In a case condemned by the European Union as politically motivated, a Belarusian court has handed down a four-and-half year prison sentence to prominent human right activist Ales Byalyatski.
Byalyatski, the leader of the banned Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, was found guilty of tax evasion. In a hearing on November 24, attended by EU and U.S. diplomats, the court also ordered the confiscation of his property.
"Vyasna will not be stopped," said Byalyatski after his verdict was announced. The 49-year-old rights activist's lawyer says he will appeal the sentence.
Byalyatski's wife Natalya Pinchuk told journalists that the verdict was "predictable."
"In general, the sentence could be expected, she said. "The tone of comments in official media did not offer hope of a more lenient sentence...I must say that we knew events could possibly develop this way even before Ales was arrested. It was our conscious choice. We were getting ready for the arrest of Ales one month before it took place."
International Criticism Of Verdict
Robert Golanski, a spokesman for the President of the European Parliament, Herman Van Rompuy, told RFE/RL that the parliament "considers the charges against Byalyatski in the trial as [being] politically motivated and unjustified.
Golanski also called on "Belarusian authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Mr. Byalyatski as well as all political prisoners still in custody and for all the charges against them to be dropped."
He added that "the European Parliament stands by the side of Belarusian people."
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, a member of the European Parliament from Poland, said the case and the verdict were "appalling" and "scandalous." He claimed that the judges were acting "under a clear political instruction from the very top."
Poland's Foreign Ministry said Byalyarski's sentence "is a sentence for human rights in Belarus."
The chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis, condemned the sentence in a statement issued on November 24 and said Byalyatski's case "must be seen as part of a broader pattern of harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders in Belarus."
The U.S. Embassy in Minsk urged Belarus to "cease its campaign against critics of the government."
Lithuanian, Polish Bank Accounts
The tax charge stems against Byalyatski stems from his reported use of personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to receive funding from international donors in support of human rights activities in Belarus.
The two countries later expressed disappointment that their data had been used to incriminate the human rights defender, and issued formal apologies for unintentionally cooperating with the regime in Minsk.
Byalyatski had been circulating reports about the authorities' crackdown on peaceful protests since the disputed presidential election in December 2010, which returned President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to power.
Byalyatski was arrested on August 4 and subsequently charged with tax evasion.
The prosecution could have asked for a jail term of up to seven years.
Professor Valery Saykouski stated that in 2007-2010, a total of some 567,000 euros ($765,915) was transferred to accounts belonging to Byalyatski and his organization in banks in Poland and Lithuania. Saykouski said Byalyatski concealed data about the balance in those accounts and thereby committed a crime.
Byalyatski's lawyer Zmitser Layeuski had disputed the prosecution's case.
Byalyatski's 'Rights Were Violated'
Layeuski said that his client's rights were violated during the trial as none of his requests had ever been granted. He said there was no official explanation for the monitoring of Byalyatski's financial activities.
"In fact," Layeuski said, "all the witnesses who testified for the prosecution gave data that prove Byalyatski's innocence."
"What we know now is the fact that Byalyatski has some bank accounts abroad that received some sums of money, of which a certain amount was used by Byalyatski for his human rights activities, that is all. There is no evidence that he did anything wrong," Layeuski added.
"The amounts sent to Byalyatski's accounts were not grants, but loans he had to return. The money did not belong to Byalyatski, but was used for the activities of his organization, namely for business trips, special projects, seminars, etc., and therefore those amounts are not subject to tax," Layeuski said.