On 10 December 2022, Natallia Pinchuk received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of her imprisoned husband, Belarusian human rights defender, Ales Bialiatski, a long-time friend and partner of NHC. This week, Ales will stand trial in Minsk.
The trial against Nobel prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, and his colleagues Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich, will start Thursday January 5, 2023. The fake charges against them are “smuggling money” and “financing of group actions grossly violating public order”. They face from 7 to 12 years of imprisonment if convicted and sentenced. It has not yet been announced that the trial will be closed to the public.
– NHC strongly condemns the criminal prosecution of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, and Uladzimir Labkovich and reiterates its calls to the Belarusian authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally, as well as all other human rights defenders in Belarus, and drop all charges against them, says secretary general Berit Lindeman.
On January 5, 2023, Viasna Chairman and Nobel Peace Prize 2022 laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovic, and Viasna’s lawyer and coordinator of the “Free Elections Campaign” Uladzimir Labkovich will face trial before the Leninski District Court of Minsk, after more than 17 months of arbitrary detention. Another defendant in this case and Viasna member Zmister Salauyou has left Belarus and will be tried in absentia.
Bialiatski, Stefanovic and Labkovich were arrested on July 14, 2021, and held in terrible conditions ever since, mostly without the possibility to stay in contact with the outside world, including close family. The three men were detained on the charge of “tax evasion”, which was later dropped. This charge was already used to target Ales Bialiatski in 2012, when he was sentenced to four and a half years of imprisonment. He was released in June 2014, after the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that his conviction was illegal and ordered his release.
The current charges against the defendants were filed in October 2022.They are accused under two criminal articles:
- “Smuggling; illegal movement of cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union on a large scale by an organized group” (Article 228.4 of the Criminal Code of Belarus); and
- “Financing of group actions grossly violating the public order” (Article 342.2 of the same Code). They face from 7 to 12 years of imprisonment if convicted and sentenced.
Prosecutors claim that in the period from 2016 to 2021, foreign accounts of human rights defenders received money from various structures and foundations, which were intended to finance the “illegal” activities of the HRC Viasna and other organizations in Belarus.
This money in the total amount of at least 201,000 euros and 54,000 US dollars was allegedly cashed and brought from Lithuania to Belarus in several stages without declaration.
According to the case files, between May 2020 and July 14, 2021, the defendants purposefully prepared citizens to participate in group actions that grossly violate public order. In addition, under the guise of human rights and charity activities, including on behalf of Viasna and the unregistered foundation BY_HELP, they financed such actions and provided other material support, the prosecution believes.
The charges are politically motivated and refer to Viasna’s legitimate human rights activities, deemed “illegal” by the prosecution. The defendants are notably accused of helping victims of the Lukashenka regime’s repression, including those protesting the 2020 election fraud, by paying their legal fees, reimbursing fines and paying for meals in detention centres.
The judicial proceedings against Bialiatski, Stefanovic and Labkovich are marred by numerous irregularities. The investigation period has been dragged out by the authorities and has exceeded the legal limit established in Belarusian law and international standards. There are sufficient grounds to claim that this is due to a deliberate attempt to fabricate evidence. Their pre-trial detention has been continuously extended in closed doors hearings, even though the Belarusian law offers alternatives in the form of house arrest. It is believed that the authorities have kept them in inhumane detention conditions to force them to confess.
Their lawyers as well as the defendants themselves have been placed under a nondisclosure obligation. For 17 months, they have been systematically denied family visits, and medical care and access to their lawyers have been severely limited.
At the moment, three other members of Viasna remain behind bars: coordinator of the Volunteer Service Marfa Rabkova, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison, head of the Gomel branch Leonid Sudalenko sentenced to 3 years, and volunteer Andrei Chepyuk sentenced to 6 years in prison. Volunteer Tatyana Lasitsa was released on September 24, 2022 by pardon.
The reprisals against Viasna and its members are part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Belarus. In 2021 alone, the authorities shut down more than 275 human rights and other civil society organisations, leaving no legally operating independent NGO in the country. In December 2021, the authorities re-introduced criminal liability for working with unregistered or liquidated organisations. This led to a de facto criminalisation of human rights work in Belarus. Since 2020, five other members of Viasna were put behind bars, including , Andrei Chapyuk, Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsiana Lasitsa and Marfa Rabkova, who will celebrate her third birthday behind the bars this week.
The persecution of Viasna human rights defenders is a flagrant violation of their rights to liberty, fair trial, and freedom of association, enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by Belarus.
NHC strongly condemns the criminal prosecution of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, and Uladzimir Labkovich and reiterates its calls to the Belarusian authorities to release them immediately and unconditionally, as well as all other human rights defenders in Belarus, and drop all charges against them.