- Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski is sentenced to more than 4 years in prison
- The Lithuanian foreign minister condemns his conviction
- Bialiatski is convicted of large-scale tax evasion
- Human Rights Watch urges the appellate court to overturn the conviction
Belarusian human rights activist Ales Bialiatski was convicted in Minsk of tax evasion Thursday and sentenced to 4½ years in prison, with all his assets confiscated, Human Rights Watch said.
The successful prosecution of Bialiatski, head of Viasna Human Rights Center, was condemned by Human Rights Watch and the Lithuanian foreign minister, who's also the current chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
"Ales Bialiatski's conviction is a disgraceful example of abusing the courts for political ends," Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. "If you scratch just below the surface, the trial had next to nothing to do with tax evasion and everything to do with the Belarusian government trying to silence someone who for many years dared to help victims of abuse."
Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis said the conviction showed that Belarus is repudiating Western standards and added he would nominate the human rights defender for the Nobel Peace Prize, according to the nongovernmental, Moscow-based Interfax news agency.
"This is an obvious sign that the Belarusian regime has turned its back on Europe and the entire Western democratic world and chosen other standards, tested by Eastern autocracies," said Azubalis, according to Interfax.
Viasna Human Rights Center, established in Minsk in 1996 in the wake of opposition protests, has more recently been working on behalf of political prisoners and their families in Belarus following government crackdowns last December, Human Rights Watch said.
Belarusian authorities withdrew the group's registration in 2003 and haven't granted it since, the rights group said.
Human Rights Watch urged the Belarusian appellate court to overturn the conviction.
A judge found Bialiatski guilty of large-scale tax evasion on his personal income, Human Rights Watch said.
Defense attorneys said Bialiatski used the money from his accounts in Lithuania and Poland to support his human rights group -- not for personal income, the group said.
The Belarusian secret service, the KGB, received an anonymous letter in October 2010 alleging that Bialiatski was concealing income and receiving foreign aid to finance "radical opposition," which initiated the investigation, Human Rights Watch said.
Lithuanian and Polish authorities gave Bialiatski's bank information to the Belarusian government, but they have since publicly apologized and suspended bilateral legal assistance treaties with Belarus, the group said.
A Human Rights Watch court monitor found that the prosecution's case rested mainly on how Bialiatski maintained personal accounts in Lithuania and Poland, which he allegedly concealed from the Belarusian authorities, the rights group said.
Details of Bialiatski's accounts from Lithuania and Poland were in the form of uncertified copies of bank printouts, even though Belarus law requires certified copies as legally admissible evidence, Human Rights Watch said.