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Belarus: Council Of Europe Committee Says Human Rights Situation Is Deteriorating

New findings by a major European human rights body conclude that political, religious, and media freedoms are getting worse in Belarus. The Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe discussed the problems earlier this week in Paris.

Prague, 18 December 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Human Rights Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe says it believes the human rights situation is deteriorating in Belarus.

A member of the Lithuanian parliament, Vaclov Stankevic, is one of the committee's reporters on Belarus. He said Belarusian authorities are tightening their stance against the country's independent media and that journalists in Belarus work under the threat of criminal persecution. "In practice, [the human rights situation in Belarus] is really getting worse. It is clearly seen now when [President Alyaksandr] Lukashenka and his government put enormous pressure on the media. Local elections are coming [up] in Belarus, and that's why journalists are [being] sent to do compulsory labor, one after another," Stankevic said.

Stankevic is referring to the recent cases of three journalists: Viktar Ivashkevich, editor in chief of the weekly "Rabochy"; Pavel Mazheyka, editor in chief of another weekly, "Pohonya"; and Mikola Markevich, a journalist from "Pohonya." They were sentenced earlier this year to work in state-owned factories as punishment for writing articles that allegedly libeled Lukashenka. The sentences ranged from one to two years.

In addition, the authorities shut down "Rabochy" and "Pohonya," as well as another weekly, "Mestnoe vremya."

Stankevic said the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, is due to discuss the human rights situation in Belarus next month. The Human Rights Committee is recommending that the Assembly invite Belarusian Information Minister Mikhail Padhayny to discuss the situation.

Stankevic said the Human Rights Committee is also recommending that a parliamentary delegation be sent to Belarus to investigate the issue of human rights in more detail. "I put forward a proposal to the committee [to send] a delegation, at least a small one, consisting of parliamentarians from the Council of Europe, to visit the [sentenced] journalists [and jailed] politicians in order to support them and get acquainted with the conditions in which they live and work while performing this compulsory labor," Stankevic said.

Stankevic said the Human Rights Committee is also concerned about Belarus's newly adopted law on religion, which is said to be one of the most repressive in Europe. The decree outlaws all religious assemblies and groups except those registered with the state. And the state bars from registration any religious community that has been active in Belarus for less than 20 years.

Stankevic said he believes PACE should scrutinize the law on religion and send its comments to the Belarusian authorities. "It is clear that Belarus is not a democratic country," Stankevic said, "and I want the Belarusian authorities to know that the Council of Europe, which Belarus wants to join, is not happy about things going the wrong way in the country."

The Council of Europe suspended Belarus's "special-guest" status in 1997, saying its new constitution fell short of democratic standards and gave too much power to Lukashenka.

RFE/RL could not reach the Belarusian Foreign Ministry for comment.

Jakub Swiecicki of the Swedish Institute of International Relations told RFE/RL that the conclusions of the Human Rights Committee do not break any new ground, that their findings about Belarus have long been known.

However, Valery Karbalevich, an analyst with the Strategic Center, an independent Minsk-based political think tank, agreed with Stankevic. Karbalevich told RFE/RL that the situation in the country is deteriorating and that all aspects of public life are affected. "Trade unions have been practically nationalized. The trade unions, as during Soviet times, have become state-owned. The deputy head of the presidential administration has been appointed to lead them. An assault is under way against political parties. The authorities harass them in various ways, and the Ministry of Justice is especially active in this field," Karbalevich said.

Karbalevich added that Belarusian literary magazines have also been placed under strict state control this year, along with popular youth organizations. He said that, so far, all Western tactics meant to influence Lukashenka have failed but that the West should still try to do more to support civil society in Belarus.

Swiecicki agreed, saying that the West is doing too little to develop civil society in the country. And he said he doubts the travel ban imposed on Lukashenka by the United States and the European Union will have much impact.

On 19 November, all members states of the European Union, except Portugal, imposed a travel ban on Lukashenka and several senior members of his government as a sign of disapproval over Minsk's human rights record. The United States followed up with a travel ban of its own on 26 November. Norway last week also said it would not welcome the Belarusian president on Norwegian soil.

Swiecicki said that, as Belarus sinks further into diplomatic isolation, it would be a welcome step if a delegation of European parliamentarians visited Minsk and made it clear that the actions being taken are directed at the government, not the Belarusian people. "It should be made a clear division between Lukashenka and the rest of the country. I think one thing is to let Lukashenka know that he is not welcome, that the EU and that the West are very critical about him. He should know about that. This is one thing. But on the other hand, it should be very clearly made by the West that it's not the isolation of the country as such," Swiecicki said.

Swiecicki said the West has offered some help to the political opposition and the independent media in Belarus but that these efforts have been badly targeted and largely ineffective.