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(Moscow) –The Belarusian authorities should immediately cease harassing and trying to shut down the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the only human rights organization with registration status to operate nationally.

On February 25, 2013, Taxation Ministry officials served a warrant on Aleh Hulak, the organization’s leader, to seize its property, the latest effort to abuse tax and administrative regulations to silence the independent rights monitoring group.

“Yet again, the Belarusian authorities are using bogus tax claims to harass human rights activists,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities can pretend that these are routine legal measures, but their intentions are blatant –to silence the last remaining critical voices in the country.”

The Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) is the country’s oldest human rights organization. It is the only group working on controversial human rights issues that the government has granted legal registration to operate nationally.

In 2004, the Taxation Ministry ordered the group to pay 155 million BYR (about US$18,000) in taxes and fines related to grants it received from the European Commission in 2002 and 2003. Under an agreement Belarus signed with the European Commission, these grants should have been tax-exempt.

In 2004 and 2005, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee successfully appealed this order. The courts rejected the government’s claim that the grants were taxable income.  

But in 2006, during the period leading up to presidential elections, the Supreme Economic Court of Belarus overturned the previous courts’ rulings, finding that tax exemption provisions of the agreement with the EU could not be applied because of the lack of domestic implementing regulations. Following this decision, the government confiscated the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s property, although its value was considerably less than the amount demanded by the Taxation Ministry.

In 2007, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee sued the Belarus Council of Ministers, or cabinet, for the value of the confiscated property. The group said it had suffered damages as the result of the council’s failure to bring the country’s legislation in line with the country’s agreements with the EU, including for funding civil society. The Supreme Economic Court dismissed the claim, holding that the Council of Ministers was “not a legal entity.”

The sum of debt owed by the group to date has reached 284 million BYR (about $32,000).

“We’ve gone through all the legal avenues available to us in Belarus to appeal the tax evasion accusations,” Hulak told Human Rights Watch. “Although we did nothing wrong, we are trapped. The authorities won’t let us use foreign aid to pay off the debt, and the committee cannot earn this money on its own.”

The Justice Ministry issued two warnings to the group during 2011 that appeared to be in retaliation for its human rights work. The first, in January, accused the group of “spreading incorrect information” and violating laws regulating activities of nongovernmental organizations.

In June 2011, the ministry warned the group that it was liable for “ongoing tax law violations.” In December 2011, the Taxation Ministry asked the Justice Ministry to begin procedures for dissolving the group on those grounds. Under Belarusian law, a nongovernmental organization that receives two warnings about a violation can be dissolved.

Hulak told Human Rights Watch that the government could not find property to seize this time because most of the group’s office furniture and equipment had been rented from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe office in Minsk. “But now we are fully dependent on the mood and wishes of the authorities,” Hulak said. “If they wish, they can close our organization down, or seize any property that we may obtain in the future.”

The government’s move against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee is part of the persistent crackdown on freedoms of association and expression, Human Rights Watch said. The authorities routinely harass human rights defenders, independent media, and defense lawyers.

At least 12 political prisoners remain behind bars. Among them is Ales Bialiatski, the head of the Belarusian group Human Rights Center Viasna, who has been in prison since his arrest in August 2011, and is serving a four-and -a-half-year prison term on bogus tax evasion charges.

Bialiatski’s deputy, Valiantsin Stefanovich, had to pay a large fine on similar grounds. In 2012, several other human rights activists were summoned to the tax offices and told to provide proof of the sources of their income for several years.

The 1998 United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders says countries have the duty to “take all necessary measures to ensure the protection by the competent authorities of [human rights defenders] against … retaliation, … pressure or any other arbitrary action” as a consequence of their legitimate efforts to promote human rights.

“The Belarusian authorities should stop harassing independent voices and instead spend its energy and resources addressing the country’s many serious human rights problems,” Denber said.

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