Authorities confiscate Minsk office of human rights group Vyasna
The Minsk office of a human rights organization called Vyasna (Spring) was confiscated on November 26.
In November 2011, Vyasna Chairman Ales Byalyatski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison and the confiscation of property, including the apartment that housed the office.
While meeting with reporters on Monday morning, Valyantsin Stefanovich described the sentence against Mr. Byalyatski as politically motivated.
Thousands of people have visited the office to receive legal assistance since its establishment 12 years ago, Mr. Stefanovich said. The office has been used to raise money for the families of political prisoners and to hold news conferences, training sessions and workshops, he said.
"We have always pursued our activities openly, despite the lack of registration since 2003 and the consequent threat of persecution," Mr. Stefanovich said.
The imprisonment of Mr. Byalyatski and the confiscation of the office will not force Vyasna to abandon any of its human rights activities, which are entirely legal, he said. Human rights defenders cannot be blamed for the reluctance of the government to create the necessary conditions for such activities, he said.
Although the confiscation of the office is a serious blow to Vyasna, it hopes to resume normal operation in a new office next year, Mr. Stefanovich said. "It is very important to us to have such a place because a human rights organization cannot exist virtually in the web," he said. "We work with people, above all, and people should know where to find us."
For the time being, Vyasna will use the office of the Movement for Freedom, Mr. Stefanovich said. "Those who work with information and monitoring and manage the site will work at home," he said. "All of us continue to be available on the phone. If there is such a need, we`re ready to meet with people."
Mr. Stefanovich stressed that Vyasna would continue to be an open and public organization.
Ales Byalyatski, who is vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights, was arrested in Minsk on August 4, 2011.
On November 24, 2011, he was sentenced to prison on a charge of large-scale tax evasion. The charge stemmed from information about his bank accounts abroad, which was provided by authorities in Lithuania and Poland under interstate legal assistance agreements. During his trial, Mr. Byalyatski insisted that the money transferred by various foundations to his bank accounts abroad had been intended to finance Vyasna`s activities and therefore could not be viewed as his income subject to taxation.