Belarus: Continuous crackdown on civil society

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ProtectDefenders.eu is following closely the situation in Belarus, where the trial against human rights defenders and leaders of Viasna has started during the first week of January. These proceedings and harassment of HRDs in Belarus are politically motivated and part of a broader attack against civil society and civic space in the country since 2021.

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 current charges against the defendants were filed in October 2022, whilst since July 2021 the three were detained on the charge of “tax evasion” which was later dropped.

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 Lukashenko regime’s repression, including those protesting the 2020 election fraud, by paying their legal fees, reimbursing fines and paying for meals in detention centres.

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 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.

Furthermore, on 24 December 24 2022, Belarusian law enforcement officials transferred prominent woman human rights defender Nasta Loika to pre-trial detention centre No.1 in Minsk. The woman human rights defender, working in the field of human rights education, is being charged with at least two articles of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus, one of them concerns the violation of public order, while the second one remains unknown at the moment.

Since 28 October 2022, Nasta Loika has remained in detention. The woman human rights defender has faced four consecutive and six overall administrative arrests for “petty hooliganism”. During Nasta Loika’s administrative detention, she was denied her right to access legal support and to receive medication, and warm clothes while in detention. Nasta Loika reported that while in detention, she was exposed to torture and inhumane treatment. Moreover, her mother’s home was raided, and colleagues suspect that this was an act of pressure against Nasta Loika.

Belarus continues its attack on civil society and continues to be one of Europe’s most dangerous countries for journalists, persecuting independent media outlets and their reporters.