BELARUS: One Quarter of Hindu Community in Prison.

Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 10 September 2002

An estimated quarter of the active members of a small Hindu community in the Belarusian capital Minsk are now serving ten-day sentences in prison for holding an unauthorised demonstration to protest against earlier state actions against their community. The 10-day prison term handed down on 5 September by Judge Tatyana Pavlyuchuk at the court of Minsk's central district on Syarhey Silibin brought to six the number of members of the Light of Kaylasa community now in prison. Further trials are expected.

The deputy chairman of the State Committee for Religious and Ethnic Affairs Vladimir Lameka told Keston News Service from Minsk on 10 September that he had never heard of these cases. "Our chairman, Stanislav Buko, is on holiday at the moment. I'm not in charge of these issues." Contacted by telephone the same day, Alla Ryabitseva, head of the Department for Religious and Ethnic Affairs at Minsk City Council, initially declared that she too had never heard of the cases. She then said she could not hear Keston's questions clearly because of what she claimed was a poor telephone line (Keston could hear her perfectly) and put the phone down. Keston redialled several times, but she failed to answer the phone.

A total of seven Hindus have already been sentenced under Article 167-1 part 2 of the Administrative Code, which punishes a repeat violation of the law on processions and meetings with a penalty of up to fifteen days in prison. The sentences have been condemned by the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. "Our executive director Oleg Gulak defended the Hindus in court," committee spokesman Dmitry Markushevsky told Keston from Minsk on 10 September. "We asked the court to close the case and to free the defendants."

In a 28 August statement, the Helsinki Committee had expressed its "protest against the crude violation of the rights to personal inviolability, the inviolability of the home, freedom of religion, freedom of convictions, and free expression and notes the exacerbation of conflicts on the basis of religion."

Also brought to trial on 5 September was Silibin's wife, Iryna Silibina, the Minsk-based news agency Belapan reported. Despite being unemployed and supporting an underage child, she was fined 1.5 million roubles (some 83 US dollars, 83 Euros or 55 British pounds). The two pleaded not guilty, telling the judge that they had come to October Square "in accordance with the constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression, in order to speak out against the new bill on religion and against discrimination of religious minorities in Belarus".

Tatyana Akadanova (the leader of the community), her husband Sergei Akadanov and Sergei Alyasevich were given their 10-day sentences on 3 September (promptly declaring a hunger strike). The recently-married Igor Yusupov and Irina Golovina (who is a Russian citizen) were sentenced the following day.

The trials followed a demonstration by twelve members of the community in October Square in Minsk city centre on 17 August to protest against what they called the "government's Orthodox terror". Wearing black traditional garments and holding placards that read: "No to State Orthodox Terror," "Freedom for Religious Minorities," and "Hands off Religious Minorities," the believers demanded an end to the harassment of religious minorities and the registration of their community. Speaking through a megaphone, police officers repeatedly announced that the demonstration had not been authorised. Unwilling to leave the place, the protesters sat down on the pavement. They were dragged into the police buses and taken to the Central District Internal Affairs Directorate. All twelve were allowed to go after statements on charges against them were drawn up.

"Although the country's Constitution provides for freedom of religion; however, the Lukashenko regime restricts this right in practice," Akadanova told Belapan at the time. "Under such circumstances we are forced to appeal to society." She complained that the Minsk City Executive Committee had ignored the group's application to stage the protest.

The most recent problems for the community began when nineteen Hindu believers were arrested by police in a public park in Minsk on 13 July, while walking in a procession to a place of joint worship. Fourteen of them were kept for almost two days in custody. A district judge found 15 community members guilty of violating street demonstration rules and fined them a total of about 2,600 dollars (see KNS 26 July 2002). Since then, five community members were attacked and beaten by unidentified assailants in late August, while in a separate incident the flat where they met for meditation was ransacked.

Ivan Pashkevich, a parliamentary deputy and member of its human rights commission, condemned the sentences handed down to the Hindus as "illegal" and a violation of the Belarusian constitution. He told Keston that he believed the authorities have decided to make an example of the Hindus. "These poor Hindus have not been targeted because of who they are," he declared from Minsk on 10 September. "It is a question of principle: the authorities want to send a signal to other religious groups. If they register them they will have to register thousands of other religious communities which have been denied registration, many of them congregations of registered Protestant denominations."

He said the Hindus - who have applied unsuccessfully for registration - faced a similar situation to the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. "If the Ministry of Justice has political motives in examining a registration application, it is refused. Any activity the group then engages in is considered illegal and believers are turned into violators of the law. It is a vicious circle. It is completely absurd." (END)