Belarus: Human rights defenders held in pretrial detention
On 14 July, Belarus law enforcement officers broke into and searched the offices of at least a dozen major Belarusian civil society and human rights organizations and opposition groups, as well the homes of civil society leaders. The list of those targeted included the human rights group Vyasna, Belarusian Association of Journalists, Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the human rights group Human Constanta, the independent academic research centre BEROC, the human rights group Gender Perspectives, World Union of Belarusians Batskaushchyna, Belarusian People’s Front opposition party, “For Freedom” pro-democracy movement and Imena publishing house. At least 12 people were arrested on 14 July. Some were released over the following days but Vyasna chairman Ales Bialiatski, Vyasna vice chairman Valyantsyn Stefanovich, and the organization’s lawyer Uladzimir Labkovich and his wife Nina Labkovich, were transferred to a pretrial detention centre on 17 July.
This is just the latest instance in a coordinated and systematic campaign to stifle human rights defenders and any form of criticism of the authorities in Belarus following the post-election protests that started in August 2020. Previously, on 16 February, the authorities carried out raids simultaneously in Minsk, Homel, Mahilyou, Vitsebsk and Brest on the homes of staff and offices of Vyasna, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and the independent trade union REP. The raids were carried out as part of unfounded criminal proceedings under Article 342 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (“organization and preparation of actions that grossly violate public order”). According to Belarus’ Investigative Committee, the investigation was aimed at “establishing the circumstances of the financing of protest activities”. In March, the Belarusian Investigative Committee opened a criminal case into the activities of Vyasna under Article 342 of the Criminal Code.
In common with most other criminal cases against civil society activists in Belarus the lawyers have been required to sign non-disclosure agreements and cannot reveal the details of the case. Nevertheless, it is believed that the pretrial detention of Valyantsyn Stefanovich, Uladzimir Labkovich, Nina Labkovich and Ales Bialiatski may be connected to the criminal case under Article 342, an article that has been used by the authorities to launch unfounded cases targeting civil society activists, journalists and human rights monitors.
Amnesty International has campaigned extensively for Ales Bialatski in the past. He was arrested on 4 August 2011 and sentenced to a four-and-a-half-year in jail for using his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to fund the Human Rights Centre Vyasna. The organization was not officially recognized by the Belarusian government and could not hold a bank account in the country. He featured in the Write for Rights Campaign in 2012 and was released before the expiration of sentence in 2014.