Elena Tonkacheva: The actions of the official Minsk give no grounds for fulfilling EU’s expectations

Piotr Kuchta, EuroBelarus Information Service

Fulfillment of the majority of EU wishes depends on technical decisions; however, there’s no political will for that in Belarus, the head of Legal Transformation Center (Lawtrend) assumes.

The first day in Belarus’s life without sanctions was full of negative news from the human rights sphere: second death sentence was announced; human rights defendant Elena Tonkacheva’s request to shorten entry ban into Belarus was rejected; Minsk courts fined activists for unauthorized protests.

The head of the Legal Transformation Center (Lawtrend) Elena Tonkacheva, who has been now deprived of the right to live and work in Belarus for a year believes that the official Minsk gives no grounds to hope that EU’s expectations, publicly declared in the decision about the abolition of the most sanctions against Belarus, will be fulfilled in the nearest time:

“By nearest time I mean at least a year, though the majority of issues on the agenda could be realized within one week,” noted Elena Tonkacheva in the interview with the EuroBelarus Information Service. “And two-three years for systemic and planned changes.”

Elena Tonkacheva recalls that when it comes to abolishing the death penalty, “the Belarusan official side not only has been adhering to the same position for the last twenty years, it has been adhering to the same rhetoric”:

“Clearly, the question of abolishing the death penalty is a matter of inner-state political option. If there is a clear aim to implement the system of European standards the abolition of the death penalty is resolved fairly quickly through very concrete actions of public bodies. This means that during the first parliamentary session, we could talk about a moratorium on the death penalty and could publicly declare our willingness to move towards the abolition of the death penalty, thus announcing about the corresponding position of the state to the society. This action — with a serious intent to implement it — takes a maximum of a week from the beginning of the nearest session of the Belarusan parliament,” the head of Lawtrend believes.

Elena Tonkacheva notes that in the situation with the freedom of mass media, the problematic issues can be resolved quite quickly: “We have Belsat TV and Radio Racyja, freelancers, who are cooperating with other foreign mass media”, who simply need to provide accreditation — “which will give a clear signal that the issue with creating difficulties in journalistic work is being resolved.” Apart from that, “full and fair investigation of the case with the beating of the journalist TUT.BY Pavel Dabravolski, bringing to justice those who have committed obvious abuse of power, compensation for injuries and moral damages with the public apology from the law enforcement officials.”

In addition, Elena Tonkacheva noted, there is no problem with the systemic change of the situation with press freedom but for the political will:

"We need to take the documents of the Belarusan Association of Journalists (BAJ) that explain which steps should be taken in order to claim that the situation with media freedom in Belarus is changing towards the Council of Europe standards. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel right now — there’s a list of steps that has been formed long time ago and, unfortunately, hasn’t changed over the years — a kind of a “road map”. And it is supported by the majority of the active civil society members — both at the level of the Belarusan National Platform of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum as well as at the level of professional organizations.”

According to Elena Tonkacheva, “the basic question” is the state and the presence of democracy institutions in the country:

“The problem of preparation and organization of election campaigns, where the agenda hasn’t been changed over the years. There is a coordinated position re the persistent changes, aimed at ensuring real electoral process contained in numerous reports of the OSCE observation missions, as well as in the consolidated position of the Belarusan political actors. I would add a very simple technical point there, which will make it easy to measure changes. In December 2010, after the presidential campaign, the authorities decided to shut down the OSCE mission. In order to prove the sincerity of intentions to move towards democratization, the work of this mission should be resumed.”

“In addition, I believe that without a significant change and consolidation of approaches to the formation of election commissions, without clear access for independent observers to the electoral process and counting of votes any other forms of proof will not be legitimate, because they don’t actually affect the change of the situation,” emphasizes Elena Tonkacheva.

As the head of the Center for Legal Transformation recalls, until now the official Minsk doesn’t recognize the position of the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Belarus:

“This position should be recognized, and he should be invited with an open visit to Belarus for immediate verification of the situation with human rights. The Special Rapporteur should also be able to hold meetings with the chief officials of the country: with the representatives of the Parliament, the Ministry of Interior, the Constitutional Court, the Prosecutor General's Office. The authorities should also directly and consistently communicate and ensure the access of the Special Rapporteur on Torture, the Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of the Media to Belarus. And it only requires one statement from the Foreign Ministry — 35 minutes of working time of one of their qualified personnel, but given the political will.”

In addition, Elena Tonkacheva says, the authorities should open the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Minsk:

“The introduction of the ombudsman office is the work of the next parliamentary session. There is a ready-made concept, which can be easily adopted during the first days of the work of the parliamentary session,” says the human rights activist.

“All these are simple, basic, and very well recorded measures that would be very convincing for us. This would give an answer to the question what we are dealing with now, or we're going to “discuss things” again before the next round of repressions starts, or are we actually moving towards the Council of Europe's expectations. This is a technical matter, and if we started looking into them on February 15, on the day when the decision on abolishment of sanctions was made, we would have already known some of the results,” emphasizes Elena Tonkacheva.