The Belarusian Supreme Court has sentenced human rights defender and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski to 10 years in prison. Together with the also director of the NGO Viasná, three other collaborators have been sentenced to between seven and nine years in prison. The official accusation leveled against them for financially supporting other opponents is “smuggling large amounts of money” and “financing protests that seriously violate public order.”
Despite the threat that hung over the dissidents after the repression of the 2020 demonstrations, Bialiatski, a member of the opposition platform Coordination Council of Belarus, decided to remain in his country, where he was arrested in 2021. Last December he was already sentenced in another case to 18 years in prison.
Bialiatski and his colleagues helped other activists with the expenses related to their trials. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, the prisoners brought 248,000 euros into the country between 2016 and 2021 from Lithuania. They did it legally, since they brought that money into the country little by little without exceeding the customs limit of 10,000 euros in cash allowed by Belarusian legislation. That money was used to pay fines, lawyers and food for other Belarusian opponents in jail.
In fact, in some prisons in the country, such as the feared Okrestina, inmates are charged for their food, according to the newspaper. Novaya Gazeta, whose director, Dmitri Murátov, received the Nobel Peace Prize a year before Bialiatsky for his coverage of Russian repression.
Judge Maryna Zapasnik has also handed down nine years in prison against the Vice President of Viasná, Valiantsin Stefanovic; seven years in prison for campaign coordinator Human rights defenders for free protests, Uladzimir Labkovich; and eight for the activist Zmitser Salauyou, who has been tried in absentia. Likewise, the Belarusian court has imposed a fine of 185,000 Belarusian rubles on each of them, almost 70,000 euros in exchange.
This is the third time that the Aleksandr Lukashenko regime has sentenced Bialiatsky to prison. In addition to the 18-year sentence last December, in 2011 the opponent was sentenced to four and a half years in prison for an alleged crime of tax evasion. Three years later, in 2014, he was released thanks to international pressure.
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The NGO Viasná has been key in showing the world the repression of the Belarusian regime, especially after the 2020 presidential elections, where the population denounced massive fraud. Lukashenko scored 80% of the votes against 10% of the opposition, and the peaceful protests of citizens were met with violence and mass arrests. According to data from the aforementioned NGO, there are currently 1,458 political prisoners in the country.
“These shameful repressive practices against human rights defenders require decisive action by key international actors,” Viasná claimed on the eve of the trial through a statement signed by more than twenty international NGOs, including Human Rights Watch. and the Helsinki Committee. For the signatories, the punishment has been draconian “even by the abysmal standards of the Belarusian judiciary.”
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