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Belarus: Helsinki Watch Says Perestroika Reversed

Vienna, 1 August 1997 (RFE/RL) --- An international monitoring organisation, Helsinki Watch, has accused Belarus president Alexander Lukashenko of having reversed "almost all the advances in human rights and the rule of law which marked the perestroika era and the early 1990's."

A 52-page document issued today in Brussels, New York and Moscow says the Belarus government has attacked freedom of expression by its actions against the independent media and journalists and by limiting the right to peaceful demonstration.

"After banning all public discussion from the State-owned media, the Government is now driving the independent media out of business. In the last few years it has closed two independent radio stations and a television station. It has marginalised the independent print media by misusing its monoply on publishing houses and issuing arbitrary tax regulations," says Helsinki Watch.

The report says non-Governmental organisations are being harassed by questionable tax audits and "outrageous" increases in the rents paid for offices in Government-owned buildings. It criticises actions taken against the Soros Foundation and says these are apparently intended to drive the organisation out of the country and so deprive many NGOs of their main source of financial support.

The Helsinki Watch report also criticises a presidential decree issued on March 7 and says it seriously compromises the possibilities for peaceful mass demonstrations. The report charges that "numerous vaguely-worded" rules and obligations in the decree can be used to arbitrarily restrict freedom of assembly. The report also criticises what it describes as "exorbitant fines" imposed on demonstrators after what it calls "blatantly unfair trials."

Helsinki Watch was founded in 1978 to monitor human rights abuses in the countries which signed the Helsinki accords. Its report on Belarus was issued simultaneously in Moscow, New York and Brussels.

The report says the Belarus government has launched an "especially fierce" campaign against the Russia broadcast media "because Russian television dares to criticise Belarus government policy and offers the only television news alternative to the closely-controlled Belarussian news"

The report includes a 12-point list of actions which should be taken by the Belarus government to restore the rule of law and freedom of the media. they include restoration of the independence of the judiciary, an end to the state monopoly on information, and the restoration of the accreditation of the Russian television journalists Pavel Sheremet and Alexsandr Stupnikov. It says Stupnikov's residence permit should also be restored

The report also calls on the Russian government to take action to help restore human rights and media freedoms in Belarus.

It notes the references to human rights and press freedoms in the Belarus-Russian union treaty and says Russia should "continuously seek guarantees for the Belarus authorities for the respect for human rights."

It says that within the context of the treaty, the Russian government should establish an independent human rights commission to investigate violations of human rights in Belarus.

It also calls on Russia to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the European Union and the Council of Europe in their efforts to restore democracy and respect for human rights in Belarus.

OSCE has offered to establish an office in Minsk to assist Belarus in the promotion of democracy. But on July 17 it said Belarus had suspended negotiations on the office indefinitely.

These are the 12 points which Helsinki Watch says should be implemented by the Belarus government. Re-establish the independence of the judiciary to ensure effective judicial protection of human rights and freedoms in accordance with international standards against decisions and actions of the executive and legislative powers.

Immediately end measures aimed at establishing a complete state monopoly on information. In particular, cease using the state monopoly on print and distributions services to marginalize the independent media. Also --- rescind Decree Nr. 218 on the import and export of information and remove its provisions from the draft law on the mass media. The draft law should establish an appeals process for journalists whose accreditation has been revoked.

Ministry of Communications plans to restrict the use of private telephones should be halted. The confiscation of written, taped and video materials should cease. Independent journalists should be granted sufficient access to Government information.

Cease all forms of government-initiated or Government-supported harassment of independent media and individual journalists. In particular, cease politically-motivated rent hikes, physical and verbal attacks on journalists and end restrictions on the use of publishing houses.

Restore the accreditation of the television journalists Pavel Sheremet and Alexsandr Stupnikov and restore Stupnikov's residence permit.

Re-establish radio 2, radio 101.2 and independent Belarus television stations.

Cease performing politically-motivated audits of Non-Government Organisations and discontinue other forms of harassment of NGOs, such as raising their rents unreasonably or forcing them to move out of their offices.

Establish sufficient guarantees to exclude political criteria from playing a role in the admission and dismissal of lawyers from bar associations. Rescind the arbitrary provisions in Presidential decree Nr. 5 restricting public demonstrations.

Ensure that demonstrations can be organised and carried-out in accordance with international law and human rights standards and without unnecessary police intervention.

Ensure that in cases of police intervention, law enforcement agencies employ only those measures which are strictly needed to re-establish public order. Ensure that police do not arbitrarily arrest or beat demonstration participants and non-participants.

Cease the harassment and intimidation of the deputies of the 13th Supreme Soviet and political opponents of the Government, including at work places, universities and schools.