(Moscow) – The Belarusian government should immediately release the prominent human rights defender Aleh Vouchak, who was convicted for an apparently politically motivated administrative offense, Human Rights Watch said today. Vouchak is serving a nine-day sentence after a trial raising serious due process concerns.
Vouchak, the head of the human rights organization Legal Assistance to the Public, was detained on May 24, 2012. Human Rights Watch expressed concern that Vouchak's arrest may have been in retaliation for criticizing the government and for meeting with a Human Rights Watch researcher the day before.
“The dubious prosecution of Aleh Vouchak is a prime example of the government tightening its grip on civil society,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government needs to stop harassing human rights defenders and allow civil society groups to operate free from repression.”
Vouchak was standing on the street not far from his house in Minsk, the capital, talking to a colleague on May 24, when three policemen in civilian clothing approached them, introduced themselves, and told him to follow them to a police precinct for “further explanation.” They did not present a warrant or official summons.
At the Tsentralniy District Precinct, the authorities charged Vouchak with “minor hooliganism,” an administrative offense, allegedly for swearing at police. At 6 p.m., after the court’s official working hours, the Tsentralniy District Court in Minsk held an administrative hearing on the charges, which ended around 9 p.m. The judge found Vouchak guilty of hooliganism, under article 17.1 of the Belarusian Code of Administrative Offenses, and sentenced him to nine days in detention. Vouchak's lawyer plans to appeal the verdict.
Vouchak is in the Akrestina detention center, known for its poor conditions, where he was taken immediately after being sentenced. He is due to be released on June 2.
Raisa Mihailovskaia, the head of the independent Human Rights Center, who attended Vouchak's hearing, told Human Rights Watch that Vouchak did not have access to his defense counsel until shortly before the hearing began. The judge denied the lawyer’s requests for more time to prepare for the hearing and to obtain written testimony from Vouchak's character witnesses, claiming that the request was an attempt to “stall the trial.”
Two of the three police officers who arrested Vouchak were called as witnesses for the prosecution. Mihailovskaia said that the policemen testified that Vouchak swore at them, contradicting the arrest report, which asserted that Vouchak swore at passers-by. She said that Vouchak’s lawyer called the judge’s attention to the contradiction but that the judge ignored it.
Zmitser Kuhlei, a local activist who was with Vouchak at the time of his arrest, testified as the sole defense witness. Vouchak’s lawyer had told him that Kuhlei’s witness testimony was distorted in court records. He said he had testified that he was less than a step away from Volchek and the policemen and was able to hear every word of their conversation. The court records instead indicated he was not close to Volchek and “could not hear everything,” he said. Kuhlei said he intends to file a complaint about the distortion of his testimony.
Belarusian activists told Human Rights Watch that in recent months Belarusian authorities have arrested several opposition activists and human rights defenders on what they allege were bogus charges of hooliganism or similar misdemeanor offenses. A lawyer from the Legal Transformation Center, which monitors administrative hearings in Belarus, told Human Rights Watch that charges of hooliganism are among the most “popular” charges the authorities have used recently in politically motivated cases. Belarusian authorities frequently use misdemeanor charges to intimidate activists and to prevent them from attending public protests or carrying out their activities.
For years, Vouchak has been an outspoken critic of the Belarusian government and has worked on many controversial cases, including the enforced disappearance of the former interior minister Yuri Zakharenko in 1999. He openly criticized the 2011 conviction of Ales Bialiatski, head of the Viasna human rights center, on politically motivated tax-evasion charges.
The authorities withdrew the registration from Vouchak’s organization in 2003 and have repeatedly denied it re-registration ever since. In January, police in Minsk arrested Vouchak on charges of minor hooliganism, and a court sentenced him to four days in detention.
In his meeting with Human Rights Watch in May, Vouchak said that the authorities have barred him from leaving Belarus, allegedly because of a civil court case against him. He said that he was not aware of any such case and that government agencies have not responded adequately when he inquired about it. Vouchak said he viewed the travel ban as the authorities’ attempt to stop him from openly criticizing the government, especially when speaking to international organizations and the media.
Human Rights Watch has previously criticized Belarusian authorities for harassing opposition activists, stripping human rights lawyers of their license to practice law, and expelling or barring foreign human rights activists from entering the country. More than 10 Belarusian citizens, predominantly opposition activists, human rights defenders, and journalists, have recently been barred from leaving Belarus under various pretexts.
“The arrest and conviction of Aleh Vouchak is nothing more than a poorly disguised attempt of the Belarusian authorities to intimidate and ultimately silence another voice of dissent,” Williamson said. “It is a perversion of the rule of law for the government to use the courts as a tool of repression against its critics.”