Belarus. Criminal case was started against LGBT activist

Submitted by Svyatoslav Sementsov, TEMA,

September 23, famous Belarusian LGBT expert, Rainbow Key Awarder, co-president of the Information Center TEMA - Svyatoslav Sementsov, was summoned to the KGB Gomel regional department (1 Biletskogo st., 246701 Gomel) and informed that criminal case was started by art. 193-1 Criminal Code of Belarus "Organizing group activities in the name of non-registered organization".

"22 September I received the phone call from a KGB officer Surin (as he sad) who said I should come on September 23 to the KGB Gomel regional department in 13:00. And if I'll not come they will be bring my using physical force. I don't have a lawyer, so I decided to go himself. I said nothing to my famaly to don't make them worry" Svyatoslav said.

"When I came, I was led into the room № 2-7 at the second floor, there were 3 people in civilian clothes. One of them asked me to sit down and said that he is Surin. I was informed that criminal case on Art. 193-1 starts due to my participation in an unregistered NGO TEMA, and I can get fine or a prison term of up to two years. Also, I was told that they can start an other criminar case on art. 369-1 "Providing false information to a foreign organization or government, defined as information intended to misrepresent or discredit Belarus" because of the fact that I have disseminated information on violations and hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Belarus and this information are used by many international human rights organizations in their reports."

"They offered me to work for KGB in exchange for closing the criminal case. For this I'll have to tell them the password for my e-mail, a list of members and gays among officials whom I know. I refused and said that will not work for them. The officer said that I still regret it later, but it will be too late. From the conversation I realized that they know too much about our organization and probably we have a rat at our board".

Article 193-1, which penalizes acting on behalf of unregistered organizations, was added to the Criminal Code in December 2005 as part of amendments that provided for harsh punishment "for activities directed against people and public security." Conviction under it carries penalties of a fine or a prison term of up to two years.

Belarusian human rights defenders and international human rights organizations have condemned this article and repeatedly urged the Belarusian government to abolish it. Since 2006, when the criminal responsibility for activities of unregistered organisations was enforced, 17 persons were convicted under Article 193-1. There were no acquitting judgements in these cases.

Article 361-1 criminalises “calls for actions directed at damaging the national security of Belarus, the overthrow of the State, territorial integrity …”. The second paragraph of the same article criminalises calls addressed to a foreign State or an international organisation to act in a manner that harms the national security of Belarus. Both offences are punishable by jail terms of up to three years - or five years in case of dissemination through the media. Finally, Article 369-1 criminalises defamation of the Republic of Belarus towards foreign States and foreign or international organisations, defined as knowingly handing over false information concerning the Belarusian State or its organs.

Restrictions on the right of free expression on the grounds of national security are justified only when there is a direct, rather than a conjectural link, between the expression and the likelihood of harm occurring. The restriction of expressions based on a hypothetical or remote risk of harm unnecessarily limits democratic debate about what are often important and contentious political issues. Article 361-1 and (2) are extremely vaguely worded and set a very low threshold for the imposition of limitations to the right to free expression. The penalties are also grossly disproportionate.

Article 369-1 is equally problematic, as it criminalises defamation of the Belarusian State. The prevailing view in advanced democracies is that public bodies, including the State, do not have a reputation entitled to legal protection, since they lack an emotional or financial interest in preserving their good name. Moreover, the penalty is disproportionate and likely to greatly undermine, by creating a ‘chilling effect’, exchanges between Belarusian people and foreign countries. In the words of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the amendments “will further plunge Belarusian society into an atmosphere of fear.”

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