Viasna members go on trial
The trial in the case of Viasna begins today, January 5, in the Lieninski District Court of Minsk. Defendants are facing 7 to 12 years of imprisonment. The trial is open to the public, and Viasna is following the process.
Four human rights defenders are being tried: the Viasna chairman and Nobel Peace prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovic, and the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign coordinator Uladzimir Labkovich are in the dock while Zmitser Salauyou, who had to leave Belarus, will be tried in absentia. They are charged with “smuggling by an organized group” under Part 4 Article 228 of the Criminal Code and “financing of group actions grossly violating the public order” under Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. Judge Maryna Zapasnik presides at the hearings. Three human rights defenders have been in custody since July 14, 2021.
What are human rights defenders accused of
Prosecutors claim that in the period from 2016 to 2021, foreign accounts of human rights defenders received money from various structures and foundations, which were intended to finance the “illegal” activities of the HRC Viasna and other organizations in Belarus. This money in the total amount of at least 201,000 euros and 54,000 US dollars was allegedly cashed and brought from Lithuania to Belarus in several stages without declaration.
According to the case files, between May 2020 and July 14, 2021, the defendants purposefully prepared citizens to participate in group actions that grossly violate public order. In addition, under the guise of human rights and charity activities, including on behalf of Viasna and the unregistered foundation BY_HELP, they financed such actions and provided other material support, the prosecution believes.
In particular, human rights defenders are accused of:
- paying fines for persons convicted of “administrative offenses against the public order and the public administration” and “other offenses related to protesting against the actions of public bodies”
- reimbursing expenses for paying fines to such persons
- paying bills for meals in places of administrative detention instead of some persons “who have committed the named administrative offenses”
- paying lawyers, including those who provided defense in criminal cases “associated with a gross violation of the public order and protesting against the actions of public bodies”
“Internet resources of HRC Viasna in social networks and messengers were used to provide informational support for their activities,” the indictment reads.
The Chairman of the Investigative Committee by agreement with the Prosecutor General approved absentia proceedings against Zmitser Salauyou. The criminal case was investigated by the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the Investigative Committee.
Jailed for 18 months: increased charges, total isolation, Nobel Peace Prize
On July 14, 2021, “Black Wednesday”, eleven current and two former Viasna members were arrested. The searches took place in the Viasna offices in Minsk and Hrodna and at the educational platform "Territory of Rights" premises. Six people were detained as suspects in criminal proceedings: Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, human rights defender Alena Laptsionak, coordinator of the campaign for the abolition of the death penalty Andrei Paluda, and volunteer Yauheniya Babayeva. Uladzimir Labkovich's wife Nina Labkovich was also detained.
Bialiatski, Stefanovic, and Uladzimir Labkovich were soon charged with “tax evasion” under part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code. They were taken into custody. The authorities argued that rights defenders “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”. For a year, they were held in pre-trial detention center No. 1 in Minsk in complete isolation and poor conditions. Their health worsened significantly.
At the end of September 2022, the tax evasion charges were dropped. However, this was not followed with the release of Bialiatski, Labkovich, and Stefanovic. Instead, they were charged with even more serious crimes, namely ‘smuggling (illegal movement of cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union on a large scale by an organized group’ under Part 4 Article 228 of the Criminal Code and ‘financing of group actions grossly violating the public order’ under Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. It is known that the state's claims remained for the same amount of money that appeared in the charges for tax evasion, it is only their actions that were qualified differently. The three political prisoners now are facing from 7 to 12 years in jail.
On October 7, it was announced that Ales Bialiatski together with the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties and the Russian Memorial became a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. On December 10, International Human Rights Day, the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony was held in Oslo. The human rights defender could not receive the award in person, because he is behind bars, so his wife Natallia Pinchuk received the award instead of Bialiatski.
Trial against Viasna leadership: Day 1
Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Labkovich, and Valiantsin Stefanovic filed motions to conduct the trial in the Belarusian language and to remove the handcuffs, as they degrade their dignity. The first petition was not granted by the judge, and the second was not even considered. Rights advocates continue to communicate in the Belarusian language in the courtroom.
Trial against Viasna leadership: Day 2
Zmitser Salauyou, who is being tried in absentia, said he knew neither the name nor even the gender of the court-appointed lawyer who shall represent him at court. The trial now proceeds with the questioning of witnesses. There are about 100 of them in the case.
Trial against Viasna leadership: Day 3
At the beginning of the trial, Uladzimir Labkovich petitioned for a break in the trial because he felt unwell and had a fever shortly before the session. Judge Zapasnik consulted with pre-trial detention center officers and decided that Labkovich was able to participate in the trial. The pre-trial detention center reported that as of Tuesday morning, Labkovich's health had been satisfactory, and he could participate in the meeting. The court session continued.
Trial against Viasna: Day 4 and 5
A Customs officer claims that two million dollars were brought to Belarus in the interests of Viasna. The court reads testimonies of classified witnesses. Uladzimir Labkovich is not feeling well, Ales Bialiatski also got sick.
Trial against Viasna: Days 6 and 7
On January 13, the court continued to interrogate witnesses and read their statements. However, not many appeared in court in person. The lawyers argued that their absence deprives the accused of the right to defense. Stefanovic claims that they were pressurized in pre-trial detention and Labkovich asks for medics once again.
Trial against Viasna: Days 8, 9, and 10
The court continues to read out the case materials—there are a total of 85,000 pages in it. However, one-fifth of them, 60 volumes, has been already made through. Meanwhile, it turned out, that the court discouraged witnesses from coming in person by sending them pre-filled non-appearance request forms.
Trial against Viasna: Day 13
Bialiatski challenges the applicability of documents provided by the prosecution as evidence. He insists that criminal proceedings are politically motivated, and Viasna has operated legally all the time. It has also become known that more than a hundred people were subjected to office tax audits during the investigation.
Viasna trial: 3rd week of hearings
The court continues to consider the written materials of the case. Labkovich draws attention to inconsistencies in documents and Bialitski is outraged that human rights defenders were accused of helping people.
Wiretap recordings, a list of political prisoners, and materials from Viasna website: what's inside Viasna case file
The stage of introducing the written materials is coming to an end in the Viasna trial. Soon the court will start hearing the defendants. Viasna tells what constitutes the prosecution evidence and human rights defender Alena Masliukova comments on what is really targeted in these proceedings.
All 284 volumes of Viasna case files presented to court
The stage of presenting the written materials of the Viasna case is over with all 284 volumes being introduced in full. Viasna analyzes the structure of case files and our fellow Alena Masliukova comments on the government's hostility towards human rights defenders.
“The case is unprecedented. What is that if not politics?” Human rights defenders interrogated in the Viasna case
After all the written materials in the case were reviewed by the court, the defendants themselves were heard. Viasna tells what our fellows said in court.
Prosecution requests 12-year sentence for Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski
On January 9, the Lieninski District Court of Minsk started to hear the closing arguments in Viasna trial. The prosecution is seeking to sentence the Nobel Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski to 12 years in a penal colony, Viasna deputy chair Valiantsin Stefanovic to 11 years, lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich to 9 years, and Zmitser Salauyou who is tried in absentia to 10 years.
What Bialitski, Stefanovic, and Labkovich said in their last word in court: full translation of their speeches
The Lieninski District Court of Minsk has finished the hearings in the criminal trial against the Viasna chair and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy and FIDH vice-president Valiantsin Stefanovic, Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign coordinator Uladzimir Labkovich, and human rights defender Zmitser Salauyou who is tried in absentia. On February 13, human rights defenders gave their last words the full translation of which from Belarusian into English we publish today.
The verdict: Viasna leadership receives from 7 to 10 years in jail
Judge Maryna Zapasnik of the Lieninski District Court of Minsk decided that the guilt of human rights defenders of “smuggling by an organized group” under Part 4 Article 228 of the Criminal Code and “financing of group actions grossly violating the public order” under Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code has been fully proven.