BELARUS: Further Massive Fine for Hindus.

by Felix Corley, Keston News Service, 14 October 2002

In the latest assault on Belarus' small Hindu community, a court in the capital Minsk has handed down a massive fine of 1,600,000 Belarusian roubles (870 US dollars, 880 Euros or 560 British pounds) on a local Hindu for taking part in a street protest against earlier harassment of their community. The court of Minsk's central district handed down the fine to Mariya Vyatkina on 10 October, a month after seven other Hindus who had joined the protest were sentenced to ten days in prison. Vyatkina only avoided a prison term as her husband Aleksey is blind. "We can no longer meet as a community," the leader of the Light of Kaylasa group, Tatyana Akadanova, told Keston News Service from Minsk on 14 October. "We're very afraid now. We don't know how it will end."

"I don't know how I will pay the fine," Vyatkina told Radio Liberty. "My husband is a first category invalid and I do not work. We are living jointly on fifty American dollars a month." However, she pledged that she would continue to "fight for her rights" as a member of the Hindu community. "What did we do wrong?"

The latest fine was condemned by Oleg Gulak, executive chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. "This massive fine means that Mariya Vyatkina will have to pay over all the money she and her husband need to live off for the next year and a half," he told Keston from Minsk on 14 October. "They will not be able to even eat for a year and a half." He described the punishment as a violation of the constitution and of Belarus' international human rights commitments. He pointed out that it was at least ten times what someone would receive for hooliganism or inflicting an injury. "The government believes it is worse for people to demonstrate peacefully for their constitutional rights to religious freedom than to wound someone."

Akadanova recounted that her Hindu community - which has been denied registration - had earlier met for meditation in the woods outside Minsk, but that this is now impossible as the weather is too cold. "We're afraid to meet in private homes as an instruction recently went out from the city authorities not to allow religious meetings in people's homes." She said that so far none of those who have been fined - including herself, her husband Sergei, and Vyatkina - have paid. "We've no way of paying." She said those fined appealed to the city court, but the appeal was rejected. They then appealed to the Supreme Court. "Two have had these appeals rejected and I'm sure all the others will be rejected too." She said she does not know how long it will be before the legal assessors arrive to enforce the fines.

Vyatkina's fine came in punishment for her participation in a street protest on 17 August, when the Hindus held up banners declaring "No to the Orthodox/State Terror in Belarus!" and "Freedom for Religious Minorities!" Police detained all the Hindus, claiming the procession constituted an "unsanctioned meeting", but let Vyatkina go because of her husband's invalidity.

In early September the central district court tried nine protestors 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. Seven were sentenced to prison terms of ten days, while Irina Sibilina - who has a six-year-old child and who could not therefore be imprisoned - was fined (see KNS 10 September 2002).

The massive crackdown on the Hindu community began on 13 July, when nearly two dozen members were detained while attempting to hold a meditation ceremony in a public park. 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).

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. Community member Tatyana Zhilevich was beaten by unknown assailants at the entrance to her flats in early September, the day before she was due to appear in court over the 17 August demonstration. After recovering from head injuries in hospital she was sentenced to ten days in prison, being released the day Vyatkina was fined. "These beatings have really frightened the community," Gulak reported.

Akadanova told Keston that her community does not know where to turn. "We have appealed to local human rights groups and intend to appeal to international courts. But how can that help us?" (END)