• Belarus government releases human rights defender (Photo: Marco Fieber)

Belarus releases top human rights defender

23.06.14 @ 09:30

  1. By Nikolaj Nielsen
  2. Nikolaj email
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BRUSSELS - Belarus human rights defender Ales Bialiatski was released from prison on Saturday (21 June) after spending almost three years in a penal colony on charges of tax evasion.

Belarus authorities gave no reason for his sudden release. But Bialiatski, who heads Minsk-based human rights centre Viasna, in a statement attributed national and international pressure on the Belarus regime.

“It is the support I received from all of you, all the national and international intervention from the day I was arrested that made it possible for me to be released today,” he said.

The Nobel prize nominee was dragged off by KGB agents in black hoods in late 2011 over allegations of “large-scale tax evasion” and sentenced to 4.5 years of hard labour.

He had held foreign accounts in Lithuania and Poland to help finance the struggling human rights centre in Minsk.

Authorities in both member states handed over account details to Belarus, a move both later regretted.

"It was a tragic mistake for Viasna, for me, and for Bialiatski and it shows that EU co-operation with this regime is very dangerous. But it was our government who imprisoned Bialiatski, not Lithuania or Poland," Viasna’s vice-president said a few months after his detention.

Bialiatski’s wife, Natalya, at the time told this website in a cafe in central Minsk she had lost hope of an early release.

KGB agents had been trailing her since the launch of his trial in late 2011. At first, she found it intimidating, she said.

She would quicken her pace, then slow down and repeat whenever she was followed. In the metro she hid behind columns to lose agents.

But when they came to their home, Natalya found it difficult to maintain eye contact with her husband.

“It was difficult to look at my husband because he understood what problems he had created for his family. He avoided looking into my eyes. We both understood why. He then said goodbye to his son,” she said.

After his detention, the Paris-based Federation International of Human Rights (FIDH) launched a campaign for his release.

Belarus authorities attempted to shut down the human rights centre. Launched in 1996, Viasna supports civil society and activists in a wider effort to promote democracy and human rights in the country.

The EU, for its part, described his detention as politically motivated.

“After almost three years of imprisonment on politically motivated grounds, he can now finally rejoin his family and friends,” said a spokesperson in a statement at the EU’s foreign policy branch.

Human rights defenders say at least six other people remain in prison for political activism, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Among them is former presidential candidate 56-year old Mikola Statkevich.

The paper cites analysts as saying Bialiatski’s early release may be an attempt by Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko to mend ties with the West.

The EU has imposed travel restrictions and asset bans on around 230 members of Lukashenko’s inner circle following the December 2010 crackdown against political opponents.

The EU extended the restrictive measures last October, which are set to expire on 31 October 2014.

The 20-year leader of Belarus is said to have increasingly strained ties with the Kremlin.