Belarus: Release Marfa Rabkova, free all detained Viasna members

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Paris-Geneva, September 17, 2021– The arbitrary arrest and detention of Marfa Rabkova one year ago marked the beginning of the brutal repression against the Human Rights Centre Viasna, which up to now has seven of its members behind bars. On this date, the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (an OMCT-FIDH partnership) urges the authorities of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release Marfa Rabkova and all Viasna members arbitrarily detained and calls for an end to the ongoing crackdown on civil society in the country.

In the evening of September 17, 2020, Marfa Rabkova was walking back home with her husband in Minsk when around 10 masked men from the Main Department for Combating Organised Crime and Corruption violently detained them. While her husband was released the day after, Marfa was brought to the Okrestina pre-trial detention centre in Minsk. This was the last time they saw each other. For the past 12 months they have been able to communicate only through sporadic hand-written letters previously censored by the prison authorities. These same authorities disallowed Marfa’s request to say farewell to her father and grandmother, who passed away during the months of her detention.

The trumped-up charges subsequently brought against Marfa Rabkova, namely “financing and other preparation of mass riots”, “participation in a criminal organization” and "inciting hostility towards another social group committed by a group of individuals”, as well as her 12 months of unjust pre-trial detention, clearly target her work as a coordinator of the volunteer services at the Human Rights Center Viasna, a member organisation of the OMCT and FIDH networks. Together with her colleagues, Marfa participated in documenting evidence of torture and other inhuman treatment of detained participants in the post-election demonstrations in Belarus. She also monitored peaceful assemblies and took an active part in the campaign of independent monitoring of the August 9, 2020 elections called "Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections". Her legitimate human rights work can cost her up to 12 years of imprisonment if she is found guilty of the impugned offenses.

Amid the ongoing crackdown against civil society and all dissenting voices in Belarus, the authorities’ targeting of Viasna has been merciless. Viasna volunteer Andrey Chapiuk was arbitrarily arrested two weeks after Marfa’s detention and remains detained pending trial. Leanid Sudalenka, lawyer of the Homieĺ (Gomel) branch of Viasna, has been detained since January 18, 2021, and is now facing a closed-door trial together with volunteers Tatsiana Lasitsa, detained since January 21, 2021, and Maria Tarasenka, who was detained and released in January 2021 and remains under travel restrictions.

On July 14, 2021, amid a wave of raids and arrests of human rights defenders, journalists and civil society organisations, Ales Bialiatski, head of Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovic, member of Viasna’s Board and Vice-President of FIDH, as well as Uladzimir Labkovich, lawyer and coordinator of the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections” were arbitrarily arrested, interrogated and kept in temporary isolation until their transfer to detention center No.1 on Valadarskaha street, in Minsk. They remain detained within the framework of the investigation of criminal cases opened under Article 342 parts 1 and 2 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (“organisation and preparation of actions violating public order or active participation in such actions”) and Article 243 paragraph 2 of the Criminal Code (“tax evasion”).

None of the Viasna members arbitrarily detained is allowed to receive family visits and the meetings and communication with their lawyers are very limited.

The Observatory points out that to date, about 30 human rights defenders have been arrested or charged with crimes and are currently detained, three have received prison sentences and 23 lawyers have been disbarred. Numerous other human rights defenders are under investigation facing possible criminal charges.

The Observatory expresses great concern about the crackdown on Viasna as well as the acceleration of the criminalisation process in recent months. The Observatory recalls that Viasna is playing a central role in denouncing the violence and repression perpetrated by the authorities in Belarus, including through an essential monitoring work.

The Observatory urges the authorities in Belarus to immediately release Marfa Rabkova and all arbitrarily detained members of Viasna, and to put an immediate end to the ongoing crackdown against human rights defenders in the country and their organisations.

To support the members of the Human Rights Center Viasna arbitrarily detained, join the #FreeViasna campaign and stand in solidarity with Marfa, Andrey, Leanid, Tatsiana, Ales, Valiantsin and Uladzimir.

You can also read the stories of five Belarusian human rights defenders theOMCT interviewed on the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the presidential election.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) and FIDH. The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and the OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

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