[JURIST] A Belarus court convicted [press release] human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, the president of Viasana and vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) [advocacy websites], of tax evasion on Thursday, sentencing him to a four-and-a-half-year prison term. Viasna is a non-governmental human rights organization in Belarus that is dedicated to reporting on allegations of police and prosecutorial misconduct as well as providing legal aid and support for political prisoners. The government alleged that Bialiatski had evaded taxation on donations to Viasana by using Polish and Lithuanian accounts to fund his human rights projects, although Viasana is not recognized as a nonprofit organization by the Belarus government, so donations within the country are banned. Prosecutors argued that Bialiatski used the donations as personal income [oral arguments summary] that was subject to taxation. In his final statement at trial, Bialiatski criticized the Belarusian government’s persecution of Viasna and other human rights organizations:
Many of my friends have been dismissed from their jobs and subjected to administrative harassment. The authorities are persecuting their political opponents, restricting civil and political rights and preventing the development of civil society. The authorities do not stand any criticism, harassing journalists and human rights defenders. The key contradiction is in the fact that the authorities’ actions are an outrage against the Belarusian Constitution and the country’s international obligations. Why did you sign the Declaration? Leave the UN and the OSCE, and everyone will be able to see where we all are.
After the announcement of the verdict, protests began in Russia and Belarus [press releases], both resulting in arrests. The governments of Poland and Lithuania have apologized to Viasna for revealing Bialiatski’s account information, and, since the verdict, Lithuania has announced they will have no further diplomatic contact with Belarus [Charter 97 report]. Poland also denounced the verdict [Warsaw Business Journal report], calling for Bialiatski ‘s immediate release. The sentence has also been condemned by the US embassy in Minsk [AP report], the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) [official website; press release], 47 Belarusian NGOs [press release], Human Rights Watch [advocacy website; press release], Amnesty International [advocacy website; press release] and the European Union [official website; press release, PDF].
Belarus has been under increasing criticism for what many see as a rapid decline of human rights in the Eastern European nation. In September, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay [official profile] suggested a need for UN intervention in Belarus [JURIST report] and demanded the nation free non-violent political prisoners. Her report also cited Belarus as the only European nation to still enforce the death penalty. Ambassador Mikhail Khvostov said his country disagrees with the UN on what constitutes a peaceful demonstration and that Belarus is committed to human rights. The month before, members of the Belarus Parliament introduced a bill that would ban so-called “silent protests” [JURIST report], including those involving large groups of people basically doing nothing. Nonetheless, silent protests continue [RT report], largely in defiance of President Alexander Lukashenko [BBC profile; JURIST news archive]. Earlier this year, Belarus’ Minsk City Court delivered suspended sentences for two former presidential candidates, Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu and Vital Rymasheuski, convicted of organizing protests following the re-election [JURIST reports] of Lukashenko. The two-year suspended sentences were handed down days after former presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau [Free Belarus Now profile] was sentenced to five years [JURIST report]. Hundreds of activists were arrested after protesting Lukashenko’s 2006 presidential win, including opposition candidate Alexander Milinkevich [JURIST reports]. While Lukashenko has since sought to improve his country’s ties with western nations, the US State Department has historically criticized Belarus’ human rights record [JURIST report]. The UN General Assembly Third Committee and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights [JURIST reports] have similarly denounced Belarus for human rights abuses.