Paris-Geneva-Warsaw, March 15, 2023 – Liquidated free speech organisation Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) has been labelled as an “extremist formation” by the national intelligence service KGB, denounced the Observatory (OMCT-FIDH) and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR). BAJ’s members and associates are at risk of criminal prosecution as reprisals for defending human rights and could face up to 10 years of imprisonment.
On March 7, 2023, it became known that the Belarusian State Security Committee (KGB) arbitrarily classified BAJ as an “extremist formation” and banned its activities in Belarus under the Law of the Republic of Belarus No. 203-Z on “Countering Extremism’, adopted in January 2007 and amended in May 2021. The decision alleges that BAJ President Andrey Bastunets and Vice-President Barys Haretski, as well as six other members of the association, carried out so-called “extremist activities”. Yet, KGB’s announcement fails to identify both the alleged extremist actions conducted by BAJ members as well as the nature of these acts. BAJ is the first human rights organisation to be classified as an “extremist formation” in Belarus.
Under the Belarusian Law on Countering Extremism the designation of a group as “extremist” is not subject to judicial review. This law classifies as “extremist” any activity deemed to “threaten the independence, territorial integrity, sovereignty and foundations of the constitutional order”. Additionally, an “extremist formation” under this law is defined as a “group of citizens that carries out an extremist activity; assists extremist activities; recognises the possibility of implementing extremist activities; or finances extremist activities”. Any entity, group, association or NGO designated as an “extremist formation” is criminally liable under Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (“joining an extremist formation”), which was introduced in 2021 along with other anti-extremist amendments to the Belarusian legislation. These changes enhanced the repressive arsenal of Belarusian laws used to muzzle any dissenting voices in the country, including independent media outlets as well human rights groups and defenders.
Founded in 1989, BAJ is a professional association of journalists that has since then worked to protect the right to freedom of expression as well as the work and integrity of Belarusian journalists targeted by the authorities.
Both the association and its over 1300 members have been continuously targeted since 2020, amid the ongoing brutal crackdown on civil society in Belarus. In February 2021, KGB officers raided both BAJ offices and BAJ lawyer Aleh Aheyeu and Barys Haretski’s homes in Minsk, as part of a series of coordinates raids into the houses and offices of human rights defenders and organisations. The BAJ offices were again raided in July 2021, and a month later the Supreme Court of Belarus arbitrarily liquidated the association. Since then, the BAJ staff has been forced to flee the country but has continued to document violations against journalists and media outlets from abroad.
The Observatory and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights strongly condemn the latest attack against the BAJ and its leaders and members, as well as the ongoing repression of human rights organisations, defenders and independent journalists in Belarus.
Both organisations urge the authorities to stop using loosely defined “anti-extremist” legislation to target dissenting voices in Belarus, and more broadly, to put an end to all human rights violations perpetrated against human rights defenders and organisations in the country. The Observatory further urges the authorities to take all measures to protect and promote the right to freedom of expression in Belarus, as well as the right to defend human rights.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT and are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.
Founded in 1994, the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) is one of the oldest non-governmental organisations acting in the field of human rights protection in Poland. Holding a regional scope, HFHR’s main areas of activity are international and national education; strategic litigation; providing legal advice; monitoring the human rights dimension of actions taken by public authorities; and organising WATCH DOCS human rights in film, one of the world’s largest human rights film festivals.