Remarkable decision against states that violate the freedom of association.
Paris-Minsk, 17 November 2014 – In a decision that will go down in history, on 24 September 2014 the UN Human Rights Committee officially recognized that the Republic of Belarus violated the rights of Ales Bialiatski, President of Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and FIDH Vice President. The Committee recognized violations of Article 9 (the right to liberty and security of the person), Article 14 (the right to justice and a fair trial), and Article 22 (freedom of association) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This decision follows an individual communication from Ales Bialiatski’s spouse Natalia Pinchuk, represented by FIDH Director General Antoine Bernard. It sends a strong signal to regimes that manipulate their legislation to stifle critical voices and violate the freedom of association.
After Viasna was deprived of its state registration in 2003, its founders applied for registration at the Ministry of Justice three times between 2007 and 2009. However, the state refused registration every time. As a result, Viasna was unable to open a bank account in its name and receive funding for its activities. According to the Committee, Belarus violated the organization’s right to freedom of association when it denied Viasna registration, basing its decision solely on the argument that the documents submitted by Viasna needed minor adjustments to meet the requirements of the Ministry of Justice which could have been corrected should the Ministry had given it an opportunity to do so. The refusal to register Viasna rendered its activities illegal within Belarus and prevented its members from accessing their rights. Sentencing Ales Bialiatski to a lengthy prison term for actions associated with the receipt and expenditure of funds aimed at carrying out the legitimate activities of his organization was a direct consequence of the violation of freedom of association. The Belarusian courts rejected evidence that these funds were intended and used for these purposes and did not consider the case in a way that would aim to safeguard the freedom of association. Consequently, imposing criminal liability on Ales Bialiatski violated this freedom.
“This decision by the Human Rights Committee, based on international law, recognizes the legitimacy of Viasna’s activities and fully rehabilitates Ales Bialiatski”, rejoiced Valentin Stefanovic, Vice President of Viasna.
The Committee also found that Ales Bialiatski’s detention during the initial investigation was arbitrary, since the decision to arrest him was made by the prosecutor and not the court and was based solely on the gravity of charges and not on any evidence that this measure was needed or advisable.
The Committee found that over the course of criminal proceedings, Ales Bialiatski’s presumption of innocence was violated, as seen in treatment of the case by state media and statements by the president of Belarus. They presumed Ales Bialiatski’s guilt before the court’s verdict took effect. Also, he was wrongfully kept in a cage during the trial and brought into the courtroom in handcuffs.
The Committee’s decision states that Bialiatski is entitled to legal remedies: reconsideration of Viasna’s application for state registration, clearing of his criminal record, adequate compensation, including reimbursement of fines paid in accordance with judicial decisions. Furthermore, the Committee found that the State should review its laws on associations and bring them into accord with Article 22 of the ICCPR.
“The Committee has communicated the decision to the State, which is now obliged to provide Ales Bialiatski with legal remedies”, said Karim Lahidji, FIDH President. “This decision is crucial for Viasna, other Belarusian human rights organizations and the respect for liberty of association all over the world, as numerous regimes try to stifle critical voices”.
The decision reached by the Committee on this case sets a precedent. It clearly demonstrates that the actions of a state aimed at obstructing the activities of human rights organizations – from refusing to register an association to prosecuting its members for exercising their right to associate—are in violation of international law. No manipulation of internal legislation by individual states can hide these violations from the international community.
Our organizations consider this decision a source of expert legal arguments in the face of ever increasing pressure on human rights defenders and their organizations.