Belarus: trial observation reports breaches of international law in the trial of two trade union leaders
Paris-Geneva, August 3, 2018 – On July 30, 2018, the trial of two trade union leaders, Mr. Henadz Fiadynich and Mr. Ihar Komlik, opened before the Saviecki District Court of Minsk. The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT), which sent a judicial observation mission to Belarus earlier this week, reports a number of violations of fair trial standards, and reiterates its call to the authorities to put an end to all forms of harassment against human rights defenders in the country.
Mr. Henadz Fiadynich and Mr. Ihar Komlik, respectively Chairman and Chief Accountant of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Radio and Electronic Industry Workers (REP), are falsely accused of tax evasion under Part 2, Article 243 of the Criminal Code. The judicial harassment against them is linked to their work with REP, a trade union that actively defends the social and economic rights of workers and the unemployed. Following years of persecution and harassment for its independent activism and for the defence of economic and social rights of workers, Belarus authorities escalated their crackdown on REP in 2017.
During the Spring 2017, REP strongly criticised Presidential Decree No. 3, which imposed a fee on the unemployed and partially employed, and provided legal aid to activists arrested after their participation in the protests against the Decree. In retaliation for this work, on August 2, 2017, officers of the Financial Investigation Department of the State Control Committee of Belarus raided the offices of REP, seized documents and computers, and arrested Messrs. Fiadynich and Komlik. Although both were eventually released (Mr. Komlik spent two months in pre-trial detention), they were charged under Part 2, Article 243 of the Criminal Code for “tax evasion on a large scale”, a provision previously used to silence other human rights defenders and critics: in 2011, Mr. Ales Bialiatski, Chairman of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” and then FIDH Vice-President, was charged under the same article and was subsequently sentenced to four and a half years in prison.
In the hearings that took place on July 30 and 31, the government argued that between 2011 and 2012, Messrs. Fiadynich and Komlik conspired to receive transfers of foreign funding into a bank account in Vilnius, Lithuania, and to withdraw and transport cash back to Belarus with the help of colleagues. During the two days of trial monitored, the following violations of fair trial rights were observed:
First, out of the seven prosecution witnesses examined by the parties, only two reported that they had any direct knowledge of any events during the incriminated period. Nevertheless, all were allowed to testify in spite of objections by defence counsel that such testimonies were irrelevant.
Secondly, during the hearings, five out of the seven witnesses had complained that their pre-trial statements incriminating the defendants were obtained in the context of threats, intimidation and other pressure exerted by agents of the Financial Investigation Department of the State Control Committee of Belarus during the initial interrogations, which took place on the day of the August 2017 raid, as well as by agents of the State Investigations Committee in October 2017. Moreover, several witnesses reported being treated during interrogations as accused or suspects in the case, including one witness who testified having read his name on the State complaint.
Thirdly, on several occasions Judge Fiodarava allowed the prosecutors to badger and interrupt witnesses in spite of objections by defence counsel.
The Observatory believes that these actions violate Belarus’ obligations under international human rights law and its own Constitution, and believes that the judicial case against Messrs. Fiadynich and Komlik is only aimed at sanctioning their trade union and human rights activities. The Observatory will continue to follow the trial closely until its conclusion, and calls on the Belarusian authorities to put an end to any form of harassment, including at the judicial level, against REP leaders as well as all trade union activists and human rights defenders in the country.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (OBS) was created in 1997 by FIDH and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to intervene to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders.