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In recent years, the government of Belarus has been accused of serious human rights violations, the most recent of these being the harassment of the Union of Poles in Belarus which represents ethnic Poles in the region. Religious, political and journalistic activity is tightly controlled. Other alleged human rights violations have included the digging up of a Jewish cemetery in order to build a sports stadium. Concerns have also been raised by the UCSJ, among others, of the President's alleged use of Neo-Nazi thugs in intimidating opposition supporters during general elections. There have also been accusations of widespread spying on ordinary people and minority groups, in what commentators have called a manner reminiscent of the Soviet Union.

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Political dissidents and prisoners

Belarus has come under fierce attack from Amnesty International for its treatment of political prisoners[1], including those from the youth wing of the Belarusian Popular Front, a pro-democracy party. In a report dated 26 April 2005, Amnesty again criticised Belarus for its treatment of dissidents, including a woman imprisoned for publishing a satirical poem[2]. Another political prisoner who has been in jail since 1999 is Yury Bandazhevsky, a scientist who was jailed for publishing his findings about illnesses caused by the Chernobyl disaster[3].

Belarus and Uzbekistan are the only two countries in the former Soviet Union which officially retain the death penalty, although according to a 4 October 2005 press release by Amnesty International, the number of executions has decreased since 1999[4].

The United States Department of State issued a report on April 14, 2005, expressing concern about the disappearance and possible summary execution of three political activists in 1999 and a journalist in 2000, as well as continuing cases of arbitrary arrest and detention without trial[5]. The State Department has also appealed to Belarus to provide information publicly about individuals who were executed.

A report dated 31 August 2005 from Amnesty USA claimed that in addition to the Polish minority crisis earlier that year, three Georgians from the youth movement Kmara were detained while visiting Belarus[6]. The activists were detained on 24 August, along with Uladimir Kobets from Zubr, a Belarusian opposition movement. According to the report, he was released after two hours, being told that the police operation was directed at "persons from the Caucasus."

Freedom of the press

In 2005, Reporters Without Borders ranked Belarus 152nd out of 167 countries in its global press freedom listing[7]. Freedom House rates Belarus as "Not Free" according to its 2004 global survey "Freedom in the World"[8]. The Lukashenka government systematically curtails press freedom, the organisation says. State media are subordinated to the president, and harassment and censorship of independent media are routine, the organisation claims.

Freedom of religion

Jews are not the only minority who are said to have had their human rights violated in Belarus. On March 25, 2004, the Associated Press reported that a ban exists on home worship in the country and that members of four Protestant churches had recently asked the government to repeal a 2002 law which forbade them worshipping from their own homes, even though they were members of legally registered religions.[9] The Christian Post reported in an April 21, 2005 article[10] that non-denominational, charismatic churches were worse affected by the law, since none of these churches have been able to own buildings. Protestant organisations have also complained of censorship, because of the ban on importing literature without it first being examined and approved by government officials.

According to Forum 18, textbooks widely used in Belarusian schools as of 2002 contain anti-religious views similar to those taught under the communist USSR:

religion does not teach a believer to strive to lead a dignified life, to fight for his freedom or against evil and oppression. This is all supposed to be performed for him by supernatural forces, above all, god. All that is left for the believer to do is to be his pathetic petitioner, to behave as a pauper or slave... Religion's promises to give a person everything that he seeks in it are but illusion and deception."

The organisation has also reported that charismatic Protestant churches such as Full Gospel, as well as Greek Catholic and independent Orthodox churches - as in those not affiliated to the Russian Orthodox Church - have found difficulty in registering churches in recent years[11].

In 2003, Protestant groups accused the government of Belarus of waging a smear campaign against them, telling Poland's Catholic information agency KAI that they had been accused of being Western spies and committing human sacrifice[12]. Charter 97 reported in July 2004 that Baptists who had celebrated Easter with patients at a hospital in Mazyr had been fined and threatened with the confiscation of their property[13].

Only 4,000 Muslims live in Belarus, mostly ethnic Tatars who are the descendants of immigrants and prisoners in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.[14]. The administration for Muslims in the country, abolished in 1939, was re-established in 1994.

However, Ahmadiyya Muslims, commonly regarded to be a non-violent sect of Islam, are banned from practising their faith openly in Belarus, and given a similar status to groups such as Scientology and Aum Shinrikyo.[15] There have been no major reports of religious persecution of the Muslim community, but because of the situation in Chechnya and neighbouring Russia, concerns have been expressed by Muslims in the country that they may become increasingly vulnerable.

These fears have been heightened by the fact that on 16 September 2005, a bomb was let off outside a bus stop in the country, injuring two people. On 23 September, a bomb was set off outside a restaurant, wounding nearly 40 people. Muslims are not suspected in the attack, which has been labelled as "hooliganism".[16]

Industrial relations

The situation of trade unions and their members in the region has also been criticised by Amnesty UK,[17] with allegations that authorities have interfered in trade union elections and that independent trade union leaders have been dismissed from their positions.

In recent years, trades unions in the country have been subject to a variety of restrictions, including:[18]

The banning of unregistered trade unions

As of 1999, all previously registered trade unions have to re-register and provide the official address of the headquarters, which often includes a business address. A letter from the management is also required, confirming the address - making the fate of the trade union entirely dependent on the management. Any organisation which fails to do so is banned and its membership dissolved.

High minimum membership requirements

In a measure which has also reportedly been used against Jewish human rights organisations, the Belarusian government has announced that any new trade union has to contain a minimum of five hundred members for it to be recognised, making it extremely difficult for new unions to be founded.

Systematic interference

The International Labour Organization's governing body issued a report in March 2001 complaining of systematic interference in trade union activities, including harassment and attacks on union assets. Workers who are members of independent trade unions in Belarus have, according to Unison, been arrested for distributing pamphlets and other literature, and have faced losing their jobs.

Gays and lesbians

Belarus legalised homosexuality in 1994. However, homosexuals face widespread discrimination in Belarus. In recent years gay pride parades have been held in Minsk. One notable parade was staged in 2001, when presidential elections were held in the country. However, according to OutRage!, a gay rights organisation based in Britain, a gay-rights conference in 2004 had to be called off after authorities threatened to arrest those taking part. The country's only gay club, Oscar, was closed in 2000, and in April 1999, the Belarus Lambda League's efforts to gain official registration was blocked by the Ministry of Justice.

On 31 January, 2005, the Belarusian national anti-pornography and violence commission announced that it would block two gay websites, www.gaily.ru and www.qguis.ru as they were said to contain obscene language and "indications of pornography".

However, Russian gay and lesbian organisations have alleged that the failure of a gay pride parade in 2000 was not down to state-sponsored homophobia but down to the Lambda League themselves, who organised the parade, claiming that the organisation was trying to seek publicity abroad rather than promote the human rights of homosexuals in the country.

In 1999, in an extraordinary conference called "The Pernicious Consequences of International Projects of Sexual Education", members of the Belarusian Orthodox Church reportedly accused UNESCO, the United Nations, and the World Health Organisation of encouraging "perversion", as well as "satanic" practices such as the use of condoms and abortion. One priest reportedly called for all homosexuals to be "executed on the electric chair".

In August 2004, the International Lesbian and Gay Association reported that the Belarusian authorities had forced a gay cultural festival, Moonbow, to be cancelled, amid threats of violence. Foreigners who participated in any related activities would be expelled from the country. In addition, neo-Nazi groups allegedly put pressure on the authorities to cancel the event. Bill Schiller, coordinator of the ILGCN, described the situation as follows:

While the rest of Europe is moving forwards, this last dictatorship in Europe is trying to push its homosexual community into a 1930s nazi style concentration camp," says Schiller. "Sweden and other democratic governments of Europe must react to the harassment, persecution and international isolation of human beings.

Polish minority crisis

On 3 August, 2005, an activist working for the Union of Poles, which represents the Polish minority community, was arrested and given a 15-day jail sentence. Lukashenko also accused the Polish minority of plotting to overthrow him. The former head of the Union of Poles, Tadeusz Gawin, was later given a second sentence for allegedly beating one of his cellmates, a claim he denies.

The offices of the Union of Poles were raided on 27 July, 2005, in a crisis which had come to the surface the previous day when Andrzej Olborski, a Polish diplomat working in Minsk was expelled from the country, the third such expulsion in three months. Poland had accused Belarus of persecuting the 400,000 Poles who have been a part of Belarus since her borders were moved westward after the Second World War.

Anti-semitism

President Alexander Lukashenko provoked outrage when he praised Hitler in a Russian NTV interview in 1995, saying that:

The history of Germany is a copy of the history of Belarus. Germany was raised from the ruins thanks to firm authority, and not everything connected with that well known figure, Adolf Hitler, was bad. German order evolved over the centuries and under Hitler it attained its peak.

In 2004, Charter 97 reported that for some government job applications Belarusians are required to state their nationality.[19] This has been cited as evidence of state anti-semitism in the region, as similar practices were used to discriminate against Jews in the USSR. They are also required to state information about their family and close relatives, and this is said to be in breach of the constitution. However, it must be remembered that some more developed countries, such as the United Kingdom, also ask applicants to state their ethnicity on application forms in many cases, although this information is usually only used for statistical purposes.

Belarus has been criticised by the Union of Councils for Jews in the Former Soviet Union, as well as many American senators and human rights groups, for building a football stadium in the town of Grodno which was on the site of a historic Jewish cemetery. A website called www.stopthedigging.org was set up to oppose the desecration of the cemetery, however this site has since been shut down. The Lukashenko administration has also faced criticism on this issue from members of parliament, as well as from Jewish organisations in Belarus.

In January 2004, Forum 18 reported that Yakov Gutman, president of the World Association of Belarusian Jewry accused Lukashenko of "personal responsibility for the destruction of Jewish holy sites in Belarus", accusing the authorities of permitting the destruction of a synagogue to build a housing complex, demolishing a former shul in order to build a multi-storey car park, and the destruction of two Jewish cemeteries. According to the report, he was subsequently detained by police and taken into hospital, apparently suffering from a heart attack.

In March 2004, Gutman announced that he was leaving Belarus for the USA, in protest at the authorities' state anti-Semitism, an opinion backed up by a July 2005 report by UCSJ that a personal aide of the President, a former Communist Party ideologue called Eduard Skobelev, had been publishing anti-Semitic books, and had even promoted the use of guns to solve what he termed the "Jewish problem". In 1997, Skobelev was given the title of "Honored Figure of Culture" by Lukashenko, and was put in charge of the journal "Neman".

UCSJ's representative in Belarus, Yakov Basin, wrote a report detailing the authorities' alleged anti-Semitism.[20] The only Jewish higher education institution in Belarus, the International Humanities Institute of Belarusian State University was closed in February 2004[21], in what many local Jews believe is a deliberate act of anti-semitism in order to undermine their educational rights and position in society. However, it is not the only educational institution to face closure in Belarus - the last independent university in the nation, a secular institution which received funding from the European Union, the European Humanities University[22] was closed in July 2004. Commentators have implied that this may be part of a wider move by Lukashenko to crush internal dissent.

Jewish observers also cite anti-Semitic statements by legislators and members of the government, as well as the apparently consistent failure of the authorities in Belarus to punish perpetrators of anti-Semitic crime, including violent crime, as pointing to a wider policy of anti-Semitism within the state.

Praise of President Alexander Lukashenko has appeared on several neo-Nazi websites, including the virulently anti-Semitic website Vanguard News Network. A 2005 article openly gloated about the situation in the country as regards Jews and made favourable comparisons with 1930s Germany.[23] One neo-Nazi group, Support88, reportedly describes Lukashenko as being "the only bulwark against the empire of the New World Order", and describes opponents of the leader as "Zionists"[24].

Opposing views

However, critics such as the BHHRG point out that the US was implicated in both the Georgian revolution and the Ukraine Orange Revolution of 2004 and suggest that concern about Belarus is motivated by geo-political factors rather than any desire for change in the country. These assertions are given less credibility by the fact that groups, such as Union of Councils for Soviet Jews and Amnesty International, not related to the US government, the EU, or George Soros have also repeatedly expressed concern about the situation in the country.

See also

References

Sources

Freedom of the press

[2] Belarus ranked 16th worst ranked country on RSF Press Freedom index

[3] Freedom House ranks Belarus as "Not Free"

Gays and lesbians

[4] Gay Times country profile

[5] Asylum seeker wins, but still detained

[6] Belarus gays parade in election fever

[7] Gay and lesbian websites blocked in Belarus

[8] Orthodox Church organises homophobes

[9] ILGA - threats from Belarusian regime force organisers to cancel festival

[10] Failure of Gay Pride 2000

[11] Global Gayz - Belarus News and Reports, 2004-05

Polish minority crisis

[12] Poland accuses Belarus of human rights violations

[13] Polish chief jailed again

[14] Belarus-Poland row escalates

Anti-Semitism

[15] Protests over Belarus Jewish graves.

[16] Belarus digs up Jewish graves

[17] President Lukashenko: in quotes

[18] Belarus lawmakers protest destruction of Jewish sites

[19] Forum 18 article

[20] Jews get by in Belarus, but they feel the authorities' watchful eyes

[21] Lukashenko aide continues anti-semitic publishing

[22] Belarus aide leaves country in protest at state anti-semitism

Neo-Nazi allegations

[23] Neo-Nazis continue attacking Belarusian oppositionists

[24] Minsk Neo-Nazis March To Commemorate Fallen Comrade

Belarus








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