The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Belarus.
Description of the situation:
The Observatory has been informed of the continued harassment of the Belarusian Human Rights Centre “Viasna”.
According to the information received, on December 16, 2013, Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, was informed by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus, that Viasna’s website www.spring96.org had been introduced into the list of resources with restricted access by decision of the same in August 2011 on the grounds that “actions on behalf of the human rights organisation ’Viasna’, that has not passed the established procedures of state registration, are contrary to the legislation of the Republic of Belarus”. The decision was based on Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits organising or participating in the activities of unregistered organisations.
According to the information received, other websites on the list include those dealing with pornography, promoting extremist activities or violating copyrights, and five opposition or critical minded websites. Those sites have the access blocked from the State, education and cultural institutions.
Until December 16, 2013, authorities had refused to disclose to Viasna the maker or the basis of the decision to restrict public access to its website. Viasna had contacted the Operative Analytical Centre (an agency under the authority of the President of the Republic of Belarus), the Republican Unitary Enterprise for Oversight of Telecommunications, and the Ministry of Communications and Information. Each body had either declined to give any information, referred Viasna elsewhere or advised it to contact all other agencies with the authority to restrict access to a website. It was not until Viasna had contacted all the agencies empowered to issue such a decision that it received a response from the office of the Prosecutor General, disclosing that they had made the decision and their above reason for doing so.
The Observatory recalls that in August 2007 the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that the November 2003 decision of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarus to dissolve Viasna is a violation of the right to freedom of association and called on authorities in Belarus to re-register and compensate Viasna in accordance with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Government of Belarus is yet to comply with the recommendation. Furthermore, it has refused several requests by Viasna and many other organisations to be registered.
The Observatory also notes that Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus provides for grounds for the restriction of the activities of associations – aiming to change the constitutional order or advocating war, social, national, religious and racial hatred. Unarguably, the activities of Viasna do not fall into any of these categories.
The Observatory expresses its concern about the decision of the Government of Belarus to censor Viasna’s website, and considers it a means to curtail its human rights activities. Furthermore, the mention of Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code in the General Prosecutor’s answer to their request amounts to a form of intimidation against Viasna, which has been continuing its legitimate and peaceful activities despite a constant pressure. The Observatory has repeatedly qualified Article 193.1, which penalises acting on behalf of an unregistered organisation, as a provision violating both the Constitution and international human rights law. The Council of Europe Venice Commission concluded in October 2011 that Article 193.1 of Belarus’ Criminal Code, violates the provisions of international law. According to the Venice Commission, freedoms of association and expression are of vital importance in any democratic country, and any restrictions on them should be well justified.