26 August 2008
Belarus must respect freedom of assembly, association and expression

The origami cranes' journey to Belarus

© Amnesty International

In 2007, Amnesty International members, youth groups and supporters sent over 11,000 origami cranes to the Belarusian authorities.

Another giant crane, created by Amnesty International youth members in Mexico, was also sent to the Belarusian Ministry of the Interior.

The cranes were part of a global campaign calling for the release of a youth activist, Zmitser Dashkevich, who was sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment for "organizing or participating in the activities of an unregistered non-governmental organization (NGO)".

Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of the youth opposition movement Young Front, was sentenced according to Article 193-1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code in November 2006. Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience.

Following the origami crane campaign (see video), Zmitser Dashkevich (pictured) was released early, on 23 January 2008.

© ByMedia.net

Since it came into effect by Presidential decree in December 2005, Article 193-1 has meant that unregistered civil society organizations and other groups may be penalized for their activities. Organizing or participating in an activity of an unregistered NGO became a criminal offence which carries a prison sentence of up to two years.

Using Article 193-1, the Belarusian authorities have arrested, detained and convicted predominantly youth activists and members of NGOs for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly, association and expression. Many activists, particularly youth activists, have since been warned, fined and imprisoned.

Activists who are convicted get a criminal record which is cleared after two years. This can result in further problems, including being suspended from their institution of study, being discriminated against at work and being banned from leaving the country.

Registering an NGO in Belarus is extremely difficult. Activists for Young Front, for example, have made several unsuccessful attempts to legalize their organization, which has been in existence for more than a decade. Each application has been rejected by the Ministry of Justice.

In such circumstances, NGOs are forced to carry out their legitimate work in adverse conditions, constantly under the threat of harassment by the authorities. Article 193-1 has further facilitated the authorities' capacity to obstruct, harass and intimidate civil society activists for peacefully exercising their human rights.

The good news is that since Amnesty International has been campaigning against Article 193-1, the Belarusian authorities have stopped sentencing individuals to terms of imprisonment.

During its campaign for the release of Zmitser Dashkevich, the organization has noticed that while the authorities are still detaining and charging people under Article 193-1, court hearings are resulting in individuals being given fines or warnings rather than terms of imprisonment.

This suggests a shift on the part of the Belarusian authorities, possibly in response to international pressure. To keep up the pressure, Amnesty International is calling on the Belarusian government to go a step further and to abolish Article 193-1 now.

The organization is also calling on the Belarusian government to review other laws, regulations and practices relating to the registration and activities of NGOs, to stop the obstruction, harassment and intimidation of civil society activists who are peacefully exercising their human rights in Belarus and to stop the practice of suspending and expelling students from their academic institutions solely for peacefully exercising their human rights. 

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