BLR 005 / 1213 / OBS 097.1
Internet censorship /Harassment
February 20, 2014
The Observatory for the Protection of Human RightsDefenders, a joint programme of the International Federation for Human Rights(FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has received newinformation and requests your urgent intervention in the following situation inBelarus.
The Observatory has been informed of the continuedharassment of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and the rejection by the Courtof a complaint challenging the blackmailing of its website www.spring96.org.
Accordingto the information received, on February 18, 2014, the Central District Courtof Minsk considered a complaint filed by Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich,Deputy Chairman of “Viasna”, challenging the decision by the ProsecutorGeneral's Office to restrict access to “Viasna”'s website, www.spring96.org on the grounds that“actions on behalf of the human rights organisation 'Viasna', that do notcomply with the established procedures of state registration, are contrary tothe legislation of the Republic of Belarus”. The decision was based onArticle 193.1 of the Criminal Code, which prohibits organising or participatingin the activities of unregistered organisations.
Atthe hearing, Mr. Stefanovich defended his rights as one of the authors of HRCViasna’s website and challenged the illegal restriction on the dissemination ofinformation. He argued that the Prosecutor’s Office had no reason to blacklistthe website, as materials posted on it do not violate the law, but on thecontrary contribute to improving the legal culture inBelarus.
TheCentral District Court of Minsk eventually held that Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovichhad no legal standing: since he is not the owner of www.spring96.org, he may not suffer adamage from the blacklisting the website. Mr. Stefanovich can file a privatecomplaint within 10 days but cannot appeal the decision in cassation. TheDeputy Chairman of “Viasna” said that he intended to send a complaint to the UnitedNations Human Rights Committee once he will have exhausted all domesticremedies available to him.
TheObservatory expresses its concern about the decision of the Central DistrictCourt of Minsk to reject the complaint filed by Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich,which gives full effect to the previous decision of the Prosecutor General'sOffice to blacklist “Viasna”'s website.
TheObservatory denounces the court decision as a means to curtail human rightsactivities of ”Viasna” and to infringe upon the right to freedoms ofassociation and expression in Belarus, in violation of international law.
OnDecember 16, 2013, Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovich wasinformed by the Prosecutor General’s Office of Belarus, that “Viasna”’s websitehad been introduced into the list of resources with restricted access bydecision of the same in August 2011, on the grounds that “actions on behalfof the human rights organisation 'Viasna', that do not comply with theestablished procedures of state registration, are contrary to the legislationof the Republic of Belarus”.
Until December 16, 2013, authorities had refused todisclose to “Viasna” the maker or the basis of the decision to restrict publicaccess to its website. Mr. Stefanovich contacted the Operative AnalyticalCentre (an agency under the authority of the President of the Republic ofBelarus), the Republican Unitary Enterprise for Oversight ofTelecommunications, and the Ministry of Communications and Information. Eachbody either declined to give any information, referred Mr. Stefanovichelsewhere or advised him to contact all other agencies with the authority torestrict access to a website.
It was not until he had contacted all the agenciesempowered to issue such a decision that Mr. Stefanovich received a responsefrom the office of the Prosecutor General, disclosing that they had made adecision in August 2011 to put www.spring96.org on the list of resources with restricted access. Other websites on thelist include those dealing with pornography, promoting extremist activities orviolating copyrights, and five opposition or critical minded websites. Thosesites have the access blocked from the State, education and culturalinstitutions.
In August 2007, the UN Human Rights Committee declaredthat the November 2003 decision of the Supreme Court of the Republic of Belarusto dissolve “Viasna” is a violation of the right to freedom of association andcalled on authorities in Belarus to re-register and compensate “Viasna” inaccordance with their obligations under the International Covenant on Civil andPolitical Rights. The Government of Belarus is yet to comply with therecommendation. Furthermore, it has refused several requests by “Viasna” andmany other organisations to be registered.
Article 5 of the Constitution of the Republic ofBelarus provides for grounds for the restriction of the activities of associations– aiming to change the constitutional order or advocating war, social,national, religious and racial hatred. Unarguably, the activities of “Viasna”do not fall into any of these categories.
Furthermore, the mention of Article 193.1 of theCriminal Code in the General Prosecutor's answer to their request amounts to aform of intimidation against “Viasna”, which has been continuing its legitimateand peaceful activities despite a constant pressure. The Observatory hasrepeatedly qualified Article 193.1, which penalises acting on behalf of anunregistered organisation, as a provision violating both the Constitution andinternational human rights law. The Council of Europe Venice Commissionconcluded in October 2011 that Article 193.1 of Belarus’ Criminal Code,violates the provisions of international law. According to the VeniceCommission, freedoms of association and expression are of vital importance inany democratic country, and any restrictions on them should be well justified.
Please write to the Belarusian authorities, urgingthem to:
i.Remove all restrictions on “Viasna”'s website immediately and unconditionallysince this restriction is arbitrary as it only aims at curtailing “Viasna”'shuman rights activities by reducing its online presence and discrediting itsexistence and work by grouping it together with publishers of pornography andextremists;
ii.Put an end to any censorship - including print, audio, televisual and online –of “Viasna”'s communication materials, as well as of all other human rightsdefenders in Belarus;
iii. Repeal Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code of theRepublic of Belarus;
iv. Put an end to any kind of harassment - including at the judicial level -against all human rights defenders in Belarusand ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their workwithout unjustified hindrances;
v.More generally, conform with the provisions of the UN Declaration on HumanRights Defenders, adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations onDecember 9, 1998, especially:
- its Article 1, which states that “everyone has theright, individually and in association with others, to promote and to strivefor the protection and realization of human rights and fundamental freedoms atthe national and international levels”,
- its Article 6 (b) and (c), which states that“Everyone has the right, individually and in association with others […] asprovided for in human rights and other applicable international instruments,freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information andknowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms and [...] to study,discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice,of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and otherappropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters”.
- and its Article 12.2, which provides that “the Stateshall take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competentauthorities of everyone, individually and in association with others, againstany violence, threats, retaliation, de facto or de jure adverse discrimination,pressure or any other arbitrary action as a consequence of his or herlegitimate exercise of the rights referred to in the present Declaration” ;
vi. Conform with the International Covenant on Civiland Political Rights and the First Protocol thereto, both of which have beenratified by Belarus; especially Article 22: “Everyone shall have the right tofreedom of association with others, including the right to form and join tradeunions for the protection of his interests.”
vii.Ensure in all circumstances respect for human rights and fundamental freedomsin accordance with international human rights standards and internationalinstruments ratified by the Belarusian Republic.
H.E. Mr. MikhailKhvostov, firstname.lastname@example.org
Please also write to the diplomatic mission or embassyof Belarus in your respective country.
Paris-Geneva, February 20, 2014
Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting thecode of this appeal in your reply.
To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:
· E-mail: Appeals@fidh-omct.org
· Tel and fax FIDH + 33(0) 1 43 55 25 18 / +33 1 43 55 18 80
· Tel and fax OMCT + 41 (0) 22 809 49 39 / + 41 22 809 49 29
- Urgent Interventions
Continued harassment of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna”