A Stab in the Back? Lithuania Leaks Information About Belarusian Activists
Yesterday Mikalay Khalezin, the head of the Belarus Free Theatre accused Lithuania of handing information about accounts of Belarusian activists and NGOs in Lithuanian banks to the Lukashenka regime. At first it was hard to believe what Khalezin wrote in his blog. But on the next day the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice confirmed it.
According to Belarusian press, having assessed this information from Lithuania, the KGB of Belarus has arrested a well-known human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, a 2006 Nobel Prize nominee. The authorities accused him of 'concealment of income at a particularly large scale'. Viasna, the largest and most efficient human rights group in Belarus, thought that its bank accounts in Lithuania were outside the reach of the Belarusian regime. They were wrong.
“For my enemies, the law”
Belarus is known for its draconian rules and strict state control over any economic activity of its citizens. The punishment for violating the regulations is harsh. Belarusian prisons are full of people sentenced for 'economic crimes' which would often not even be considered crimes in developed countries.
Needless to say that under the authoritarian regime of president Alyaksandr Lukashenka activities of political opponents are being monitored even more closely. The regime has used minor inconsistencies with regulations to deny numerous attempts to get official registration of independent NGOs and political parties. The Belarusian Christian Democracy, a political party, and the Young Front, a political youth organisation, are just two examples. Most recently, the authorities relied on legal excuses to take away the office of the Belarusian Popular Front, once the largest Belarusian opposition party.
"For my friends, anything – for my enemies, the law", says a popular quote of a Brazilian president. The Belarusian opposition has no possibility to act according to the draconian rules in Belarus. And it is unjust to accuse these people of hiding from the authorities. You wouldn't criticize the Soviet and East German dissidents for not registering their Samizdat typewriters with the KGB or the Stasi. Nor would anybody criticize Oskar Schindler for deliberately overstating his factory's demand for Jewish workers.
Immediately after the 2010 presidential elections, the leaders of the Belarusian civil society have called upon the leaders of the EU to stop any contacts with the regime in Minsk and limit it to the technical level. This has not been done, and now Ales Bialiatski faces up to seven years in prison.
Is Vilnius becoming Lukashenka’s ally?
To be fair, the Lithuanian Republic does a lot to support democracy in Belarus. Vilnius has traditionally been a centre of Belarusian cultural and political life. The city is closer to Minsk than any major Belarusian city.
Many political activists persecuted in Belarus have been granted asylum in the country. Lithuanian NGOs are among founders of the European Radio for Belarus. Various independent Belarusian organisations, unable to operate in Belarus, have been given official registration in the Lithuanian Republic: the European Humanities University, the Independent Institute of Socioeconomic and Political Studies, the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies and others.
On the other hand, recently the Lithuanian Republic is increasingly becoming an ally to Lukashenka and consistently opposes economic sanctions against the regime. Lukashenka paid a visit to Vilnius in October 2010, following invitation from the Republic's president Dalia Grybauskaite. That was a rare occastion for him to officially travel to an EU country.
Lituania has strong economic ties with Belarus. In 2010, Lithuanian investments to Belarus have increased by 11 times*. Lithuanian business people have expressed their interest in privatisation of state assets in Belarus*. Lithuania plays an important role for Belarus to transport oil from Venezuela. Belarus and Lithuania have considered construction of an LNG terminal in one of Lithuania’s ports. In addition, Lithuania receives its Russian gas via Belarus, as well as oil for its oil refinery in Mazeikiai.
Now it turns out that authorities of an EU member have aided repressions in Belarus. This scandal marks another failure of the European Union’s policy towards Belarus, caused by the lack of unification and consistency. It should not go unnoticed and must inspire a radical review of how EU is dealing with the Belarusian civil society. It is time to become more realistic about the nature of political regime in Minsk.
Prominent Belarus Activist Arrested – Civil Society & Politics Digest
The news of the week is yesterday's arrest of a prominent Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatsky. The arrest reportedly followed release of information by Lithuanian Ministry of Justice to Belarus authorities about around 400 bank accounts of Belarusian opposition activists, groups and NGOs.
Rights activist Ales Bialiatsky is in custody. On the evening of 4 August, Ales Bialiatsky, Head of Human Rights Center Viasna, was taken into custody after interrogation in the Department of Financial Investigations of the State Control Committee. Bialiatsky is detained for three days as a suspect in the case under Article 243-2 of the Criminal Code (evasion of taxes and fees on a large scale). The maximum penalty for this article stipulates imprisonment for up to seven years with confiscation of property.
On 4 August, there were searches on the Viasna premises, Bialiatsky’s private apartment and cottage. A part of property located in the office premises was arrested. On 5 August, International Center for Civil Initiatives Nash Dom (a leader is Olga Karach) and the NGO Assembly distributed their statements expressing strong protest against the detention of Ales Bialiatsky. Such statement is prepared by the National platform of the EaP Civil Society Forum. On 4 August, Chairman of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek called on Belarusian authorities to release a prominent human rights activist.
Viasna was known for their help to political prisoners and for providing financial support to those in Belarus who were thrown out of jobs and universities for political reasons.
Lithuania's reaction. On 5 August, the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Ažubalis, expressed deep concern over the the continued worsening of the human rights situation in Belarus, citing the arrest of Ales Bialiatski.
At the same Lithuania's Minister of Justice Tomas Vaitkevicius confirmed that his country released information to Belarusian authorities about financial transactions of Belarusian activists and groups registered in Lithuania. Minsk is just three hours by train from Vilnius. Many independent and opposition organisations have to register in Lithuania because it is impossible to do so in Belarus. According to the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice, they did not expect that the information that contained the name of Ales Byalyatski could be used for political purposes.
International community against the "draconian law". Amnesty International calls to abandon the "draconian law", which provides punishment for the mass "pre-defined action or inaction". The Bill was introduced for the Belarusian House of Representatives on 20 July. On 2 August Ambassador Janez Lenarčič, the Director of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), expressed concern about a proposal by the Belarusian Council of Ministers to introduce further restrictions on the freedom of peaceful assembly.
Ministry of Justice doesn’t pursue advocates but demands explanations from BHC. The Ministry of Justice has no plans to deny the license of lawyers Anna Bakhtina and Daria Lipkina, advocates of political prisoners. In this regard, on 3 August the Ministry of Justice demanded explanations from Belarusian Helsinki Committee for the “facts of defamatory information”. The matter of fact is that BHC distributed information about the pressure on lawyers and signed a petition to the UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers.
Nasha Niva was fined. On 29 July, Economic Court of Minsk fined the newspaper Nasha Niva to Br14 million ($2 800) under administrative Article 22.9-3 (violation of a mass media law repeated within one year). This is the first time that the administrative case against the media was initiated by the police through the Ministry of Information.
Picket in Dashkevich’s support. On 2 August a picket was held near the colony in Gorki, where Zmitser Dashkevich, leader of youth group Young Front, is in prison. Youth activists and politicians demanded that the prison administration permitted to meet Dashkevich with a lawyer. As a result, 14 people were arrested. The next day one person was fined to Br1.05 million ($200), the rest are convicted to administrative detention from 5 to 17 days, includingone journalist and Nasta Palazhanka, Young Front deputy head and Dashkevich’s bride. By the way, the picket was held on the day of Palazhanka 21-year birthday.
Platform defends rights of prisoners. On 1 August a former prisoner of Glubokskaya colony No.13 and the mothers of two current prisoners organized a press conference and spoke about beatings and other forms of lawlessness there. Conference organizer is informational educational institution Platform (director is Andrey Bandarenka), which deals with issues of law compliance in Belarusian prisons.
The campaign "Tell the truth!" re-runs. On 3 August, at a press conference in Minsk the leader of the campaign "Tell the truth!" Vladimir Neklyayev stated that they started collecting signatures for three new draft laws. Their legislative initiatives are "We will not allow government officials to steal", " We will not allow to sell out the country" and "Protect from poverty ourselves and our children". The campaign plans to collect 50 thousand signatures for each bill before September 25.
Belarus Digest prepared this overview on the basis of materials provided by Pact. Politics & Civil Society Digest attempts to give a richer picture of the recent political and civil society events in Belarus. The digests often go beyond the hot stories already available in other English-language media.