VILNIUS, 24 November 2011 - The OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis, today expressed profound dismay over the conviction of prominent Belarusian human rights defender Aliaksandr (Ales) Bialiatski.
Bialiatski, the Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights and Head of the Belarusian Human Rights Centre “Viasna”, was convicted today on tax evasion charges and sentenced to four-and-a-half years in an enhanced regime detention camp with property confiscation.
“This case must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus,” Ažubalis said.
Viasna has been repeatedly denied official registration by the Belarusian authorities following a 2003 decision by the Supreme Court ordering the dissolution of the organization. Although the UN Human Rights Committee found the closure of the organization to be in violation of Belarus’s obligations on freedom of association, all subsequent attempts by Viasna to re-register have failed.
Undue restrictions on freedom of association severely limit the work of civil society organizations in Belarus and put their members in danger of harassment by the authorities for what is in fact a legitimate exercise of their work as human rights defenders, emphasized Ažubalis.
“The actions for which Ales Bialiatski was found guilty are a direct result of undue restrictions on freedom of association in the country and his activities as a human rights defender, and it appears that the court failed to adequately consider Mr. Bialiatski’s motives,” he said.
Ažubalis repeated his call for the immediate and unconditional release of Bialiatski and other political prisoners and civil society activists: “I urge the Belarusian authorities to ensure the full implementation, both in law and in practice, of OSCE commitments on freedom of association and the protection of human rights defenders.”
The OSCE Chairperson also expressed concern over reports that the Belarusian authorities denied entry to international monitors intending to observe Bialiatski’s trial, saying that this casts doubt on the authorities’ willingness to ensure full transparency in the judicial process in this case. OSCE commitments require participating States to accept the presence of observers sent by other participating States and representatives of NGOs and other interested persons at proceedings before courts, he added.
In addition, Ažubalis called on the Belarusian authorities to rescind recently introduced provisions further limiting freedom of association by prohibiting civil society organizations from holding foreign bank accounts and by imposing additional restrictions on their activities.