b. Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for freedom of peaceful assembly; however, the government severely restricted this right. Authorities employed a variety of means to discourage demonstrations, disperse them, minimize their effect, and punish the participants. The law provides for freedom of association, but the government restricted it and selectively enforced laws and registration regulations to restrict the operation of independent associations that might criticize the government.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
Only registered political parties, trade unions, and NGOs could request permission to hold a demonstration of more than 1,000 persons. Authorities usually denied requests by independent and opposition groups as well as those of self-organized citizens’ groups in various communities around the country. A general atmosphere of repression and the threat of imprisonment or large fines exercised a chilling effect on potential protest organizers.
The law criminalizes the announcement of an intention to hold demonstrations via the internet or social media before official approval, participation in the activities of unregistered NGOs, training of persons to demonstrate, financing of public demonstrations, or solicitation of foreign assistance “to the detriment” of the country. Violations are punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment. Persons with unexpunged criminal records for crimes related to violating peace and order, statehood and governance, public security, safety, and public morals did not have the right to act as mass event organizers. Such organizers must apply at least 15 days in advance for permission to conduct a public demonstration, rally, or meeting, and government officials are required to respond no later than five days prior to the scheduled event. Authorities, however, generally granted permits for opposition demonstrations only if held at designated venues far from city centers. The amended law allowed organizers to notify authorities of a mass event planned at a designated location no later than 10 days before the date of the event. Authorities should inform organizers of denial no later than five days before the event. By law denials can be issued for one of two reasons: the event conflicted with one organized by a different individual or group or the notification did not comply with regulations.
Authorities used intimidation and threats to discourage persons from participating in demonstrations, openly videotaped participants, and imposed heavy fines or jail sentences on participants in unauthorized demonstrations. In addition authorities required organizers to conclude contracts with police, fire department, health, and sanitary authorities for their services after a mass event. Authorities waived some of these requirements for the March 25 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic (BPR). All media representatives had to be clearly identified and carry an official media ID or foreign media accreditation. They have to provide their personal ID and press documents to law enforcement upon request.
On March 27, President Lukashenka told Interior Minister Ihar Shunevich that the Ministry should be ready to “immediately suppress” any unauthorized events which “impede people’s lives” because “chaos stems from them [unauthorized protests].” Shunevich responded that “not a single event, which is not sanctioned by authorities, will take place, and even if it starts it will be immediately stopped in an effective manner and in compliance with the law.”
During the year local authorities countrywide rejected dozens of applications for permission to stage various demonstrations.
While Minsk city authorities cooperated with opposition groups to stage a rally and concert on the 100 anniversary of the Belarusian People’s Republic in front of the Opera House on March 25, they denied two other applications to hold marches the same day. Organizers of the concert had sought to walk from a nearby park to the concert location before the concert. A second application was filed by opposition activist Mikalai Statkevich and his supporters to march from the central Yakub Kolas square via the main avenue to the concert location. When Statkevich decided to go ahead with his plan without permission, police arrested him as he was leaving his home. Police also arrested approximately 60 individuals gathered at Yakub Kolas square.
In addition, authorities in Mahilyou and Homyel denied local activists’ permission to hold rallies in city centers on March 25. They alleged that the venues were not designated for mass events or had been already booked for other events.
Across the country in at least 11 different localities, approximately 57 individuals were briefly detained, apparently in order to prevent their participation in March 25 events in Minsk.
On July 3, celebrated as the Belarusian Independence Day, police dispersed an unauthorized protest and detained approximately 30 individuals, including Mikalai Statkevich, in front of a WWII monument to Soviet soldiers in central Minsk. Statkevich called upon his associates to hold a rally to mark the “liberation [of Minsk from the Nazis on July 3, 1944] and solidarity.” Statkevich was arrested as he was leaving his house on his way to the site on July 3. Police detained approximately 30 activists at the site, including five observers from the human rights group Vyasna, transported them to a local precinct, and released the majority later in the day. Statkevich and at least three other activists remained in detention overnight and stood trial on July 4. A Minsk district court sentenced Statkevich to a fine of 980 rubles ($490) for making calls to participate in an unauthorized protest on July 3.
From June through October, authorities fined, detained, or arrested more than 20 protesters at the site of the Stalinist-era execution site Kurapaty. The protesters opposed the building and operation of a restaurant in close vicinity to the site. While police repeatedly fined the majority of activists for purportedly violating traffic regulations and participating in unauthorized demonstrations, a number of protesters, including Belarusian Christian Democracy (BCD) party cochair Paval Sevyarynets, European Belarus campaign activist Maksim Vinyarski, and filmmaker Alyaksei Tourovich were sentenced to up to 10 days of administrative detention.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
All NGOs, political parties, and trade unions must receive Ministry of Justice approval to become registered. A government commission reviews and approves all registration applications; it based its decisions largely on political and ideological compatibility with official views and practices.
Actual registration procedures required applicants to provide the number and names of founders, along with a physical address in a nonresidential building for an office, an extraordinary burden in view of the tight financial straits of most NGOs and individual property owners’ fears of renting space to independent groups. Individuals listed as members were vulnerable to reprisal. The government’s refusal to rent office space to unregistered organizations and the expense of renting private space reportedly forced most organizations to use residential addresses, which authorities could then use as a reason to deny registration or to deregister them. The law criminalizes activities conducted on behalf of unregistered groups and subjects group members to penalties ranging from large fines to two years’ imprisonment (also see section 7.a.).
The law on public associations prohibits NGOs from keeping funds for local activities at foreign financial institutions. The law also prohibits NGOs from facilitating provision of any support or benefits from foreign states to civil servants based on their political or religious views or ethnicity, a provision widely believed to be aimed at the Polish minority.
Only registered NGOs may legally accept foreign grants and technical aid and only for a limited set of approved activities. NGOs must receive approval from the Department for Humanitarian Affairs of the Presidential Administration and the Ministry of the Economy for technical aid before they may accept such funds or register the grants.
The government continued to deny registration to some NGOs and political parties on a variety of pretexts, including “technical” problems with applications. Authorities frequently harassed and intimidated founding members of organizations in an effort to force them to abandon their membership and thus deprive their groups of the number of petitioners necessary for registration. Many groups had been denied registration on multiple occasions.
On March 21, Minsk city authorities registered an educational NGO called “Out Loud.” This was the group’s ninth registration application under its previous name, “Make Out,” which the government requested it change before granting registration. The NGO focused on advancing the human rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons and countering discrimination and violence against them.
On April 6, the BCD reported that the Ministry of Justice denied its seventh registration application. The ministry said the BCD had failed to include phone numbers of some of its members and had incorrectly listed the birth dates of two party founders in its application documents. The party submitted the application on January 22, and the ministry decided to suspend the registration process and seek additional documents on February 23. The Supreme Court upheld the ministry’s denial on May 25.