Europe of Human Rights

The Viasna Human Rights Center announced that the trial of Viasna leader Ales Bialiatski is due to start at 10 a.m. on 2 November at Minsk Maskouski District Court. It is expected that the trial will be presided by Judge Siarhei Bandarenka of Pershamaiski District Court. On this day the eyes of Europe should undoubtedly turn to Minsk. Independent observers should be sent to scrutinize the proceedings.

Ales Bialatski was arrested on Thursday 4 August 2011 after Poland and Lithuania transferred information about his bank accounts to Belarusian authorities. He has been charged with “especially serious tax evasion” that could lead to seven years in prison and confiscation of his properties, including the premises of the Viasna centre. The sole aim of this manoeuver is to stop Viasna from acting, and from existing. His arrest and trial is undoubtedly related to his activity as a human rights defender.

The Government is attempting to limit human rights activity, which already has been seriously hindered due to the existence of art. 193.1 of the Penal Code, which bans the functioning of unregistered organizations, public associations, religious groups and foundations as well as participations in their activities. Such an act is punishable by six months to two years of imprisonment.

On 3 October 2011, the Belarusian parliament adopted a draft law introducing new provisions for funding non-governmental organisations and the presence of foreign NGOs in Belarus. If this law enters into force, it will limit the activity of foreign organisations and the possibility of financing the Belarusian ones by foreign and international entities.

The amendment introduces to the law on public associations provision prohibiting the activities of NGOs and public unions “aimed at granting benefits and privileges to citizens of Belarus by foreign states in connection with their political and religious views or nationality in violation of the law”. In addition, any funds received from foreign and international organisations, foreign states and their citizens as well as stateless persons should be transferred to the state budget. If an organisation fails to do so voluntarily, the grant will be recovered through judicial proceedings on the request of state bodies responsible for monitoring the use of foreign aid.

At the same time, according to the amendments, social organisations – local and national – are forbidden to store money, precious metals and other valuables in banks and other credit companies located on the territory of other states.

The most alarming is the criminalization of obtaining and keeping the foreign grants aimed to finance the “extremist activities or other actions banned by the legislation of the Republic of Belarus”, as well as to finance the political parties, preparation of the elections, protests etc. The criminal sanction (from a six-month detention up to three years of imprisonment) is also imposed in the case of ”public announcement/call to conduct a meeting, protest, street procession, demonstration” . Undertaking these activities, as well as providing foreign grant for activities forbidden by the law, will also trigger administrative sanctions.

If the Belarusian Constitutional Court does not find the act unconstitutional and the president signs it, the amended provisions will become another instrument to fight political opponents of the Belarusian government, in violation of the freedom of speech and freedom of assembly guaranteed by the Belarusian constitution. The amendments may also have an impact on Ales Bialatski, as his charges could be extended to “obtaining and storing” money coming from foreign grants (under newly designed art. 369.2 of the Criminal Code).

This could not happen in a country where the rule of lex retro non agit plays a crucial role, but can we trust a country which is afraid of any democratic changes? Europe turn your eyes towards Minsk District Court on the 2 November.

Dominika Bychawska-Siniarska and Zuzanna Warso, “Europe of Human Rights”

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