Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) Poland on the sentencing of Ales Bialiatski

On Thursday, 24 November 2011, a Belarus court handed down a four-and-half-year prison sentence to Ales Bialiatski, human rights activist and the head of the Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’. Bialiatski was also ordered to pay a fine of 721 million Belarusian rubles ($83,000). The conviction was based on the information on Mr Bialiatski’s bank accounts in Poland which the Belarusian authorities had received from the Polish Prosecutor General’s Office. The HFHR, which had observed the proceedings, describes the verdict as scandalous.

‘Sadly, such verdict was expected, appalling as it is’, says Bogna Chmielewska, HFHR expert. From the very beginning of the trial to its very end, the proceedings were carried out under a clear political instruction. Following the detainment of Mr Bialiatski, the criminal law in Belarus has been amended providing for new stringent penalty measures for a social activity of any kind.

The proceedings did not meet basic standards of a fair trial. The court repeatedly distorted or misinterpreted the witnesses’ testimonies. Also the court’s adherence to the principle of the presumption of innocence is questionable. The court often stated that Ales Bialiatski had been given a chance to prove his innocence by submitting relevant evidence. Yet, such evidence brought by the defence was disregarded.

Furthermore, the court stated that Mr Bialiatski’s operations concerned not only human rights protection but related to ‘other issues’ as well. However, what issues the court had in mind can only be guessed. ‘The trial was orchestrated to convict’, says Danuta Przywara, President of the HFHR.

Since Mr Bialiatski was detained, the Belarusian media has been conducting a propaganda campaign portraying non-governmental organisations, opposition and human rights activists as those who misuse money obtained from foreign donors for their own purposes.

‘In our opinion, this verdict is another step taken to intimidate the Belarus society and destroy all non-governmental and opposition organisations’, says Bogna Chmielewska.

Ales Bialiatski was detained on 4 August in Minsk on charges of financial fraud. A week later it turned out that the Polish Prosecutor’s General Office disclosed to the Belarusian authorities details of Mr Bialiatski’s bank accounts kept in Polish banks. The funds were transferred by international non-governmental organisations to support the Viasna activities taken in defence of the oppressed in Belarus. Having been banned by the authorities, Viasna has made several unsuccessful attempts to re-register. In these circumstances accepting foreign donations was the only way for the organisation to carry on its work.

When asked to comment on the disclosure of information by the Polish Prosecutor’s General Office Danuta Przywara said briefly: ‘This was laziness, foolishness or ill will’.

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