A leading Belarus human rights organization has rejected government accusations that it is trying to ‘discredit’ the country by talking to the UN about human rights violations.
The Belarus Ministry of Justice formally censured the Belarus Helsinki Committee (BHC) on 12 January, meaning that the human rights group can be legally shut down by the government after one more warning.
The Ministry complained that a BHC report on restrictions faced by lawyers of political detainees to the UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges was an “attempt to discredit the Republic of Belarus in the eyes of the world.”
BHC Chair Aleh Gulak has responded that, to the contrary, he has the "strong impression that the Ministry of Justice is discrediting the Republic of Belarus.”
“Applying to international bodies according to human rights conventions to which the Republic is a state party is the right of all people. Unfortunately the Ministry of Justice does not understand this.”
The BHC reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on 12 January that lawyers for activists and journalists detained in a December crackdown on an opposition protest have faced restrictions in meeting with their clients, and that several lawyers been threatened with disbarment for reporting concerns about the health of detainees severely injured by riot police.
Lawyers have been prevented from meeting the detainees in private, and some have only seen their clients once or twice since they were detained.
Aleh Gulak has said he will appeal against the Ministry’s censure at the Belarus Supreme Court, and that he hopes "that the Ministry of Justice will not consider our complaint an attempt to discredit the work of the Ministry."
Amnesty International has received information that lawyers are having difficulty in seeing clients detained following a protest against presidential election results in Minsk on 19 December 2010, and that they have been warned against raising concerns about the health of detainees.
“Belarus needs to abide by its international obligations and make sure lawyers are able to carry out their work and represent their clients’ interests, including securing their right to medical attention,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia.
“It is unacceptable for the Ministry of Justice to be effectively threatening the Belarus Helsinki Committee with closure, for legitimately highlighting politically motivated abuses in the justice and penitentiary systems.”
Thirty political candidates, activists and journalists are now facing charges for their participation in the December demonstration. Amnesty International has declared 16 of them so far to be prisoners of conscience who bore no responsibility for any violence that took place.
The state has been ratcheting up the pressure on those accused. A recent film on state television and a thirteen page article published in the main state newspaper "by order of the head of state" make the case that leaders of the opposition were plotting to overthrow the state with support from abroad.
Among those detained following the December protest were presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau, who was severely beaten by riot police and is suspected to have at least one broken leg.
Fellow detained presidential candidate UIadzimir Nyaklyayeu was dragged into detention from his hospital bed, after a beating by riot police left him with head injuries. He suffers from high blood pressure, has a history of strokes, and was too ill to speak when his lawyer last saw him on 29 December.