(Moscow) – The conviction of the Belarusian human rights defender Ales Bialiatski on charges of tax evasion on November 24, 2011, and his prison sentence of 4 years and 6 months with confiscation of all assets were unjustified and politically motivated, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Belarusian authorities should drop their case against Bialiatski so that he can be released promptly. Bialiatski said he will appeal the verdict, and the appellate court should overturn the guilty verdict.
“Ales Bialiatski’s conviction is a disgraceful example of abusing the courts for political ends,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “If you scratch just below the surface, the trial had next to nothing to do with tax evasion and everything to do with the Belarusian government trying to silence someone who for many years dared to help victims of abuse.”
Bialiatski, head of Viasna Human Rights Center, has been in custody since his arrest on August 4.
Tax-evasion charges against Bialiatski stemmed from his use of his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to receive funding from international donors for human rights work in Belarus. Human Rights Watch said that the Belarusian authorities created many obstaclesto prevent human rights groups like Viasna from operating in compliance with the law, forcing them into a legal limbo that the government exploits to punish them. Human Rights Watch has repeatedly called on the prosecution to withdraw the charges.
The judge found Bialiatski guilty of large-scale tax evasion on his personal income, under article 234.2 of the Criminal Code of Belarus. The defense contended that Bialiatski used the money on his accounts in Lithuania and Poland to support Viasna’s human rights work and that it did not amount to personal income.
Evidence presented at trial indicated that the criminal investigation into Bialiatski’s financial activities was initiated after the KGB, the Belarusian secret service, in October 2010 received an anonymous letter alleging that Bialiatski was concealing his income and receiving foreign aid to finance ”radical opposition.” In February, the prosecutor’s office summoned Bialiatski and issued him an official warning that his human rights work was “in contradiction to Belarusian law.”
Lithuanian and Polish authorities released Bialiatski’s bank information to the Belarusian government, but then publicly apologized and suspended bilateral legal assistance treaties with Belarus.
A Human Rights Watch researcher who monitored the trial also noted irregularities in the trial proceedings against Bialiatski.The prosecution’s case rested mainly on the fact that Bialiatski had personal accounts opened in Lithuania and Poland, which he allegedly concealed from the Belarusian authorities. Bialiatski’s bank account details from Lithuania and Poland were presented in a case file in the form of uncertified copies of bank printouts, whereas under Belarus law, certified copies are normally required for documents to be legally admissible evidence.
Likewise, the prosecution successfully admitted into evidence alleged copies of private email correspondence from one of Bialiatski’s colleagues. The prosecution then contended that the emails proved that the colleague was involved in concealing Bialiatski’sincome.
However, the prosecution did not establish that it had the necessary legal authority to conduct surveillance of email exchanges, as required by Article 13 of the Belarusian Law on Investigative Activities. Therefore, normally such material could not be considered as lawfully obtained and, pursuant to Article 105 of the Criminal Procedure Code of Belarus, should not have been admitted into evidence.
In court the defense noted that during pre-trial questioning two witnesses from the local tax inspectorate gave answers that were identical to the point of grammatical mistakes. The answers were accepted into evidence.
The prosecution also referenced a DVD obtained by the investigation that it alleges contained files incriminating Bialiatski. However, the DVD was not given to the defense counsel before or during the hearing, and was missing from the case file. Under Article 350 of the Belarusian Criminal Procedure Code, a verdict must be substantiated and based solely on the evidence that was presented during the hearing.
Some documents admitted into evidence were not translated from Lithuanian and Polish or were translated at the last minute, which undermined Bialiatski’s capacity to conduct an effective defense.
Representatives of a number of international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Civil Rights Defenders, the Human Rights House Foundation, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Frontline, were unable to obtain visas to travel to Minsk for the trial.
“The trial of Ales Bialiatski was a show trial, predicated on politically motivated charges, where what was sought was a jail sentence for an outspoken critic, not a good faith desire to enforce a tax code,” Williamson said. “This is a low point for the human rights movement in Belarus.”
Viasna Human Rights Centre was established in Minsk in the wake of opposition protests in the spring of 1996. Its main areas of work include election monitoring, human rights education and promotion of democracy in Belarus as well as providing assistance to political prisoners.
Viasna is one of the leading organizations in Belarus that provided financial and legal aid for political prisoners and members of their families in the wake of a massive government crackdown on opposition in December 2010 and the following months. The authorities withdrew Viasna’s registration in 2003, and have routinely denied it registration since.
Under Belarusian law, participation in and funding of an unregistered political party, religious organization, or public association is a criminal offense punishable by a fine or imprisonment for up to two years. In October 2011, the European Commission for Democracy Through Law (Venice Commission) issued an opinion concluding that this measure violates civil and political rights protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and European Convention on Human Rights. The commission stated that the provision “not only restricts freedom of association but also freedom of opinion and expression to an unjustifiable degree.”