Nobel prize winner Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovic and lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich, will be tried on January 5, 2023. The three face fake charges of smuggling and financing of group actions grossly violating public order. The Observatory demands their release and calls for solidarity actions in support of the imprisoned human rights defenders in Belarus.
On January 5, 2023, Viasna Chairman and Nobel Peace Prize 2022 laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovic, and Viasna’s lawyer and coordinator of the “Free Elections Campaign” Uladzimir Labkovich will face trial before the Lieninski District Court of Minsk, after more than 17 months of arbitrary detention. Another defendant in this case and Viasna member Zmister Salauyou has left Belarus and will be tried in absentia.
Messrs Bialiatski, Stefanovic and Labkovich were arrested on July 14, 2021, and held in torturous conditions ever since. They are accused under two criminal articles:
• “Smuggling; illegal movement of cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union on a large scale by an organized group” (Article 228.4 of the Criminal Code of Belarus); and
• “Financing of group actions grossly violating the public order” (Article 342.2 of the same Code). They face from 7 to 12 years of imprisonment if convicted and sentenced.
The charges are politically motivated and refer to Viasna’s legitimate human rights activities, deemed “illegal” by the prosecution. The defendants are notably accused of helping victims of the Lukashenka regime’s repression, including those protesting the 2020 election fraud, by paying their legal fees, reimbursing fines and paying for meals in detention centers.
The current charges against the defendants were filed in October 2022, whilst since July 2021 the three were detained on the charge of “tax evasion” (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Belarus Criminal Code), which was later dropped. This charge was already used to target Ales Bialiatski in 2012, when he was sentenced to four and a half years of imprisonment. He was released in June 2014, after the UN Human Rights Committee ruled that his conviction was illegal and ordered his release.
The judicial proceedings against Bialiatski, Stefanovic and Labkovich are marred by numerous irregularities. The investigation period has been dragged out by the authorities, and has exceeded the legal limit established in Belarusian law and international standards. There are sufficient grounds to claim that this is due to a deliberate attempt to fabricate evidence. Their pre-trial detention has been continuously extended in closed doors hearings, even though the Belarusian law offers alternatives in the form of house arrest. It is believed that the authorities have kept them in inhumane detention conditions to force them to confess.
Their lawyers as well as the defendants themselves have been placed under a nondisclosure obligation. For 17 months, they have been systematically denied family visits, and medical care and access to their lawyers have been severely limited.
The reprisals against Viasna and its members are part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Belarus. In 2021 alone, the authorities shut down more than 275 human rights and other civil society organisations, leaving no legally operating independent NGO in the country. In December 2021, the authorities re-introduced criminal liability for working with unregistered or liquidated organisations. This led to a de facto criminalisation of human rights work in Belarus. Since 2020, five other members of Viasna were put behind bars, including Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapyuk, Leanid Sudalenka and Tatsiana Lasitsa.