February 10 the international organization Front Line Defenders presented the Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the first of six finalists for the 10th annual Front Line Defenders Award for Human Rights Defenders at Risk, awarded in collaboration with medyyasetkay “Al Jazeera.”
Front Line Defenders stated in its press-release on the topic:
Ales Bialiatski is chairman of Human Rights Centre ‘Viasna’, one of the biggest human rights groups in Belarus which campaigns against the death penalty, torture and ill-treatment and on behalf of political prisoners. The organisation was forcibly closed down in 2003 and barred from holding a bank account in Belarus. This left its members open to prosecution for working for an unregistered organisation. Ales was later arrested for using his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to support the organisation’s human rights work in Belarus. On 24 November 2011 he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in a maximum-security prison for “concealment of income on a large scale”.
Ales joined the democratic and national revival movement in the early 1980’s, organising the first demonstrations against totalitarianism. His commitment to this cause led to his imprisonment in 1988. This was the first of a long series of arrests, detentions and other forms of harassment, which progressively worsened under the Lukasenko regime. Since 1988, Ales has been arrested more than 20 times.
Throughout 2013, the authorities intensified the crackdown on dissent. Legislative amendments adopted in October 2011 established criminal liability for receiving foreign grants in violation of the law, and broadened the definition of treason to include “any form of assistance from a foreign state” detrimental to Belarus’s national security.
In 1996, HRC “Viasna” was created to help arrested demonstrators and their families, as mass protests organised by the democratic opposition got under way. After the organisation was forcibly closed down in 2003, Ales opened a bank account for HRC ‘Viasna’ in Lithuania and Poland. As a result he was arrested on 04 August 2011 on charges of tax evasion. On 24 November 2011 he was sentenced to four-and-a-half years in a maximum-security prison for “concealment of income on a large scale”. The income on which he was found guilty of not paying taxes had in fact been used to support the activities of his organisation. His four-and-a-half-year prison sentence is punishment for his principled stance in support of human rights in Belarus.
Ales had the opportunity to leave the country to avoid prosecution, but he categorically rejected this option saying that if the authorities decided to put him in prison as a punishment for helping his fellow citizens that would be their problem. His arrest and sentence were condemned by the EU, US, the OSCE, the Council of Europe and scores of international human rights organisations and many of the world’s moral authorities.
At the time of writing Ales remains in prison. In prison he has been denied rights and privileges and labelled a malicious disturber for challenging the prison regime in defence of prisoners’ rights. According to his wife “Ales lives in difficult and strict conditions. He is not only imprisoned but the administration has forbidden contact with other prisoners. The prisoners who have any contact with Ales are told that they can lose privileges, or their right to parole or may be disciplined”.