Europe of Human Rights

Ales Bialiatski was arrested by Belarusian authorities in August 2011. Basing on the information obtained from Polish and Lithuanian authorities he was accussed of tax evasion and sentenced to 4,5 years of imprisonment. He is now serving his sentence in a penal colony, where according he the most recent news, he is being pressured by the prison staff.

Bialiatski, the head of the Viasna Human Rights Centre, a non-governmental human rights organization, created in 1996 during mass protest actions of the democratic opposition in Belarus, and the vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights, has been reprimanded three times during recent months. This substantially reduces his chance of an earlier release.

Bialiatski has been reprimended for wearing a wrong type of shoes, for being in the clothing factory where he works without a proper badge and for sleeping in his workplace. It is obvious what the prison authorities are trying to achieve. By reprimending Bialiatski, they want to make him a “malicious offender”. This would deprive him of the opportunity to be released on the basis of the new amnesty law the Belarusian Parliament is currently working on. According to the new rules, the right may be denied in cases of prisoners who breach the regulations of the penal colony.

On the website of the European External Action Service we read that support for human rights defenders is “a long-established element of the European Union’s human rights policy”. The EU also prepared a set of guidelines (nine-pages) to “provide practical suggestions for enhancing EU action in relation to this issue”.

But the work on the EU strategy for human rights is pending, although civil society organisations hoped it would be ready already in January. The EU still lacks a coherent approach with regard to the protection of human rights defenders. The actions of Polish and Lithuanian authorities clearly show that the behavior of member states may at times be hasty, to say the least.

In April, as a follow-up to the report on Human rights in the world and the EU’s policy on the matter, Catherine Ashton said she looked forward to discussing with the Parliament the shape of the future strategy.

The situation of human rights defenders just outside the EU borders shows that it is high time the debating resulted in a concrete approach outlining the measures to improve the efficiency of the EU human rights policy that would be proportionate to EU’s ambitions and potential. Otherwise the EU’s voice on human rights will never be taken seriously.

Zuzanna Warso, lawyer at Europe of Human Rights

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