Belarus: Conviction on appeal of Viasna members Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich
URGENT APPEAL - THE OBSERVATORY
BLR 007 / 0721 / OBS 080.6
Trial / Arbitrary detention /
Judicial harassment /
At risk of torture and ill-treatment
April 21, 2023
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, a partnership of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), has received new information and requests your urgent intervention in the following situation in Belarus.
The Observatory has been informed of the conviction on appeal 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.
On April 21, 2023, the appeal of the three human rights defenders was heard before the Minsk City Court. The judges confirmed the heavy sentences imposed on them by the Lieninski District Court of Minsk on March 3, 2023: 10 years of imprisonment against Ales Bialiatski, nine years against Valiantsin Stefanovich and seven years against Uladzimir Labkovich. The eight-year prison sentence imposed on human rights defender Zmitser Salauyou, who was tried in absentia, was also upheld.
The human rights defenders have been arbitrarily detained since July 14, 2021, and prosecuted 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). On March 3, 2023, after a trial marred with violations, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk sentenced the three defenders to heavy prison terms. This decision caused an outcry from international human rights organisations and friendly national governments, who deplored this unjust sentence.
On March 29, the prosecutor Aliaksandr Karol appealed the verdict of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk. The Observatory recalls that the prosecutor requested for two more years of imprisonment and higher fines than imposed by the judge.
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 arrested and 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 after having spent 17 months in appalling detention conditions, with Mr Bialiatski being held in a semi-basement floor with poor access to sunlight.
The investigation into Messrs Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich case lasted over a year, which is contrary to Belarusian law and international standards. 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 a large sum of money into Belarus and using it 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 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.
Please write to the authorities of Belarus to urge 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. Immediately and unconditionally release Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, 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. Quash the prison sentence and 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 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.
- 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 representations of Belarus in your respective countries.
Paris-Geneva, April 21, 2023
Kindly inform us of any action undertaken quoting the code of this appeal in your reply.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT and are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.
To contact the Observatory, call the emergency line:
- E-mail: Appeals@fidh-omct.org
- Tel FIDH: + 33 (0) 1 43 55 25 18
- Tel OMCT: + 41 22 809 49 39
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