WARSAW, 25 November 2013 – Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), today reminded the Belarusian authorities of previous calls by OSCE Chairpersons-in-Office for the release of human rights defender Ales Bialiatski, who was found guilty on tax-evasion charges in 2011, and added his voice to theirs, calling Bialiatski’s case a violation of OSCE commitments.
Noting that Sunday was the second anniversary of Bialiatski’s conviction, Lenarčič highlighted Bialiatski’s case while expressing concern over the general situation for human rights defenders in Belarus.
“The offence for which Bialiatsky was found guilty was the direct result of the authorities’ refusal to allow his organization to work to promote and protect human rights in Belarus,” Lenarčič said. “Belarus has committed itself to enhance, rather than obstruct, the ability of NGOs to promote respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. But Bialiatski’s conviction is the result of just such obstruction“.
Bialiatski, head of the Viasna Belarusian Human Rights Centre, was convicted on 24 November 2011 by the Minsk Pervomayski District Court on charges of tax evasion, and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in a high security detention camp and had his property confiscated.
The charges were filed after Viasna was denied several requests to re-register with the Belarusian authorities, following a 2003 decision by the Supreme Court ordering the dissolution of the organization. The UN Human Rights Committee, in 2007, deemed the decision a violation of the right to freedom of association.
Without registration, Viasna was prohibited from opening bank accounts to cover its activities in Belarus, at which point Bialiatski opened personal accounts outside the country for this purpose. The tax evasion conviction was based on the existence of those accounts.
Lithuania’s then Foreign Minister, Audronius Ažubalis, and Ireland’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, each issued calls for Bialiatski’s immediate release during their countries’ OSCE chairmanships, in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
“None of this, the charges and subsequent conviction, would have happened had Viasna not been repeatedly denied registration – had Bialiatski not been denied his fundamental right to freedom of association,” Lenarčič said. “Like all OSCE participating States, Belarus has committed itself to guaranteeing that right.”