By Madeline Schiesser
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MINSK, Belarus – The human rights group Viasna (“Spring”) has been kicked out of their offices in Minsk following last year’s conviction of their chairman, Ales Belyatski, for tax evasion. Belyatski has continued to deny the charges.
Viasna has experienced adversity from the government in the past. In 2003, its status as an NGO was revoked, without explanation according to the group.
Last August, Belyatski, chairman of Viasna as well as Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights, was arrested and jailed on charges of tax evasion “on a large scale.” He denied the validity of the charges, because the refusal of Belarusian authorities to register Viasna as an NGO meant that it could not hold a bank account in the country. Therefore, Belyatski open accounts for the NGO in Poland and Lithuania. For more information see Belarus, Lithuania Rebuked for Arrest of Human Rights Activist.
However, in November 2011, the court sentenced Belyatski to 4.5 years in prison and ordered the confiscation of all of his property. This seizure extends to the Viasna office space.
Belyatski has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. He has won the Human Rights Defenders Award by the US ambassador to Poland, and the Lech Walesa Award.
Last week, a court notified Viasna that the apartment space it had used as an office for the past 12 years was being confiscated.
On Monday, the court’s orders were carried out, and officials emptied the office of all its equipment and furniture. The fate of the empty office, a key for which was left in the possession of Belyatsk’s wife, will be decided by a court.
Valentin Stefanovich, Belyatski’s deputy and Viasna’s acting head, acknowledged that “this will make our life harder [because] [t]he office is well-known, recognizable, and people knew how to find us when something happened to them.” However, he promised that “We are not going to stop any aspects of the legitimate human rights work of the organization. All victims of human rights violations can count on us as before for help and support.”
David Díaz-Jogeix, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia Program condemned the act, calling it “a blatant violation of Belarus’ international human rights obligations to respect and protect the right to freedom of association.” Furthermore, in October, for the first time since the 1990s, an Amnesty International researcher was denied an entry visa by Belarusian authorities. A reason was not given.
Additionally, Belarus, a former Soviet republic, has an unfavorable record. It stands as Europe’s last dictatorship, ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko. He has been accused of persecuting dissidents in order to maintain power.
For example, last month, Lukashenko’s most formidable political rival, Andrei Sannikov, once a deputy foreign minister, fled Belarus, taking political refuge in the U.K.. He had served 16 months in prison, during which he claimed prison staff tortured him and tried to get him to commit suicide.
This September, during voting for parliament, there were reports of election rigging. There were similar reports two years ago during the 2010 presidential elections. The result is that no one elected to the 110 seat lower house of parliament was a member of an opposition party.
Mikhail Pashkevich, a leader of the Tell the Truth opposition party, told the BBC that the results had been predetermined. “There are no elections […] in Belarus now, only something like a farce, a play that is named election but is not an election,” he said.
Unfortunately, Viasna and other NGOs in Belarus face a battle on two fronts. They face both the human rights abuses they intended to fight, as well as a government that does not want them there in the first place.
For further information, please see:
Moscow Times – Lukashenko Relishes Reputation as Dictator – 27 November 2012
Amnesty International – Belarus Evicts Leading Human Rights Organization – 26 November 2012
RFE/RL – Belarusian Human Rights Center’s Property Confiscated – 26 November 2012
BBC News – Lukashenko’s Belarus: Rights Group Viasna to be Evicted – 20 November 2012
Polskie Radio – Opposition Parties Boycott Belarus ‘Pseudo-Elections’ – 23 September 2012
Polskie Radio – US to award Belarusian ‘human rights defender’ in Warsaw – 25 September 2012
Polskie Radio – Belarusian ‘prisoner of conscience’ wins Lech Walesa Award – 23 September 2012