Last statement by Ales Bialiatski at the trial on 23 November 2011
Last statement by Ales Bialiatski at the trial on 23 November 2011
“I agree with every word the counsel said. I think
that the arguments he has presented have a sufficient legal basis and
sufficient grounds for their serious treatment. At the same time, I’m in a
rather complicated situation, as I understand perfectly well that this case
from beginning to end has a political subtext, and the lawyer’s speech and my
last statement, unfortunately, are a voice crying in the wilderness, finding it
extremely difficult to reach anyone. And now I feel like the one who cries in
the wilderness, trying to reach the sun. Still, I have something to say.”
On the political context of prosecution for human rights activities
“Let’s start with the fact that just before I found myself in prison, a friend of mine gave me a book about the old Soviet KGB’s opposition to human rights defenders in the Soviet Union. The book was written in the 1980s. It was quite interesting, because so much of what is described there is in common with what has been happening in Belarus in recent years. And I could define the main challenges the security forces faced then. First is to discredit human rights defenders, to declare them parasites, as was in the case with the poet Joseph Brodsky. Or to cast dirt at them, to show their dependence, as was in the case with Andrey Sakharov. Or to charge them with financial fraud, as was in the case of the writer Vasily Aksenov. Or just to make them insane, as it was in the case of the Belarusian human rights activist Mikhail Kukabaka, who was kept in a “madhouse” for six years for having disseminated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Belarus. Forty years have passed – and, strange but true, the situation is repeated. These last three and a half months, I have felt as if I was back in the Soviet Union. As if the reincarnation of all that was before has happened on some other level.
When my house in Rakau was searched on 17 January, we were driving with the KGB agents (young guys of 35), it took us about an hour, and I tried to talk to them. I asked them: “Why do you keep using the old methods – blackmail, recruiting people, conducting searches? Do not you have enough information that is on the Internet, what we are talking about? Because we as human rights defenders are rather open. Just go to the website of “Viasna” (the honourable prosecutor confirmed this), there is plenty of information about our activities – what we do, what our goals and methods are like. During the year alone, I gave four big interviews, dozens of comments in the media, including the Internet, which makes up a fairly complete picture. Analyze – and you’ll know what human rights defenders do.” Well, they were troubled, and said that the old methods were also good, so they kept working as they had been taught. Well, I do not believe that the KGB and other public services that were interested and are interested in the activities of “Viasna” do not know what “Viasna” and I in particular as the chairman of the organization are doing. If they do see human rights defenders, “Viasna” in particular, as a channel of transporting funds for financing “radical opposition” in Belarus, as General Viahera wrote in his letter ... I just wonder where they found the radical opposition in Belarus, let them show it! In this case I think it is their omission, their incompetence, and part of a series of horror tales we heard in 2006, when the chairman of the KGB Sukharenka told about the radical opposition that was going to poison Minsk water supplies with water infused on dead rats. I believe that the KGB knows and understands what human rights defenders in Belarus are actually doing, and I in particular, and are consciously and deliberately working against human rights defenders, using any methods for their prosecution. This harassment is well organized within the well ranked regime.
And just look: in 1998-1999 was the first re-registration of NGOs, when hundreds of organizations were not registered, including “Viasna 96”, and it was the “merit” of the Ministry of Justice. The civil society, which only started getting to its feet in the 1990s, finding its shape and structure – it felt strong pressure from the state. And it was then that charitable foundations were thrown out of Belarus and the opportunities to finance legal non-governmental organizations were sharply restricted. It was also the merit of the presidential administration. In 2003-2004, a whole campaign to shut down non-governmental organizations was launched: about 400 organizations were eliminated, including the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and several human rights organizations. And, despite the fact that in 2007 the UN Human Rights Committee ruled to renew the registration of “Viasna”, it was ignored. And it was orchestrated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice. Further attempts to register were also rejected – the Ministry of Justice again did not see any need for the existence of human rights organizations in Belarus. And in the year of 2006 Article 193-1 was introduced – a criminal article, which was meant to prosecute unregistered organizations, which is absolute nonsense, because this is not to be found anywhere else in the world. None of the post-Soviet countries has criminal prosecution for activities on behalf of an unregistered organization [says that, looking at the Judge - Ed.]. Let me remind you that these changes in the criminal law were presented by the Chairman of the Committee for State Security. By the way, just a couple of weeks ago, the Venice Commission ruled that these changes in the Criminal Code of Belarus did not comply with its international agreements [hearing these words, the Judge, either with interest, or in surprise raises his eyebrows, as if hearing it for the first time - Ed.], ratified by Belarus, which deal with civil and political rights. The year of 2011 was special, when a large-scale campaign of hunting against the Human Rights Center “Viasna” and me as its chairman was organized. They also wanted to jail Valiantsin Stefanovich, but it did not work out.
All this, of course, is the political context of persecution for my human rights activities.
On the authorities’ treatment of human rights defenders
It’s no secret that Belarus has an authoritarian government that sees no place for human rights defenders in the country. Denials of registration of human rights organizations are connected with this fact only. A lot of my friends and colleagues were thrown out of official places of work over the years, they are prosecuted administratively or otherwise. Unfortunately, the government does not tolerate competition – it harasses political opponents and restricts civil and political rights and freedoms: the right to peaceful assembly, meetings, association, receiving and disseminating information, free and fair elections. The authorities do not allow the developing of the civil society, but destroy it. The people’s will has been paralyzed in recent years. And people, most of whom are restricted by employment contracts, live under pressure and fear. The authorities do not tolerate criticism – they harass journalists and human rights defenders. And the recent trials – over Andrzej Poczobut and me – are another proof of that. These trials belong to the same case, although they have seemingly formally different sources. And I see the main conflict and intrigue in that all these actions of the government in no way correspond to the Constitution or the international agreements signed by the State of Belarus, being independent and taking care of the inherited obligations the Soviet Union had undertaken. Both I and my colleagues have spoken about this, we are speaking about that and will speak, because it is the truth.
I remind you that Article 36 of the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus guarantees the right to freedom of association, which has been violated; Article 34 guarantees the right to receive and disseminate information; Article 33 – freedom of opinion, belief and expression; Article 59 requires that the state bodies within their competence took the necessary measures to implement the rights and freedoms of individuals. Article 21 says that the State guarantees the rights and freedoms of citizens enshrined in the Constitution, the laws and the State’s international obligations. These international commitments – the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, its Article 19, which says that everyone has the right to freedom of beliefs, freedom of expression, freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media. Article 20 states that everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. Articles 19 and 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which Belarus has signed and is bound to follow) say nearly the same. There is a treaty that I mentioned earlier – the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, which relates directly to the work of human rights defenders and which states that everyone has the right to individually or jointly with others promote and strive to protect and implement human rights and fundamental freedoms. That is, to hold peaceful meetings and gatherings, to create non-governmental organizations, associations, groups, join and participate in their activities. I have the right to possess, seek, obtain, receive, have at my disposal any information about all human rights. I have the right to freely publish, transmit, disseminate opinions, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms. I have the right to have effective access to participation in the country’s government by granting the right to submit to the governmental bodies and agencies comments and suggestions for improving their functioning, to draw attention to any aspect of their work. I have the right to offer and provide professionally qualified legal assistance for the protection of human rights. I have the right to unimpeded access to international bodies with competence to receive and consider communications on matters of human rights. Everyone has the right to participate in peaceful activities against violations of human rights. Paragraph 13 indicates that everyone has the right, individually and jointly, to seek, receive and make use of resources for the promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.
So why did you sign the Declaration? I’m talking to you as a state official, who represents the State [saying this to prosecutor Saikouski - Ed.]. You should not have signed it! Leave the UN, leave the OSCE! Everything will be okay then, it will be clear where we all are. According to the obligations undertaken in the OSCE, Belarus was expected to respect the rights of its citizens, individually or jointly with others to make an active contribution to the protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms and take necessary steps to ensure these rights. These are the Vienna and Madrid meetings on issues related to European security. According to the Copenhagen Conference on the Human Dimension, the OSCE members agreed to provide various possibilities to human rights defenders and civil society to participate in the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms. It is obvious that the government violates these rights. It is clear that trials such as that I am standing now are political in nature.
The authorities’ treatment towards human rights activists in various countries are without exception a litmus test by which you can fairly accurately determine the level of democracy in the society. And as a rule, authoritarian regimes are displeased with the work of human rights defenders. Belarus is no exception to this. There are some former Soviet countries like Uzbekistan, where dozens of human rights defenders are in jail, convicted on charges that look much worse than mine. They plant two bullets or five grams of drugs – and jail them for ten years. Eight people from a Uzbek organization, a member of the International Federation for Human Rights, Vice-President of which I am, are now in custody. In Russia there is the North Caucasus, where human rights defenders are simply murdered. For example, our friend Natallya Yestemirova was shot in Chechnya. There is Kyrgyzstan, where human rights defenders are persecuted by unidentified militant groups. And there is Belarus, with the “believability” of the prosecution. Therefore, I declare that these charges of some sort of financial irregularities, violations of tax laws are a nonsense, and my case is not customary and ordinary. Because otherwise it would not be presented by head of a department of the City Prosecutor's Office. And the investigative team would not consist of four officers of the Department of Financial Investigations, which were, by the way, very uncomfortable while investigating the case, and it was evident that they did not care about the case. There also would not be such a buzz around the courthouse, which we can observe during the entire trial. There would be no traffic police car, which accompanies me every time I an transported from the prison in Valadarski Street. When I leave, all those taken to court are laughing, saying that once again they are transported with a light bar!
On the campaign in the official media
It must be separately said about the official media, which also pay much attention to this trial and directly to me. The Belarus Segodnya (“Belarus Today”), the official state newspaper, which is published with the means of all taxpayers, said on August 6: “Officers specializing in financial investigations have long had information that Mr. Bialiatski confidently and independently administered large financial resources. They talk about millions of Euros. It is possible that it turns out that today’s ardent human rights defenders received good personal dividends from this fight.” Information of 10 August: “Bialiatski has large amounts on account in Vilnius, which he transports to Minsk, most likely through bank cards. Bialiatski is officially unemployed, with no formal source of income. Officially, Bialiatski has neither house nor home ... He has a reserve of a good plot in a beautiful town, too”. This land is a river meadow, where nothing can be built because it is protected as a natural resource, and is right near my house. It’s where my neighbour’s horse grazes, and you can also play volleyball there – that’s all the amenities of this land. Publication of November 17: “He needs to explain how it was possible to buy so much expensive real estate and how it relates to human rights activities.” And what this “expensive real estate” is like we can listen on Belarusian television. The “Belarus 1” Channel reports: “A Citroen for eight thousand dollars”, which is really worth 2,300 Euros, plus tax, this is 3,000 Euros, and was battered when it was bought. “Redecoration of apartments for 60 thousand dollars”. What is this flat, which needs that much money to be spent on? The apartment in which my wife and I live is 61 square meters. “Resting annually abroad, going to expensive restaurants” – it’s all told by the official media. I can not but regard this information as a direct pressure on the court and the decision in this case, which once again emphasizes that this case has a political context.
On the Human Rights Center “Viasna”
During this trial, much has been spoken about the Human Rights Center “Viasna”. I am glad about it and I would like to add a little about this organization, because without understanding the human rights situation in Belarus, without understanding the context in which we work, the High Court might not understand the motives and episodes of the activities which were considered during the trial . The Charter of “Viasna” (which does not work, because the organization is closed) states that in its activities it is guided by the Constitution of the Republic of Belarus and the international treaties ratified by the Republic of Belarus. In fact, it is still true. And, as we can see, the international agreements that have been signed Belarus, allow any citizen to carry out human rights obligations and be a human rights defender. And, calling oneself a human rights activist, a person must be a human rights activist, must carry out human rights obligations. We are working in these legal limits.
It is15 years since the Human Rights Center “Viasna” has been active, which works in very difficult conditions, especially after 2006. I remind you that the organization was founded in the spring of 1996, registered in February of 1998 as a municipal organization, then in June of 1999 – as a nation-wide organization. And the activities that “Viasna” is involved in, its main focus – it is monitoring the implementation by the Belarusian authorities of Constitutional and international commitments on human rights and freedoms. This includes a variety of activities – monitoring the law and in practice (how this legislation, these rights and freedoms are implemented in Belarus). And, of course, one of the main objectives of what we have done during all those years was to help the victims of political repressions. The first political prisoners appeared in 1996; in fact it served as the impetus for the creation of the HRC “Viasna”. During this time we have helped thousands of people. Thousands! Sometimes it was a small help, sometimes a bigger one. It’s all kinds of help – collecting information and dissemination of information. And this is the work that no other organization has done. We are also engaged in education and awareness-raising, including through joint projects with other human rights organizations. This is the creation of the Belarusian Human Rights House in Vilnius, and work on education in particular among young people, and analytical work on writing reports on the human rights situation, the situation with the conditions in detention centers (I now have a lot of new information and I think that these reports will be resumed someday), and observation.
The liquidation of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” in 2003 is related to the conduct of election observation in 2001. However, since 2004 the Human Rights Center “Viasna” has been a member of the International Federation for Human Rights. Since 2007, I have been vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights – and this is evidence of the effectiveness of human rights defenders’ work in “Viasna” and the Belarusian human rights defenders in general. We have a fairly good reputation. And all the awards and titles, which are listed here, it is not the personal merit of Bialiatski or “Viasna”. This confirms the dramatic situation of human rights in the country; the international community in this way draws the attention of the Belarusian government to that something needs to be changed. The Belarusian government is taking any other decision, and we can see how – through this trial – responding to such comments.
We tried to register three times: in 2007 and twice in 2009. Each time the registration process for us is a rather complicated procedure. This includes the preparation of the Charter, the arrival of people, when at least 60 people they should arrive from the regions. During the last registration the constituent assembly was attended by more than 80 people (you can figure out that the travel expenses of these people alone are about a thousand dollars), the rent of premises is a separate issue. We’re gathering, conducting the meeting. The Ministry of Justice reads the papers: “Well, you have mistakes. That is inaccurate, one of your founders indicates that he is an emplyee of a secondary school, while it was necessary to specify – a secondary education school; another one wrote that he was head of a club, while he had to write that he was head of a section, because that’s what the staff papers say ... “And this is the reason! The Supreme Court agrees – there is a formal ground. If we ask the Ministry of Justice to give us time to fix these comments, the Ministry says: “but we have no such rights, we reserve the right not to give any time.” This is the attitude of the Belarusian State to the situation with the registration of NGOs.
In all these years, especially the last ones, we have been carrying out civil campaigns – these are a campaign against the death penalty, and a campaign “Stop 193-1”, in which we participated along with other human rights organizations, and the campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”. We observed the elections in 2008 and 2010. We prepared reports, speeches, surveys, participated in international conferences. Separately, the international activities of the HRC “Viasna” should be noted. We have participated in human rights missions to study the human rights situation in other countries. We have repeatedly taken part in the international observation of elections, our members have significant experience in election procedures, they know how elections are conducted in other countries – Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Russia and European countries. We have participated in conferences organized by the OSCE, the Council of Europe, the European Union, the United Nations, as well as various forums and festivals, where, I believe, we quite worthily represented Belarus. And the meaning of human rights in this situation, when the reputation of Belarus abroad, in civilized countries, is extremely poor, is sufficiently large. Because we show that in Belarus there are normal people, people who understand what human rights are, what democracy is. In the future, I do not think anyone can say that in these difficult times nothing was done in Belarus. I believe that we are largely saving the today’s honour of the Belarusians and will continue to do so in any situation, no matter where we are – at liberty or in prison.
On the year of 2010 as the year of “hunting” for “Viasna”
It can be assumed that the during the entire year of 2010 illegal secret tracking of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” was carried out. This is evidenced by the so-called documents presented by the KGB, which formed the basis of inspection of my activities and those of Stefanovich. It also concerns the previous years. This is confirmed by the work of the Human Rights Houses. We have at least a few confessions that intelligence services sent young people, students, who then admitted that they reported on the work of the human rights training school arranged by us. And who knows, what conclusions were made by the KGB, but such facts did occur.
And the anonymous documents that appeared at the beginning of this investigation looked like obtained at the beginning of 2010. This is evidenced by the date of the documents, the end of 2009 - beginning of 2010. However, they were used only in late October of 2010. Why? I, of course, connect this to the election. Because of the announcement of the presidential election in September 2010, and we, the representatives of various human rights organizations, announced a campaign “Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections”. The campaign’s objectives were to monitor all stages of the election as to their compliance with the international electoral standards and domestic electoral legislation. An open press conference was held, which sufficiently detailed the structure of this observation, it was told how many people would participate, how this observation would look like. We were very frank – there were infinite interviews, commentaries, and plenty of information about what our observers saw during the election. I must say that a unique situation was created then, because the Central Election Commission and territorial electoral commission responded to our information. We have dozens of confirmations of this response. They corrected the shortcomings that were reported by our observers. But, nevertheless, I think it was the human rights activities that obviously caused the above-mentioned inspection,as well as that of November 3, 2010, and this was amidst our campaign and at the height of our observation, when there appeared a letter by Major-General Viahera to Shved. And I’m going to cite this correspondence, it is quite interesting.
In this letter, deputy chairman of the KGB addressed Deputy Prosecutor General Shved concerning “an anonymous statement ... to finance the radical opposition representatives of the unregistered organization HRC “Viasna” have been using funds coming from abroad ... they are used for illegal purposes, as well as for the personal needs of Bialiatski and Stefanovich ...” There was a request to issue an international investigative commission and send it to the competent authorities of Lithuania to verify this information. In turn, on 15 November, 2010 Deputy Prosecutor General Shved addressed deputy chair of the State Control Committee Viaromka, having redirected the appeal by the State Security Committee, with a request “to initiate an inspection against the leaders of the HRC “Viasna” in cooperation with the KGB.” What does “in cooperation with the KGB” mean – is still a big mystery for me. What was there – either they put us on the wiretap, or something like that – it is not clear. The events of December 19, of course, intensified the situation. I recall that during the night of 19-20 December, employees of Pershamaiski police department held an examination in my apartment, they seized 17 computers, detained 12 people involved in carrying out observation of the election. And what is curious is that no papers, no documents or information from the computers did not appear in the case, although the head of the KGB Zaitsau addressed Zianon Lomats, saying that “as a result, office equipment and documentation pertaining to the materials of the inspection carried out against the leaders of the HRC “Viasna” were seized, and the examination of the seized items will be the legalized evidence base against these persons. The office equipment is in Pershamaiski police department of Minsk. Please be informed to decide on the criminal case against the org-men of the HRC “Viasna”.
Of course, after that the situation was nervous. Of interest in this context is the following document, which clears up what happened next. 24 December 2010 – a report by chief inspector Major Kulak, which reports that “on 23.11.2010 he held a working meeting with representatives of the KGB Siniahub and Matskevich” – these are, as I suspect, the “curators” of “Viasna” – “as a results of which the directions of activities on the above-mentioned materials of the inspection were elaborated.” Hence, there was this meeting with the KGB, and then they went to the prosecutor. 25 December – “the Prosecutor's Office of Minsk hosted a working meeting with head of the department for supervision over the implementation of tax laws citizen Saikouski.” [His next question Ales Bialiatski is addressing to prosecutor Saikouski - Ed.] That would be interesting if you told what you were talking about during that meeting, [here the prosecutor gets nervous, trying with all means – gestures, looks and words – to redirect Bialiatski’s attention from himself to the court - Ed.]. Citizen Saykovsky specializes in taxes. He has Article 203 in one hand, and Article 243 in the other hand; he cuts with one, and smashes at the head with the other. With one he trims, while beats with the other. I think so. These approaches that have been used against businessmen, are now used against “Viasna”. Major Kulak writes that “during the meeting with citizen Saikouski, not offense under Article 233 was found in the actions of Bialiatski and Stefanovich because there are no facts of carrying out a business and receiving income from this activity. But it is possible to characterize their actions under Article 243 in receiving income after receiving information from a financial intelligence agency of Lithuania, and establishing the facts of a large scale non-payment of income tax on the basis of a tax audit.” In fact, on 25.11.2010 the entire pattern and all the subsequent actions of the Department of Financial Investighations, as well as the course of the investigation for all these months, were agreed upon. Because further inspection under Article 233 was carried out during this month, and Kulak’s report says that “during the work on the material the Department of Financial Monitoring is requested to provide information regarding Bialiatski, Stefanovich and their relatives, the activities by the HRC “Viasna” and financial operations, which could be related to the receipt of crime-related income pertaining to the activities carried out by the HRC “Viasna”. According to the resources, these activities have not been established. The claiming of the income and property declarations of Bialiatski and Stefanovich, as well as the validation of the data specified, are currently being conducted by the tax authorities, in collaboration with the KGB ...” Once again, the KGB collaborated with the DFI and the tax authorities. That’s why I say it once again that this case has been from beginning to end supervised by the KGB. The check under Article 233 did not get anywhere. Then, there was a check by the Ministry of Taxes and Fees. This check was continued until the reciept of data from Lithuania and Poland, which took place in April.
In parallel, I would like to speak of other acts that are evidence of persecution of human rights defenders in Belarus. On 17 January, 2011 the KGB conducted searches in all my property (in the apartments and the house in Rakau), during which they seized some papers and a laptop. Where is the information from these papers? Incidentally, there were some financial papers that might be of interest during the investigation. The KGB officers apparently decided not to present them, because they may have testified against the version officially advocated today by Mr. Saikouski. On 16 February 2011, the Prosecutor General’s Office issued a warning to me for the work on behalf of an unregistered organization. And it is impossible to explain with what it is connected, except for human rights work.
A campaign of discredit in the media was simultaneously carried out. Separately, I want to draw your attention to the material, which was published in the newspaper “Belarus Segodnya” immediately after the election, which features the same documents that were anonymously submitted by the KGB for inspection at the DFI. How could “Belarus Segodnya” receive these documents? Maybe it is a department of the KGB? Let then my dear Yakubovich (editor-in-chief of the Belarus Segodnya) put it straight – “Belarus Segodnya. The KGB’s newspaper” – and print these documents freely. However, these documents appeared in early January. There were even pictures of other documents. It is seen that the campaign of discredit of the work of human rights defenders was conducted simultanesously with the investigation.
On the charges
If you look at those “bank prints” that were presnted during the investigation, I just want to reiterate that they do not have any credibility. I believe that they are not real. And even so, in these lines there isn’t a single transfer of funds without labels or tags, and all of them indicate that there was control over the funds by the partners of “Viasna”; as they stated the purpose of these funds. It is also clear that I did not administer these funds; these funds were not meant for me but for “Viasna”. As for the acts by the tax inspection, I think they are illegal. These acts are based on false information, on a complete misunderstanding of the essence of the information by officers of the Ministry of Taxes and Fees, who drafted the acts.
Between 16 June, when the act was presented to me, and 4 August, the day of my arrest, I left Belarus and returned to the country for at least six times. Therefore, all the claims that I could escape the investigation of this case or stay abroad, are groundless. I feel completely innocent. And I believe that, on the contrary, these conditions of free entry and exit were provided to me so that I could possibly leave, and thus indirectly confirm my guilt in concealing the so-called taxes.
I have been engaged in human rights activities and general civil activities for almost all my life. It is 30 years since I started doing civil work. And the only time when I felt more or less peacefully and freely was between 1991 and 1995. With the poor situation that prevailed in the country during the last years, it is absolutely natural that the prosecution could begin at any moment, in every year. And what could have happened did happen. So I have no regrets about any of my steps taken during these 30 years of protecting democracy and human rights in Belarus. I did it deliberately.
After a recording of the hearing on November 23, 2011.