Updated at 16:42,06-12-2016

OSCE head calls on Minsk to release Byalyatski immediately

The OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis has expressed his deep concern about the sentence to human rights activist Ales Byalyatski and urged to release him immediately.

"This case must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus," Ažubalis said in a statement released on November 24, BelaPAN news agency writes.

He stressed that undue restrictions on freedom of association severely limit the work of civil society organizations in Belarus and put their members in danger of harassment by the authorities.

"The actions for which Ales Byalyatski was found guilty are a direct result of undue restrictions on freedom of association in the country," Ažubalis said.

Ales Byalyatski, the Vice President of the International Federation for Human Rights and chairperson of Viasna human rights centre, has been sentenced to 4.5 years in a medium security penal colony and confiscation of property. The judgement was pronounced by judge of the Pershamaiski district court Syarhei Bandarenka on November 24.

Byalyatksi was found guilty of violating part 2 of article 243 of the Criminal Code (tax evasion on an especially large scale). The court says his guilt was fully proven. The court found groundless human rights activist’s claims that the money on his bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland was not his personal income. The court says Byalyatski had not report about his accounts intentionally to avoid paying taxes.

Byalyatski was arrested on August 4. The ground for criminal persecution of the human rights activist was information about his accounts in foreign banks reveled to the Belarusian authorities by the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice and the Polish General Prosecutor’s Office under legal assistance agreements.

The authorities of Lithuania and Poland apologized to Byalyatski and his family later and suspended cooperation with Belarus as part of legal assistance agreements saying the Belarusian authorities use legal cooperation to persecute their opponents.

Byalyatski explained at the trial he had opened accounts abroad because he had not been able to do this in Belarus. Viasna human rights centre was closed down on 2003 and numerous attempts to register the organization in the Ministry of Justice failed. Byalyatski used the money on his account to help victims of repression in Belarus.

"We have helped thousands of people in 1996," the human right activists said in his final statement.

The international human rights community thinks prosecution of Byalyatski is political motivated and demands the Belarusian authorities to release him unconditionally.

On November 23, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton and EU Commissioner for Enlargement Stefan Füle released a joint statement urging the Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally free Byalyatski.

"As such, the ongoing trial is a highly visible and symbolic manifestation of the crackdown on civil society in Belarus since the 19 December 2010 Presidential elections," the statement reads.