Mr. Bialiatski, a veteran rights campaigner and founder of Viasna (or “spring”) civil society group, was arrested in July 2021 on tax evasion charges, along with two other activists, and reportedly held in dreadful conditions in a prison in Minsk. Their trial began on Thursday.
“We are gravely concerned by the trial of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski which started in Belarus on Thursday. Bialiatski faces up to 12 years in jail,” said OHCHR spokesperson Jeremy Laurence.
“Two other representatives of his Viasna Human Rights Center are also facing prison sentences. We have serious concerns about the conduct of their trial”, he added. “We call for the charges against them to be dropped and their immediate release from detention.”
The appeal from the UN rights office comes amid increasing concerns about tightening legislation in Belarus that restricts civil and political rights, that followed violent crackdowns against hundreds of thousands of protesters who contested the result of presidential elections in August 2020.
In response, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have reportedly left the country in the last two years, while “an unprecedented number are fleeing persecution and prospects for a safe return under the current leadership grow bleaker”, said Anaïs Marin, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, in an alert last year.
Speaking to journalists in Geneva, Mr. Laurence insisted that the UN rights office was following the case closely and remained in “constant engagement” with the Belarusian authorities.
“Suffice to say that we consider these to be arbitrary arrests – constitute arbitrary detention – and the charges are simply politically motivated,” he added.
In previous appeals for the release of Mr. Bialiatski, senior rights experts who report to the Human Rights Council described his arrest as “part of an unfolding policy to silence human rights defenders and eradicate the civic space in Belarus”.
Mr. Bialiatski had been carrying out “legitimate human rights work” when he was detained, the experts said, before reminding Belarusian authorities of their obligations to uphold human rights and the immediate release of all rights activists detained on politically motivated grounds.