17 January 2018, Wednesday, 22:42

New witch hunt?


Human rights activists are concerned about initiating a new criminal case over “political” article 193 of the Criminal Code.

The case was initiated against Aliaksei Shchadrou, a resident of the village of Aliaksandrauka and a member of the Catholic church, who opened a shelter for homeless people in the village.

He is accused of violating article 193.1 of the Criminal Code for “organising activity … of an unregistered religious organisation and creating conditions for its work without registration required by law”. Aliaksei Shchadrou is accused of “uniting religious people from the village and homeless people into a steady group”, equipping a room “for practicing the religious cult and satisfying other religious needs”. The police want to bring the man to criminal responsibility.

Tatsiana Raviaka and Valiantsin Stefanovich from Viasna human rights centre spoke to charter97.org about the case.

“It is a very dangerous signal. We don't know how to regard this situation. Perhaps this is the start of a new campaign against representatives of unregistered organisations. We have grounds to suppose so, because both prosecutors and the KGB have intensified their activity recently: new warnings for activity on behalf of unregistered organisations are being issued. There were three warnings in April and one in May to activists from Minsk and regions. If prosecution of members of unregistered organisations is resumed, it may have negative consequences. Civil society in Belarus exists mainly in a form of unregistered groups, like Viasna human rights centre. This year we mark the 10th anniversary since we lost the official registration. If the 'witch hunt' begins, a scorched earth policy will continue.

There's an opinion that the target of the case is just one person and the case was an initiative of the local police. It is a warning. It was initiated on a personal initiative and will be closed on a personal initiative. But we need to be prepared for any developments. We need to raise this theme in media and among lawyers and take all measures to be ready to the situation that may affect the entire civil society. Until recently, there was a sort of a moratorium on article 193. Eighteen persons have been tried over this article and five have received jail terms since 2008.

Our society almost doesn't show a reaction to this fact. A possible reason is that he is not a politician or a civil activist, but a religious man. But the very fact of applying this article is a threat of all of us,” Tatsiana Raviaka said.

“This is the second case we know when proceedings are initiated against a member of the religious community. Article 193 provides for responsibility for activity on behalf of unregistered religious organisations. This article was severely criticised by Belarusian and international human rights groups. We have an opinion of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe saying that the article doesn't meet the norms of the Constitution and Belarus's international obligations. We protest against initiating of this case and insist on cancelling this article in principle. It is non-constitutional,” Valiantsin Stefanovich is confident.