Rights organisations call on Belarusian authorities to end politically-motivated prosecutions
On Wednesday, 3 November, the Centraĺny District Court in Homieĺ delivered its verdict in the politically-motivated criminal case against two human rights defenders with the Homieĺ branch of Viasna, a leading Belarusian human rights group. The court sentenced the head of Viasna’s Homieĺ office Leanid Sudalenka and Viasna volunteer Tatsiana Lasitsa to three and two and a half years in prison, respectively.
Eighteen international and Belarusian organisations call on Belarusian authorities to immediately annul the outrageous verdict and drop all charges against Sudalenka and Lasitsa, as well as five other members of Viasna who are currently in jail on politically-motivated charges.
“Politically-motivated prosecutions of Viasna members and volunteers are part of the ‘purge’ of Belarusian civil society declared by Aliaksandr Lukashenka and his government. Belarusian authorities’ targeting of Viasna in particular is no doubt designed to punish the organisation for its outstanding and courageous human rights work over the course of 25 years.”
On 13 October, the prosecutor’s office requested three years’ imprisonment for Sudalenka and Lasitsa on charges of “organising, financing, training, and preparation of actions grossly violating public order and financing such activities”. The charges were backed by absurd “evidence,” such as Sudalenka’s Facebook post offering to buy firewood for the family of someone accused of “mass rioting” in connection with the peaceful protests of 2020.
Sudalenka and Lasitsa have been in pretrial detention for over nine months, having been arrested on 18 January and 21 January, respectively. Their trial began in early September and was held behind closed doors.
The targeting of other Viasna activists
On 18 January, authorities also detained Viasna’s volunteer Maryia Tarasenka in connection with Sudalenka and Lasitsa’s case. She was released under her own recognisance three days after the arrest. Tarasenka left Belarus after the prosecutor’s office requested two and a half years’ imprisonment for her in October.
The other five Viasna members currently behind bars on politically motivated criminal charges are Ales Bialiatski, the founder and chairman of Viasna, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Viasna deputy chairman, Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and coordinator of the group’s campaign “Human rights defenders for free elections,” Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s network of volunteers, and Andrei Chapyuk, a volunteer for Viasna in Minsk.
The conditions in which these human rights defenders are being held raises serious concerns: reports indicate they have been subjected to degrading and cruel treatment and their correspondence is often blocked. On 13 October, Marfa Rabkova’s husband was allowed to see her for the first time in 13 months and reported she had been asking for, but was denied, medical care.
About 100 Viasna human rights defenders and volunteers, as well as their family members, have also been interrogated and designated witnesses in criminal cases against their colleagues. At least seven have been designated suspects.
Belarusian law enforcement continues regular interrogations in connection with the criminal cases against Viasna employees, including activists of other civil groups and initiatives.
The criminal investigations against Viasna members and other human rights defenders are taking place in an atmosphere of secrecy; trials are not open to the public and lawyers are forced into signing overly broad non-disclosure agreements under threat of disbarment. On 12 October, the Belarusian Ministry of Justice arbitrarily suspended Natalia Matskevich, Marfa Rabkova’s lawyer, from performing professional duties pending a disciplinary action against her.
On 17 September, 23 international and Belarusian human rights groups launched the campaign #FreeViasna, demanding the immediate release of the jailed Viasna human rights defenders. We continue calling on the Belarusian authorities to:
- Fully abide by their international human rights obligations as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to respect the rights to freedom of association, peaceful assembly and expression of all people in Belarus.
- Fully respect the work of human rights defenders and lawyers and ensure that everyone can complain without fear of retaliation about actions and policies of individual officials and governmental agencies.
- In line with these obligations, release Tatsiana Lasitsa, Leanid Sudalenka, Ales Bialatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic, Uladzimir Labkovich, Marfa Rabkova and Andrei Chapyuk immediately, drop all charges against Viasna staff and volunteers, including Maryia Tarasenka, and other human rights defenders, and ensure their right to a remedy for arbitrary detention and malicious prosecution.
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Center for Civil Liberties
Civil Rights Defenders
FIDH, within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights Center Viasna
Human Rights House Foundation
Human Rights Watch
International Partnership for Human Rights
Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
Östgruppen – Swedish Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders