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BELARUS: Contradictory court rulings for conscientious objectors

The three conscientious objectors to compulsory military service sentenced under the Criminal Code since such prosecutions resumed in November 2009 have faced different outcomes, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. Messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov was found guilty and imprisoned, but was freed days before the end of his three-month sentence. He was acquitted on retrial and the prosecutor's appeal against this was rejected. He told Forum 18 he will seek compensation for his imprisonment. Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk, initially fined, was acquitted on retrial, but the prosecutor's appeal against this is due to be heard on 16 July, as he told Forum 18. Non-religious objector Yevhen Yakovenko, sentenced on 4 June to one year's restricted freedom, told Forum 18 he has appealed against the sentence. All three say they would do an alternative civilian service. "It is not wrong to serve one's country," Mikhailov told Forum 18, "especially on socially-useful work, such as in children's homes or hospitals."

BELARUS: "I'm depoliticised"

The head of the Belarusian capital Minsk's City Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee has denied to Forum 18 News Service that his action against the New Life Full Gospel Church is politically motivated. "I'm depoliticised," Aleksandr Borovikov insisted of his attempt to prosecute the church for alleged oil pollution, "I'm not part of any campaign against the church." Church members think the massive, disputed fine imposed on the church for environmental damage is part of the long-running state campaign against them. While concerned that grass being grown for a children's playground at the church might also cause environmental damage, Borovikov seemed unfazed when Forum 18 raised concerns about accumulated rubbish - including rotting vehicles and old washing machines - dumped within 500 metres of the church. Meanwhile, Pastor Vladimir Kochegur of New Life's sister church in Novogrudok has insisted that the fine imposed on him for religious activity at home was unjustified. "They claim I held a worship service late at night on 16 March, but there was no such meeting," he told Forum 18. In Brest Region, police and ideology officials have similarly moved against a Baptist street library for operating without state permission.

BELARUS: Administrative Code changes, but fines continue

After a 21 February raid on his church's Sunday worship service by the KGB, police and local officials, Pastor Yuri Petrevich was twice fined a total of more than a month's average wages in March to punish him for leading his unregistered church in Grodno in western Belarus, as he told Forum 18 News Service. The first fine – for unregistered religious activity – came despite the abolition of such an "offence" in the Administrative Violations Code. A Jehovah's Witness in Mogilev Region had his case dropped after the change, and books confiscated in a raid were returned. "At first glance it seems that the removal of these 'offences' is a positive move," religious freedom lawyer Dina Shavtsova told Forum 18. "But unfortunately, this change to the Administrative Violations Code doesn't resolve the problem of the legal restrictions on the right to freedom of religion and belief." She fears the authorities might instead bring cases under the Criminal Code, where penalties for unregistered religious activity remain.

BELARUS: Conscientious objector jailed

Ivan Mikhailov, a Messianic Jew, has today (1 February) had a three-month jail term imposed on him by a court in Belarus for refusing compulsory military service. His brother-in-law told Forum 18 News Service that "The sentence has nothing to do with justice." His lawyer, Svetlana Gorbatok, argued that the absence of an Alternative Service Law is not a legal basis for violating Mikhailov's rights. He has been in pre-trial detention since 15 December 2009, and must serve another six weeks unless he wins an appeal he will make. Also present in court was Mikhail Pashkevich of 'For Alternative Civilian Service', which has launched a civic society petition calling for civilian alternative service. Prosecutor Aleksandr Cherepovich, asked by Forum 18 who had suffered from refusal to undertake compulsory military service, replied: "The state." Meanwhile, the launch of a CD compilation of Christian songs at a Catholic church has been stopped under state pressure. Senior religious affairs official Alla Ryabitseva angrily told Forum 18 that: "Concerts don't take place in churches."

BELARUS: Alternative Service Law withdrawn as prisoner awaits trial

Arrested by Belarus on 15 December, after his demands to do alternative civilian service were rejected, Messianic Jew Ivan Mikhailov is due to go on trial on 29 January on charges of refusing compulsory military service, Minsk District Court told Forum 18 News Service. After a gap of nine years, Dmitry Smyk, a Jehovah's Witness from Gomel, was found guilty on the same charge in November 2009 and given a large fine, which he is still appealing against. A Law on Alternative Service was initially included in the 2010 Legislative Programme but was removed "for some reason" at the last minute, an official of the National Centre for Legislation and Legal Research told Forum 18. The failure to introduce alternative service comes a decade after a May 2000 Constitutional Court ruling declaring its introduction "urgent". Meanwhile, the Supreme Court denied Jehovah's Witnesses in Gomel the right to challenge an official written warning, despite a 2007 Constitutional Court decision upholding religious organisations' right to make such challenges.

BELARUS: "We don't have such persecution here. We're absolutely democratic"

Belarusian officials continue to harass New Life Full Gospel Church, Forum 18 News Service has learnt. On 4 January the church received a summons from the Minsk City Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Committee, claiming that the church had polluted the ground around its building with oil, causing large amounts of damage. Church members reject the allegation, Sergei Lukanin noting that "for some reason they only took samples from the road which comes into the car park. Of course they're going to find traces of oil there." Belarus also continues to people for the "offence" of unregistered religious activity. Challenged about two heavy fines of a pensioner for this "offence", Lyudmila Paprakova of Grodno Ideology Department told Forum 18 that "we don't have such persecution here. We're absolutely democratic." After a woman was fined for allowing her home to be used for unregistered meetings for worship, Alla Starikevich of Brest City Ideology Department described the role of officials who started the case as "to maintain mutual relations with religious communities."

BELARUS: Two Catholic parish priests banned from religious activity

Two Polish Catholic parish priests in Belarus are the latest foreign citizens to be denied permission to carry out religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has learned. Both Capuchin priest Fr Jan Bonkowski, who was parish priest of Mizhevitsi village for twenty years, and Jesuit priest Fr Edward Smaga had to halt all religious activity at the end of 2009. A third priest was also threatened with denial of permission, but told Forum 18 that "everything is OK now". Fr Aleksandr Amialchenia, who speaks for the Belarusian Catholic Bishops' Conference, said no reasons were given for the refusals. He stressed that the two priests have not been barred from Belarus. Igor Popov, of the Grodno Religious Affairs Department, refused to answer any questions, asking "What priests?" before putting the phone down. Forum 18 estimates that more than two-thirds of the 33 foreign citizens barred from conducting religious work have been Catholic. Priests and nuns engaged in tackling social issues, such as alcoholism, in a very public manner appear to be particular targets.

COMMENTARY: The European Court of Human Rights - Out of step on conscientious objection

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg (ECtHR) has recently made a very dangerous judgement for freedom of religion or belief in the Bayatyan v. Armenia case which puts it out of step with the international standards on conscientious objection to military service and with the Council of Europe's own human rights agenda, notes Derek Brett of Conscience and Peace Tax International http://www.cpti.ws in a commentary for Forum 18 News Service http://www.forum18.org. The Court, apparently unaware of the recent parallel jurisprudence under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, found no violation of the freedom of thought, conscience and religion in the imprisonment of a Jehovah's Witness for his refusal on grounds of conscientious objection to perform military service, or the subsequent increase in the sentence, which had been partly justified by his reasons for refusal. Brett argues that it is vital that the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR agrees to hear the appeal in the Bayatyan case, as it alone can overturn the precedent which this will otherwise set for future ECtHR cases.

BELARUS: "We have Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims – all the others are sects"

The Deputy Chief of Minsk's Frunze District Police, Dinas Linkus, said he sent the local police officer to question the Kagramanyan family, who are Pentecostals, about their religious faith. "We had a request from the Culture Department of Minsk City Executive Committee several weeks ago to find out whether any religious activity was going on at this address, to establish whether a church was active there or not," he told Forum 18 News Service. "We have Orthodox, Catholics and Muslims – these are the religions. All the others are sects." Meanwhile Transfiguration Baptist Church in Vitebsk Region was fined for using a private house for religious worship, despite having official permission to do so. Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk has been fined for refusing compulsory military service on religious grounds, but criminal charges against one other conscientious objector have been dropped.

BELARUS: "To prevent them from continuing their worship service"

The Prosecutor who authorised a six-hour raid on a Protestant Sunday worship service in a private home in eastern Belarus has refused to explain why it happened. "It was an official action and I can't discuss it," Vitaly Kovalev, Prosecutor of the Chausy District, told Forum 18 News Service. He also refused to say what will be done with boxes of Bibles, Christian books and films confiscated during the raid, or whether the church's pastor, Irina Marshalkovskaya-Grik, will face further action. Anna Danisevich, an official of the district Ideology Department, led the raid with four police officers and three "witnesses" as some 20 church members were singing hymns. Danisevich denied the raid was a raid. "We acted strictly in accordance with the law. We live in a democratic state," she claimed. Asked why she and officials stayed at the house for six hours, she told Forum 18: "To prevent them from continuing their worship service." Meanwhile, the trial of Jehovah's Witness conscientious objector Dmitry Smyk is set to resume on 6 November. Also, a roundtable in Minsk to discuss the text of a new Religion Law proposed by human rights defenders is hoped to take place on 13 November, despite obstruction by the authorities.

BELARUS: Prosecutions of conscientious objectors resume

The criminal trial of Jehovah's Witness Dmitry Smyk, which began in Gomel on 8 October and is set to resume on 29 October, represents the first known prosecution of a religious conscientious objector to compulsory military service in the past nine years, Forum 18 News Service notes. "I have tried to abide by the Bible in all aspects of my life and act on its teachings that one shouldn't fight or teach to fight," Smyk told Forum 18. He said he is ready to do a civilian alternative service, as guaranteed in Belarus' Constitution. However, without a mechanism to enact this, Gomel's Military Commissariat says it must pass cases of refusal to conduct military service for prosecution. "So I have the right, but can't use it," Smyk says. Two other local Jehovah's Witness conscientious objectors have been referred to the Prosecutor's Office and another case is reportedly likely in Grodno.

BELARUS: "They were not doing wrong – it's just our law"

Baptists and Jehovah's Witnesses in Belarus continue to be raided and fined by the authorities for unregistered religious activity, Forum 18 News Service has found. The raids on meetings for unregistered worship have been strongly defended by the authorities. Anna Mukhlya, an expert in a regional Ideology Department who took part in one of the raids, conceded that the raided congregation was not harming anyone. "They were not doing wrong – it's just our law," she told Forum 18. Civil society groups continue to campaign against the Belarusian Religion Law, which makes unregistered religious activity a criminal offence. The Legal Transformation Centre and the advocacy group For Religious Freedom have drawn up an alternative Religion Law, which they think conforms with international human rights standards. However, attempts to hold an open roundtable in Minsk on 27 October on this have been frustrated by bans on renting conference facilities, imposed by Minsk city authorities.