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Belarusian Rights Activist Byalyatski Goes On Trial


Rights Activist Ales Byalyatski Goes On Trial
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WATCH: Ales Byalyatski appeared resigned to the proceedings, posing for journalists in the caged dock at the start of the trial on November 2, smiling politely, and wearing a red shirt over an exposed T-shirt that read "Vyasna." (natural sound; by RFE/RL's Belarus Service)


MINSK -- The trial in Minsk has begun of prominent Belarusian human rights activist Ales Byalyatski in a case that has drawn international condemnation, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports.

Byalyatski, the head of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, was arrested on August 4 and later charged with tax evasion.

FOLLOW THE TRIAL: RFE/RL's Belarus Service live-blogs the November 2 court proceedings (in Belarusian)

The charges stem from Byalyatski's reported use of personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to receive funding from international donors in support of human rights work in Belarus. If convicted, he could face up to seven years in prison and the confiscation of his assets.

Byalyatski's colleagues and supporters say the case against him is politically motivated. He had been circulating reports on Belarusian authorities' crackdown on peaceful protests since a disputed presidential election in December 2010.

Byalyatski pleaded not guilty and made two requests -- to be released from pretrial detention before the trial ends and to have the proceedings conducted in Belarusian.

Judge Syarhey Bandarenka rejected both requests and offered Byalyatski the services of a Belarusian-Russian translator. Translator Katsyaryna Yermakova signed the necessary papers and took her seat next to Byalyatski's lawyer, Zmitser Layeuski.

RFE/RL's Belarus Service reports that representatives of the European Union and United States were present in the courtroom for the start of the trial.

Also on hand were leading opposition figure and former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Oleh Volchek, whose Public Legal Assistance organization was shut down by the authorities in 2003, as well as Paval Sapelka, who was disbarred on March 3 after having represented jailed presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau, and prominent literary figures Barys Pyatrovich and Eduard Akulin.

Belarusian opposition activist Ina Kuley was ordered to leave the courtroom because she was wearing a T-shirt with Byalyatski's portrait.

Byalyatski's wife was not in the courtroom, as per his request.

The prosecutor questioned Byalyatski about his profession and occupation. Byalyatski answered that he had been working as a writer, a Polish-Belarusian translator since 2007, and had always paid taxes.

Byalyatski also told the prosecutor he had never been involved in any commercial activities and was not paid for his work as vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights.

The prosecutor mentioned Byalyatski's accounts in Lithuania's Nordbank and the Polish Bank Slaski with a combined balance of 550,000 euros ($750,000).

The prosecutor said Byalyatski caused "large-scale" financial damage to the government by failing to pay to the state treasury 352.3 million Belarusian rubles ($42,585) that he owed in profit tax.

Byalyatski answered that it was not clear what proportion of the total balance in his bank accounts the investigation considered "profit." He again affirmed that he was not guilty and that the charges against him were politically motivated.

"I am certain the authorities are persecuting me for my political views, my human rights activities, and my open criticism of the current authorities," Byalyatski said.

Aleh Hulak, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, said the tax-evasion charges were false.

"In our country, unfortunately, there are gross violations of freedom of association and therefore, in order for Vyasna to perform its functions, Byalyatski was simply forced to resort to this device where money had to be kept in personal bank accounts abroad," Hulak said.

Human Rights Watch said in a November 1 statement that "by prosecuting Byalyatski the authorities are trying to finally slam the door shut on human rights work in Belarus."

Byalyatski's arrest also embarrassed European Union members Lithuania and Poland when it emerged that both had helped the case against him by handing over financial information on him to the Belarusian authorities.

with agency reports