in law and in practice. The findings of the Special Rapporteur indicate the absence of significant improvements and the necessity for the Government of Belarus to clearly demonstrate its commitment to addressing long-standing criticism by introducing concrete durable changes. Based on her conclusions, the Special Rapporteur addresses recommendations to the Government of Belarus and the international community.
As in previous years, the Government of Belarus has not recognized the mandate of the Special Rapporteur, thereby limiting her capacity to engage constructively. 
Based on the information collected, the Special Rapporteur cannot attest to important improvements in terms of respect for human rights in Belarus. For example, the death penalty continues to be used and no progress has been recorded on the prevention of torture and ill-treatment although both areas have been the subject of many recommendations over the years.
Some welcome changes can be mentioned, such as the repeal of article 193.1 of the Criminal Code criminalizing the activities of non-registered organizations and the introduction of amendments to the law on mass events, establishing a notification procedure for certain assemblies. Those developments, however, only partly address the recommendations of human rights actors. 
The reporting period was also marked by the entry into force of legislative amendments introducing further restrictions on online media, while formerly documented practices of arrests of human rights defenders and activists, the prevention of peaceful assemblies and interference with the work of journalists and civil society organizations continue to be regularly reported.
The information collected also shows a heavy-handed and punitive approach towards marginalized groups, such as people suffering from addiction or the unemployed. Individuals, including children, arrested for drug-related offenses are sentenced to disproportionately long terms in prison.
The Special Rapporteur also notes that several groups, such as Roma, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex community or people living with HIV, continue to be discriminated against.
The Special Rapporteur encourages the Government to systematically involve civil society in policy-making, thereby promoting inclusiveness and increasing ownership.
Given the observations detailed in the present report, the Special Rapporteur is of the opinion that continued attention should be paid to the human rights situation in Belarus.

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