The Observatory has been informed about the sentencing of Messrs. Ales Bialiatski, Nobel Peace Prize winner and Chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Head of Viasna and Vice-President of FIDH, and Uladzimir Labkovich, Viasna’s lawyer. All three have been arbitrarily detained since July 14, 2021. Viasna is a recipient of numerous prestigious awards for its adamant stand for human rights and democracy, including the Right Livelihood Award (2020) and the “Justice for Democracy Advocates” Albie Award (2022).
On March 3, 2022, the Leninsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Ales Bialiatski to 10 years of imprisonment, Valiantsin Stefanovich to nine years, and Uladzimir Labkovich to seven years, on trumped-up charges of “smuggling” and “financing group actions that disrupted public order” (Part 4 of Article 228, and Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus, respectively). In addition, the three human rights defenders were imposed heavy fines: Stefanovic and Labkovich were fined 111,000 Belarusian rubles (41,358 Euro) each and Bialiatski received a fine of 185,000 Belarusian rubles (68,930 Euro). They were further sentenced to a joint fine of 752,438 Belarusian rubles (280,357 Euro), an amount which they allegedly "obtained by criminal means," as specified in the accusation under the “smuggling” charge. The lawyers of the three human rights defenders will appeal the decision.
The Observatory recalls that on July 14, 2021, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich were arbitrarily detained by officers of the Financial Investigations Department of Belarus. The accusation against them was made up after 120 searches and raids across the country, and interviews of about 100 witnesses. They were initially detained and held detained for 14 months on bogus charges of "tax evasion” (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Belarus Criminal Code), but in September 2022, new charges of “smuggling” and “financing group actions that disrupted public order”, for which they have been sentenced, were filed against them, leaving little time for the defendants and their lawyers to prepare a new defence strategy before the opening of the trial in January 2023.
The trial opened on January 5, 2023. All the proceedings against the three human rights defenders were marred with multiple human rights violations, and the defendants appeared to have lost a lot of weight and being in frail condition.
The investigation into Messrs Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich case lasted over a year, which is contrary to Belarusian law and international standards. The three human rights defenders have been kept in appalling detention conditions, with Mr Bialiatski being held in a semi-basement floor with poor access to sunlight. In addition, their family members have been systematically denied access to the detainees, their access to their lawyers has been severely limited, and all communications by mail have been harshly censored by the authorities.
The nature of the sentence against the three human rights defenders shows they were prosecuted for carrying out legitimate human rights activities. The defendants have been convicted for allegedly bringing large sums of money into Belarus and using them for criminal purposes. During the trial, among the imputed “criminal purposes” the prosecution named the following: assisting detainees after demonstrations, paying lawyers’ fees, organising independent election monitoring, and continuing Viasna’s activities after its liquidation. The prosecution further alleged that the money was imported in small amounts so as not to declare it. These acts, according to the prosecution, were committed as part of an organised group, that is, Viasna.
The reprisals against Viasna and its members are part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Belarus following the mass protests against the 2020 Presidential elections fraud. In 2021 alone, the authorities shut down more than 275 human rights and other independent organisations, leaving not one legally operating human rights NGO in the country. Viasna is one of the leading Belarusian human rights organisations and has long been at the forefront of the Belarusian human rights movement. It is notably famous for maintaining a list of political prisoners in Belarus, which as of March 3, 2023 counted 1 458 persons.
The Observatory strongly condemns the unfair conviction and ongoing arbitrary detention of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich, and urges the Belarusian authorities to quash their sentences and to immediately and unconditionally release them. The Observatory expresses grave concern over the high risk of torture and ill-treatment they face while in custody.
The Observatory further urges the authorities in Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release likewise arbitrarily detained Viasna members Marfa Rabkova, Andrey Chapiuk and Leanid Sudalenka, and to put an end to all acts of harassment against them, including at the judicial level.
How You Can Help
Please write to the authorities of Belarus asking them to:
i. Guarantee in all circumstances the physical integrity and psychological well-being of all human rights defenders and journalists in Belarus, and respect and protect their right to be free from torture and other ill-treatment ;
ii. Quash the conviction of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, and immediately and unconditionally release them, as well as Leanid Sudalenka, Marfa Rabkova, Andrey Chapiuk, and all other detained human rights defenders, as their detention is arbitrary and seems to be merely aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities;
iii. Guarantee in all circumstances Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich’s rights to due process and fair trial during all the proceedings against them, as well as the unhindered access to their lawyers and relatives;
iv. Put an end to all acts of harassment – including at the judicial level – against the above-mentioned human rights defenders, and ensure in all circumstances that they are able to carry out their legitimate activities without any hindrance and fear of reprisals;
v. Guarantee in all circumstances the right to freedom of association in the country, as enshrined in international human rights law and particularly in Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Please also write to the diplomatic representations of Belarus in your respective countries.
- Mr. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, President of Belarus, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Mr. Andrei Shved, General Prosecutor of Belarus, Email: email@example.com;
- Mr Dmitry Gora, Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Mr. Oleg Slizhevsky, Minister of Justice of Belarus, Email: email@example.com;
- Mr. Vasily Gerasimov, Acting Chairman of the State Control Committee of Belarus, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
- Mr. Ivan Kubrakov, minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus, Email: email@example.com;
- Mr. Yury Ambrazevich, Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Email: firstname.lastname@example.org;
- H.E. Mr. Aliaksandr Mikhnevich, Embassy of Belarus in Brussels, Email: email@example.com
Please also write to the diplomatic missions or embassies of Belarus in your respective country.