Valiantsin Stefanovich, Vice-chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”.
On 4 August 2011, Ales Bialiatski, President of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights, was arrested and detained. As leader of one of the most active human rights defence organisations in Belarus, Ales’s incarceration seemed inevitable in light of the authoritarian regime incumbent here for the last 17 years. However, his imprisonment raises several questions.
For example, why now? Why not, for instance, in 2006 or 2007, when the official justification for criminal charges against Ales and his Viasna colleagues first arose under article 193.1 of the Belarusian Criminal Code criminalising those working for unregistered organisations? Ales and his colleagues never hid that they were conducting activities for Viasna, despite the Belarsian Supreme Court decision to liquidate the organisation in 2003.
Everyone knew Viasna helped victims of human rights violations and even provided material assistance. Its offices were familiar to nearly all political and social activists suffering State repression. In its 15 years of existence, Viasna has helped thousands of persecuted Belarusians – a matter attested to also by the friends and families of persons politically detained or disappeared, past and present.
Viasna has provided effective assistance for persecuted persons even in the face of large-scale repression in 2006, December 2010 and the summer of 2011. This summer, funds collected during the “silent” demonstrations across Belarus were handed to Viasna. This evidences the confidence of Belarusian civil society in Viasna and confirms its moral authority. In the last few months, Viasna’s offices have received an uninterrupted flow of people fined or taken in for questioning for daring to clap their hands in the streets of their native city. Once again – Viasna has always worked as openly as possible; it has never tried to hide.
That this is well known to security services was highlighted when during a recent search of the Viasna offices and the Bialiatski apartment and dacha, KGB officers were interested only in financial documents: invoices, receipts, etc. The government’s logic is clear : this summer’s “silent” protests – especially keen in this time of deep national economic crisis – highlight growing societal discontent with the regime . The authorities are aware that the political heat of this summer may be forecast to rise going into the new year. As such, they are anxious to eliminate an organisation that provides tangible assistance to victims of political repression.
Viasna has irritated the Belarusian authorities for many years. However, they now consider it to constitute a serious threat – so much so that they have arrested Bialiatski, despite the obvious negative repercussions and potential material consequences of this arrest. Indeed, detaining the vice president of one of the oldest and most influential international organisations – the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) – is a drastic political move. The solidarity among human rights organisations is matched by the solidarity of the media. And yet, the regime did just that.
The decision to detain Bialiatski was taken right after the events of 19 December 2010. That was when security services started harassing Viasna: police and KGB “visited” Viasna premises five times, searching our offices twice and scouring Ales’ apartment and dacha. An extensive slander campaign against Bialiatski and Viasna was conducted by state media. That Viasna and its president are die hard and determined opponents of the current regime is common knowledge. Bialiatski often urged the EU to adopt stricter sanctions on the Lukachenko regime’s repeated and flagrant human rights violations. One such intervention in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe provoked a particularly hostile reaction from Lukachenko and his state television, making Bialiatski’s arrest simply a matter of time.
The Belarusian authorities planned and prepared their “special operation” against our organisation and its founder very carefully and well in advance. They could have adopted a number of approaches: in February 2011, an official letter from the Office of the General Prosecutor of Belarus highlighted that under article 193.1 of the Penal Code it was illegal for Bialiatski to carry out activities on behalf of an unregistered organisation.
However, another approach was adopted, which offered advantages over charging Bialiatski under article 193.1 of the Penal Code, which is clearly political. Instead, security services, aided by state bodies in neighboring Lithuania and Poland, constructed a case against Bialiatski for alleged tax evasion. This allowed them to attempt to convince Belarusian and international public opinion that the detained person was not in fact a human rights defender but merely a tax evader seeking to avoid contributing to the running of the State. In this case, the said tax related to international aid provided to victims of political repression at the very hands of the State to which such tax was allegedly payable.
The Lithuanian Ministry of Justice transmitted information on Viasna’s bank accounts in Vilnius to the Belarus authorities in March 2011. It wasn’t until the end of June that Ales and I were summoned by the State’s tax inspection services and shown documents concerning our bank accounts and account statements. All documents had been stamped by the Belarus Financial Investigation Department (DFR). The DFR could therefore have started criminal proceedings against Ales as of June or early July, but it didn’t. Significantly, neither Ales nor I were forbidden from leaving the country, though a formal basis for taking such a decision existed. Ales concluded from this that the authorities had wanted the tax inspectorate to show us these documents, to give him time to reflect. Indeed, they no doubt hoped Bialiatski would solve the problem for them by emigrating to avoid criminal charges. I will admit that the members of the Viasna Council, including myself, suggested Ales leave because we knew what would happen if he stayed in Belarus; Ales categorically rejected our proposal. Ales said that he would never leave Belarus. He said that if the authorities decided to put him in prison as punishment for helping his fellow citizens, well, … that would be their problem.
Now, investigators should be faced with a difficult problem. Tax law stipulates that personalrevenue is subject to taxation – investigators must therefore demonstrate beyond doubt that the funds transiting through Bialiatski’s account were his own personal funds. However, the money transiting through the account was contributed by sources who earmarked the exact use of the money, which was spent exactly as designated. Viasna possess irrefutable evidence that this money can in no way, shape, or form be considered Bialiatski’s personal revenue. But in Belarus, the outcome of such trials is easy to predict : our judges have long been docile underlings of the regime and are unlikely to consider this evidence.
I understand that the arrest of Bialiatski does not mean that the authorities will leave Viasna alone. However, if their aim is to destroy the organisation, they will have to arrest many more members. The best thing that we can now do for Ales is to maintain Viasna’s capacity to keep going. We must do everything necessary to continue helping victims of repression, and maintain our other core activities. In its 15 years of existence, Viasna has seen a lot and has survived much. We must continue going forward because people need our help; people need us. To adapt a Middle Eastern expression: “when Prokopov [a regime TV propagandist] barks, the caravan passes”.i We will continue fighting to secure the release of all political prisoners, the release of Ales. And I am convinced that soon, we will see them all walk free.
As for our “Chekist and Lukachenkist comrades”, I wish to tell them that in trying to swallow Ales they will choke; the rest of us at Viasna will do everything to ensure they do.
i Life and time go on regardless of the propagandist’s eternal noise.