One arrest signals a dark time for Belarusian civil society
Belarus is referred to as the last dictatorship in Europe and its human rights situation has long been dire, yet the arrest of one man has signalled even darker times ahead for local civil society.
On 4 August 2011, Aliaksandr (Ales) Bialiatski, a prominent human rights defender in Belarus, was detained and his house searched. Later charged with tax fraud and still languishing in jail, Bialiatski’s arrest came after months of harassment and a crackdown on civil society in the country. This crackdown followed protests against what were viewed as fraudulent presidential elections last December that saw Aliaksandr Lukashenka, president of Belarus since 1994, remain in power. Yet, while the initial protests resulted in over 700 arrests, Bialiatski’s detention and subsequent charge of tax fraud has struck a particularly hard blow to Belarusian civil society, one tainted by betrayal and fear.
In order to understand the current situation in Belarus and why this single arrest had such an impact on Belarusian civil society, Jessica Hume, CIVICUS Communications Manager, spoke with Konstantin Baranov of the Committee for International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus to get his thoughts.
Who is Ales Bialiatski and why is he an important figure in Belarus?
Ales is one of the most prominent human rights defenders and civil society activists in the country. He is head of the largest and most well-known human rights non-government organisation (NGO) in Belarus: Human Rights Centre Viasna. If we translate this, it means ‘spring’ because it was founded in the spring of 1996 in an attempt to help political prisoners who were detained and convicted that same year because of their participation in protests. Now, Ales is also the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and well-known at the international level.
After the December protest action following the presidential elections when over 700 activists were detained and many arrested and convicted, Viasna was one of the most active organisations in assisting the prisoners and their families. They received donations from abroad and were paying for lawyers as well as helping families who were left without income because the father, who was very often the only income earner, was convicted.
Was Ales targeted because of his work helping these political prisoners?
Yes, most probably, but this is not the first attempt to hamper the work of Viasna. The organisation is not registered officially under Belarusian legislation – it used to be, but was officially dissolved in 2003. Since then, they have tried to appeal against this decision, to register another NGO, and have appealed to the UN Human Rights Committee. The Committee concluded that their dissolution was unlawful and contradicted the international human rights obligations that Belarus had undertaken, but this decision has not impacted the situation of Viasna.
Viasna now constantly faces pressure and harassment. In late December of last year after the protests and in January as well, Viasna’s offices were searched several times and the staff members interrogated by law enforcement officials because they were also suspected of being involved in organising the protests.In February, Ales received an official warning from the General Prosecutor’s Office for acting on behalf of an unregistered NGO – which is a crime under Belarusian legislation. Ales tried to appeal against this warning, but the courts stated that it was lawful.
Is he now charged for acting on behalf of an unregistered NGO?
No, it’s a different charge now. They could have arrested him on those grounds but they have not done this , presumably because it would have obviously been a political charge. Instead he’s accused of tax evasion in large sums.The facts are that Ales had a bank account in Lithuania. This bank account was used to receive money for Viasna which, being unregistered, cannot receive any money inside the country. Receiving foreign funds in Belarus is very problematic even for registered NGOs. So it was Ales’ personal account, but all the money was used for his human rights work.
In April, the Lithuanian Minister of Justice provided information about the accounts of a number of individuals – we don’t know the full list of names, but Ales was obviously one of them – after an official request from the Belarusian authorities. Belarus officials used this information to launch a tax evasion investigation against Ales. They considered the money in his Lithuanian account to be his personal income which was not declared to the tax authorities and on which he had not paid any income tax.
Obviously this is very serious for Ales and Viasna, but why is this arrest such a blow to Belarusian civil society?
Many NGOs use the same method of getting money from abroad. We do not know who was on the list of accounts and so we do not know who can potentially be targeted next.Even more than this though, the fact that Lithuanian authorities agreed to provide this data to the Belarusian authorities was a very unexpected stab in the back. Lithuania was considered to be a safe haven for Belarusian civil society. Some groups have parallel organisations registered in Lithuania as well as bank accounts and the Belarusian Human Rights House in exile is also in Lithuania. It was the closest neighbour.
But now it is no longer safe and there is a sense of desperation. Belarusian civil society groups do not know if they can continue operating as they did or if they need to transfer everything out of Lithuania. It’s very unstable. Even during the worst period back in December and January when offices were being searched and people interrogated, they knew they would have this support from abroad – international organisations and national governments like Poland or the Czech Republic. But now, after the arrest of Ales, information has leaked out that the Polish authorities also shared information with the Belarusian authorities under the same procedure about the bank accounts of Ales and some 16 other individuals.
The saddest part of this story is that this blow did not come from countries that support Lukashenka’s regime. Instead it came from those who have supported Belarusian civil society and opposition for many years in ways that were not in line with Belarus’ national legislation yet were careless enough to disclose this sensitive information to the Belarusian authorities. They should have been very aware of the risks to Belarusian human rights defenders and civil society activists, in terms of personal liberty and security, who took advantage of their support. Lithuania, Poland and other states that supported Belarusian civil society without ensuring adequate protection measures and failed to press the Belarusian authorities to align their legislation with international standards on freedom of association also share responsibility for Ales’ arrest. The officials of these countries now try to explain and apologise, but it does not stop the criminal proceedings against Ales or prevent similar cases against other activists whose data may also have been disclosed.
These seem like very dark days for civil society in Belarus. Do they receive any support from the broader Belarusian public?
This is difficult to say. The majority of the population used to be quite okay with the authoritarian regime because it provided some level of social stability. There were also defamation campaigns against civil society by the regime to present them to the people as enemies. Therefore, for the silent majority, NGOs weren’t very attractive.
Now, however, since the economic crisis in the country broke out, this situation has started to change. Those who are protesting in the street are not just the usual activists but ordinary citizens who feel the situation is not alright anymore. These protestors are beaten, detained by the police and fined. It’s the human rights NGOs who help them, and this is raising the level of public support and trust for NGOs. I do not know whether it is the majority who now see NGOs more positively, but the situation has certainly improved.
Belarus is often referred to as the last dictatorship of Europe and with these types of situations it’s easy to understand why. What does the international community need to do to address this situation?
Since December there were numerous statements condemning the current situation in the country but what is seen in the actual policies and actions is quite different. Despite all the political declarations, many European Union companies continue to invest in Belarus. Just a week or two ago, we got news that Deutsche Bank gave money to a big investment project in Belarus and it’s not the only case. Despite the official sanctions imposed by the EU, these projects continue and nobody cares about it. If this continues, Lukashenka will be able to stabilise the economic and social situation and then there will be no leverage to make him change anything in the political system or to grant more rights and freedoms to the Belarusian people. So these problems need to be seriously considered by intergovernmental organisations.
How important is the release of Ales Bialiatski to improving the situation in Belarus?
Ales has been denied bail and will remain in custody for at least another two months. Of course his release, and the release of other political prisoners, is important but we can’t forget the need to demand systemic changes in the legislation and the law-enforcement practice of Belarus.
Lukashenka recently pardoned and released nine individuals convicted for the protests in December. By focusing our demands only on the release of political prisoners, we lend support to Lukashenka’s attempt to make them a bargaining tool. For example, he releases these nine and then says ‘I’ve met your demands, repeal the sanctions’.
We, as the Committee on International Control, are convinced that there is a real need to look beyond those symptoms of illness in Belarus and demand systemic changes and respect for the human rights commitments made by the authorities. We also look to improve coordination efforts between all the stakeholders – intergovernmental bodies, national governments and civil society organisations – as the way to bring about positive change in the country. Obviously, this is not an easy task and will require much expertise and considered systemic work by all actors. We encourage other NGOs, concerned by the human rights situation in Belarus, to engage in this work either by joining our Committee or by supporting their Belarusian colleagues in other ways.
The Committee on International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus is a coalition of civil society organisations established to assist civil society colleagues deal with the situation in Belarus following the December presidential elections CIVICUS has supported the work of the Committee’s International Observation Mission in Minsk through its Crisis Response Fund. For more information on Ales Bialiatski and the situation in Belarus visit the website for the Committee for International Control over the Human Rights Situation in Belarus at hrwatch-by.org/en.