Belarus KGB can do no wrong
The latest amendments to the law on Belarusian state security agencies, which comes into force next week, grant unlimited powers to the KGB.
The Belarusian spooks now have carte blanche to use physical force and weapons against individuals they deem suspicious. They have also been granted the power to forcibly enter the suspects’ premises, breaking locks and doors if necessary. Diplomats’ apartments will be the only exception.
They are also empowered to cut short public order incidents involving groups, detain the participants and even to handcuff people involved in administrative litigation. In short, the Belarusian KGB can now detain and use physical force against anyone taking part in demonstrations.
The new law also allows state security personnel “to use weapons, including firearms, in other cases stipulated by the Belarusian president.” The opposition considers this provision especially alarming.
“What ‘other cases’ do they have in mind? Will they torture, or worse still, shoot dissenters somewhere in a forest?” journalist Vladimir Chudentsov writes in his LiveJournal blog.
The government-initiated amendments were adopted under a thick veil of secrecy. Although the parliament approved amendments to the law on state security agencies on September 30 and amendments to the law on public events three days later, neither has yet been published. Belarusian parliament press secretary Nikolai Lis told Euroradio they had no access to the project. It was discussed “at a closed meeting of the House of Representatives,” he said. “We have no access to these documents.” The amendments to the law on state security agencies come into force ten days after being published on the legal information website on October 12.
The amendments to the law on public events stipulate that mass gatherings that have not been granted an official permit will be considered illegal and hence punishable under administrative or even criminal law.
Parliament is rumored to be hurriedly amending the law on police.
“If Belarus used to be like socialist Poland, now it is more like Ceausescu’s Romania,” said Nikolai Bugai from the opposition newspaper Nasha Niva.
Former KGB Colonel Vladimir Borodach, who fled to Germany, said that all that remains is for the Belarusian authorities “to pass a law on industrial sabotage […] banning strikes and street action.” Former presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev, currently serving a prison term for participating in a protest on December 19, 2010, said: “We can expect the screws to continue to tighten.”
Anastasia Polozhanko, deputy chair of the opposition Youth Front, said: “Before they imprisoned us, now they will shoot us.”
Lawyer Yury Chausov believes that “this only legalizes existing practices used against opponents and human rights activists.” Former presidential candidate Vitaly Rymashevsky agrees.
Meanwhile, protest sentiments have subsided in Belarus, although the dollar rate has tripled to 9,000 Belarusian rubles. Former presidential candidate Grigory Kostusev thinks they will see more protests if the dollar soars to 12,000 Belarusian rubles by yearend, hence the authorities’ perceived the need to amend the laws.
High-profile deaths in remand prisons prompt judicial reform
Nikolai Fedorov, head of the Institute for Socio-Economic and Political Research and Russian Popular Front coordinator, has called for a drastic revision of the Criminal and Procedure Codes.
Fedorov’s proposal to make the Criminal Code more humane comes amid similar calls prompted by the ongoing election campaign as well as the recent scandals surrounding the deaths of remand prison inmates who were awaiting trial for economic crimes.
“The multiple amendments to the Criminal Code mean that it is patchy and lacks coherence. We propose drafting a new document, which would be different conceptually,” he said.
He said that the current version is excessively harsh and that courts hand down convictions in an overwhelming majority of cases. “Fifteen million people were convicted over the last 15-16 years, or 11% of the population. This is highly detrimental for society and the individual,” he said pointing out that many judges are former prosecutors and investigators, which also shifts the balance toward conviction.
Genri Reznik, President of the Moscow Bar Association, agrees. He said judges’ training should be restructured and that former defense attorneys would be preferable as judges to former prosecutors. At the same time, he does not think it advisable to rewrite the Criminal Code.
“I have known defense lawyers who turned into much more severe judges than former prosecutors,” said Vladimir Radchenko, former Supreme Court deputy chairman. “We had to correct their mistakes in the Supreme Court.” He believes that the main problem is the judges’ poor knowledge of modern economic realities: “They view taking perfectly normal business risks as a crime!” This Soviet style approach lands many daring entrepreneurs behind bars or at least stains their reputation for life.
Radchenko supports Fedorov’s idea of a radical change of these “patchwork” laws. “This Criminal Code was controversial from the get go because it was written during a transition period. It became even more so with the nearly 100 amendments made,” he said. “It initially imposed excessive jail terms for many crimes, which, if anything, were then extended by these amendments,” he pointed out.
Igor Yurgens, head of the Institute for Contemporary Development, also thinks it expedient to change the Criminal Code. While admitting that President Dmitry Medvedev’s efforts have already made it more humane – a bill now in the pipes will ensure most jailed businessmen are released, and another bill already adopted allows them to await trial at home rather than in remand – Yurgens describes the current policy as “repressive in general.” In his words, the presumption of innocence largely remains an idealistic theory.
“This reflects the prevailing sentiment of those who enforce laws and pass sentence. The situation nationwide is reminiscent of a civil war or a property redistribution period, with everyone embittered against each other, with a weak public moral sense of living in accordance with the law,” he said.
A new fundamental judicial policy needs to be written, otherwise people will continue dying in remand, analysts agreed.
Celebrities fail to boost United Russia ratings
United Russia’s electoral prospects look the gloomiest in Moscow, St. Petersburg and the Kaliningrad Region. In the capital, United Russia can rely on no more than 30% of the vote. The party, however, will likely manage to hold its parliamentary majority and cross the 50% voting threshold.
Early in October, the Public Opinion Foundation completed a study of the party’s electoral ratings in almost all regions. The result was 41% taking into account those who are not going to go to the polls (14%) and those who have not yet decided which party to back (15%).
According to the poll, Moscow (29%), St. Petersburg (31%) and the Kaliningrad Region (27%) are the areas where United Russia faces an uphill battle.
The poor performance in Moscow is not surprising, says Alexander Kynev, head of regional programs at the Information Policy Development Foundation. Its mayor Sergei Sobyanin is not a figure likely to garner many votes for the ruling party, while his newly established system has destroyed the electoral machine created by former mayor Yury Luzhkov. Luzhkov, says Kynev, had an established electoral machine that functioned according to definite rules. Sobyanin, on the other hand, is not a high profile public figure and has no support except among non-conformists who are willing for vote for anyone in authority.
Another reason United Russia is unpopular in Moscow is that the capital is home to a high concentration of internet users and protest groups, explains Yury Zagrebnoi, former Moscow City Duma deputy. Should a crisis hit the establishment, the party will have no one to fall back on, and even this low rating would easily fall to zero, Zagrebnoi says.
In St. Petersburg, a Gazeta.ru source explains the low rating as being due to the authorities’ lack of popularity in the city and the fact that the Duma elections coincide with elections to the regional legislature, contested by practically all serving United Russia deputies who the public associate with the unpopular figure of former St. Petersburg governor Valentina Matviyenko.
As far as the Kaliningrad Region is concerned, the area has always been a thorn in the side for United Russia, says a Gazeta.ru source.
The source says the new governor, Nikolai Tsukanov, has not yet gained broad popularity, while the regional elites – regional business leaders, United Russia’s Kaliningrad branch and the governor’s entourage – are mired in conflict.
United Russia fared best in the North Caucasus republics and the Volga and southern regions. In the Caucasus, for example, the poll gave them on average 50%.
Overall, United Russia’s nationwide rating stands at about 58%, factoring out those who are undecided or will ignore the elections. If the election bears this out, the party will maintain its previous presence in parliament.
United Russia itself takes a dispassionate view of the ratings. “Our objective is to increase the numbers of people who vote for us,” says Sergei Zheleznyak, deputy secretary of the party’s general council.
“At this point four years ago United Russia nationwide rating stood at 40%,” he added.
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