As is well known, the Administration of Belarus has decided against the visit of the president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) Souhayr Belhassen and against her presence at the trial of her colleague Ales Bialiatski. Nevertheless, there were some members of the organization who were able to witness firsthand everything that went on over the course of the three day proceedings in the courtroom of the Maskouski District Court. The Secretary General of FIDH and Head of Administration of the Institute of Civic Society of Armenia, Artak Kirokasyan, followed the court proceedings closely, and shared his impressions and opinions regarding the trial in the case of the human rights defender and Vice-President of FIDH, Ales Bialiatski.
- What is your impression of the court proceedings?
From the beginning we suspected that this was a case of pure retribution against Viasna and against Ales Bialiatski personally and that there was no actual criminal basis for this case. And the court proceedings only served to confirm this suspicion as on the last day there was a very definitive voicing of the political aspects of the case: as if on cue. Documents were read out describing the basis for the initiation of the criminal case by the KGB which was connected with the activities of the Human Rights Center Viasna. On day two, when the witnesses for prosecution were called all of the questions asked dealt specifically with the activities of the HRC Viasna: how the center functions, how the members are involved in its functions, whether they’re compensated, etc. And I don’t think that the prosecution is making any effort what so ever to gather evidence that the money which went into the accounts allegedly belonging to Ales Bialiatski – is money which is subject to be taxed as income. In any event, no evidence of the fact was presented nor was there any attempt to prove the fact during the course of the proceedings. There was a sense that on the contrary, it was up to Ales Bialiatski himself and to his attorney to prove that the funds were not income. In other words, the proceedings had a purely Soviet feel, where you have to prove that you are innocent.
It is completely unclear, and this was brought up by the attorney, what amounts are being alleged, from which organizations they originated, etc. It seemed to me that there was practically no investigation in that direction at all. I want to stress again that, if from the beginning it was evident that this is a manufactured political process, the three days of the actual trial served as ample evidence of the fact. The majority of the case consisted of attempts to show, not even illegal activity, but that Ales Bialiatski was involved in the defense of human rights and that he received funding for that activity (there was even an instance where the prosecutor stated out right: “As I understand, this money was directed at human rights activities.”) But right after that, on the other hand, there are accusations that he avoided paying taxes on the income, and the funds that came into Ales Bialiatski’s accounts are identified as his personal income.
- Could something like this happen in Armenia?
In Armenia, one of the most pressing problems is the supremacy of laws and the supremacy of rights, because there are a lot of laws which, for various reasons, are simply not being enforced. Partly this is because the laws are flawed, and just because there is a certain political culture left over from the Soviet times, there is also an inadequacy of certain branches of government, the president has two much authority, etc. In Belarus, the situation is different in that the framework of laws in and of itself is utterly undemocratic in my opinion. There are a great deal of principles (and we’ve seen all of this in these criminal proceedings), which are contrary to my understanding of a modern democratic government.
And if we are making comparisons, in Armenia for example, you don’t need to register the grants you are trying to receive anywhere. You simply receive the funds in your account and then account for the funds as a legal entity with the tax authorities, showing that the funds were used in accordance with the tax regulations of the country. No one is going to ask you whether the funds were used in the interest of the Republic of Armenia or in the interest of some other country. And this creates a completely different situation right from the start. Personally I was surprised that the investigator or the Prosecutor’s Office can simply extend the incarceration of an individual on their own, in our country there would have to be a court hearing on that. And it’s also strange to have this kind of decision carried out unilaterally without the participation of the other parties. One of our major problems is that the proceedings are sometimes carried out behind closed doors at a closed hearing and they don’t always go according to standards. But here they simply inform you that the term of incarceration has been extended. Or another thing, how can the KGB initiate changes to laws?! I find that astounding as well.
And I want to stress these issues which, in my opinion, are very important and differentiate Belarus sharply from Armenia and many other post-Soviet countries in that in Belarus, the laws in and of themselves are very repressive. In Belarus, it seems that the supremacy of laws and the supremacy of rights are headed in opposite directions. For us, the supremacy of law in effect suggests the supremacy of rights. In Belarus, the supremacy of laws in reality has the de facto effect of limiting civil rights during the very creation of the laws.
- Could you give a particularly egregious example?
From the point of view of the supremacy of law – the observer missions from the CIS and OSCE, at least when the observers from the CIS talk about the results of the elections, they state that the elections were conducted in accordance with the laws of the Republic of Belarus. And this may very well indicate that the legal framework of Belarus for conducting elections may also be fairly undemocratic. I am personally familiar with the election situation in Belarus, in 2006 I was a foreign observer for OSCE and remember how shocked we were by the legal framework the whole election process was being carried out under.
You have a great number of laws, procedures, and regulations which are in fact adhered to, but which in and of themselves have an undemocratic nature. And if you look at it from that point of view, the shutting down of Viasna creates a lack of ability to procure financing in a reasonable way, etc. The law even allows a representative of the Department for Humanitarian Aid of the President’s Administration to say in court that activities in defense of human rights – such as meetings, manifestos, strikes, are illegal. So, unfortunately, what we have is Belarus moving in a direction where national law is more or less followed, but at the same time the rights of individuals or of various groups of people are infringed on in vary cruel ways. Just take the example of the T-shirts in the court house: it’s unclear what regulations there are regarding this, or why it is that individuals can’t put on T-shirts that say “Free Ales Bialiatski!”?
- Do you have an opinion about the upcoming sentencing?
I am deeply convinced that simply because a court follows various formalities, that does not mean that it is just, but in this particular case even taking into account Belarus laws there was a lack of sufficiently convincing evidence. The print-outs presented in court turned out not to have any seals verifying their authenticity or veracity. This raises a question for me – who will be held accountable if the investigation has other mistakes (as we’ve already seen with the account of Boris Zvoskov for example), or verifiably falls information, or some sort of discrepancies, accidents, etc.?
Right now, the man is on trial based on some sort of print-outs, which no one is responsible for because there are no signatures on them, no seals, or any other legal attributes, which would confirm the authenticity of these documents, or identify who provided them – individual or organization.
So if you look at the whole process, considering that it is an utter set up, it’s difficult to predict what the outcome might be. It can’t be predicted because there is no logic to it, no basis of evidence, etc. I thought that at some point, the judge should have said: “That’s it, the proceedings are over because there is nothing here.” But that didn’t happen, and that fact gives me reason to worry.