Valiantsin Stefanovich: investigation fails to prove guilt in trade union case
The criminal case of trade unions is, above all, an echo of the global problems related to NGOs’ access to funds, says human rights activist Valiantsin Stefanovich, who has been observing the trial of REP leaders Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik. He has analyzed in detail the first phase of the trial, emphasizing the objectives pursued by the investigators.
Belarusian NGOs faced problems accessing funds, including foreign aid, in the early 2000s, when the government adopted legislation to regulate the receipt and use of foreign assistance to non-governmental organizations, which considerably limited this possibility.
Global challenge — access to funds
“It is obvious that in this way the government wants to deprive non-governmental organizations, including independent trade unions, of access to funds, both in the country and from abroad,” says Stefanovich. “It is quite natural for non-profit organizations to carry out their activities through the financial assistance they receive, as well as through membership fees.”
Belarus has one of the most repressive laws in the field of foreign aid, together with Azerbaijan and Russia.
“The trade unions case arose directly from the essence of this issue,” Stefanovich believes. “As long as Belarus has this law, there will be more criminal cases of NGOs accused of receiving such assistance. With this legislation in place, it is virtually impossible to receive foreign aid and use it for the purposes for which it is given. I admit that some social NGOs can have access to foreign aid, but human rights organizations and trade unions are actually deprived of such a possibility.
Meanwhile, standards of freedom of association formulated by the UN Human Rights Committee, and it was once again emphasized by the UN HRC during the trial in the case of Ales Bialiatski, stand for the possibility of free access to obtaining financing, including foreign aid. It is an integral part of freedom of association. Accordingly, the positive obligation of the state is to create favorable conditions for the work of NGOs, including the possibility of obtaining such funding and access to it, instead of limiting these means. The government itself is actively using foreign aid, including from the European Union, while non-governmental organizations do not have such opportunities.”
Valiantsin Stefanovich says there are a few aspects of the trial of the independent trade unions, which are already clearly seen based on independent observation.
1. Creating obstacles to the activities of REP
“It is clear that the trial demonstrated several objectives pursued by the government. First of all, it is the creation of obstacles to the activities of REP in general. No matter what the outcome of the trial is and which verdict the court will choose, whether Fiadynich and Komlik will be imprisoned or not: it is obvious that all these penalties for allegedly concealed income, as well as fines for late payment of taxes — all this will burden the REP trade union, which would entail negative consequences, including complications of its activities or, at worst, the dissolution of the organization,” says the human rights activist.
2. Smear campaign against the trade union leaders
The second objective of the investigation, which was evident during the hearings, is to discredit the union leaders.
“In fact, the case file contains hundreds of anonymous documents, which have nothing to do with the charges. It is not clear who authored them, it is impossible to identify these people and question them, but these papers form a negative background to indicate that the trade union leaders not only received foreign aid, but also allegedly misused it, roughly speaking, pocketed the cash,” says the human rights activist. “This approach is not new. Let me remind you that when Bialiatski was on trial, there were a number of publications alleging that he stole the money. It was published in Sovetskaya Belorussia [largest government-owned daily newspaper in Belarus – Ed.], and then these lampoons were reprinted by each and every district newspaper of Belarus. TV channels aired reports accusing Bialiatski of driving luxury cars and living in expensive houses, even though he owned none of this. Today, all this is repeated.”
3. Pressure on Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik
The third objective of the authorities is exerting pressure on the REP leaders themselves.
The human rights community and the Human Rights Center "Viasna" have always assessed the case as politically motivated. We issued a statement calling to the immediately drop the criminal charges against Komlik and Fiadynich.
About the flaws of the evidence
Valiantsin Stefanovich points out several important aspects relating to the evidence collected by the investigation. In fact, the main piece of evidence, which suggested the amount of the tax base, and which allegedly testified to the bank account activity, was obtained as a result of obscure and mysterious procedures.
“We heard a witness, an employee of the financial police Siarhei Dzmitryieu, who said that the bank printout was received through ‘fieldwork’, but no information about an account in the Lithuanian SEB Bank was ever officially provided. It is certain. The same applies to the mailbox, where they allegedly found documents, including bank papers. The investigation failed to prove that it belonged to Komlik or Fiadynich. A witness interrogation protocol clearly says that it was not possible to establish the access point of incoming and outgoing mail,” says Stefanovich.
“We can assume a variety of manipulations with such evidence, as the testimony of witnesses is in no way related to the year of 2011, the period when the alleged offenses took place. Meanwhile, there are no other documents about the account and the cash flow. There were, however, some grant applications on disks or flash drives, but this is just a declaration of intent... Moreover, the court voiced a document saying that one of the proposals was rejected, which means that not every application submitted by Fiadynich was eventually granted. The investigation did establish that Fiadynich and Komlik were actively seeking funding for the trade union’s activities, but there is no confirmation that they finally found these funds.”
Testimony of the numerous witnesses relating to other periods, e.g. 2015-2016, is not related to the period of 2011, which is the basis for the charges.
“Even if you do not take into account the fact that many witnesses complained about pressure exerted by the investigators, that they were threatened with negative consequences, and when in court they withdrew their testimony, all it has nothing to do with the period in question, i.e. 2011. Some witnesses at the time did not work in the union. And one witness even said in court that she was a secret (and paid) informant for the State Security Committee,” says Stefanovich.
The human rights activist believes that it is too early to claim that the investigation possesses evidence of the trade union’s receipt of funds and tax evasion, because the authorities have failed to prove it. He hopes that the court will have to take this into account in making its judgment.
“If Fiadynich and Komlik are imprisoned, the human rights activists will have sufficient grounds to call them political prisoners and demand their immediate release,” says the human rights activist.