Belarus: Trade Union leaders found guilty of tax evasion after a sham trial
Paris-Geneva – Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik have been found guilty of tax evasion charges today by the Saviecki District Court of Minsk. Charges were brought against them a year after the trade union helped to mobilize protests against Presidential Decree No. 3 that established a fee on the unemployed. The Observatory’s judicial observation mission reports that the politically motivated trial fell well short of providing the essential fair trial guarantees to the defendants and calls for their conviction to be quashed.
The trial started on July 30, 2018, and took place in the Saviecki District Court of Minsk before Judge Maryna Fiodarava. Messrs. Henadz Fiadynich and Ihar Komlik, respectively Chairman and Chief Accountant of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union of Radio and Electronic Industry Workers (REP), were charged under Article 243.2 of the Criminal Code for “Tax evasion on a large scale”. The latter provision was previously used to prosecute Chairman of the Human Rights Centre “Viasna” Ales Bialiatski, who spent three years in prison in 2011-2014. The UN Human Rights Committee found his imprisonment arbitrary since national legislation and decisions of the Belarusian authorities made it impossible for "Viasna" to operate legally in Belarus. Legislation abusively restricting the operation of civil society organisations remains in force to date, forcing many organisations to register abroad.
The government’s complaint charged 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 co-workers and colleagues, without having reported these receipts to the authorities.
Today the Court issued its judgement, finding the defendants guilty of all charges and sentencing them to 4 years of restriction of liberty without imprisonment.
“This trial made for a captivating spectacle, with a surprise revelation of a paid KGB informant among its highlights, but it also made a mockery of justice. There was hardly any testimony or other evidence relevant to the incriminated period, and the authorities fabricated practically the entire evidentiary base underlying the judgment, confirming the political nature of the case,” says lawyer Ilya Nuzov, Head of FIDH’s Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk, who observed the proceedings.
Trial observation revealed major flaws in the conduct of pre-trial investigation and proceedings. During the trial, at least six of the witnesses examined by the parties complained that their pre-trial statements were procured through threats, intimidation and other pressure exerted by State agents during initial questioning. While Judge Fiodarava ordered an investigation of these allegations mid-way through the trial, this inquiry lacked independence and thoroughness capable of effectively determining any wrongful conduct on behalf of the authorities.
Moreover, the prosecution’s case was built around key pieces of evidence, including unauthenticated bank records from a Lithuanian bank, and information about the bank account and cash flows from foreign organisations procured using an unknown email account. State witnesses refused to provide any specific information regarding how this evidence was collected, referring in general terms to the course of ‘investigative work.’ These facts weigh heavily against the lawfulness and reliability of such evidence, as well as the ability of Messrs. Komlik and Fiyadynich to prepare an adequate defense.
The Observatory believes that these actions by the authorities violate Belarus’ obligations under international human rights law and its own Constitution, and that the convictions should therefore be overturned on appeal.
The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) 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. FIDH and OMCT are both members of ProtectDefenders.eu, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.