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CSW (04/26/06) – A network of Christians in Europe has issued a statement expressing grave concern at the recent arrest and imprisonment of two Christian leaders in Belarus in separate cases during March 2006.

The European Religious Liberty Forum, made up of lawyers, journalists and human rights activists from across Europe, recently met together to discuss the situation in Belarus. Top of the agenda in the forum, which includes Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), was the arrests and sentencing to 10 days imprisonment of Pastor Georgi Vladimirovich Vyazovsky and of Sergey Shavtsov, a human rights lawyer, in separate cases in Minsk , Belarus in March 2006.

The Forum acknowledged that the arrests occurred as a result of existing legislation in Belarus , particularly specific clauses in the law On Freedom of Conscience and the Religious Organisations passed in 2002. The statement notes, “This legislation restricts the right to free expression of religious convictions and the holding of religious ceremonies and is in breach of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) to which Belarus became a party in 1992.”

Pastor Vyazovsky was charged with holding regular religious meetings in his private home without permission from the local authorities. However, no public orders had been violated and no complaints were received. Local officials arrived unannounced to one such gathering, which had attracted about 30 people.

Sergey Shavtsov, a human rights lawyer, was arrested on 24 March 2006 and jailed for organising a religious event, an interdenominational conference, without government permission. On the last day of the conference three policemen and one KGB officer broke into the conference because, according to them, the event was an offence under Belarusian legislation.

After locking the group inside the conference hall for an hour, the police took two of the pastors present to the police station. Mr Shavtsov decided to take responsibility for the organisation and was promptly taken to an administrative court where, after 20 minutes he was sentenced to ten days detention in one of the state prisons in Minsk . Mr Shavtsov, who has for several years been handling many cases concerning freedom of speech and religious freedom, was brought to the prison directly from the court room.

The constitution of Belarus clearly enshrines religious freedom and, in addition, acknowledges the precedence of international law. Yet Article 25 of the 2002 legislation clearly violates basic tenets of religious freedom in restricting the right to meet privately for worship.

Tina Lambert, Advocacy Director for CSW adds, “This statement expresses our solidarity with the citizens of Belarus whose rights have been violated. The cases of Pastor Vyazovsky and Mr Shavtsov clearly demonstrate that religious freedom is restricted in Belarus in patent violation of its own constitution and international standards. CSW, with the other members of the European Religious Liberty Forum, appeals to the Government of Belarus to redress this serious situation.”