Journalists harassed and persecuted for reporting on February local elections

Expression

Persecution and intimidation of journalists in Belarus have continued over the past few months. The Human Rights Centre Viasna reported that authorities continued to sanction reporters working for local and foreign media. On 12th March, bloggers Aliaksandr Kabanau and Siarhei Piatrukhin were fined for covering a protest in Pinsk and putting their coverage on social media. In February, Viasna reported new arrests and the harassment of independent journalists and bloggers in connection with the local elections on 18th February 2018. The Belarusian Association of Journalists also documented several cases of authorities obstructing journalists' activities around the Freedom Day protests, including cases of detentions and fines. 

Association

The 22nd February 2018 was an important milestone for civil society, as human rights defender and head of the Legal Transformation Centre Alena Tankachova was finally able to return to Belarus after three years in exile. Over the past three years, Tonkachova had lived in exile in Vilnius, Lithuania. From there, she had made many requests to the Belarusian authorities to be allowed to return to the country. Tankachova - a citizen of Russia - had her residence permit revoked and was forced to leave the country for three years by Belarusian court order, allegedly for her human rights work and legal aid to NGOs in Belarus through the Centre.

Also in February, another meeting of the Belarusian National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Platform took place around the theme of Belarusian civil society as a stakeholder in Belarusian-European relations. During the event, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee Oleg Gulak noted that, although the process to properly involve civil society was beset with challenges, and while serious human rights problems remain, there was a certain amount of pragmatism present in discussions between the EU and the government. Human rights are now included as one of the topics in ongoing EU-Belarus dialogue. 

On 30th March 2018, the Ministry of Justice of Belarus announced a seminar for NGOs registered between the years 2017 - 2018 to discuss any issues for the organisations. In addition, the Ministry of Justice declared its intention to discuss legislation and other issues of public interest with civil society at this seminar. 

Peaceful Assembly

Though Freedom Day protests have been banned in previous years, the Belarusian authorities allowed some activities to take place this year. Although Minsk city officials refused protest organisers' request to hold events at Liberty Square, they allowed commemorative events to take place at the Square of the Grand Theatre of Opera and Ballet. 

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka reportedly ordered public institutions “… to quell any rally which interferes with people’s lives at once”. According to reports, activists and representatives of the opposition who have publicly declared their intention to attend the rally faced intimidation. Some of them were detained a few days before the protests. Those able to attend the actions were "documented" by police. There were estimates of about 50 people having been arrested in almost 40 minutes. Among those detained were six journalists and six lawyers. Some of them were later released. A report cited an activist from Viasna who was also arrested and even observers of the protests were arrested for alleged involvement in an unsanctioned demonstration. 

International actors called on the Belarusian authorities to release those detained and to ensure the necessary conditions for human rights protection, stating that: 

“Democratic principles and fundamental freedoms of expression, assembly, association and of the media must be fully ensured in any democratic society and the European Union in this context expects that all recently arrested citizens who are still being detained are released immediately”.