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Belarus Updates, 2002

INTERNATIONAL LEAGUE FOR HUMAN RIGHTS

BELARUS UPDATE

Edited by Victor Cole

Vol. 5, No. 27

July 2002

IN THIS ISSUE:

--HUMAN RIGHTS AND OPPOSITION NEWS-


- U.S. Deplores Attacks On Independent Media In Belarus

- Czech Premier Condemns Conviction Of Pahonya Journalists

- Opposition Activists Detained For Supporting Free Media

- Opposition Party Vs. Ministry of Justice

- Artist Beaten By Minsk Police

- Two-Year Anniversary Of Cameraman's Disappearance

- Opposition Seeks Russia's Aid To Probe Disappearances

- Mikhail Chigir Faces Three Years In Prison

- Lukashenko Pardons Italian Businessman Convicted Of Spying

- Lukashenko Approves New Version Of National Anthem


U.S. DEPLORES ATTACKS ON INDEPENDENT MEDIA IN BELARUS

On June 28, Richard Boucher, U.S. State Department spokesman, condemned the Belarusian government's harassment of journalists and its restraints on freedom of expression. Following is Boucher's statement:

"The United States joins the OSCE and human rights groups in deploring the Belarus government's continuing pressure against independent media. The sentences handed down this week to journalists Mikalai Markevich and Pavel Mazheiko, from the independent newspaper Pahonya, for having allegedly insulted President Lukashenko during last year's presidential campaign are offensive to the universal principles of free speech and free press."

"We also note that a pattern of harassment against the independent media has intensified in recent weeks with this and other cases that appear to be politically motivated retribution against independent journalists for their professional activities. Prison sentences for independent media critics are a new and unwelcome development."

"These actions are part of a continuing series of anti-democratic measures taken by the Lukashenko regime since the flawed September 2001 presidential election. By these actions, the regime is increasingly isolating itself from the rest of Europe."

"We call on Belarus to release the Pahonya journalists, repeal its laws subjecting journalists to criminal charges, and assure adequate protections for independent media, consistent with its OSCE commitments." (USIA, July 1)

CZECH PREMIER CONDEMNS CONVICTION OF PAHONYA JOURNALISTS

On July 4, Milos Zeman, Czech Prime Minister, denounced the convictions of the Pahonya journalist. "The conviction contradicts fundamental human and civil rights relating to the freedom of thought and freedom of the press," Zeman said in a statement distributed to Belarusian journalists. "Both journalists in their activities had honorable intentions to help create a free, democratic community in their country," said Zeman. He showed his support for the Belarusian opposition during a visit to the country in April when he met with opposition leaders and refused to meet officials from the Lukashenko government. (Belapan, July 4)

OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS DETAINED FOR SUPPORTING FREE MEDIA

On July 3, three Malady Front (Youth Front) activists were detained on Skaryna Avenue in Minsk, while distributing Narodnaya Volya, Nasha Svaboda, Belaruskaya Maladezhnaya and other opposition newspapers. Ruslan Kharkevich, Dmitry Dashkevich and a friend, whose name was not made available, were taken to the nearest police station where a report was filed on them for alleged "disorderly conduct." (Viasna Human Rights Center, July 3)

OPPOSITION PARTY VS. JUSTICE MINISTRY

Alexander Petrash, first deputy of the Belarusian Minister of Justice, ordered an audit of the activities of the United Civic Party (UCP) on July 2, reported the party's press service. "It is not just a remarkable coincidence that this large-scale inspection has been launched right after the party's leadership had appealed to the Supreme Court requesting an annulment of the Ministry's warning issued to the UCP for publishing information that allegedly 'denigrates the honor and dignity of the head of the state, and contains unconfirmed and slanderous allegations.'" Narodnaya Volya, an independent newspaper, carried in its April 27 issue an article titled "Return What Is Stolen!" written by Anatoly Lebedko, UCP's chair. In the article, Lebedko raised the issue of recent international accusations, carried in international media and made privately by Western diplomats, that Lukashenko is supplying Iraq and other rogue states and terrorist regimes with high-quality military hardware in order to obtain hard currency. Lebedko asked where the proceeds from the alleged arms sales have gone, and has asked for a public accounting. (UCP, July 2)

PERFORMANCE ARTIST BEATEN BY MINSK POLICE

On July 3, a day celebrated in Belarus as the Day of the Republic, and commemorating liberation from the Nazis, Ales Pushkin, a well-known Belarusian performance artist, was arrested in Minsk for performing a skit on the street about the country's liberation from Nazi invaders. Pushkin was thrown on the ground, handcuffed and severely beaten by four policemen. The artist was forced into a van and brought to the Moskovsky District Internal Affairs Directorate, where he spent the night, denied food and water. On July 4, Pushkin stood trial on charges of "petty hooliganism" (Art. 156 of the Belarusian Administrative Code) and resistance of an officer of the law (Art. 166). The judge postponed the trial until July 8, following the artist's request to provide him with legal counsel.

Pushkin became famous worldwide for his creative protest action in November 1999, when he wheeled a cart of horse manure to the presidential administration building and pitched it at the building in protest against Lukashenko's unlawful extension of his original five-year term. Pushkin was charged with violating two articles of the Belarusian Criminal Code, "malicious hooliganism" and "disgracing state symbols" and received a suspended sentence to two years of imprisonment. As Pushkin commented to journalists before the trial, what was in the wheelbarrow represented Lukashenko's entire contribution to history. In 2000, the regime denied the artist permission to travel to the U.S., where he had been invited to decorate a Belarusian church in Cleveland. http://svaboda.org/

TWO-YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF CAMERAMAN'S DISAPPEARANCE

July 7, 2002, marked the two-year anniversary of the disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, a Belarusian cameraman who worked for the Russian public television station ORT. About 100 opposition activists attended, including Dmitry's wife Svetlana and mother Olga Zavadskaya; Ludmila Gryaznova, a deputy of the 13th Supreme Soviet; Anatoly Lebedko, chair of the United Civic Party; Oleg Volchek, head of the Public Legal Aid Association; Vintsuk Vyachorka, chair of the BPF Adradzhenne; Vyacheslav Sivchik, deputy chair of the BPF Adradzhenne; Gary Pogonyailo, a prominent human rights attorney; Vladimir Goncharik, the opposition candidate in the last year presidential elections; Andrei Klimov, 13th Supreme Soviet deputy recently released from jail and his wife Tatiana; Zinaida Gonchar, wife of Victor Gonchar, a 13th Supreme Soviet deputy chair and a high-profile antigovernment politician, who disappeared on September 16, 1999; Irina Krasovskaya, wife of businessman Anatoly Krasovsky, who disappeared along with Gonchar, and others held an unauthorized action "Chain of People Who Care" on Oktyabrskaya Square in Minsk to demand an impartial investigation into the disappearance of Dmitry and other prominent political opponents of the Lukashenko regime. Many domestic and international observers believe that the Lukashenko government is involved in the formation of death squads and the disappearances of political opponents.

The International League for Human Rights once again condemns the failure of the government of Belarus to mount a serious, thorough and accountable investigation into the disappearance of Dmitry Zavadsky, as well as the other prominent individuals associated with the opposition (Victor Gonchar, Anatoly Krasovsky, and Yury Zakharenko). The League calls on the UN's Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to take a more proactive stand on the cases, and to request a visit to Belarus to investigate them further.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) executive director Ann Cooper issued the following statement:

"We are appalled that two years after Dmitry Zavadsky's disappearance, justice has not been done. Although two former members of an elite special forces unit were convicted of kidnapping Zavadsky, his body has not been found, and his fate following the abduction remains a mystery. Meanwhile, Belarusian authorities have made no effort to investigate allegations that high-level government officials were involved in his disappearance."

"Zavadsky's family, colleagues, and the Belarusian public deserve to know what happened to him. The true perpetrators of this crime must be exposed and brought to justice. We believe that only an independent international investigation can uncover the truth. Once again, we call on Belarusian authorities to agree to such an inquiry and bring overdue closure to this case." (ILHR, CPJ, July 3)

OPPOSITION SEEKS RUSSIA'S AID TO PROBE DISAPPEARANCES

Members of the Belarusian opposition and some Russian lawmakers appealed to President Vladimir Putin to order the Russian security agencies to help investigate the disappearances of prominent opposition politicians and journalist Dmitry Zavadsky. Putin promised to raise the subject with Alexander Lukashenko, said Anatoly Lebedko, chair of the United Civic Party. The appeal was initiated by the Belarusian opposition, signed by Russian lawmakers and passed on to Putin by Russian parliamentary leaders who met with him in the Kremlin on July 1. Lukashenko tightly controls the investigations and is unlikely to welcome serious Russian participation, although Russian-Belarus cooperation and information exchange on these and other criminal cases has been documented. (Interfax/ Charter 97/ILHR, July 1-2)

MIKHAIL CHIGIR FACES THREE YEARS OF IMPRISONMENT

On July 5, Public Prosecutor Anatoly Yurkevich requested a three year prison term in a hard-labor colony with confiscation of property for Mikhail Chigir, a former prime minister and a major figure in the opposition to Alexander Lukashenko. Chigir is charged with tax evasions in 1998-99, when he was working for a Germany company in Moscow, and criminal negligence in connection with certain payments for the construction of a new building in 1994. The government is demanding BYR 8.59 million (about $4,924) in penalties for back taxes.

Chigir called the judicial proceedings a comedy. He said that under the Belarusian law, he was not required to pay income tax in Belarus during that period because he spent more than 183 days out of the country, working in Moscow. He believes that he is being pursued for political motives.

This trial is just one of the latest against Chigir, who in 1999 was charged with embezzlement, theft and other crimes from his term as prime minister and was jailed for eight months. On May 19, 2000, the Minsk City Court sentenced him to three years in prison, postponing the execution of the sentence for two years. In that case Chigir was charged with being criminally negligence and abusing power "resulting in serious damage to the state budget" under Articles 167-168 of the Belarusian Criminal Code. The court ordered him to pay $220,000 in damages. The former prime minister called the sentence "legally absurd" and appealed it immediately. The sentence was annulled by the Supreme Court in December 2000, and the case was remanded to a lower court.

On March 6, 2001, the Leninsky District Court of Minsk, sentenced Alexander Chigir, the youngest son of Mikhail Chigir, to seven years in a maximum-security prison for car theft with confiscation of property under Art. 205, par. 4, of the Belarusian Penal Code (larceny committed by a group). The family called the sentence political persecution. Earlier, Chigir's wife Julia was given a suspended sentence for resisting arrest.

Chigir and other opposition activists attempted to organize a dissident presidential election in 1999, when Lukashenko's term was supposed to end. But the authoritarian leader extended his term as president until 2001 through a referendum that was never recognized by western governments or by the opposition. Chigir was also among four opposition candidates who challenged Lukashenko's bid for re-election last year in an election widely criticized by international monitors. He and the others withdrew from the race and put their support behind a common opposition candidate Vladimir Goncharik. (Charter 97, July 5)

- AT HOME IN BELARUS-

LUKASHENKO PARDONS ITALIAN BUSINESSMAN CONVICTED OF SPYING

On July 4, Alexander Lukashenko pardoned Angelo Antonio Piu, an Italian businessman who in September 2001 was convicted of espionage and sentenced to four and a half years in a high-security prison. According to the Belarusian KGB, Piu and his girlfriend Irina Ushak were arrested in April while obtaining military data for western secret services. He came to Belarus in 1999 as the representative of an Italian humanitarian organization, and allegedly put together a network of informers on Belarusian arms sales in military institutions and the KGB itself. Piu did not speak Russian or Belarusian, so his 26-year-old girlfriend acted as his interpreter, the KGB alleged. She was found guilty of treason and sentenced to four years in prison, but pardoned by Lukashenko after less than a year. (Belapan, July 4)

…AND APPROVES NEW VERSION OF NATIONAL ANTHEM

On July 2, Lukashenko approved revised lyrics of the Soviet-era Belarusian national anthem called "We Belarusians." The Belarusian leader ordered to exclude from the new version of the anthem, which was originally composed in 1955, lines praising the Communist Party and Vladimir Lenin. (Belapan, July 2)

- EVENTS-

July 6-10, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Berlin, Germany.

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The Belarus Update is a regular news bulletin of the Belarus Human Rights Support Project of the International League for Human Rights. The League, now in its 60th year, is New York-based human rights NGO in consultative status with the United Nations ECOSOC.

The Belarus project was established to support Belarusian citizens in making their cases before the U.S. government and public and international fora and intergovernmental organizations regarding Alexander Lukashenko's wholesale assault on human rights and the rule of law in Belarus. Contact: belarus@ilhr.org or 212-661-0416 (fax)

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