BELARUS: Massive Fines for Hindu Park Meditation.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 16 July 2002

A group of 18 Hindus who tried to hold an unsanctioned meditation ceremony in a public park in the capital Minsk have been sentenced to fines of up to half a million Belarusian roubles (275 US dollars, 271 euros or 175 British pounds), an official of the administrative court of the city's Frunze district told Keston News Service today (16 July). Harri Pahonyailo, deputy chair of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, condemned what he called these "massive" fines imposed in the wake of a religious event. "Our committee believes these sentences and fines are a violation of human rights, the rights to religious freedom, freedom of movement and freedom of expression," he told Keston from Minsk on 16 July. "It was a respectable event - all they did was go to the park without the permission of the city authorities."

"Some 16 of the group were sentenced under Article 167-1 of the administrative code to fines of between 20 and 50 minimum monthly wages," the court official told Keston. "Two were given an official warning and two have had their case deferred until Wednesday." The official told Keston that while the largest fine handed down was 500,000 roubles, most members of the group received fines of 200,000 to 250,000 roubles (110-138 US dollars). "The average monthly wage is only about 70 dollars," Pahonyailo pointed out.

Tatsyana Akadanava, head of the Light of Kaylasa group, told Keston that the judge had initially sentenced her on 15 July to a fine of 1,500,000 roubles. However, when she left the room where the judge had handed down the sentence, she showed the receipt to an official of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who was observing the cases. "When they saw the interest there was in the case, it was very strange," she told Keston by telephone on 16 July. "They called me back in, took back the certificate and said my case would be heard on Wednesday." She said she would face charges under Article 167-2 of organising the meditation, a charge she denies. "There was no leader - each person themselves decided they wanted to attend." The other Hindu to appear in court on 17 July is an invalid who, Akadanava reports, was nearly throttled by a police officer and had her arm painfully twisted.

Keston was unable to find out from leaders of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs why the police and the courts were obstructing peaceful religious worship. Keston was told that Stanislav Buko, chairman of the committee, is currently on holiday. Alla Ryabitseva, head of the Department for Religious and Ethnic Affairs at Minsk City Council, was unavailable for contact by telephone in her office on 16 July.

Nineteen Hindus wearing religious clothing and holding ritual banners were walking into the park for a joint meditation on the evening of 13 July when they were detained by the police. "We behaved very peacefully, singing Hindu songs and chanting our anthems. But the police took interest in us, not in a group of drunkards nearby," Akadanava reported. She added that the police twisted believers' arms when they pushed them into police cars to take them away. The group was taken to the Frunze district police station, where they were charged under Article 167-1, which punishes participation in an unauthorised demonstration.

Akadanava - who had young children with her - was among several participants freed by police. However, twelve of those who remained in custody - seven men and five women - began a hunger strike on 14 July in protest at their continued detention. Proceedings in the Frunze administrative court - which were also observed by a representative of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee and a number of journalists - began on 15 July.

Akadanava said her community had been refused official registration since 1999 and denied permission to rent premises for worship under Belarus' tight official controls on religious practice. "We had registration as a social organisation since 1991, but this was cancelled when restrictions on religion were tightened." But she blamed the new religion bill passed by the lower house of parliament at the end of June (see KNS 1 July 2002) for the police action against the Hindus. "The law has not even come into force yet, but we are already being persecuted." She warned that if the new bill is approved by the upper house and signed into law by the president then many Hindus "will be forced to leave the country because of persecution by the authorities".

"We don't understand how we can function," Akadanava's husband Sergei, who was one of those fined 500,000 roubles, told Keston. "We have no freedom. All we want to do is to live and be able to worship. I'm afraid for my wife, our members, our children. I fear to go out into the street in case something happens. They have started listening in to our telephones. Where are we going to get the massive sums to pay the fines?" (END)