Belarus: Trial of Viasna members Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, and Uladzimir Labkovich

12/01/2023
Urgent Appeal
Vitaly Pivovarchik / Belta / AFP

New information
BLR 007 / 0721 / OBS 080.4
Trial / Arbitrary detention /
Judicial harassment /
At risk of torture and ill-treatment
Belarus
January 12, 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.

New information:

The Observatory has been informed about the opening of the trial against 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 January 5, 6, 10, 11 and 12, 2023, the first five hearings of the trial against Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich took place before the Leninsky District Court in Minsk. The next hearing is scheduled for January 13, 2023. The human rights defenders are prosecuted under 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).

The first days of the proceedings were marred with multiple human rights violations, and the defendants appeared to have lost a lot of weight and being in frail condition. They were handcuffed and locked in a cage in the courtroom, in violation of Articles 10 and 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to human dignity of arrested persons and the right to fair trial, respectively, as well as the Basic Principles for the Treatment of Prisoners. The defendants’ motion to take off their handcuffs was rejected by the judge, arguing that handcuffing falls under the competency of the police, not the court.

Messrs. Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich and their lawyers further presented motions to change their imprisonment measures to house arrest, as they argued their detention is disproportionate and unreasonable in their case, given their worsening health condition and family situation. The prosecution opposed this request arguing that the crimes for which they are tried are especially grave and that there was a risk of absconding in case of release. The judge denied these motions.

The case file contains 284 volumes of over 300 pages each. Ales Bialiatski motioned for more time to get acquainted with the case. Yet, the judge rejected the motion as she considered that the period of one month from the filing of indictment was reasonable and sufficient.

Additionally, the case materials and the hearings were held in Russian, while the native language of the defendants is Belarusian. Motions requesting an interpreter were rejected by the judge on the grounds that the charges had been pressed in Russian, and that the defendants’ understand it considering both languages are official in the country.

During the trial, the prosecution read transcripts of testimonies from witnesses who were not present in court, despite the objections of several attorneys. Moreover, these testimonies were related to the investigation of the initial accusation against them.

The three human rights defenders pleaded not guilty to the charges against them. At the time of publication of this Urgent Appeal, they all remained arbitrarily detained in pretrial detention centre No. 1 in Minsk.

The Belarusian authorities did not close the session officially however they de facto prohibited all reporting from the courtroom and harassed those who attempted to take pictures during the proceedings, therefore violating the right to a fair and public hearing. Yet, pro-government media were allowed to record the proceedings. On January 6, 2023, Yekaterina Yanshina, a Russian human rights defender and journalist, was sentenced to 15 days administrative arrest on “petty hooliganism” charges in Minsk for allegedly taking pictures during the first day of the proceedings.

Some international observers were denied access into the courtroom, including European Union diplomats who gathered in front of the courthouse to show solidarity with the human rights defenders.

To date, the authorities have deliberately announced the date and time of all the hearings on the court’s website a few hours before they start, or have changed dates overnight, in order to hinder any attempts to access the court and carry out an independent trial observation.

The Observatory recalls that Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich were arbitrarily detained by officers of the Financial Investigations Department of Belarus on July 14, 2021. The first accusation of tax evasion was made up after 120 searches and raids across the country, and interviews of about 100 witnesses. The current charges against the defendants were not filed until October 2022, which proves that the prosecution was unable to substantiate the first version of the charges. While the defendants were initially detained and held for 15 months on charges of "tax evasion” (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Belarus Criminal Code), which carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, they were later accused of alleged “illegal movement of cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union in large amounts by an organised group” in relation to the same case. The punishment under these charges is harsher and the defenders face up to 12 years in prison if convicted and sentenced.

The nature of the charges against Messrs Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich shows they are prosecuted for carrying out legitimate human rights activities. The defendants are accused of 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 protest 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 investigation into Messrs Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich case has been ongoing for over a year, which is contrary to Belarusian law and international standards. The Observatory considers the lengthy investigations and the fabricated charges to be a deliberate attempt to keep the three human rights defenders in order to fabricate evidence and coerce them into confession.

The three human rights defenders are 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 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 January 12, 2023 counted 1 440 persons.

The Observatory strongly condemns the ongoing judicial harassment of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich as well as their ongoing arbitrary detention, and urges the Belarusian authorities to guarantee their rights to due process and fair trial. The Observatory expresses grave concern over the high risk of torture and ill-treatment they face while in custody.

The Observatory urges the authorities in Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release them as well as 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.

Actions requested:

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. 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.

Addresses:

• Mr. Aliaksandr Lukashenka, President of Belarus, Email: contact@president.gov.by;
• Mr. Andrei Shved, General Prosecutor of Belarus, Email: info@prokuratura.gov.by;
• Mr Dmitry Gora, Chairman of the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus, Email: sk@sk.gov.by;
• Mr. Oleg Slizhevsky, Minister of Justice of Belarus, Email: kanc@minjust.by;
• Mr. Vasily Gerasimov, Acting Chairman of the State Control Committee of Belarus, Email: kgk@mail.belpak.by;
• Mr. Ivan Kubrakov, minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus, Email: pismo_mvd@mia.by;
• Mr. Yury Ambrazevich, Permanent Mission of Belarus to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Email: mission.belarus@ties.itu.int;
• H.E. Mr. Aliaksandr Mikhnevich, Embassy of Belarus in Brussels, Email: belgium@mfa.gov.by

Please also write to the diplomatic representations of Belarus in your respective countries.

***
Paris-Geneva, January 12, 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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