• Sheet of paper Report

What is not permitted is prohibited: Silencing civil society in Belarus

April 24, 2013

In this report Amnesty International examines the state of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in Belarus. These rights, along with freedom of expression, are fundamental to the existence of civil society because they enable people to express their political opinions, engage in cultural endeavours, practice their religious or other beliefs, and cooperate with others to represent their interests. A healthy civil society is essential to hold governments to account and to contribute to government policy making.

In Belarus civil society activists who try to organize to make their concerns public must operate within the framework of restrictive laws, which are applied in ways which violate their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and of expression. Civil society organizations face closure, and individuals face prosecution if they criticize the authorities. Any form of public action, even a one-person picket, is subject to permission which is rarely granted, and peaceful demonstrators face fines or short prison sentences.

The lack of freedom of peaceful assembly in Belarus came to the world's attention in December 2010, when a mainly peaceful demonstration following the presidential elections was brutally suppressed by law enforcement officers. Hundreds of protesters were beaten, arbitrarily arrested and summarily sentenced. All the main opposition presidential candidates and many prominent opposition activists were imprisoned. Mykalau Statkevich, Pavel Sevyarynets, Eduard Lobau and Zmitser Dashkevich remain in prison to this day. The high price of being a human rights defender in Belarus is illustrated by the case of Ales Bialiatski, the Chair of Human Rights Centre Viasna, who was sentenced to four and a half years' imprisonment on 24 November 2011 on tax-related charges for money that was paid into his personal bank accounts in Poland and Lithuania to fund the work of Human Rights Centre Viasna, which had been prevented from opening a bank account in Belarus.

Many more human rights activists, political activists and other civil society activists and groups face constant bureaucratic hurdles, harassment and prosecution on lesser charges. In writing this report Amnesty International has spoken to a wide range of people and organizations, some of whom are working within charities that seek to help groups in their community such as foster parents and adoptive parents, or minority ethnic or other social groups, others are seeking to contribute to environmental policy, to improve workers' rights, help victims of torture and other human rights violations, or improve understanding of society through theatre. While some are seeking political change through political organizations, and see themselves in opposition to the current government, this is by no means the case for all, and many expressed the desire to work with the authorities to improve policy. Yet people who express alternative views to those of the government are treated as enemies of the state. As President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a business development meeting in Minsk in February 2013, warning businessmen off financing opposition parties: "If any businessman is going to finance the "fifth column" or in any way exert a negative influence on society, then I will think that they have joined the political struggle, the struggle against the state."

Throughout the former Soviet Union civil society is at varying stages of development as it struggles to throw off the Soviet legacy of total state control, and some governments are taking steps towards including civil society in policy making. However, in Belarus the government seeks to assert its control over civil society through repressive legislation and threats of prosecution and other sanctions. This report analyses the legislation governing freedom of peaceful assembly and association in Belarus, and then documents violations of these rights faced by human rights defenders, trade unions, environmental campaigners, and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

In this report Amnesty International uses the term non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to cover all civil society organizations including trade unions, although under Belarusian legislation NGOs may register as associations, institutes or foundations. Political parties would not normally fall under the category of NGOs, but the situation in Belarus is anomalous, because faced with over-demanding requirements for the registration of political parties, opposition parties choose to register as NGOs.

This report describes violations of the right to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, as well as other human rights violations, suffered by men and women in Belarus who strive to work for the good of society individually and as members of NGOs, and makes recommendations for amendments to law and practice to improve the compliance of Belarus with international human rights law and standards, in particular with regard to ensuring the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Amnesty International hopes that these recommendations will benefit all civil society groups in Belarus.