28 March 2017 – The Belarusian authorities must immediately release anyone arrested during peaceful protests and halt police violence, PEN International said today, after peaceful rallies were violently dispersed across the country.
Waves of protests have taken place in Belarus since mid-February against the so-called “social parasite law’, which imposed a tax on Belarusians working less than six months a year. Following a public outcry, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suspended the implementation of the decree for a year but refused to withdraw it, spurring further protests.
On 25 March, the Belarusian authorities violently cracked down on peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to mark the country’s Freedom Day. According to national and international human rights groups, police used excessive force and detained hundreds of protesters, as well as scores of journalists and human rights observers. The internet was also shut down across the country.
“We are deeply concerned by continuous reports of arrests of writers, journalists and booksellers across Belarus. Some said they were severely beaten and denied access to lawyers”, said Hanna Yankuta, Vice President of the Belarusian PEN Centre. “We urge the Belarusian authorities to investigate these allegations and ensure that no one is being detained for peacefully expressing their views”.
“Belarus is seeing its biggest protests in years, yet instead of allowing people to peacefully protest the Belarusian authorities seem intent on suppressing dissent. This is inacceptable”, said Jennifer Clement, PEN International President. “Anyone arrested for daring to speak out must be immediately released”.
“There is no justification for violently storming a peaceful protest. The actions of the Belarusian security forces must be independently and impartially investigated and those found responsible for excessive use of force must be brought to justice, said Kätlin Kaldmaa, PEN International Secretary.
Since mid-February, several people have been sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention for participating in unauthorised gatherings across the country. Others received heavy fines.
On 23 March, Belarus’ State Security Agency announced that 26 people had been arrested on charges of “aiming to participate in mass riots” under Article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, which carries up to three years in prison.
PEN International calls on the Belarussian authorities to urgently uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly guaranteed under Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Belarus is a state party.
Presidential Decree No.3 “On Prevention of Social Dependency” was adopted in 2015. It introduced a tax on unemployed Belarusians and those who have not paid income tax for over six months, requiring them to pay 460 Belarusian Rubles (around 245 US dollars) as compensation. Failure to pay is punishable by additional fines and compulsory community service. Protests erupted across the country after thousands of unemployed Belarusians, who have been facing economic hardship for the past two years, received their tax bill.
International human rights standards limit the use of force by law enforcement agencies to situations in which it is strictly necessary. According to the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, law enforcement officials “shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary”.
Under Article 21 of the ICCPR, the Belarusian authorities are required to respect the right of peaceful assembly and can only impose proportionate limitations on demonstrations “in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.” The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association said that states may require notice – but not prior permission – of assemblies.
For further details contact Aurélia Dondo at PEN International, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, UK Tel: +44 (0) 20 7405 0338 Fax +44 (0) 20 7405 0339 e-mail: Aurelia.firstname.lastname@example.org