“Criminal prosecution of Viasna members is not related to their work,” authorities respond to the UN request
The website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has published the official response of the Belarusian government to the request of four Special Rapporteurs on the search and detention of human rights defenders, NGO representatives, and independent media, which took place in July 2021.
The Special Rapporteurs on the situation of human rights in Belarus Anaïs Marin, on the situation of human rights defenders Mary Lawlor, on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression Irene Khan and on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association Clément Nyaletsossi Voule sent a request to the Belarusian government on September 7. The request contained a number of questions related to the detained human rights defenders and members of Viasna Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, Andrei Paluda, Siarhei Sys, Alena Laptsionak, Viktar Sazonau, Aleh Matskevich, Ales Kaputski, and Andrei Miadzvedzeu, who were detained on July 14, 2021, as well as Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna Volunteer Service, who was detained on September 17, 2020.
The Special Rapporteurs asked the government to provide information about the factual grounds for the arrest and the charges brought against the mentioned Viasna human rights defenders and to explain how this complied with Belarus' obligations under international law, including the right to contact a legal representative and family members while in custody. UN representatives insisted on explaining why Bialiatski, Stefanovich, Labkovich had not been released after the initial 72-hour period of detention.
As for Marfa Rabkova, the special rapporteurs were concerned that the human rights defender was not provided with medical assistance and wondered what standards of treatment were applied to her and all persons held in custody for 72 hours.
The government was also asked to explain what measures are being taken to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their work in Belarus in a safe environment, without threats, intimidation, or reprisals for their legitimate human rights activities.
The official response from Belarusian authorities notes that Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich were detained as part of the criminal case and charged under Parts 1 and 2 of Article 342 and Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code. A preventive measure of detention was chosen against them, they are kept in custody in appropriate conditions, and their rights, including the right to communicate with counsel, are being respected.
“The authorities ensured that defense counsel took part in the conduct of procedural actions that, under Belarusian law, must be carried out with their- participation. [...]
The criminal prosecution body has received no complaints that defense counsel were not permitted to take part in investigative actions carried out with the participation of then clients or were denied access to remand facilities for confidential interviews with clients held there.
The investigation is being conducted in accordance with the law. The criminal prosecution of the aforementioned persons is based solely on the unlawful acts they committed and is not related to their social and political views or their work to promote human rights,” the government response notes.
Official representatives of Belarus assure the Special Rapporteurs that during the investigation of the criminal case, Marfa Rabkova's procedural rights have been explained to her and those rights, including the right of defense and the right to appeal against decisions on detention and the application of preventive measures, have been upheld.
The accused and her defense counsel have twice appealed to the courts against the application of the preventive measure of remand in custody and the extension of the period of remand. At the same time, according to Article 145 (2) of the Code of Criminal Procedure, a complaint against a judge’s decision to dismiss an appeal for release may be lodged with a higher court within 24 hours of the decision. However, Ms. Rabkova did not exercise her right to appeal.
On instructions from the Office of the Procurator General, the Minsk procurator's office has carried out a check to ensure that the procedures and conditions for Ms. Rabkova's custody were being observed in pre-trial detention center No. 1. The accused is being held in a four-person cell fitted out in accordance with the internal regulations of remand centers in the penal system: she is provided with a bed, bedding, linen, tableware, and cutlery. She is afforded at least two hours of daily walks, eight hours of sleep at night, three meals a day sufficient to maintain her health and strength, in accordance with the standards set by the Government of Belarus, and the opportunity to take a shower at least once a week for not less than 15 minutes. Bed linen is changed once a week.
“No complaints have been received from Ms. Rabkova about detention procedures and conditions, including the provision of proper medical care and the granting of the right to consult defense counsel or the right to send and receive correspondence and other communications. [...]
Thus, Ms. Rabkova is suspected of committing criminal offenses in the territory of Belarus and other States that are punishable under the laws of Belarus irrespective of the professional or public activities of the person concerned. The final legal assessment of Ms. Rabkova’s actions will be given based on the results of the investigation.”
Viasna human rights defenders Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, and Uladzimir Labkovich were arrested on July 14, 2021, and have been in custody in pre-trial detention center since then.
Marfa Rabkova was arrested on September 17, 2020, and is currently charged under ten articles of the Criminal Code, she faces up to 20 years in prison.