Updated at 16:23,20-06-2018

Citizens must not be imprisoned for criticizing government


For Belarus to meet its OSCE commitments for democratic elections, its "citizens need to be able to freely choose their representatives without being imprisoned for expressing criticism of a government," Matteo Mecacci, head of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's observation mission for Belarus' House of Representatives elections

Mr. Mecacci said that he and Riccardo Migliori, president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, had already held meetings with the chairmen of the Belarusian parliamentary chambers, Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey and Lidziya Yarmoshyna, head of the central election commission, since arriving in Minsk on September 9. On September 11, they were expected to meet with opposition leaders, civil society activists and representatives of independent media outlets.

"We regret that we were not able to meet those in jail, but they are not forgotten by our Assembly," he said.

Mr. Mecacci noted that the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly had publicly called "for the release and exoneration of all political prisoners in the OSCE region."

The OSCE is pleased that Belarus has decided to engage with the organization by inviting its representatives to observe the elections, he said.

"The essence of the OSCE election observation mandate consists of the verification of whether civil and political rights of the citizens have been respected, and this is also our goal in Belarus. We want to make sure that the democratic aspirations of the Belarusian citizens can be expressed and, in the end, met," he said.

Mr. Mecacci said that it was too early to make any conclusions on the "campaign environment," "but we see there are some of the old concerns on the candidate registration process." He said that the observation mission would make its conclusions on how that impacted the elections after the vote.

"We also call on Belarus, as we call on all countries, to respect media freedom and allow all people to freely speak and participate in the political life of the country," he said. "Part of a democratic process includes citizens being free to choose whether they participate in that process. In the best case, election authorities, government officials, political parties, the media and civil society help create a vibrant atmosphere that includes freedom of movement, expression and assembly and results in people wanting to participate and have their voices reflected through their vote. When those democratic factors are sadly absent, then it is understandable that some people would not want to participate in such a process."

Mr. Mecacci said that he did not know why his appointment as head of the mission had been criticized by Alyaksandr Lukashenka. "As chair of the OSCE PA human rights committee, I have put the spotlight on human rights concerns throughout the OSCE region, including in Belarus, in my home country of Italy, or in the United States, for example," he said. "As an experienced election observer and having monitored political activity in Minsk, I think many people know me to be well-qualified to represent the OSCE in this election observation mission."

Mr. Mecacci said that he was well received by the Belarusian authorities and remained "with an open mind regarding this election."

"We hope to help Belarus make the necessary steps to re-open the door to the European community. But we must first evaluate all elements of the election process," he said.

For any election to be in line with OSCE commitments, citizens must be "free to make an informed choice among pluralistic options and participate in the elections," Mr. Mecacci said.