Belarus: New amendment to the Criminal Code leaves no room for legal human rights activities
Paris-Geneva, January 31, 2022 – The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OMCT-FIDH) expresses its deepest concern at the re-introduction of criminal liability for the involvement of individuals in unregistered NGOs, making members and leaders of civil society organisations liable to imprisonment for up to two years. In light of the ongoing crackdown on human rights defenders and organisations in the country, the new amendment effectively equates human rights activities with criminal offences.On January 22, 2022, an amendment to the Belarusian Criminal Code entered into force, re-criminalising individual activities in unregistered NGOs under Article 193-1. This amendment provides that any participation in unregistered or liquidated NGOs, political parties, religious organisations or other foundations can be punished by a fine or arrest and imprisonment for up to two years.The Observatory recalls that in 2021 alone, the authorities shut down more than 275 human rights and other independent organisations on political motives, leaving not one legally operating human rights NGO in the country. At the time of publication of this statement, of the 1000 political prisoners in Belarus, at least 33 are human rights defenders and hundreds more have left the country. As the involvement in activities of unregistered organisations becomes a crime, all remaining human rights defenders face the additional threat of prosecution for merely having a job in an unregistered entity.The Observatory recalls that between 2005 to 2019, an almost identical version of Article 193-1 was in force. During that time, Article 193-1 was repeatedly criticised for not being in line with human rights standards. As the Venice Commission highlighted in 2011, this provision is aimed at intimidating civil society and, by its mere existence, has a chilling effect on NGOs and their members. The Venice Commission further emphasised that this provision is contrary to Belarus’ human rights obligations under the ICCPR, such as the right to enter and form an association.To register, CSOs have to fulfill strict requirements that make registering a new organisation or re-registering very difficult, especially as the Belarusian authorities have a wide range of possibilities to deny registrations arbitrarily. Viasna, a leading human rights group and OMCT and FIDH member, was deregistered in 2003 and has since unsuccessfully attempted to re-register, which has forced the organisation to continue its work without official registration.The Observatory is deeply concerned about the recent re-introduction of Art. 193-1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code which serves as a tool of repression of civil society in Belarus. The amendment constitutes a blatant violation of international and regional human rights standards, infringing upon fundamental rights of a democratic society, such as freedom of expression and freedom of association.Therefore, the Observatory urges Belarusian authorities to fully abide by their international human rights obligation, as a party to the ICCPR, to respect the right to freedom of association. The Observatory further urges the authorities to fully respect and protect the work of human rights defenders and organisations and ensure they can work without hindrance or fear of reprisals. Finally, the Observatory calls for the immediate and unconditional release of all human rights defenders currently arbitrarily detained in Belarus and the end of arbitrary administrative and criminal prosecution of human rights defenders and organisations.