The Supreme Court of Belarus has recently considered the claim of the IISEPS public organization against the Ministry of Justice. As far as the hearings were open, diplomats and journalists were as well present in court and the Case of IISEPS received wide response both in Belarus and abroad. Below you will find the interview of Narodnaya Volya (Public Will) correspondent with IISEPS Director O. Manaev on the reasons of the case, its circumstances and consequences.


NV: Let alone scientific and research work of the IISEPS, lately the institute has been often mentioned in press in view of the pressure put on it from the part of the authorities. What really happens around the institute these days?

ОМ: Within the past few months the institute has been surviving mass pressure from the part of the state bodies. First, we were flooded with claim letters (13 letters for the past five months!) from the Ministry of Justice, some them being formal and other – just absurd. In October, I was invited to see the Minister of Justice who showed me the decision of the ministry – to be submitted to the Supreme Court – on Institute closure for “a great number of violations”. In November, I was summoned to the Republican Prosecutor’s Office where I was to give explanations on the public opinion polls conducted by the Gallup Organization / Baltic Surveys during October election and referendum. In December, late in the evening KGB officials carried a search in the apartment rented by IISEPS Deputy Director Alexander Sosnov and where we all meet for scientific discussions. Several days later, militia came to that very apartment for a check – allegedly at the claim of the neighbors. We were even joking that we were to wait for the army involvement to get “a full set” of security agencies showing so much concern in an institute with less that a dozen of employees.


NV: This looks really strange. Your Institute carries scientific researches, publishes bulletins and books, conducts seminars and conferences and is actually not involved in politics…

ОМ: I think the reason is very simple. We’ve been studying what the Belarusians think about their living and introducing them to their personal opinion. It differs more and more from the official standpoint over lately. Results of the recent referendum are a bright example. According to the official data, 80% of citizens voted for Constitution amendment while according to the data of independent research centers – under a half. Instead of listening to the opinion of citizens, learning their interests and solving their problems, the Belarusian authorities try to shut up the mouths of those who study this opinion and publicize it. Why? It is much easier to govern a society that is uninformed and dumb. However, recent events in the neighboring Ukraine have demonstrated that in no country the society will keep silent and wait for changes for ever.


NV: Dozens of public organizations get similar letters from the Justice Ministries while you decided to suit them. Why?

ОМ: First of all, because we are convinced we’re right. Let me remind you the circumstances of this case. At the end of November, the Justice Ministry sent us a written notice for “hindrances to the Registering Body in carrying activity stipulated in Art. 25 of the Law of Belarus “On Public Organizations” that showed up in non-submission to the Ministry of a completed questionnaire form used during the opinion poll conducted in June of 2004.”

We think this notice illegal and ungrounded for several reasons. First, in accordance with part 3 of the Article mentioned above, “the officials employed by the bodies that registered a public organization have the right – within the limits of their powers… to be introduced to the documents of that public organization…” The questionnaire form we used for opinion polls (to be more exact, the form for an interview), the copy of which was requested by the Justice Ministry, isn’t a document of the IISEPS and this is stipulated in our agreement with the author of the questionnaire form. It says transparently that the author of the questionnaire – a physical entity – granted to the Institute the right to use the form in the opinion poll of June of 2004; its submission in any form to the third parties or use for the purposes other than stipulated in the agreement is illegal. Consequently, demand of the Justice Ministry to submit the property of the other entity is not just ungrounded but it violates point 1 of the Art. 15 of the Belarus Law “On Copyright and Neighboring Rights”. Second, for the purpose of polling anonymity (sometimes, interviewers write down respondents’ names and addresses) completed forms – in accordance with Institute’s regulations – are destroyed right after the information has been entered into the computer, i.e. long before we received the request from the Justice Ministry. Third, the digital version of the questionnaire isn’t a document as it doesn’t have a signature or publisher’s data. This means that the ministry demanded to perform an action impossible for a number of reasons beyond our control. All of them were listed in our letter to the Minister of Justice, but unfortunately our reasoning wasn’t taken into account.

On that ground and also in accordance with the Art. 358 of the Civil Code of Belarus and Art. 28 of the Law “On Public Organizations”, we lodged a claim to the Supreme Court pleading to recognize the written notice of the Justice Ministry illegal and nullify it, with expenses for state due laid on respondent.


NV: Did you really believe in success?

ОМ: We did understand that we had a very little chance of success in the Supreme Court taking into account current regime in Belarus. On the other hand, we understand that the limits of power appear only when the authorities face resistance from the part of the citizens it puts pressure on. Over the past year, dozens of NGO’s were closed in Belarus including independent research centers like the Center of Constitutionalism and Comparative Law Researches and the International Institute for Political Studies. Some of organizations agree to a forced self-closure like it happened with the analytical center Social Technologies. Usually, this is done quietly not to attract attention of the general audience. As a result, many active and independent people give up; they start thinking that the rights cannot be claimed in this country. We are convinced that public and legal resistance to the pressure the authorities put on us – even when there is little chance of success – is crucial for democratization and jural state formation in Belarus, if not today then tomorrow. Examples of such top-level resistance to the Belarusian judicial system are very few. The Belarusian Helsinki Committee had a similar story last year. We should make precedents and make them widely public. This is why the public organization IISEPS decided to stand in the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Justice to show that these are them and not we who break the law.


NV: Did you happen to face any unexpected development during the court hearings?

ОМ: The court hearings lasted from the morning till night and the decision was announced on the next day. Judge V. Kulik, Prosecutor I. Kandrusik and Court Secretary A. Grigorova appeared nice young ladies, so we weren’t bored. The Justice Ministry was represented by A. Khariton, notoriously known within civil society bodies, the IISEPS – by A. Sosnov and the public – by a noted human right defender O. Gulakh, Executive Director of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. Apart from representatives of the parties, diplomats from OSCE, US Embassy and EU countries as well as journalists were present in court during hearings. Both IISEPS and public representatives provided strong arguments to that “the notice given contravenes the law”, yet the prosecutor suggested that the claim “be not allowed” and the court agreed. The Judge underlined that the decision “came in force right after its announcement and is not subject to appealing.” As regards court decision, it wasn’t a surprise unlike its justification.

We were explained that, first, the bodies that register public organizations (in this case, the Ministry of Justice) have the right to demand and receive from these organizations any documents, materials or information pertaining to their Charter activity. The nature of materials and the terms of their storage are not stipulated. Actually, this means that, for example, our Institute is bound to keep and at any moment submit to the Justice Ministry any of the filled forms of any polling conducted by the Institute despite all guaranties of their anonymity. For thirteen years of our work, these are around 100 000 items, let alone the tons of paperwork we collect, our own analytical materials and their drafts, etc.! Second, by their definition, registering bodies aren’t a third party and this means the copyright isn’t a hindrance for submission of any materials based on legal agreements with their authors. Third, even if these are market researches – that are the commercial classified information – meant, they should be submitted to the registration bodies at their request. Seeing our bewilderment, the officials explained that “the Justice Ministry shall not pass such materials to the third party.”

The diplomats shocked even greater than we were, said we had all grounds to address the International Court.


NV: The conclusions are really uncommon. What can be the consequences for your Institute and for the society in general?

ОМ: I can assure you that the consequences will be tangible for all of us. As regards the IISEPS, this decision allows the Justice Ministry close the Institute quietly. They will once again demand some document “pertaining to Charter activity” (in their latest letter, they requested for a completed questionnaire form of the November polling) that we will be unable to provide for reasons beyond our control. Therefore, they’ll give us another written notice and pass to the Supreme Court the decision about our closure “for multifold violations of the law”.

The consequences may be also grave for the society. Subjection of copyright and commercial classified information to the state control may lead to the loss of millions dollars of investments into the Belarusian economics. What investor, foreign or home, will agree to invest his money if the results of a market research he/she orders can become known to the competitors? In fact, this court decision takes government control over the society to a new and higher level. Now, any public association must provide to the registering bodies any information pertaining to its activity irregardless its nature and time limitation. According to that same Justice Ministry, there are over 2 500 republican and 1 500 regional public organizations registered presently in Belarus. This means some 150 000 citizens are involved into their activity directly or indirectly (at least 50 signatures should be collected for a republican organization to get registered and at 10 – for a regional); taking their families into account these are nearly half a million people! These structures incorporate people with different interests – social and cultural, religious and creative, occupational and amateur, human rights defenders, environmentalists, etc. Since in any country a civic society is a form of people’s self-organization, the authorities have demonstrated in this decision that they are anti-democratic, anti-market, anti-law as well as anti-national.


NV: How are you going to work in the future if you anticipate your forthcoming closure by that same Supreme Court?

ОМ: We’re preparing the variants of carrying our activity in case we lose the status of a republican public organization. I can tell you for sure that as long as we live here and are not imprisoned we will continue following our mission – promoting the development of democracy, market economy and civic society in Belarus via sociological researches.