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Belarus: Country Headed Toward Totalitarianism, Says OSCE

Vienna, 3 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- An international mission which visited Belarus in April has concluded that the country is heading towards a totalitarian state.

The mission was sent to Belarus by the Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE). The 10-page report by its leader, the Danish diplomat Rudolph Thorning-Petersen, has been issued only now after almost a month of delay because of protests by Belarus.

Thorning-Petersen concludes the report by saying: "The protestations of the Belarus authorities that their country is progressing towards democracy appear less than convincing. On the contrary, there is every indication that the authorities are constructing a system of totalitarian Government."

The OSCE mission visited Belarus from April 15-18. Thorning-Petersen says President Alyaksandr Lukashenka declined to meet the entire delegation but did meet Thorning-Petersen accompanied by one other delegation member, Dons Christensen. The entire mission did meet with other senior officials but a scheduled meeting with the secretary of the state security council, V. Sheiman, was canceled when he suddenly became ill. Instead the mission met with the deputy secretary, A. Tozik.

The Thorning-Petersen report covers several specific issues, including abuse of government power, the police, the judicial system, freedom of the media and freedom of assembly.

Thorning-Petersen recommends that OSCE establish a long-term mission in Belarus to promote democratic values. Last week, the Belarus foreign minister Ivan Antovich told the OSCE that it would consider allowing such a mission. An OSCE special envoy, Ole Bierring, is to go to Belarus this month to discuss the matter further.

In his report, Thorning-Petersen notes that other international missions have visited Belarus, including a European Union mission in January and a mission by OSCE's human rights organization, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in October last year.

He said there was "little, if any, impression that the Belarus authorities are at present ready to accept international advice with regard to human rights, democratic institutions and freedom of the media to any extent. On the contrary, the Belarus authorities rejected the idea that such advice was necessary."

He said that "on the many occasions that the mission expressed concern regarding a clear pattern of abuse by organs of Government, the Belarus official would deny the existence of any such pattern and demand details of individual cases of abuse with clear proof. When the mission responded with such details the official would retort that because Belarus was only a young democracy the occasional mistake was bound to occur. The official would then continue with a claim that a double-standard was being applied under which Belarus was expected to meet requirements which were not imposed on other states."

Here are excerpts from the OSCE Report.

Freedom Of Assembly

"Virtually no freedom of assembly remains in Belarus." The report gives details of the decree issued by President Lukashenka on March 5 which imposes severe restrictions on public gatherings. It comments: "Hundreds of people have been arrested or fined or detained for violation of this decree. It is reported that one person served four days of administrative arrest for displaying the flag of the European Union. This decree destroys the right of public assembly in Belarus and thus violates one of the most basic norms of the international community."

The Police

"The mission received and considered numerous eyewitness reports of random arrests and police brutality, particularly in the context of public gatherings. The police are under the control of the Minister of the Interior and under pressure of questioning Minister of the Interior V. Agolets did acknowledge that the police do sometimes react over-hastily to the mere threat of disorder.

"Mr. Agolets did not, however, perceive any urgent need to train the police to react less hastily. His main concern was the need to maintain order in society. This is especially troubling in that the Minister adheres to a very strict definition of "order." He made it clear that this definition demands a complete lack of public expression of any views not authorized by the authorities.

"The mission concludes that random arrests and police brutality constitute a major threat to civil rights and the rule of law in Belarus. The police play a key role in carrying out the clear governmental policy of persecuting and stifling dissenting opinion."

Judicial System

"The mission received numerous reports of judicial proceedings that fail to maintain basic standards of justice. These particularly concerned trials for violations of the presidential decree restricting public gatherings. The reports claimed that these trials were closed to the public as a routine matter, that convictions were based on inadequate evidence, that defendants were not allowed to call witnesses and that sentences were unduly severe. "

Abuse Of Government Power

"The mission found a clear pattern of the selective use of Government powers against persons or entities expressing dissent. The full range of these powers is directed in an coordinated effort to suppress expressions of dissent, discontent and opposition. In each case taken alone, the law may be correctly and justifiably applied. However the pattern of selective enforcement against dissenters constitutes a violation of basic principles of justice."

Freedom Of The Media

"Media freedom is very limited in Belarus. Over large areas of Belarus the public is served only by the state-controlled media. The chairman of the state committee on the press, V. Zametalin, asserted that "objectivity" was the main editorial principle for the state-controlled media. This principle is interpreted to include un-edited coverage of presidential announcements and -- owing to the tense political situation in Belarus -- to exclude the dissemination of views which could "have negative consequences." The result is that the state-controlled media almost always report only the views of the authorities.

"The independent press is subjected to systematic persecution by the authorities. Editors from the independent press described to the mission a political climate in which high Government officials repeatedly criticized the independent media for "lack of objectivity" and "misrepresentation", and in which vague and contradictory laws and decrees create legal uncertainties that allow the authorities to apply arbitrary administrative measures.

"The specific complaints included arbitrary eviction from rented premises and repeated rent increases, intrusive and prolonged tax inspections accompanied by temporary blocking of bank accounts, extended administrative procedures for registration of newspapers and periodicals, the possibility of administrative closure of newspapers following two Government warnings and police harassment of journalists. "The editors also expressed apprehension over planned changes in the law on the media and the announcement of a "re-registration" of newspapers and journals".