BELARUS: New amendments further curtail civil society rights
On 20 December urgent amendments to the Belarusian Criminal Code will come into force which impose jail terms of up to two years for anyone who facilitates or participates in group activities, works with unregistered organisations, appeals for assistance from foreign governments and organisations, or ‘discredits’ the Republic of Belarus in any way.
The vague wording of the amendments provides wide discretionary powers to the authorities, allowing them to label legitimate civil society activities as illegal attempts to discredit or harm the Belarusian state.
These amendments further constrain a civil society that has been under attack by the government since 2003. In the last three years, almost all critical non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Belarus have been systematically silenced by a series of repressive laws and regulations. Registering a new NGO or legally obtaining foreign aid has become impossible. Most human rights organisations are currently working as unregistered, underground groups.
Some of the new amendments include:
The introduction of criminal sentences for the coordination of activities by an association or a foundation which has been suspended or liquidated (Article 193). Anyone who organises such activities may face a fine and six months in prison. In vaguely defined “serious cases,” one can be subjected to a “restriction of freedom” sentence for up to two years.
A regulation making “education or other forms of preparation” for mass demonstrations, or financing such actions illegal, and punishable by imprisonment for up to six months, or a ‘restriction of freedom’ sentence of up to three years (Article 293). Training or preparation of people for participation in group activities which “grossly violate public order,” as well as the financing or material support of such activity, can also lead to a jail term of up to two years (Article 342).
A new article on “discrediting the Republic of Belarus” which punishes those who provide “false information” to a foreign government or organisation, which is interpreted to misrepresent the political, economic, social, military or international situation of Belarus, its government agencies or the legal situation of its citizens. Such actions are punishable by six months in jail, or a “restriction of freedom” sentence of up to two years.
Punishments for any person who appeals to foreign states or international organisations, “to the detriment of internal security, sovereignty or territorial integrity”, or disseminates material with such a call. Those who issue such appeals could be sentenced to prison for a period of six months to three years. If the information was distributed through mass media, those responsible could face jail terms from two to five years.
We fear the above amendments will further restrict the activities of independent civil society in Belarus. We urge the government of Belarus to:
Immediately repeal the new amendments, and refrain from introducing any future regulations harmful to freedom of association, expression and assembly in Belarus.
Review the restrictive registration and funding laws introduced over the last three years, particularly the Law on Public Associations adopted in August 2005, and repeal those articles which curtail the activities of civil society.
Recognise the vital role that civil society and independent media can play in ensuring a free and fair election in 2006, and work to guarantee they are able to operate freely without undue restrictions.