Belarus: One-year anniversary of unjust verdicts against Viasna members

Unfair trials and sentences in Minsk underline the need for our accountability work

The statement was published on fidh’s website on March 3rd 2024

One year ago, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovic and Viasna lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich were sentenced to ten, nine and seven years of imprisonment on fabricated charges, respectively.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (FIDH-OMCT) and the undersigned organizations demand their immediate and unconditional release, and call on the international community to use all available diplomatic, political and other means at its disposal to urge the Belarusian authorities to respect the rule of law and to free all those convicted under politically motivated charges.

Paris, Geneva, 3 March, 2024. On March 3, 2023, the Leninsky District Court in Minsk sentenced Viasna members Ales BialiatskiValiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich to ten, nine and seven years of imprisonment, respectively. Zmitser Salauyou, a Viasna member tried in absentia in the same case, was sentenced to eight years in prison. The proceedings against the four human rights defenders were based on trumped-up charges and characterized by grave human rights violations, exposing the politically motivated and persecutory nature of the trial.

Today, one year after the verdict, the Observatory and the undersigned organizations reiterate their grave concern over the unjust imprisonment of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich, and the high risk of torture and ill-treatment they face in detention.

In early May 2023, Ales Bialiatski was transferred from pre-trial detention center No. 1 to penal colony No. 9 in Horki, considered one of the harshest prisons in Belarus. It is well-known for its brutal conditions, especially for political prisoners, who are subjected to systematic harassment and ill-treatment, including incommunicado detention, isolation, and the unjustified and prolonged placement in punishment cells. Indeed, in November 2023, it became known that Ales Bialiatski was placed in a cell-type room (PKT), a punitive detention condition resulting from his profile as a human rights defender. For an extended period of time, he has been denied contact with his lawyer and his relatives, who cannot call and do not receive letters from him. Likewise, Ales Bialiatski apparently does not receive letters and parcels from outside. Currently, the prison administration refuses to accept parcels with medical supplies from Ales Bialiatski’s relatives, and Ales Bialiatski’s state of health remains unknown.

The Observatory is also worried about the situation of Uladzimir Labkovich, held in penal colony No. 17, and Valiantsin Stefanovic, currently placed in penal colony No. 15, where he was forced to do extremely harmful and low-paid work. In January 2024, Valiantsin Stefanovic was also transferred to a cell-type room (PKT), where he is kept in a cell all the time, with only 30 minutes of outdoor time a day being allowed. Valiantsin Stefanovic receives only mail or packages sent by his family, and all phone calls and family visits are banned.

In December 2023, all three human rights defenders were also included in the list of “extremists” drawn up by the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs, subjecting them to further repression.

During the 17 months spent in pre-trial detention after their arbitrary arrest on July 14, 2021, Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich were already kept in appalling detention conditions, with severely restricted access to lawyers, medical assistance, and communication.

The Observatory recalls that Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich were arbitrarily detained by officers of the Financial Investigations Department of Belarus on July 14, 2021. While they were initially detained on falsified charges of “tax evasion” (Article 243.2 of the Belarusian Criminal Code), in September 2022, new trumped-up charges of “smuggling” and “financing group actions that disrupted public order” (Article 228.4 and Article 342.2 of the Belarusian Criminal Code) were filed against them, leaving little time for the defendants and their lawyers to prepare a new defense strategy before the beginning of the trial on January 5, 2023. During the process, a trial observation mission mandated by the Observatory documented significant human rights violations.

The judgement, announced on March 3, 2023, officially entered into force on April 21, 2023, when the Minsk Municipal Court turned down the defendants’ appeals. In addition to the prison sentence, the three human rights defenders were also sentenced to heavy fines.

The reprisals against Viasna and its members are part of a broader crackdown on civil society in Belarus following the mass protests against the falsified 2020 Presidential elections. In the aftermath of the protests, the authorities shut down all human rights and other independent organisations, leaving not one legally operating human rights NGO in the country. Viasna is one of the leading Belarusian human rights organisations and is at the forefront of the Belarusian human rights movement. It is notably famous for its list of political prisoners in Belarus, which, as of February 27, 2024 counted 1413 persons.

The Observatory and all undersigned organizations strongly condemn the unfair conviction and ongoing arbitrary detention of Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovic and Uladzimir Labkovich, and urge the Belarusian authorities to quash their sentences and to immediately and unconditionally release them. The Observatory and all undersigned organizations further urge the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release arbitrarily detained Viasna members Marfa Rabkova and Andrey Chapiuk, as well as all other prisoners in Belarus convicted under politically motivated charges, and to put an end to all acts of harassment against them, including at the judicial level.

The Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (the Observatory) was created in 1997 by the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT). The objective of this programme is to prevent or remedy situations of repression against human rights defenders. FIDH and OMCT are both members of, the European Union Human Rights Defenders Mechanism implemented by international civil society.

Read the statement on fidh’s website here

ADC Memorial
Amnesty International
Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House
Belarusian Helsinki Committee
Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan
Center for Civil Liberties (CCL)
Civil Rights Defenders
Civil Society Institute Armenia
DIGNITY – Danish Institute against Torture
European Exchange/Europäischer Austausch gGmbH
FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
Front Line Defenders
Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights
Human Rights Center (HRC)
Human Rights Centre Viasna
Human Rights Defence Center “Memorial”
Human Rights House Foundation
Human Rights Watch
International Bar Association’s Human Rights Institute (IBAHRI)
International Legal Initiative Foundation (ILI Foundation)
International Partnership for Human Rights (IPHR)
Italian Federation for Human Rights (FIDU)
Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law (KIBHR)
Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHPG)
Legal Initiative
Libereco – Partnership for Human Rights
Netherlands Helsinki Committee
Norwegian Helsinki Committee
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
PEN Belarus
People in Need
Respect – Protect – Fulfill

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