A notorious Belarusian human right activist has been sentenced to four and a half years in prison and confiscation of property for alleged tax evasion.
Ales Bialiatski, who is the founder of Viasna, one of Belarus' leading human rights organisations, has been convicted of tax avoidances based on his use of his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland. The defence argued that Bialiatski used those accounts to receive funding from international donors for human rights work in Belarus.
"This case must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus," said Audronius Ažubalis, Chairperson-in-Office for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and Lithuanian Foreign Minister. "The actions for which Ales Bialiatski was found guilty are a direct result of undue restrictions on freedom of association in the country and his activities as a human rights defender, and it appears that the court failed to adequately consider Bialiatski's motives."
Providing legal support to victims of the Lukashenko's regime, dubbed Europe last dictatorship, Viasna is the main human rights organisation in Belarus. It was established in Minsk in the wake of opposition protests in the spring of 1996. After the violent government crackdown on opposition in December 2010, Viasna helped political prisoners and their families to cope with financial and legal problems.
"Ales Bialiatski's conviction is a disgraceful example of abusing the courts for political ends," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If you scratch just below the surface, the trial had next to nothing to do with tax evasion and everything to do with the Belarusian government trying to silence someone who for many years dared to help victims of abuse."
Many press freedom organisations like the International Press Institute (IPI), Human Rights Watch, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee and Frontline, and Index on Censorship have demanded the immediate release of Bialiatski and called on Belarusian authorities to drop the case against him.
Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, and Štefan Füle, the EU Commissioner for Enlargement and European Neighbourhood Policy, made a joint statement, calling the Belarusian authorities for immediate and unconditional release of Ales Bialiatski. The EU foreign policy representatives consider the charges against Bialiatski as politically motivated.