Minsk-Paris, 24 November 2011 - Today, Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice-President and President of the Belarusian Human Rights Center “Viasna” (Viasna), was sentenced to 4 and a half years strict regime detention, the payment of a fine, as well as the confiscation of his property, including Viasna’s offices and property registered with members of his family. FIDH calls for his immediate and unconditional release and for all charges against him to be abandoned.
“We condemn this decision by the Belarusian justice system as arbitrary and politically motivated. Worse, the hearing proved once again that this trial was directly ordered by the regime; the KGB letter initiating this legal harassment and presented at the trial is clear evidence of this” declared FIDH President, Mrs Souhayr Belhassen. “This letter, dating back to 28 October 2010, also shows that the crackdown on Belarusian civil society, of which Ales Bialiatski’s case is a most flagrant and symbolic demonstration, was planned and prepared to silence human rights defenders long before the catastrophic 19 December 2010 presidential elections” she continued. “We fear that other members of Viasna will be targeted as part of this violent repression. FIDH reiterates its strong solidarity with Ales, his family and all Viasna members”, Belhassen concluded.
Ales Bialiatski is a human rights defender, he is arbitrarily detained : FIDH urges all States and international organisations to take urgent and firm action for the immediate and unconditional release of Ales Bialiatski , for the abandon of all charges against himand for the freedom to act for the respect of international human rights standards for Viasna and other independent NGOs.
From the courtroom: details of the trial
Bialiatski’s trial, presided over by Judge Bondarenko, took place from 2 to 24 November in Minsk’s Pervomaiski District Court. An observation mission of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights defenders attended the whole trial.
FIDH strongly condemns the Belarusian State’s refusal to issue visas to its President, Mrs Souhayr Belhassen, and its Honorary President, Mr Patrick Baudouin, as well as to other international observers. FIDH further denounces the use at the trial of illegally obtained personal and professional email exchanges between FIDH representatives and Viasna members.
“Despite lengthy preparation, the accusation [against Bialiatski] was so poorly prepared and documented that it was literary falling apart” stated Artak Kirakosyan, FIDH Secretary General, who observed the trial in Minsk: “documents presented have had no relation to the charges or were neither signed nor stamped, and the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice declared in an official letter in August 2011 that the documents transmitted by them in March 2011 and used by the Belarusian authorities against Mr Bialiatski do not correspond to the reality. However, they were still used at the trial. Some of the witnesses cited by the prosecution declared that they were not aware of the Bialiatski case at all”. He continued: “This whole trial was a poorly prepared demonstration of a systematic politics seeking to weaken and criminalise human rights defenders who continue their legitimate and courageous efforts in the context of growing authoritarianism in Belarus”.
Throughout the trial Bialiatski and others were repeatedly asked openly political questions by the prosecution. Questions centred on how Viasna works, how it receives funds and how those funds are disseminated, with witnesses repeatedly being asked about their membership of Viasna – a point having no relevance to the tax evasion charges at issue. On 10 November, the trial took an openly political turn with the accused being interrogated on his knowledge of Presidential Decree No. 24, de facto prohibiting any financial support to associations without presidential approval. The trial was subsequently interrupted by the announcement of further charges, declared by the prosecutor to be significantly different from the original trial charge. However, when the trial resumed on 16 November the new charges were negligibly different pertaining merely to preliminary agreements to a charge of non-declared income.
On 23 November 2011, defence lawyers highlighted that some pages from the bank accounts lodged in evidence were photocopies without certification that they were true to the original documents transmitted. In contravention of Belarus’ Code of Criminal Procedure, other documents presented in the prosecution file, including a contract between HRC Viasna and a donor, came from “an anonymous source”. Indeed, many documents had no connection whatsoever to the charges. The defence also emphasized that the Belarusian State’s inquiries with Lithuanian and Polish banks was made prior the initiation of a criminal case, violating the Legal Protection Act and constituting the illegal reception of evidence.
In his speech, Ales Bialiatski depicted the situation of growing authoritarianism in Belarus, where civil society, including human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists, work under the permanent threat of state sanction. As FIDH Vice President, he also highlighted the dire situation of human rights defenders regionally, pointing out that criminalisation of human rights defenders has become commonplace in the region : 8 members of FIDH’s member organisation in Uzbekistan are in prison on trumped up charges, whilst Russian human rights defenders are judicially harassed or killed. Bialiatski went on to give HRC Viasna’s history, underlining that it has always worked with transparency to help thousands of people.
Bialiatski concluded by publicaly announcing that the documents in his file confirmed that the case against him had been instigated and lead directly by the KGB. The KGB had met with tax and Prokuratura officials (including the Procurator who represented the accusation later at his trial) in November 2010 to discuss how Ales Bialiatski might be prosecuted, finally deciding to peruse prosecution under Article 243. This evidences the political character of Ales Bialiatski’s prosecution – pre-planned to put an end to his human rights activities.