We, Belarusian human rights organizations, strongly protest against the indictment brought against leaders and members of the Viasna Human Rights Centre and express our solidarity with them and their colleagues.
On March 3, 2022, the Leninsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna HRC and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, to 10 years in prison, Valiantsin Stefanovic, deputy head of the Viasna HRC and vice chairman of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), to 9 years in prison, Uladzimir Labkovich, lawyer of the Viasna HRC and coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign – up to 7 years imprisonment, and member of the organization Zmitser Salauyou – up to 8 years imprisonment in absentia. In addition, the court imposed huge fines (from 111,000 to 185,000 Belarusian rubles) on all the defendants individually and also ordered them to collect the sum of 752,000 rubles jointly (about $300,000).
We view the verdict solely as political repression and retaliation for the peaceful efforts of the leadership and members of the Viasna HRC to defend human rights and freedoms in Belarus. The Viasna Human Rights Center is one of the oldest and most authoritative human rights organizations in Belarus, established to help people who have suffered from the repression that began in the spring of 1996 and continues to this day. Since its establishment, Viasna HRC has helped tens of thousands of Belarusian citizens, and throughout its history, it has been committed to defending and promoting human rights and has constantly monitored whether these rights are respected. The activities of the Viasna HRC are highly regarded both at home and abroad. During its existence, the organization and its friends have been honored with many prestigious awards and prizes in the field of human rights.
The verdict is another form of persecuting Viasna HRC and its partners, which has been going on for two decades. In 2003, the organization was stripped of its state registration, which was later recognized by the UN Human Rights Committee as a violation of the right to freedom of association. In 2011, the head of the organization, Ales Bialiatski, was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for accepting foreign aid for the organization's human rights activities. The organization's leadership and activists constantly faced criminal prosecution under Article 193-1 of the Penal Code for organizing or participating in the activities of an unregistered organization, but it did not prevent them from continuing their human rights activities.
We note numerous violations of the rights of the accused during the trial of a criminal case, first of all, the violation of the presumption of innocence (coverage of the criminal case in the state media with a one-sided assessment of the guilt of the accused before the court verdict enters into force), the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment (judicial the accused conducted the trial in handcuffs), the right to a defense (the accused's requests for additional time to familiarize themselves with the huge amount of criminal case materials, for the conduct of proceedings in the Belarusian language were ignored), the right to a fair trial (arbitrary restrictions on the access of the public and journalists to the courtroom the trial, the announcement of the verdict in a hall filled, presumably, with cadets of the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs).
We also note that the criminal case under Part 2 of Article 243 of the CC (tax evasion), which was the reason for their arrest and detention for over a year, was dropped. Subsequently, they were charged with "smuggling as an organized criminal group" (Part 4 of Article 228 of the CC) and "financing group activities that grossly violate public order" (Part 2 of Article 342 of the CC). During the trial, such legal activities as aiding victims of human rights violations, paying for lawyers' services, monitoring the political situation in Belarus, and other human rights activities were criminalized.
Such a categorization obviously contradicts the Constitution, as well as Belarus' international human rights obligations, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. It is a violation of international standards related to the support and promotion of human rights activities; e.g., the Declaration on the Right and Responsibility of Individuals, Groups and Organs of Society to Promote and Protect Universally Recognized Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, the OSCE Guidelines on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Joint Guidelines on Freedom of Association and other.
In this regard, we, Belarusian human rights organizations, demand that the Belarusian authorities:
1. Withdraw the sentences, immediately and unconditionally release Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, and remove all charges against them, as well as those against Zmitser Salauyou and other members of Viasna.
2. Discontinue prosecution, and other forms of pressure on all Belarusian human rights defenders, and representatives of civil society organizations.
We call on human rights organizations from various countries and other civil society organizations to show solidarity with Belarusian human rights defenders.
We appeal to international bodies and organizations to immediately respond to the harsh sentences against the management and members of the Viasna HRC, to give them their assessment, and provide systematic and comprehensive responses to the continuous violations of human rights in Belarus.
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Belarusian Association of Journalists
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House