“Failed to register Viasna as a tax agent”: Why are the three human rights defenders kept behind bars for four months?
Today marks four months since Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovich and the organization’s lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich, were remanded in custody at pre-trial prison No. 1 in Minsk. On the morning of July 14, their homes, together with the apartments of a dozen other members of Viasna, were raided by officers of the Department for Financial Investigation. Since then, the three human rights defenders have been held behind bars on charges of “tax evasion” (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Criminal Code). Below is an explainer of what the human rights defenders are accused of, who is prosecuting them and why the persecution of our colleagues is politically motivated.
Failed to register Viasna – evaded paying taxes
According to the prosecution, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Ales Bialiatski and Uladzimir Labkovich, together with Dzmitry Salauyou (left Belarus after a search in February) and “other unidentified persons,” after the “liquidation of the human rights organization “Viasna” in accordance with a decision by the Supreme Court of October 28, 2003, in violation of the court’s decision, led the organization and continued to carry out activities of this organization on the territory of Belarus, including by performing work (services), for which the persons who performed the work (provided services), in the period from 2013 to 2020, received from the above organization material remuneration for a total amount of at least 879,887 rubles.”
The authorities also argue that “in violation of the provisions of the Civil Code and the Tax Code, Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Labkovich, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Dzmitry Salauyou failed to register the organization they led in the prescribed manner as a legal entity, as well as a taxpayer, and did not submit the relevant information to the tax authorities, by which they concealed from the tax authorities information about the payments made to persons who performed work (provided services) on behalf of the organization and avoided registering the organization as a tax agent and fulfilling its duties.”
By doing the above, Bialiatski, Labkovich, Stefanovich and Salauyou allegedly “evaded the payment of income tax,” by “concealing the tax base for the period from 2013 to 2020 in a total amount of at least 113,428 rubles,” which “caused damage on a large scale.”
The criminal case against the four members of Viasna is reportedly handled by Major of Justice Anton Kaliaha, investigator for especially important cases of the main department for the investigation of crimes in the field of organized crime and corruption of the central office of the Investigative Committee.
Viasna deputy chairman Valiantsin Stefanovich described the charges as extremely vague, saying that he “does not understand the essence of the accusations.”
And what about the criminal case against Viasna opened in February?
On February 16, security officers raided the homes and offices of several dozen of civil society activists, including the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the Independent Trade Union REP. The searches also targeted Viasna’s local offices in Mahilioŭ, Rečyca, Mazyr and Brest. The raids were warranted by Deputy Prosecutor General as part of a criminal case under Art. 342 of the Criminal Code.
“As part of a preliminary investigation in order to establish the circumstances of the financing of the protest activities, the investigation initiated searches in the offices of the organizations that describe themselves as human rights defenders,” the Investigative Committee commented on the unprecedented nation-wide attack on civil society activists.
Office and IT equipment was seized from many human rights defenders and activists and has not been returned to this date. The case brought against the human rights defenders of Viasna under Article 342 of the Criminal Code was later combined with the new criminal case of “tax evasion”. The investigators continue to interrogate members of the organization and volunteers over their alleged involvement in the “financing of actions that grossly violated public order.” The authorities insist that the assistance rendered by the human rights defenders prompted victims to take part in the protests.
One of the interrogated human rights defenders said that the law enforcement officers view the situation as follows: “If a person takes to the streets and knows that he will be helped in the event of a possible administrative penalty, he will continue taking to the streets; thereby the human rights defenders encouraged them to take action.”
“They also said that for extra money he might even take a stone in his hand. That is, for them, helping with payments equals funding the protests,” the activists said after the interrogation.
The Board of the Human Rights Center “Viasna” made a statement to condemn the criminal case:
“In the current situation of acute human rights crisis, the activities of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" are aimed at helping victims of political repression and pervasive human rights violations. To this end, we actively cooperate with international human rights mechanisms, including within international organizations, the OSCE and the United Nations among others.
We consider the criminal prosecution of the Human Rights Center "Viasna" as another act of repression in connection with our human rights activities. The persecution is orchestrated by the current authoritarian political regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka against the background of unprecedented nationwide repression.”
On November 3, in Homieĺ, Viasna human rights defender Leanid Sudalenka and volunteer Tatsiana Lasitsa were sentenced to three and two and a half years in prison, respectively, for helping victims of political repression to pay fines, court fees and cover the work of lawyers.
“Everyone understands the essence of the claims against Viasna: Human rights defenders have never been silent when human rights were violated”
Pavel Sapelka, a lawyer at Viasna, whose apartment was also searched on February 16, commented on the case against the Viasna members:
“18 years ago, the Belarusian authorities threw the human rights defenders of Viasna into a dilemma: either continue their human rights activities or violate the undemocratic repressive law, as the decision of the Supreme Court of October 28, 2003, groundlessly deprived the Human Rights Center “Viasna” of state registration.
The UN Human Rights Committee condemned the liquidation of Viasna as a violation of art. 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (freedom of association). This decision has not been implemented by the government. In 2007-2009, members of Viasna were denied re-registration three times.
When in 2011 the chairman of Viasna, Ales Bialiatski, was sentenced to imprisonment, the UN HRC reiterated that the state had violated article 22 of the Covenant. The HRC also insisted on Viasna’s re-registration and called to bring the legislation on associations in line with article 22 of the Covenant.
The current claims of the authorities are just a consequence of their own violations of rights and freedoms in relation to Viasna and its members.
In February of this year, the authorities launched an attack on members of human rights and other civil society organizations and journalists, and in March, we learned about the existence of a separate criminal case against Viasna members – under parts 1 and 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code. Now it is combined with the criminal case carrying economic charges for our colleagues.
Back in the fall of 2020, the authorities launched a campaign to discredit our organization, when they arbitrarily, on far-fetched grounds, imprisoned Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapiuk and charged them with ridiculous charges of “financing protests”, “inciting hatred” and “participation in a criminal organization” (Marfa) and “participation in mass riots” (Andrei).
This is not the first attempt to hide the political motive behind the persecution of human rights defenders. But everyone understands the essence of the claims against Viasna: human rights activists have never been silent when human rights were violated and freedoms were suppressed.”
HRC "Viasna", as well as our colleagues - human rights activists in the country and abroad - pursues exclusively legal aims and carries out peaceful activity in defense of human rights and basic freedoms in Belarus, guaranteed both by the Constitution and international norms in the field of human rights.