On 24 November 2011, Mr Ales Bialiatski, Chairman of Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’, was found guilty of ‘tax evasion on a large scale’ by the Pervomayski District Court of Minsk.
Ales was condemned to four and a half years of strict regime imprisonment and confiscation of all property “including belongings registered in the name of other persons’. The court also fined the human rights defender 721 million Belarusian Rubles (approx 82,700 USD) for alleged unpaid taxes and 36 million Belarusian Rubles (approx 4,100 USD) for state costs.
Under numerous pretexts, many international observers, including Front Line Defenders Deputy Director Andrew Anderson, were denied Belarusian visas and those who managed to attend the trial were filmed by people in plain clothes and their passport data was recorded at every hearing.
Front Line Defenders’ observer who attended the trial reported on the poor preparation of the Prosecution’s case. The Belarusian authorities presented the prosecution of the prominent human rights defender as purely economic.
The Prosecution failed to prove the source of the alleged personal income of Ales Bialiatski, its exact amount, or that money from Western accounts was transferred to Belarus. The criminal file contained anonymous letters, photocopies and improperly presented documents accepted as criminal evidence in contravention of the Belarusian Code of Criminal Proceedings. The essence of this case – information regarding his foreign bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland – was not duly presented and should not have been permitted to be presented as evidence.
Moreover, the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice sent an official letter to the Belarusian Ministry stating that the information transmitted was not correct and could not be used as evidence.
Furthermore, as reported by Front Line’s observer, the criminal file shows that this case was taken up by the KGB in November 2010 and that the official request for Ales Bialiatski’s bank account information was sent to Lithuania and Poland following the KGB’s letter. It proves that the inquiries to the Lithuanian and Polish banks were sent before the initiation of the criminal case, which violated the provisions of the Legal Protection Act and contributed to the illegal acceptance of evidence. Despite all that, the Public Prosecutor stated that “The validity of the financial papers is beyond doubt. It is not crucial that they do not have seals and signatures on them”.
‘This trial was a legal masquerade that tried to hide political persecution behind economic charges in order to punish this prominent and courageous Belarusian human rights defender and hinder the work of Human Rights Centre “Viasna” that has been operating in Belarus since 1996,’ said Andrew Anderson.
‘Viasna’ had helped several hundred Belarusian citizens. The centre was involved in difficult and dangerous work, such as election monitoring, campaigning for the abolishment of the death penalty and providing financial and legal assistance to the victims of political persecution.
It comes as no surprise that this criminal case, based on apparently economic charges, was initiated by the KGB. From the beginning, the treatment of Ales Bialiatski (pretrial detention, extraordinary measure for economic charges, the numerous refusals of release despite 8000 guarantee letters sent, refusal of family visits) betrayed the political character of his persecution.
This verdict is an attempt to stop the work of ‘ Viasna’ and to frighten the human rights movement in Belarus. We fear for the security of all our colleagues at ‘Viasna’ and other Belarusian human rights organisations who continue to support the victims, despite the risk of persecution’.
Front Line calls for the immediate release of Ales Bialiatski and for his conviction to be quashed as we believe that he has been targeted solely as a result of his legitimate human rights work.