International human rights organizations are urging Belarus’s authorities to withdraw a lawsuit requesting the liquidation of one of the country's oldest independent human rights groups -- the Belarusian Helsinki Committee -- a move seen as part of a wide effort by the government of authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka to silence all critical voices.
The joint call came as the Belarus Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on September 30 on the lawsuit filed by the Justice Ministry in late August.
In a September 22 joint letter addressed to Justice Minister Aleh Slizheuski, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and three other nongovernmental organizations described the move to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee as "an attempt to impose a draconian, punitive and irreversible penalty to bring about the elimination of a long-standing body of human rights defenders."
Calling the lawsuit "inappropriate [and] inconsistent with the Belarusian government’s obligations to respect and protect the legitimate work of human rights defenders," the groups said it also "violates a number of fundamental rights, including those of freedom of expression and association and due process."
In response to mass street protests against the official results of a disputed presidential election in August 2020 that gave Lukashenka a sixth consecutive term, the authorities have arrested thousands of pro-democracy activists and pushed most of the top opposition figures out of the country.
Prominent independent nongovernmental organizations such as the Belarusian Association of Journalists have been forcibly closed, while seven members of Belarus's top human rights group Vyasna have been jailed, pending trial on criminal charges.
The opposition and the West say last year’s vote was rigged. Lukashenka, who has run the country since 1994, denies that, and refuses to negotiate with the opposition on a political transition and new elections.
The lawsuit against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee alleges discrepancies in financial information the group has provided to the Justice Ministry.
The ministry’s petition to the Supreme Court alleges that these discrepancies constitute a "one-time gross violation of the law," and states that the documents exposing the discrepancies came to light as part of a criminal investigation. It did not provide any information about that probe.
The joint open letter was signed by Marie Struthers, director of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Regional Office at Amnesty International; Alice Mogwe, president of the International Federation for Human Rights; Andrew Anderson, executive director of Frontline Defenders; Maria Dahle, director of Human Rights House Foundation; and Hugh Williamson, director of the Europe and Central Asia Division at Human Rights Watch.
In a statement on September 29, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee noted that its volunteers have taken part in election monitoring campaigns, defended the rights of lawyers, defended Belarusians’ pension rights from abuses, worked to abolish forced labor, and proposed the solutions aimed at improving the legislation, among other things.
Belarusian Authorities Seek Dissolution Of Top Human Rights Group