Supreme Economic Court reinstates enormous penalties against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.
Human rights group may be forced to close; leaders may face criminal charges.
Minsk, Vienna, 22 December 2005. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights (IHF) and the Belarusian Helsinki Committee (BHC) are extremely concerned by the 20 December 2005 ruling of the Supreme Economic Court (SEC), which, in a reversal of its earlier ruling, reinstated enormous sanctions against the BHC that were first introduced by tax authorities almost two years ago. The SEC Presidium ordered the human rights group to pay around $75,000 in back taxes and fines.
In early 2004, the Taxes and Dues Ministry Inspection of the Maskouski district of Minsk ordered the BHC to pay 155 million rubles in allegedly unpaid taxes and penalties on grants received from the European Union TACIS Programme. The State Control Committee’s Department for Financial Investigations brought tax evasion charges against BHC officials in connection with the case.
The Minsk City Economic Court annulled the penalties in July 2004, explaining that technical aid in the framework of the TACIS Programme was non-taxable under an agreement between the Belarusian government and the European Union. The tax authorities lost a series of appeals against this final ruling.
However, despite the fact that this matter is res judicata, the SEC First Deputy Chair Eugene Smirnov contested this ruling, prompting a rehearing of the case by the SEC Presidium, and obtained reinstatement of the sanctions against the BHC.
The IHF and the BHC protest against the new, obviously politically motivated, SEC decision, which creates obstacles to BHC efforts to monitor the ongoing presidential campaign and other issues, and paves the way for closing down the last remaining national human rights organization. Moreover the new SEC ruling opens opportunities for the criminal prosecution of BHC officials who may face up to seven years in prison and confiscation of property.
The IHF and the BHC will continue to defend human rights in Belarus, and appeal to the SEC to revise the Presidium’s ruling.
We appeal to the international community to help convince Belarusian authorities to protect the rights of the Helsinki Committee and other civil society organizations.
For further information:
IHF Executive Director, Aaron Rhodes, +43–1–408 88 22 or +43–676–635 66 12
Dzmitry Markusheuski, Press Officer, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, +375–29–709 5702