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Leading rights defender detained

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - Moscow, August 5, 2011 - Belarusian authorities should immediately free a leading human rights activist, Ales Belyatsky, whom police detained on August 4, 2011, in Minsk on politically motivated allegations of tax evasion, Human Rights Watch said today. The investigation against Belyatsky, who is head of the Belarusian human rights group Viasna and vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights in Minsk, is a thinly veiled tactic to imprison a prominent human rights defender and should be discontinued, Human Rights Watch said.

At approximately 5:20 p.m. on August 4, financial police dressed in civilian clothing detained Belyatsky on Minsk's Freedom Square. They told him that he was being detained as part of an investigation into financial crimes and that they had a warrant to search his apartment.

"Belyatsky's arrest is a clear case of retaliation against him and Viasna for their human rights work," said Hugh Williamson, Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "It's the latest in a long series of efforts by the government to crush Belarus's civil society."

Viasna is one of the leading human rights organizations in Belarus that provided legal and financial assistance to support political prisoners and their families following the 2011 pro-democracy protests in Belarus. The authorities withdrew Viasna's registration after it monitored the 2001 presidential elections, and have routinely denied it registration since. Under Belarusian law, participation in the work of a non-registered association constitutes a criminal offense.

A Viasna staff member told Human Rights Watch that Belyatsky is being held in relation to article 243 part 2 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, "tax evasion on a particularly large scale," which is subject to penalties of up to seven years in prison and confiscation of all property.

Belyatsky's arrest appears to stem from the use of his personal bank account in Lithuania to support human rights work in Belarus. Belarusian authorities have refused to register on a national level all but one of the independent human rights organizations in the country. As a result, an unregistered group cannot open a bank account in the organization's name in Belarus or meet the terms set out in financial regulations.

"In reality what the Belarus authorities are doing to civil society and Belyatsky in particular, amounts to entrapment," Williamson said. "First they push human rights defenders to work in the margins of the law, deny them capacity to function, then when they seek to continue to work in the only way they can, the authorities use criminal law, pretending that it has nothing to do with their human rights work. Any intelligent observer knows different."

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Click here to read the full press release

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