Belarus: criminal proceedings against members of Human Rights Center Viasna (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Belarus on 24 March 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. The Government replied on 19 May 2023.

On 3 March 2023, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced Mr. Bialiatski, Mr. Stefanovic and Mr. Labkovichki to 10, 9 and 7 years’ imprisonment respectively. Their conviction was appealed by the prosecutor, who sought increased sentences, but were eventually confirmed on 21 April 2023. On 2 May 2 2023, it became known that the human rights defenders were transferred from remand prison #1 in Minsk to penal colony #9 in Horki, Mahilioŭ  (Ales Bialiatski), penal colony #15 in Mahilioŭ (Valiantsin Stefanovic) and penal colony #17 in Shkloŭ, Mahilioŭ (Uladzimir Labkovich).

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication Read the Government's response

BACKGROUND

Topic: criminal proceedings against members of Human Rights Center Viasna

Human Rights Center Viasna is a Belarusian non-governmental organization, established in 1996 to help victims of human rights violations. The main goal of the organization is to contribute to the development of the civil society in Belarus, based on the respect of human rights standards.

Viasna has been facing pressure from the authorities for two decades. The organization was unlawfully dissolved in 2003, and despite the considerations of the Human Rights Committee (Views concerning communication no.1296/2004) did not lead to the restoration of its official status. We have received report of activists and volunteers of the organization being repeatedly arrested and interrogated. In 2011, the Chairperson Mr. Ales Bialiatski was imprisoned on charges similar to the present, which the Human Rights Committee found to be in violation of article 22 of the ICCPR.

In 2020, Viasna became the subject of a criminal investigation targeting the organization’s leaders and members. Six members of Viasna are currently in prison. At least seven more individuals have suspect status in the criminal case against Viasna, but are currently not detained.

Mr. Aliaksandr (Ales) Bialiatski is the Chairperson and founder of Human Rights Center Viasna, a renowned international human rights expert, a laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize 2022, former Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) between 2007 and 2016, as well as a laureate of several international awards and prizes (Right Livelihood Award in 2020, and the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize) that recognized his contribution to the global human rights movement.

Mr. Valiantsin Stefanovic is a member of Viasna Board and Deputy Chairperson, Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) since 2019, re-elected on 27 October 2022. He is a well-known human rights expert and analyst, advocate for non-discrimination and against the death penalty.

Mr. Uladzimir Labkovich is a lawyer at Viasna, a coordinator of the “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” advocacy campaign, has been engaged in human rights work with Viasna since 2001, has worked as an expert with OSCE and other international organizations.

ALLEGATIONS

Mr. Bialiatski, Mr. Stefanovic and Mr. Labkovich have been detained since 14 July 2021, on charges of ‘tax evasion’. The investigation against the three human rights defenders has lasted over 16 months and involved over 120 searches and raids across the country, as well as interviews of approximately 100 witnesses.

On 14 July 2021, the apartments of all three members of Viasna were searched, and they were detained first for 72 hours and subsequently charged with tax evasion, under article 243 of the Criminal Code of Belarus. On 26 September 2022, the criminal charges of tax evasion were replaced with new criminal charges of ‘smuggling’ and ‘financing group actions that disrupted public order’, under part 4 of article 228, and part 2 of article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, respectively.

During the time of their detention, Mr. Bialiatski, Mr. Stefanovic and Mr. Labkovich have been deprived of regular visits by their family members. Their access to lawyers and medical care has also been restricted.

On 5 January 2023, the trial started in the Lieninski District Court of Minsk. The accused were reportedly taken into the courtroom handcuffed and remained in a metal cage throughout the proceedings. They filed a motion to remove the handcuffs on the grounds that it constitutes degrading treatment and violates their right to dignity. The motion was not considered by the court, the judge presiding stated that this issue falls within the jurisdiction of the guard, not the court.

On 9 January 2023, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk heard the closing arguments in Viasna trial. The prosecution sought to sentence Mr. Bialiatski to 12 years in a penal colony.

The State prosecutor claims that the guilt of human rights defenders of smuggling by an organized group under part 4 of article 228 of the Criminal Code, and financing of group actions grossly violated public order, under part 2 of article 342 of the Criminal Code, has been fully proven. The prosecutor requested to sentence Viasna chair and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski to 12 years in a medium security prison colony; and Viasna deputy chair and vice-president of FIDH Valiantsin Stefanovic to 11 years in a medium-security penal colony.

The prosecutor further asked the court to impose a fine of 185,000 Belarusian rubles (approx. USD 73,200) to each of the defendants.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we express our serious concerns about the conduct of the trial and about the charges which appear to be politically motivated and targeting Mr. Bialiatski’s and his colleagues’ legitimate work for the protection and promotion of human rights. Their arrest, prosecution and imminent sentencing seem to form part of a pattern and unfolding policy to silence human rights defenders and eradicate civil society and their activities in Belarus.

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