Your organisation has been created for almost 20 years. Can you explain the reason of its creation in 1996 and what are you now dealing with?
Human Rights Center “Viasna” was formed on April 26, 1996 as a response to events in Belarus. Then the traditional peaceful assembly in honor of the anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster turned into dispersal and conflicts with the police. Hundreds of people were arrested. Unindifferent people collected and disseminated information, helped the relatives of the detainees, collected transfers for the arrested people. That is, initially the HR Center “Viasna” was a volunteer organization and throughout the following years it was volunteer help that helped the organization in the most difficult times. In late 2010 – 2011, another wave of mass repression followed the peaceful protests after the presidential elections. Hundreds of people were arrested and beaten by the police during peaceful demonstrations. The situation with human rights in Belarus was rapidly deteriorating and the need for volunteers help was growing. In 2012, the Volunteer Service was already formed as a separate independent structural unit whose main goal is to help the Human Rights Center in its activities. At the moment, the HRC “Viasna” works with the whole spectrum of human rights violations in Belarus. Unfortunately, there are not any less violations, in August 2018 we see a worsening of the situation: http://spring96.org/en/news/90728 . The work of volunteers is in demand and continues. We are discovering new forms and activities, attracting young people and new people, and, most importantly, we support and advance the values of human rights.
The chief of your organisation was a political prisoner during several years due to his activism. In which extend his story is representative of the situation in Belarus concerning political rights and fundamental freedom?
Today, there are two political prisoners in Belarus: Dmitry Polienko and Mikhail Zhemchuzhny. Dmitry was recognized by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. The Volunteer service actively works with the theme of political prisoners, because, as Herbert Spencer said, “No one can be perfectly free till all are free.”
In 2011, the head of the Human rights center “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski was convicted by the Belarusian court for tax evasion and spent about 3 years in prison. The case and the verdict are recognized by the international community as politically motivated and directly related to the human rights activities of Ales Bialiatski. Less than a month ago, the leaders of the independent Trade union REP were accused by the same article of the Belarusian legislation. Fortunately, they are punished without sending them to prison. But it is obvious that they are punished by the authorities for their activities in defense of workers’ rights. As you can see, the years go by, the problems remain very similar.
How hard is it for civil organisations like yours to work in Belarus? In other words, have you ever been confronted with barriers coming from the state and putting a stop to your actions?
In Belarus, there is a complex and multistage procedure for registering civil associations. And for activities on behalf of an unregistered organization criminal liability is provided, up to 2 years in prison. Today, there have been changes in the legislation and only administrative punishment will be remained, with a fine of up to 500 euros. Undoubtedly, we consider this is a disproportionate restriction of freedom of association and the authorities have to stop this form of pressure on civil society.
Human rights center “Viasna” was deprived of registration in 2003 and the UN Human Rights Committee recognized these actions of the Belarusian authorities as violating of freedom of association. Today, Belarus continues to ignore the UN HRC decision and we are forced to conduct activities without official registration in Belarus.
Do you receive any political or financial support from the EU or from other international organisations or NGOs?
For many years of work we managed to establish friendly and working relations with organizations from almost all corners of the world. The volunteers of the organization have the opportunity to meet with representatives of international organizations, world-class experts, to travel to other countries for study and exchange of experience. These are priceless things, and we want to express our special gratitude to our friends and partners from all over the world. Thanks to their support, Ales Bialiatski was also released from prison early.
I also want to note that the human rights community in Belarus is very consolidated, the majority of applications are received from the coalition of organizations. Human rights campaigns are conducted in close cooperation. This really strengthens our positions.
The death penalty is one of the biggest issues discussed in Europe about Belarus. Is its abolition one of your top priority and what are you concretely doing? Could we expect its suppression soon?
Yes, the issue of abolishing the death penalty is one of our priorities. Over the past 10 years, up to 4 death findings are imposed each year and are very quickly enforced. Belarus – the only country in Europe to date, is actively using the death penalty.
In Belarus, there is an indefinite campaign “Human Rights Defenders Against the Death Penalty”. We invite you to sign the petition: http://dp.spring96.org/en . Volunteer service has traditionally been actively included in the campaign activities.
Today the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus, unfortunately, has become a matter of political bargaining with the countries of Europe and the world. The Belarusian authorities actively imitate the abolition of the death penalty, hold meetings, round tables, consultations. At the same time, killing people.
I want to draw attention to the cruel treatment to relatives of convicts. They are not informed about the place of burial, they do not give out the body and personal things, do not have the opportunity to say goodbye. Such actions of Belarus have been repeatedly recognized as cruel and inhuman treatment. The death penalty must be abolished as a form of punishment!
It seems quite difficult to make young people aware about what is happening in their own country. How would you explain this lack of interest? Is the situation slowly changing in a positive way?
In Belarus there is a big problem with freedom of expression. There is no encouragement of critical thinking by the authorities. Any dissent is brutally suppressed. Independent journalists are arrested and fined for their activities. Students with an active civic position are expelled from educational institutions. We also fix cases of dismissal from work due to the active position of people. All this, does not contribute to the formation of a free, active civil society. But Volunteers service – as the movement of caring people shows that there is definitely a change for the better.
The international community is expecting some demonstrations for the 25th anniversary of the regime. Is there any chance for Belarussian people to live a new democratic moment?
We welcome the activity of civil society in Belarus, are ready to help people realize their right to freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly, and other rights. We believe and we do everything to make this world a little better!
Louise Guillon – 24.09.2018