The Council of Ministers submitted to the Parliament a draft law “On amendments to certain Codes of the Republic of Belarus”.
Among other things, the bill provides for the removal of Article 193.1 (“Illegal organization of activities of a public association, religious organization or foundation or participation in their activities”) from the Criminal Code. Simultaneously, it is expected to introduce Article 23.88 with similar content in the Code of Administrative Violations. Thus, the government suggests decriminalizing activities of unregistered organizations and replacing criminal responsibility with an administrative penalty of up to 50 base units (1,225 rubles, or EUR 520). Powers to consider cases of administrative offenses under Article 23.88 will be given to the courts and law-enforcement bodies. The latter suggests an extra-judicial procedure for imposing fines.
Since its introduction in 2005, Article 193.1 has been the subject of criticism from the Belarusian civil society organizations, human rights activists and international organizations as running contrary to the standards of human rights enshrined in the Constitution, most notably freedom of association. Recommendations on the abolition of Article 193.1 were sent to Belarus during the first (2010) and second (2015) rounds of the Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council. The issue has been repeatedly raised by the UN treaty bodies. The European Commission for Democracy through Law of the Council of Europe (Venice Commission) stated in a special opinion in 2011 that Article 193.1 was incompatible with the universal human rights standards.
Given the above, we view the proposed measure to repeal Article 193.1 of the Criminal Code as an important and necessary step towards improving the situation of freedom of association in Belarus.
At the same time, we notice that the intent to replace criminal liability for illegal NGO membership with administrative penalties demonstrates a lack of political will to ensure freedom of association in the country.
The essential steps for the final solution to the problem of unreasonable conditions restricting the creation of civil society organizations are as follows:
- repealing the rules providing for a ban on the activities of unregistered organizations (Part 2 of Article 7 of the Law “On Political Parties” and Part 2 of Article 7 of the Law “On Public Associations”), which will allow citizens to freely exercise their right to freedom of association.
- bringing the procedures for the registration of public associations, religious organizations and foundations in accordance with international standards, which would provide everyone with an opportunity to register a non-profit organization in the absence of discrimination and undue or politically motivated obstacles.
We urge the Parliament to take the following steps when considering the draft bill:
- remove Article 193.1 from the Criminal Code;
- vote against the introduction of administrative responsibility through a supplement to the Administrative Code;
- start a public discussion with all stakeholders of further changes in legislation regulating the establishment and activities of civil society organizations.
Center for Legal Transformation
Assembly of Democratic NGOs of Belarus
Belarusian Documentation Center
Human Rights Center "Viasna"
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Committee for the Support to the Repressed "Solidarity"