In Belarus, Ales Bialiatski, head of the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’, was sentenced to four and a half years’ imprisonment.
He was found ‘guilty of non-payment of taxes’. However, to any impartial person familiar with the details of the case, it is obvious that:
- firstly, the accusations are unfounded: there was no non-payment of taxes;
- secondly, the true cause of this criminal case is Ales Belyatski’s human rights work in Belarus.
Bialiatski himself read out in court documents, pertaining to the case, which came from the administration of the Belarusian KGB. This same KGB initiated the criminal case against him, and not a word of ‘non-payment of taxes’ is mentioned in these documents: instead, they talk of the ‘illicit activity’ of ‘Viasna’, which allegedly has ties with the political opposition (in Belarus under Lukashenko such ties are considered criminal). The charges of non-payment of taxes were formulated by the prosecutor on the orders of the KGB.
What is the essence of these accusations?
In Belarus, independent, civil organisations which criticise the political decisions of the top authorities, even if this criticism comes from a legal and not a political standpoint, cannot operate within the confines of the law. Such organisations are stripped of their registered status for various fictitious reasons, and the activity of an unregistered organisation is seen in this country as a criminal act, the punishment for which is two years’ imprisonment (article 193-1 of the Criminal Code of Belarus).
‘Vyisna’ was deprived of its registered status in 2003. Nevertheless, it continued its work as one of the leading independent human rights groups in Belarus, producing objective information on the suppression of civilian and political freedoms. But even Lukashenko’s regime did not apply the notorious art. 193-1 to ‘Vyasna’s activists. The law enforcement agencies carried out the will of the secret services via a different route.
Even if ‘Vyasna’ had been registered, it is unlikely that it would have been able to receive funds for its work: no-one in the country dares finance any activity not approved by the president. In accordance with a decree by that same Lukashenko, funds from abroad are only permitted on the personal approval of the president. But ‘Viasna’ was an unregistered organisation and as such could not open an account with a Belarusian bank. Ales Bialiatski therefore opened a private account abroad into which funds for ‘Viasna’ were paid. The court investigation showed his irreproachable honesty and scrupulousness when using these funds. The prosecution, however, argued to the contrary, maintaining that, upon entering his account, these funds became part of Bialiatski’s private income, on which he must pay taxes.
Thus, after creating a legal situation whereby it is impossible for unregistered civil organisations to operate within the law, the authorities are now in essence condemning activists for attempting to resolve this conflict outside Belarus’s specified ‘legal space’.
It goes without saying that the Russian, European, and global communities must strive for the immediate release of Ales Bialiatski and for a change to his sentence.
But we would also like to call the public’s attention to another aspect of the case. The court proceedings in Minsk demonstrated once again that in the very centre of Europe there exists a political regime which, with the aid of normative acts, is trying to manipulate public life in its country, contradicting the very essence of the law.
Twentieth century history teaches us that passing such unjust acts as ‘laws’ does not make them legal in the eyes of the global community, and that no sovereignty can protect those writing and applying these ‘laws’ from being held responsible.
We think that Europe and the rest of the world need to remind Lukashenko of the lessons history has taught us, and compel him to standardise the basic laws for public life in Belarus.
November 24 2011