Belarus: arbitrarily detained for over a month, Viasna’s members must be released

20/08/2021
Statement

Paris-Geneva, August 20, 2021 – It has been a month since law enforcement officers of Belarus arbitrarily detained Viasna’s leadership. This brings the total number of Viasna members behind bars to seven, as four others had been detained previously. The absence of transparency regarding the nature of the accusations against them, the lack of communication with the detainees, and the appalling detention conditions are outrageous. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (a FIDH-OMCT partnership) urges the authorities of Belarus to immediately and unconditionally release Viasna members and calls for an end to the increasing repression of civil society organisations in the country.

For more than a month now, Ales Bialiatski, Head of the Human Rights Center Viasna, one of the country’s top human rights organisations and a member of FIDH and the OMCT networks, 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”, have been arbitrarily detained in pretrial detention center No. 1 on Valadarskaha street in Minsk.

On July 14, 2021, the three human rights defenders were arrested with eight other human rights activists, including six members of Viasna, 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”). After several searches, interrogations and a few days in temporary isolation on Akrestsina lane, the human rights activists of Viasna were transferred to the detention center No.1 on Valadarskaha street. The nature of the accusations against them remains unclear as the investigation is being concealed from the public by all means, detainees’ lawyers are forbidden to disclose information about their cases, and Mr. Labkovich was not allowed to see his lawyer at all during the first days of his detention. Their contact with their families is also highly limited: family visits are not allowed, and some of the correspondence goes missing as not all letters sent by relatives reach the detainees, and vice versa.

These arrests were part of a wave of raids led by the authorities and targeting human rights organisations connected to Viasna, one day after the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution condemning the situation of human rights in Belarus. More than 30 people were interrogated and 13 of them were detained for a 72-hour period, including 11 employees of Viasna. Ten of them were subsequently released but most are still facing charges and are under a travel ban.

On August 14, 2021, a former Viasna employee, Nasta Loika, currently working for the human rights organisation "Human Constanta”, was arrested in connection with the case mounted against Viasna. She was released on August 16 but remains under restricted residence and travel ban and faces similar charges of assisting in tax evasion as Viasna’s employees.

A month after this crackdown, the repression of civil society organisations in Belarus is dangerously increasing. Viasna reported that the Ministry of Justice liquidated 53 organisations on July 22, 2021. By mid-August 2021, 114 civil society organisations were liquidated or in the process of liquidation, based on alleged formal issues such as the non-compliance with their statute, or having received two warnings from the Ministry of Justice within a year. The Observatory also 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.

The Observatory recalls that Viasna has been targeted by the Belarusian government for over two decades. Four other Viasna members, namely Leanid Sudalenka, Tatsiana Lasitsa, Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapyuk remain in pre-trial detention since late 2020 or early 2021.

The Observatory expresses great concern about the acceleration of the criminalisation process in recent months and recalls that Viasna is playing a central role in denouncing this violence, including through an essential monitoring work.

The Observatory urges the authorities in Belarus to immediately release the above-mentioned members of the Human Rights Center Viasna, all in pretrial detention, and to put an end to the ongoing crackdown against human rights defenders and their organisations.

To support human rights defenders arbitrarily detained in Belarus, you can take part in FIDH’s campaign and write them letters of solidarity.

You can also read the stories of five Belarusian human rights defenders the OMCT 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 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 the OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

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