Updated at 01:25,03-03-2021

Byalyatski: Free elections are key to Belarus' future

Iryna LEWSHYNA, Naviny.by

Securing free and fair elections is a key task of Belarusian society, human rights defender Ales Byalyatski said during an online questions-and-answers session hosted by Naviny.by on Wednesday.

"Our future life depends on whether or not we will manage to do that," he stressed.

The 51-year-old chairman of the Vyasna Human Rights Center, who was released from prison under an amnesty on June 21, said that he would participate in next year's presidential election as a human rights defender.

"The process of elections involves mass violations of laws in our country and our task is to monitor these violations in order to attract the attention of the Belarusian authorities, our and international community, push for justice," he noted.

Mr. Byalyatski said that his work would focus on defending "civil and political rights in Belarus."

"We have plenty of work to do as major problems in Belarus that concern the preservation of statehood and independence, a developed economy, democracy and human rights have not been solved."

Commenting on disagreements between opposition forces over whether they should take part in elections, Mr. Byalyatski said, "On the one hand, elections as a procedure do not exist [in Belarus]. It makes no sense to take part in the show with the naive hope that you can secure some true figures in this election. But there may be some sense in viewing elections as an opportunity to get your message across to people."

The activist said that he did not expect the 2015 election to be free and fair.

Mr. Byalyatski refused to put the blame on the governments of Lithuania and Poland for his imprisonment.

"It is certain officials in Lithuania and Poland rather than the countries' governments who were involved in that," he said. "The governments have consistently supported democratic changes in Belarus. I hope very much that everyone has drawn the necessary conclusions in the situation."

On November 24, 2011, Mr. Byalyatski was sentenced to four and a half years in prison on a charge of large-scale tax evasion. The charge stemmed from information about his bank accounts abroad, which was thoughtlessly 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.

Speaking on June 25, four days after his release from prison under an amnesty law, Mr. Byalyatski stressed that his imprisonment and early release were both politically motivated. "The regime now thinks about the normalization of relations with the European Union, which has insisted on the release of all political prisoners in Belarus," he said, adding that "seven more political prisoners" remained in the country. "Neither we, nor the Belarusian authorities, nor the European Union, nor the international community should by any means forget about that," he said.

According to Mr. Byalyatski, he could emigrate from Belarus after learning of the tax evasion charge against him but chose to stay in the country and defend his innocence.

The activist never admitted his guilt or appealed to Alyaksandr Lukashenka for a presidential pardon and still considers himself innocent. "The prosecution of rights defenders for alleged tax evasion has been used by other authoritarian governments, in particular my colleagues in Azerbaijan and Iran are in prison on this charge," he said.