Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski and his Viasna colleagues sentenced to heavy prison terms in Belarus
Three Viasna leaders, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovic and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich were sentenced to heavy prison terms on 3 March 2023. This unjust punishment comes in retaliation for 25 years of their human rights work in Belarus. The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) condemns this verdict against its friends and colleagues, and stays firmly mobilised until their ultimate liberation.
3 March 2023. Ales Bialiatski and Valiantsin Stefanovic, both former and current FIDH Vice-Presidents, and Uladzimir Labkovich were sentenced today to 10, 9 and 7 years of imprisonment respectively. The three were charged with smuggling and financing of actions violating public order. These pretexts were used to sanction their legitimate human rights work as leaders of Viasna, one of the key human rights organisations in Belarus and a member of FIDH.
“Innocent men are imprisoned because they refused to back down, to compromise their values and their work,” declared Alice Mogwe, FIDH President. “FIDH will keep on denouncing their wrongful imprisonment. The global human rights movement opposes these type of actions by authoritarian regimes, who unfortunately seem to feel increasingly emboldened.”
Reacting to the verdict, Ilya Nuzov, Head of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at FIDH, who is well acquainted with the defendants, notes: “Seeing our colleagues and friends receive these draconian sentences is painful and enraging. But their courage exemplifies the struggle of the Belarusian people for freedom and democracy that has inspired worldwide solidarity, something the current Belarusian regime will never have.”
Oleksandra Matviitchuk, Vice President of FIDH and Head of Center for Civil Liberties, a Ukrainian NGO, member of FIDH, stated: “The court’s decision is shameful, the political motives of this trumped-up case are clear. Such a massacre of human rights activists must not go unpunished, and we await the reaction of the international community. Especially since the Lukashenka regime poses a threat not only to its own citizens, but also to the security of our entire region.”
Punished for helping victims of Lukashenka repressions
The defendants had already endured more than 17 months of incarceration before their trial began on 5 January 2023. The trial was replete with violations of human rights law. The defendants were handcuffed and placed in a cage inside the courtroom, in violation of the presumption of innocence, were denied the right to an interpreter and were not given sufficient time to familiarise themselves with the hundreds of volumes of case materials, all part of a rigged prosecution. Their defence was no match for the judiciary which has become a mere appendage of the executive branch .
For its role in documenting human rights violations and assisting victims of repressions, Viasna became the target of persecution by the executive authorities. The repression in Belarus has become pervasive and particularly brutal since the 2020 sham Presidential elections, fully erasing the human rights movement and any dissent in the country. With Lukashenka acting as an ally for Russia’s war in Ukraine, any war opposition is also severely repressed.
Belarus: The lies behind accusations against Nobel laureate Ales Bialiatski and his Viasna colleagues
laureate Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice President Valiantsin Stefanovic and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich have been unjustly held in pretrial detention for over 18 months. They face trumped up charges of "smuggling" and financing of actions violating public order. on 5 January 2023 with a verdict expected on 3 March 2023.
"The situation in Belarus has always been appalling from a human rights perspective. Over the years, FIDH has worked with Viasna to expose political persecutions and draw attention to the draconian laws. The process against Viasna leaders demonstrates that even these laws do not work in today’s Belarus", explains Alice Mogwe, FIDH President.
"At all levels, from investigative authorities to the judiciary, government officials are carrying out a political order to put Ales Bialiatski and his colleagues behind bars simply for doing their human rights work."
Alice Mogwe, FIDH President
FIDH reiterates its calls to release the human rights defenders, however, all indications are that the activists will be handed a harsh verdict. After mass peaceful protests against electoral fraud in August 2020, brutal repressions have further deteriorated the human rights situation in Belarus. In the two years following these events, the authorities have destroyed any political opposition and civil society. The crackdown hit human rights organisations particularly hard. Over 275 human rights NGOs were closed in Belarus, leaving no legally operating human rights entity in the country. Criminal liability was reintroduced for those involved in unregistered organisations, and dozens of human rights defenders, including six activists from Viasna, were thrown in jail.
Sadly, the case of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich is illustrative of numerous other prosecutions built on fabricated evidence, underpinning the deeply flawed justice system in Belarus. In this publication, FIDH exposes why
1. 16 months investigation conducted in near secrecy
The investigative actions lasted 16 months since the date of the detention and were dragged out as long as possible to exert pressure on the detainees and force them to admit guilt. All this time the detainees were deprived of family visits, and their access to lawyers and medical treatment was severely limited.
The authorities tried to keep the investigation as closed as possible, so they obliged all lawyers, relatives and witnesses to sign a non-disclosure form. Human rights defenders had practically no information about the condition of the detainees and the content of the charges, all these details had to be put together like pieces of a puzzle.
2. Different brand-new charges filed four months before the trial
For over a year, since July 14, 2021, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich were detained on charges of “tax evasion”. The accusation was made up after 120 searches and raids across the country, and interviews of about 100 witnesses. Unable to substantiate the first version of the charges, in September 2022, the investigation substituted the “tax evasion” charges with a new accusation. Today, the three are accused of “smuggling” and financing of actions violating public order. Furthermore, the majority of the criminal case file, containing 284 volumes of 300 pages, relates to the previous version of the accusation.
3. Viasna is literally accused of helping hundreds of people
The prosecutor read out the indictment for two hours. The defendants are accused of receiving on their foreign accounts a large amount of money that they used for “criminal” purposes, including assisting detainees after protest demonstrations, paying lawyers’ fees, organizing independent election monitoring, and continuing Viasna’s activities after its liquidation. He also read out a long list of individuals who received help from Viasna.
In other words, the prosecution accuses human rights activists of carrying out their human rights activities. According to the twisted logic of the Belarusian authorities, all human rights activities for which Viasna became a renowned organization, and for which Ales Bialiatski received the Peace Nobel Prize, are illegal and punishable.
4. In 2014, UN Human Rights Committee found a similar accusation arbitrary
The human rights defenders were detained on charges that were brought against Ales Bialiatski in 2011. These charges had already been declared arbitrary by the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2014. Back then, Valiantsin Stefanovic commented: "This decision by the Human Rights Committee, based on international law, recognizes the legitimacy of Viasna’s activities and fully rehabilitates Ales Bialiatski".
According to the Committee, Belarus violated the right to freedom of association when it denied Viasna registration back in 2003. The refusal to register Viasna rendered its activities illegal within Belarus and prevented its members from accessing their rights. The Committee further confirmed that sentencing Ales Bialiatski for actions associated with the receipt and expenditure of funds to carry out Viasna activities was a direct consequence of the violation of freedom of association.
5. In the courtroom, the three were treated like criminals
The three defendants were present in the courtroom handcuffed and behind bars. Such measures are not applied even to people accused of murder in Belarus. The defendants’ motion to take off handcuffs was rejected by the judge. With such cruelty, the authorities disregarded both the presumption of innocence and common sense.
6. No independent media or activists allowed into the trial
The Belarusian authorities did not officially close the trial, but since no independent media outlets or NGOs are left in Belarus, very little information about the trial is de facto available to the outside world. As a result of the large-scale post-electoral repressions since August 2021, 1,180 civil society organizations were shut down. Only pro-government propaganda media were allowed into the court. The European Union countries’ diplomats needed an accreditation to attend the process: they gathered in front of the courthouse on the first day of the trial to express solidarity with human rights defenders.
Russian human rights activist and journalist Yekaterina Yanshina was sentenced in Minsk to 15 days of administrative arrest on charges of disorderly conduct after she tried to take photographs during the trial. The activist flew to Minsk to attend the hearing and support her fellow human rights activists on trial.
7. One month to read 84.900 pages of the criminal case
The criminal case consists of 283 volumes. Each volume contains about 300 sheets of documents. The defendants were given one month to get acquainted with the materials of the case, which means that the defendants had to read more than 9 volumes a day or 2700 pages a day. It is almost impossible to read so many pages in such a short time. And, of course, it is impossible to prepare for the defense in such a mode. Ales Bialiatski, for example, did not have time to read over 70 volumes. Moreover, he was not given the right to read documents in his native Belarusian language: all documents were in Russian.