BELARUS: Further Massive Fines for Hindu Park Meditation.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 26 July 2002

Tatsyana Akadanava, head of a small Hindu community in the Belarusian capital Minsk, has been fined about one year's average wages after being accused of leading an unsanctioned meditation ceremony in a public park that was broken up by the police on 13 July. Judge Kornov of the Frunze administrative court in Minsk fined her one and a half million Belarusian roubles (825 US dollars, 815 Euros or 525 British pounds) on 24 July under Article 167-2 of the administrative code, which punishes "organising an unsanctioned demonstration". "They have violated the constitution," Akadanava told Keston News Service from Minsk on 26 July. "Although I and all the others in the group who have been fined are lodging appeals, we know we won't get anywhere through the legal system."

Also fined on 24 July was fellow Hindu Tatsyana Zhilevich, who is disabled. She had been accused of "resisting a policeman" and "participation in an unsanctioned demonstration" and was fined 200,000 roubles. Present as observers at the court were two officials from the Minsk office of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, one from the United States embassy and a journalist from the Prague-based Radio Free Europe. Nearly twenty Hindus have now been fined for the attempt to hold the public meditation (see KNS 16 July 2002). The fines have already been condemned by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

Natalya Filipchuk, Akadanava's lawyer, declared that she believed the cases against the Hindus should never have been brought to court. "This was the result of a lack of education among the police," she told Keston from Minsk on 26 July. "The court reached illegal decisions which crudely violated the citizens' constitutional rights and the presumption of innocence. I believe they were sentenced for their adherence to their religion." She added that it was difficult to believe that such a case would have been brought against Orthodox or Catholic priests.

Contacted by telephone on 26 July, an official named Ryabakov of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs declined to discuss the Hindus' case. "I'm not informed of it. I know nothing about it," he told Keston. He said only committee chairman Stanislav Buko could comment and he was temporarily teaching courses in university and was not available. The telephone of Alla Ryabitseva, the head of the religious affairs department for Minsk city council who had refused to receive the Hindus' registration application in February, went unanswered on 26 July.

Akadanava, head of the Light of Kaylasa group, complained of the way her case was conducted. She had initially been given the massive fine on 15 July, the day the cases against group members began in court, but it was soon withdrawn, once international officials had seen the receipt for the fine. The case was due to return to court on 17 July, 19 July and again on 23 July, but each time the policeman who was due to testify that she had been the alleged organiser of the meditation failed to turn up.

The policeman was present at the hearing on 24 July, but Akadanava claims that he "lied to my face in court". "He said he was there in the park when I and other group members were detained, but I can't say if he was there or not," she told Keston. "In any case, he drew up the record saying I was the organiser." Akadanava insists the event had no organiser and that group members turned up voluntarily. She also complains that Judge Kornov did not require the policeman to swear that he would tell the truth. "The judge said that in administrative cases they don't use oaths."

Akadanava reported that the other 16 Hindus who had been fined between 200,000 and 500,000 roubles on 15 and 16 July lodged their appeals against the sentences to the Minsk city court on 25 July. She added that she and Zhilevich will not get the written judgment until 29 July and would lodge appeals after that. The city court is due to consider the appeals within one month.

All the Hindus fear that, if the fines are not paid within two weeks, court-appointed assessors will visit their homes to identify property to be seized. "Many of our members are registered to live at their parents' flats," Akadanava reported. "I'm afraid the assessors will visit these parents and try to identify personal property of group members." She said her own parents are dead, but fears assessors will visit the mother of her husband Sergei, who was one of those fined 200,000 roubles.

But Akadanava doubts the assessors will find much if they visit her and Sergei's flat. "I am a religious person. I have no possessions - only what is necessary. An altar, my religious clothes and my sleeping things."

Given the little faith they have in the legal system, Akadanava and fellow Hindus are trying to gain public attention to their case within Belarus. They have applied for permission to hold a public demonstration on 10 August on Minsk's main street.

As a religious community without official registration, the Hindus have been denied permission to rent premises for worship under Belarus' tight official controls on religious practice. (END)