Civil society criticizes new regulations on peaceful assembly

Peaceful Assembly

In April 2019, almost a thousand people protested against the construction of a battery factory in the Brest region. The protests continued over the following months and some were accompanied by clashes between police and protesters. Similar protests took place in Astravets, Brest and Svetlahorsk. According to Alesia Rudnik, the author of the article” Belarusians awaken in protest against polluting factories”, published in April 2019 by Belarus Digest, the environmental protests are a new target for repression because when citizens express their discontent through public protest, the authorities suppress those initiatives by administrative means or even through criminal charges.

In a separate development, in their August 2019 report, human rights organisation Viasna Center highlighted how the freedom of peaceful assembly is undermined by the authorities’ decisions. According to the report, human rights activists have drawn attention to and repeatedly criticised the new rules requiring payment for the exercise of the fundamental freedom of peaceful assembly. The report argues that the new regulations are used as an effective tool to suppress any protest or public initiative covered by the legislation on mass events (including pickets). They noted that there were numerous cases where participants (opposition leaders, activists, civil society representatives) have been fined by authorities during protests.

Association

In July 2019 the Belarusian authorities published several legislative documents to amend the legal framework governing the activities of political organisations and public associations in the country, allowing those interested in the topic to access the documents and participate in an online debate. Two documents appeared on the specialised forum's web page for the debate: the draft law on changes in the activity of political parties and public associations, and a document that argues the need to change the legislation in this field.

While civil society organisations were actively involved in the public debates, one organisation – the Legal Transformation Centre, was barred from taking part in the discussions. The NGO is well known for its critical views regarding the government’s actions and policies on civil society development and human rights protection. The debates around the new regulations proposed the simplification of the registration procedure for associations, including the introduction of online submissions of applications, simplifying the procedure for extending their activities and the procedures for financing of political parties from the state budget and publishing financial reports.

Expression

On 9th July 2019, police detained two journalists from Belsat, an independent television station in Belarus, for filming in a prohibited area. The journalists were later released without charge. According to Belsat, the journalists were filming a new episode of a series called” Belsat Near You” in the Brest region town of Hantsavichy.

Separately, in August 2019, Green Belarus journalist, Nasta Zakharevic, who was documenting a case about the construction of a battery plant in the Brest region, received several threats and insulting messages on a social network. According to the Indexoncenzorship portal, which deals with freedom of expression in five states (Azerbaijan, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and Turkey), the VKontakte social network is often used to criticise and intimidate those who oppose this economic development. Zakharevich allegedly received threats from a user known for sending hate messages sent to other activists, accusing them of damaging the country’s image. Green Belarus expressed hope that the authorities would investigate a case of intimidation against the journalist.