Human rights in a cage: Three leaders of Viasna face false accusations in Belarus

Vitaly Pivovarchik / Belta / AFP

9 January 2023. Three leaders of Viasna, a leading Belarusian human rights organisation and member of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), are facing trial which started on January 5, 2023. Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice President Valiantsin Stefanovic and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich face false accusations. During the first days of the trial, observers noted that the defendants seemed physically affected by their extreme conditions of detention. Their resolve, however, remains intact.

The face of dignity. Yesterday the three defendants sat behind bars and handcuffed, visibly weakened by mistreatment, but undisturbed by the more than two-hour long litany of charges delivered by prosecutor Aliaksandr Karol. Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich, all Viasna leaders, are on trial since 5 January 2023. They are charged with "smuggling, illegal movement of cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union on a large scale by an organised group" and "financing of group actions grossly violating the public order", trumped-up charges regularly used to punish civil society organisations in Belarus.

All three have been imprisoned since July 2021 in torturous conditions, subjected to judicial proceedings that have been marred by many irregularities. The investigation exceeded its legal duration, the detainees were deprived of family visits, and their access to their lawyers and medical treatment was severely limited. The first day of the hearings was the first time in over 17 months since their arrest that their family and colleagues could see them, even from a distance.

Human rights defenders handcuffed and caged

"The three activists on trial are central figures of FIDH and are examples of resilience, perseverance and courage. Their release is our fight, we will never stop campaigning until all political prisoners in Belarus are released"

Eleonore Morel, Executive Director of FIDH

"Ales, Valentsin and Uladzimir bear the scars of their detention conditions on their faces. Yet their attitude shows that one of the worst dictatorships in Europe never managed to take away their dignity," said Pavel Sapielko, acting member of the Viasna board and acting vice-president of FIDH in place of Valentsin Stefanovic.

"They did not break them, they will never succeed. In their cage, my friends and colleagues are freer than their pseudo-judges: they don’t live in a lie."

Pavel Sapielko, Viasna

The indictment was put together after 120 searches and raids across the country, and interviews of about 100 witnesses. The criminal case file includes 284 volumes of more than 300 pages each, which is a record for a political trial in Belarus. Ales Bialiatski stated that he was not able to read all of it, however his lawyer’s request to have more time to familiarise himself with the documents was denied. The first trial hearing was replete with other human rights violations.

The case materials, and the trial hearings so far, are in Russian. The defendants’ requests for an interpreter in order to be able to speak in their native Belarusian were rejected by the judge, contrary to domestic and international law. A request by the defendants – who were placed in a metal cage during the trial in violation of human rights law – to take off their handcuffs, was also rejected by the judge. Alongside the mistreatment of prisoners, the excesses of this trial can only serve Alexander Lukashenka, who seeks to make it a symbol of his hold on the country and its institutions.

Imprisoned for defending freedom in Belarus

Intolerant to any form of challenge, the authoritarian president, whose re-election in 2020 sparked severely repressed protests, has overseen the outright destruction of civil society in Belarus. In 2021 alone, the authorities closed down more than 275 human rights and other civil society organisations, leaving no independent NGOs operating legally in the country. In December 2021, the authorities reintroduced criminal liability for working with unregistered or liquidated organisations. This has led to a de facto criminalisation of human rights work in the country.

In line with this policy towards human rights activities, the prosecutor listed the imputed “criminal actions” attributed to the defendants: assisting detainees after demonstrations, paying lawyers’ fees, organising independent election monitoring, and continuing Viasna’s activities after its liquidation. He also named individuals who received help from Viasna.

To date 6 Viasna members are in prison, including Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapyuk and Leanid Sudalenka.

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