Arrested by the Belarusian authorities on grounds of “serious tax evasion” on August 4, 2011, Ales Bialiatski was subsequently condemned for his human rights activities.
Context of his arrest
As Ales pointed it out in his closing statement in court, his arrest came at a moment when Belarus was experiencing extreme tension. The disputed re-election of President Lukashenka ended in an unprecedented wave of repression against the political opposition and civil society as a whole. A profound economic crisis was undermining the country and had trigged widespread “silent” protests – so-called because it was no longer possible to protest normally.
In this highly oppressive context, human rights organisations became increasingly engaged in providing legal and material assistance to the victims of political persecution. Thus, they became the principle targets of judicial and fiscal services.
Why were these charges brought?
Since its official status was withdrawn in 2003, Human Rights Centre “Viasna” has been unable to receive foreign funds to its Belarusian account. To guarantee financing for “Viasna” activities, Ales opened personal accounts abroad. The funds deposited into those accounts were strictly controlled and meticulously accounted for by “Viasna” and others.
Thanks to banking information supplied by Poland and Lithuania, the Belarusian authorities used the existence of these funds to accuse Ales of circumventing the law by not paying tax on what they presented as his personal income. However, as Vice-President of “Viasna”, Valentin Stefanovitch explains in his article On the arrest of Ales Bialiatski : “We possess irrefutable evidence that this money can in no way be considered Ales Bialiatski’s personal revenue”.
The trial took place in November 2011 and was evidently political in nature. Bialiatski’s trial was followed by the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a FIDH and OMCT Joint Programme) and the few international organisations managing to reach Minsk in spite of the overwhelming refusal of visas for observers.
At the end of the trial Ales was sentenced to four and a half years of strict regime detention in a penal colony and confiscation of all “his” property including the offices of HR Center “Viasna”.
The international community unanimously condemned this trial. The European Union decried the outcome, referring to it as a “highly visible and symbolic manifestation of the crackdown on civil society in Belarus”.