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Poland, Belarus & Ukraine Report: December 21, 2006

December 21, 2006, Volume 8, Number 43
WHAT DID KAZULIN ACHIEVE WITH HUNGER STRIKE? Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, who is serving a 5 1/2 year prison term for his role in challenging the results of Belarus's last presidential election, ended his 53-day hunger strike on December 11. Kazulin's main demand -- that the UN Security Council discuss the situation in Belarus -- has not been fulfilled. However, the international and domestic reactions that Kazulin's protest generated indicate the effort was not made in vain.

Alyaksandr Kazulin was arrested on March 25 and sentenced to 5 1/2 years in a correctional facility for his role in leading street protests in Minsk following the fraudulent presidential election in Belarus on March 19.

Together with Alyaksandr Milinkevich, Kazulin unsuccessfully ran against incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in that election. Lukashenka officially won 83 percent of the vote, while Milinkevich garnered 6 percent, and Kazulin 2 percent.

Kazulin went on hunger strike on October 20, pledging not to end it until the UN Security Council placed Belarus's human-rights situation on its agenda and until he was convinced that "the international community will devote its attention to Belarus."

Kazulin also called on Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski "to take over" the country, asserting that Lukashenka cannot be considered a legitimate president, seeing that his second term expired in September.

As with previous hunger strikes by oppositionists, nobody expected the Belarusian authorities to pay any particular attention to Kazulin's protest, let alone heed his demand that Lukashenka should resign. True to form, the government-controlled media remained silent on Kazulin during his entire 53-day fast.

Milinkevich, concerned about Kazulin's deteriorating health, in early December called on him to stop his protest. "One of [Kazulin's] demands -- that the UN Security Council view the Belarus issue -- cannot be fulfilled. The council will not consider such an issue -- even the Cuba issue has not been raised there, because there are those who can block it," Milinkevich reasoned.

However, Milinkevich made a point to mention Kazulin's courage when accepting the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for freedom of thought in Strasbourg on December 12.

Milinkevich acknowledged in his acceptance speech that the prize was not his alone, as it was also earned by other politicians and ordinary Belarusians who defy Lukashenka's rule.

He singled out Kazulin by name: "[Kazulin] has been on hunger strike for two months in jail now. His condition is very grave. His life is under serious threat. This award also belongs to him."

Previously, both Milinkevich and the Political Council of United Pro-Democratic Forces, the Belarusian opposition's coordinating body, sent appeals to the leaders of G8 countries to put the human rights situation in Belarus on the UN Security Council agenda.

On December 8 -- the same day some 500 people in Belarus went on a one-day hunger strike in solidarity with the fasting Kazulin -- the UN human rights rapporteur on Belarus, Adrian Severin, expressed his "deepest concern" over the opposition leader's health condition.

A day later a statement issued by the German Embassy in Belarus on behalf of the European Union called on the Belarusian government to "promptly release" Kazulin.

These efforts both at home and abroad may have contributed to Kazulin's decision to halt his protest, even though his basic demands have not been fulfilled. But his aim that the world "devote its attention to Belarus" may have been partially met.

The most sensational development regarding Kazulin's protest came late on December 12 in New York, when U.S. envoy to the UN William Brencick raised the issue during a closed-door UN Security Council session.

The U.S. move reportedly angered Russian Ambassador to UN Vitaly Churkin to such an extent that he called off the UN Security Council's planned discussion on Iran's nuclear program.

According to Yury Khadyka, deputy chairman of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front, the diplomatic row in New York was a big moral victory for Kazulin.

"[Kazulin] survived an unbelievably tough hunger strike and achieved an unbelievable goal: the problem of human rights in Belarus has been put [on the international agenda]," Khadyka said. "[This week] we had the U.S. decision [to raise the Kazulin issue in the UN Security Council] and the presentation of the Sakharov Prize to Milinkevich. These events testify that the world, even if with difficulty, is beginning to pay attention to the situation of lawlessness in Belarus."

Subsequently, the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning Washington's proposal to view the Kazulin case in the UN Security Council as an attempt "to turn the Security Council into a platform for discussing issues dictated by U.S. domestic-policy interests."

True or not, there was at least one aspect of the U.S. step regarding Kazulin that was not mentioned in Moscow's note. Belarusian human rights defender Ales Byalyatski told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that in making its proposal in the Security Council, the U.S. government in effect also expressed its concern over whether Kazulin will die in prison or not.

"The fact that [Washington] took such a step shows that the human rights situation in Belarus is very grave," Byalyatski said. "But [this step] also manifests normal concern for the health of a human being on the part of those people in the U.S. government who took this decision. This decision is in stark contrast to how the Belarusian authorities behave themselves."

Hunger strikes by political opponents of undemocratic regimes are often seen as an act of utter desperation and a protest of last resort. While Kazulin's fast did little to alter this general perception, it nevertheless confirmed that such protests can still arouse emotions of solidarity and moral support -- at least in some parts of the world. (Jan Maksymiuk)

EUROPEAN RIGHTS COMMISSIONER SPOTS AREAS OF CONCERN. Following his trip to Ukraine from December 10-17, Thomas Hammarberg, the Council of Europe's commissioner for human rights, gave an interview to "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report."

RFE/RL: What does the mandate of the Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights cover?

Thomas Hammarberg: My office is mandated to monitor the human-rights record of the 46 Council of Europe member states, and identify shortcomings in the law and practice. We also seek to encourage reforms by advocating the adoption and implementation of existing Council of Europe human-rights standards.

RFE/RL: Do you have the authority to enforce human-rights compliance upon the Council of Europe's members?

Hammarberg: Neither I nor the rest of the Council of Europe machinery can actually enforce compliance. But the organization's main decision-making body, the Committee of Ministers, oversees the execution of all judgments by the European Court of Human Rights. For example, at their last sitting in early December, they reviewed over 800 cases in which member-state governments had been found guilty of violating the European Convention on Human Rights, and were ordered to pay damages to individuals. My office focuses on promoting reforms and pointing to structural shortcomings, in order to render it unnecessary for cases to be addressed to the court. Apart from raising the problems with governments, we also work through ombudsmen, national human rights institutions, and civil society organizations.

RFE/RL: What was the purpose of your recent visit to Ukraine?

Hammerberg: The main goal of this visit was to make a comprehensive assessment of the human-rights situation in Ukraine. While we are in dialogue with the authorities, NGOs, and other international organizations during the year, it is important occasionally to dedicate time to be there in person and do a full review. In the course of my 8-day visit to Ukraine (Kyiv, Lviv, and Odessa), I met President Viktor Yushchenko, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, six government ministers, leading parliamentarians, the head of the Supreme Court, as well as religious leaders and representatives of human-rights civil-society organizations. I also visited police stations, detention centers, secondary schools, shelters for migrants and psychiatric hospitals.

RFE/RL: What are your first impressions after this visit?

Hammarberg: There is a better climate for freedom of expression than before. This also helps defining the many remaining human-rights problems. Indeed, there are several areas where Ukraine will need to continue with sweeping reforms. Let me mention a few. First, there is an urgent need to address the HIV/ AIDS epidemic which -- if not seriously addressed -- could lead to a dramatic demographic as well as economic and social crisis. Secondly, the authorities need to pay close attention to the functioning of the justice system as a whole. We identified deep-rooted problems in relation to the work of the courts and the functioning of law enforcement, including corruption and ill-treatment, even torture, of people arrested. Also, the prosecutor-general still has a broader mandate than such offices in other countries in Europe. The standards in institutions for pretrial detention and in the prisons need to be improved. Thirdly, xenophobia is a serious problem in Ukraine, as demonstrated by the great number of hate crimes and hate-speech incidents. Minority groups and migrants are particularly vulnerable, and I believe that racial crimes should be seen and treated as serious crimes by the authorities. Having said all of the above, I believe Ukraine has amazing human resources. I have met a number of dedicated, hard-working, and competent individuals, both in the NGO community and in various state institutions, who I believe have the potential to make a real difference.