Belarus: Viasna leaders sentenced to 10, 9 and 7 years in prison for their activism

Right Livelihood condemns in the strongest terms the sentences imposed on Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich, members of 2020 Right Livelihood Laureate Human Rights Center “Viasna.”. The three defenders have been arbitrarily detained since July 14, 2021, on politically motivated charges. We reiterate our calls for their immediate and unconditional release. 

Today, March 3, 2023, at noon, the Leninsky District Court in Minsk closed the politically motivated trial against the head of Viasna, Right Livelihood and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ales Bialiatski, his deputy and FIDH Vice-President Valiantsin Stefanovich and Viasna’s lawyer Ualdzimir Labkovich. The three activists were sentenced to 10, 9 and 7 years respectively, for their legitimate human rights activities. Since 1996, they have all played a key role in advancing democracy and fundamental freedoms in Belarus. Yet, assisting arbitrarily detained participants in peaceful protests, paying lawyer’s fees, monitoring elections and human rights violations were some of the activities that the prosecution listed as criminal.  

The entire proceedings, beginning with their arrest on July 14, 2021, contravened any international human rights standards. They remained in pre-trial detention for 17 months, first on bogus charges of “tax evasion” (Part 2 of Art. 243 of the Belarus Criminal Code), which were later unjustifiably commuted to trumped-up charges of “smuggling” (Article 228.4 of the Criminal Code) in September 2022. Their unjustified detention occurred in inhumane and tortuous conditions, as they were oftentimes prevented from seeing their families and saw their communications restricted on multiple occasions. At the trial, the defendants were handcuffed and held in a cage and their request for the proceedings to be conducted in Belarusian was denied. The trial was therefore in Russian and no independent media or independent observers were allowed in the courtroom. On February 5th, the prosecution had requested 12 years for Bialiatski, 11 for Steanovich and 9 years for Labkovich. The prosecutor further demanded a fine of 185,000 Belarusian rubles (approximately 68,000 Euros) be imposed on each of the defendants. 

“I am shocked and angry because my colleagues were persecuted on political grounds, but they are human rights defenders: they just helped people and the whole world to know about human rights violations in Belarus.” Natallia Satsunkevich, Human Rights Center “Viasna”

No one should ever spend a day in prison for defending fundamental freedom, let alone 10 years. Yet, Bialiatski, Stefanovich and Labkovich are only three of the 1458 political prisoners in Belarus, including three other members of Viasna: Marfa Rabkova, Andrei Chapiuk and Leonid Sudalenka. Belarusian authorities are not afraid of disregarding any international human rights standard: from liquidating all human rights organisations to stripping lawyers of their licenses, brutally repressing independent press and adopting draconian laws to repress peaceful protesters and activists further. Just last year, the regime introduced the death penalty for “attempts to carry out acts of terrorism” which could be used against organisers of peaceful protests. 

Right Livelihood will continue to relentlessly urge the Belarusian authorities to release Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich and Uladzimir Labkovich and all political prisoners immediately and unconditionally, dropping all charges against them. 

Lastly, as the situation worsens by the day, it is crucial that the international community steps up its efforts to support Belarusians in their struggle for democracy, justice and accountability for the violations suffered, including through the use of universal jurisdiction.