OBS: Remaining human rights organisations in the country liquidated
- 5 October 2021
Paris-Geneva, October 5, 2021 – In Belarus, the remaining official human rights organisations have been liquidated this week in what marks the complete destruction of the country’s legally registered civil society. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, Legal Initiative, and ‘Zvyano’ have joined over 270 other NGOs that Belarus’ authorities shut down since July this year. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) strongly condemns this unprecedented crackdown on the civil society in Belarus and calls for an immediate international reaction.
On October 1, 2021, the Supreme Court of Belarus upheld the Ministry of Justice’s suit demanding the liquidation of the country’s oldest human rights organisation, Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC). The BHC has operated in Belarus since 1995. Among its founders were prominent public figures, such as a Nobel Prize winner for literature Sviatlana Alexievich.
The BHC received a statement of claim from the Ministry of Justice requesting the liquidation of the organisation on September 7, 2021. According to the statement, the Ministry of Justice received documents concerning two people to whom the BHC allegedly paid fees for “services for long-term observation of the presidential elections in Belarus in 2020”. Those documents have been reportedly obtained as a result of the investigation of an unnamed criminal case. According to the BHC, the organisation did not know what was this criminal case or against whom it was initiated.
Nevertheless, the Supreme Court considered the documents from this criminal case as admissible evidence. The court also refused to include amicus curiae prepared by experts from Poland and the Netherlands, and disregarded the letter of the United Nations Permanent Coordinator in Belarus. The Ministry of Justice ignored the joint letter by five international human rights organisations calling to withdraw the lawsuit. According to the Belarusian legislation, the decision of the Supreme Court is final and non-appealable.
On October 5, 2021, the Supreme Court and Minsk City court liquidated two other human rights organisations remaining registered in Belarus, respectively: Legal Initiative (LI) and ‘Zvyano’ (‘Chain’ in English). For the Legal Initiative, the decision is final as it was ruled by the Supreme Court, while ‘Zvyano’ is legally allowed to appeal the decision since Minsk City court was in charge of its case. Before their liquidation, both organisations and their members, had been subjected to legal harassment.
In this regard, the Observatory recalls that on June 9, 2021, the Ministry of Justice of Belarus sent a written warning to ‘Zvyano’ indicating that by monitoring the healthcare system during the Covid-19 pandemic and providing recommendations to the Ministry of Health the organisation had violated Presidential Decree No. 510/2009, which stipulates, among other things, that only the Ministry of Health can control the healthcare system.
On April 5, 2021, Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya and four other members of ‘Zvyano’, were arbitrarily detained in Minsk following their organisation of the ‘Machine breathes but I don’t’ exhibition, which shed light on the struggles of the medical personnel amid the Covid-19 crisis and the politicisation of healthcare in Belarus. They were accused of “disobedience to lawful order or requirement of the public official” (Article 24.3 of the Code of Administrative Offences) and sentenced to 7 days of detention. Law enforcement officers searched the apartments of the above-mentioned human rights defenders as well as the office of ‘Zvyano’ in Minsk, and confiscated its technical equipment, money and documents. The searches and interrogations of team members of Legal Initiative’ took place on July 16, 2021, during the massive raids of civil society organisations and its members that started on July 14, 2021.
The BHC, LI, and Zvyano have been the last human rights organisations not yet liquidated by the government in the July 2021 unprecedented crackdown on civil society which started in. At the time of writing, at least 275 civil society organisations have been liquidated or are in the process of liquidation in Belarus.
The Observatory believes that the liquidation of the above-mentioned organisations is politically motivated and is a part of the ongoing repression started in Belarus amid the widely disputed presidential election last year. At the moment, over 30 human rights defenders — human right activists, lawyers, and journalists, including 7 members of FIDH and OMCT member organisation, Viasna Human Rights Centre — are held behind bars. Tens of others human rights defenders suffer from other forms of legal harassment, including repeated detention and interrogation.
The Observatory further believes that the above actions are meant to prevent human rights defenders and civil society organisations in Belarus from doing their job, which is why they directly violate the right to freedom of association, as per the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).
Therefore, the Observatory urges Belarusian authorities to fully abide by their international human rights obligations as a party to the ICCPR to respect the rights to freedom of association, freedom from torture and ill-treatment, freedom from arbitrary arrest and the right to fair trial in Belarus. The Observatory further urges the authorities to fully respect and protect the work of human rights defenders and assure they can work without hindrance or fear of reprisal. Finally, in line with these obligations, the Observatory calls for the immediate and unconditional release all the human rights defenders currently arbitrarily detained in Belarus and the end of arbitrary administrative and criminal prosecution of human rights defenders.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.