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Statement by the International Memorial Society on the Conviction of Ales Bialiatsky

Source: (info), 24/11/11

· Human rights defenders  · Belarus  · Moscow city and Moscow region

“... Europe and the world must remind Aleksandr Lukashenko of these lessons history has taught, and compel him to bring the basic laws governing public life in Belarus into line with international standards.”

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In Belarus Ales Bialiatski, head of the Vyasna Human Rights Centre, has been sentenced to serve four-and-a-half years in prison.

The court found him ‘guilty of tax evasion’. However, to any impartial observer familiar with the details of the case it is obvious that:

- firstly, the accusations are unfounded: there has been no tax evasion;

- secondly, the true cause of this criminal case is the human rights work of Ales Bialiatski in Belarus.

Ales Bialiatski himself read out documents in court pertaining to the case which came from the leadership of the Belarusian KGB. It was the KGB that brought the charges against him, and there was not a word about tax evasion in these documents. They were about ‘unlawful activity' by Vyasna, which is allegedly linked with the political opposition (in Belarus under Aleksandr Lukashenko links of this kind are themselves considered criminal). The charges of tax evasion were brought by the prosecutor on the orders of the KGB.

What is the essence of these charges?

In Belarus, independent, civic organisations which criticise political decisions of the government - even if this criticism is based on law and not on a political point of view – are not given the opportunity to function within the law. Such organisations are stripped of their registered status for various fictitious reasons, and the activities of unregistered organisations are considered to be a criminal act, punishable by two years' imprisonment (Article 193-1 of the Criminal Code of Belarus).

Vyasna was deprived of its registered status in 2003. Nevertheless, it continued its work as one of the leading independent human rights groups in Belarus, producing objective information on the suppression of civic and political freedoms. But even Aleksandr Lukashenko's regime did not go so far as to apply the notorious Article 193-1 to Vyasna's activists. The law enforcement agencies carrying out the demands of the secret services took another route.

Even if Vyasna had been registered, it is unlikely that it would have been permitted to legally receive funds for its work. No one in the country dares finance any activity not approved by the president. In accordance with a decree by Aleksandr Lukashenko, donations from abroad are only permitted on the personal approval of the president. But Vyasna as an unregistered organisation has not been able to open an account with a Belarusian bank. Ales Belyatsky therefore opened private accounts abroad into which donations for Vyasna were paid. The court hearings showed his irreproachable honesty and scrupulousness when using these funds. The prosecution, however, argued to the contrary, that funds paid into these accounts should be considered as Ales Bialiatski's private income, on which he must pay tax.

In this way, after creating a situation whereby it is impossible for independent civil society organisations to operate within the law, the authorities are now in practice obtaining convictions of the activists for attempting to resolve this dilemma abroad, beyond the reach of the Belarusian legal system.

It goes without saying that Russian, European, and global public opinion must strive to obtain the immediate release of Ales Bialiatski, and the quashing of his conviction.

But we would like to call public attention to another aspect of this case. The court proceedings in Minsk demonstrated once again that in the very centre of Europe there exists a political regime which seeks to control public life through legislation that contradicts the very essence of law.

Twentieth century history teaches that passing such unjust acts as ‘laws’ does not make them legal in the eyes of the global community, and that no sovereignty can protect those writing and applying these ‘laws’ from being held responsible.

We believe that Europe and the world must remind Aleksandr Lukashenko of these lessons history has taught, and compel him to bring the basic laws governing public life in Belarus in line with international standards.

International Memorial Society

This text is a slightly modified version of a translation first published by Memorial Human Rights Centre, reprinted by kind permission.