(Berlin) – Belarusian authorities on June 21, 2014, freed Ales Bialiatski, one of the country’s leading human rights defenders. Bialiatski had spent almost three years in prison on politically motivated tax evasion charges.
“Every day Ales Bialiatski spent in prison was one day too many,” said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “From the very beginning, this case had nothing to do with justice and was solely about retaliation for Bialiatski’s human rights work.”
Bialiatski is vice president of the International Federation on Human Rights and the head of the Belarusian group Human Rights Center Viasna, which monitors elections and provides assistance to political prisoners. In 2003, Belarus authorities withdrew registration for Viasna and have denied the group’s registration requests ever since. Bialiatski is the recipient of numerous international human rights awards and was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
Bialiatski was arrested on August 4, 2011, and charged with bogus claims of tax evasion. Human Rights Watch said his trial amounted to a show trial riddled with procedural flaws. In November a court convicted him and sentenced him to four and a half years in prison and confiscation of all his assets.
“Ales Bialiatski’s politically motivated arrest and sentencing were a low point for the rule of law, justice, and the human rights movement in Belarus,” Williamson said.
In June 2012, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Belarus urging the government to free all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally and “to put an immediate end to arbitrary detention of human rights defenders.” The resolution also appointed a UN expert, Miklos Haraszti, as the UN special rapporteur on Belarus to document and report back to the council on violations in Belarus. His mandate was extended at the following council session in June 2013.
Haraszti has released two highly critical reports about Belarus. In his 2014 report, he said that human rights violations in Belarus remained “systemic” and of a “systematic nature” and that there had been a lack of positive change in the last 12 months.
Belarusian authorities refused to recognize the mandate and denied Haraszti a visa.
At the June 2014 session of the Human Rights Council, members will vote on whether to extend the special rapporteur’s mandate again.
“Bialiatski’s release is a positive step, but the reality is also that the laws and policies that lead to his detention are still in place,” Williamson said. “The Human Rights Council should extend the Belarus mandate until repressive provisions are amended and civil society and media are free to operate.”