Europe of Human Rights

First, do no harm

Recently human rights defenders in Poland have been shocked by the information that Polish Prosecutor General’s Office has provided Belarusian authorities with details of the Polish bank accounts held in the name of Ales Belyatsky. Information about these actions of Polish prosecutors has been received by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (HFHR) from Mr Belyatsky’s associates.

Ales Belyatsky, one of the most prominent Belarusian human rights advocates, is the head of the Human Rights Centre Vesna and Vice-President of the International Federation for Human Rights. Earlier this year, in June, he was presented with the Freedom Award during the Global Forum in Wrocław. On Thursday 4 August Ales Belyatsky has been arrested in Minsk.

Poland and Belarus are bound by an agreement on legal assistance and legal relations in civil, family, employment and criminal cases. Article 19 of the agreement says that legal assistance may be denied if the provision of such assistance runs counter to basic principles of national law. However, according to the spokesperson for the Prosecutor General’s Office, ‘The Office has carried out a request for legal assistance concerning Alexander Belyatsky. The motion itself failed to mention anything that would indicate that it targeted an opposition activist or his political action.’

Ignorance of Polish officials is overwhelming. At the same time, it seems worth mentioning, that they are not alone in this. Similar scandal occurred recently in Lithuania. It has been followed by dismissals of the officials responsible for the blunder. The same thing happened in Poland.

All this may lead to the conclusion that there is an urgent need to comprehensively regulate matters of legal assistance with third countries on EU level. At the moment there exist numerous bilateral agreements between Member States and third countries concerning legal assistance, and although they do contain exceptions relating to the citizens’ rights protection, prosecutors sometimes fail to apply them correctly. This has proved to lead to dramatic consequences.

At the EU level, cooperation has been established between Member States themselves, however when it comes to third countries, agreements have been concluded only with some states (US and Japan among others).

Taking into consideration the case described above, it seems that the principle of subsidiarity would apply in this area – Member States obviously fail at handing the matters on their own. There is room for debate whether a new EU legislative instrument would solve the existing problem, if in the end it is always national officials who will apply it. In the light of the numerous arrests of activists not only in Belarus but also in Azerbaijan, however, there is undoubtedly a need to bring the problems of legal cooperation with non-democratic regimes, as well as the obligation to protect human rights defenders, to the EU agenda. Politicians in EU Member States think hard on how to support civil societies in Eastern Partnership countries. Maybe a good first step would be not to harm them.


Zuzanna Warso

lawyer at

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