On this day six months ago, Ales Bialiatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center Viasna, his deputy Valiantsin Stefanovich and lawyer of the organization Uladzimir Labkovich have been detained. They and other Viasna members were searched by officers of the Financial Investigations Department on July 14. Since that day, three Viasna members have been in custody, and the Minsk offices of Viasna have been sealed. What relatives say about the detained Viasna members, how they met the New Year without their loved ones, and what the human rights defenders write in their letters–in our story.
The criminal case against Viasna members is being investigated by Major of Justice Anton Kaliaha, an investigator for particularly important cases of the The Main Department for Investigation of Crimes in the Sphere of Organized Crime and Corruption of the Central Office of the Investigative Committee.
The main claim of the state to the human rights defenders is that they did not register the Human Rights Center Viasna. This led the authorities to conclude that Viasna activists avoided recognizing the organization as a tax agent and fulfilling its obligations, which means they “evaded payment of income tax to be calculated, withheld from the taxpayer and transferred to the budget by the tax agent by concealing the tax base for the period from 2013 to 2020 in the total amount of not less than 113,428 rubles, and caused damage to the state on a large scale.”
It is not known at what stage of the investigation into the case and whether any investigative actions are under way. Human rights defenders' lawyers are under non-disclosure orders and the prisoners also cannot write about the case in their letters, since all mails are undergoing censorship.
Viasna's offices in Minsk on Miaržynskaha Street and Niezaliežnasci Avenue are sealed and cannot be used.
The relatives have no information about the progress of the case and investigative actions involving Ales Bialiatski, as his lawyers are under a non-disclosure order. Ales's wife is most worried about her husband's health. She says that behind bars his health condition has significantly worsened. In addition, Ales is now suffering from a sore throat, he wrote in a recent mail.
According to the wife and colleagues of the Viasna chairman, they rarely receive letters from him.
In a New Year's letter, Ales wrote about his birthday next September, when he will turn 60, and drew a parallel with the last anniversary:
“Next year is a jubilee for me. It will probably be like the 50th anniversary again.”
To recap, human rights defender Ales Bialiatski celebrated his 50th birthday in Babrujsk penal colony ten years ago, in 2012.
After Valiantsin Stefanovich was detained, his wife Alina and her children left for Georgia, where they have been living for six months. Alina says that she had no illusions that the situation with her husband's arrest would soon be resolved and he would be released:
“It's obvious that the regime is just taking revenge on human rights defenders. This is the revenge of the state for helping the people who suffered from repressions. That's why it was obvious from the very beginning that it wouldn't end with some kind of audit of the activities, for example. These actions [arrest of human rights defenders] were aimed directly at isolating the leaders of Viasna.”
Alina says that Valiantsin's mood is now as normal as possible in detention:
“He is not losing his optimism and good mood. I think he even supports the rest of the people who are with him in the same cell.”
In December, Valiantsin got pneumonia. Now he has recovered and no longer complains about his health, but he will need some time to recover and gain strength.
Valiantsin's 16-year-old son Adam, 11-year-old daughter Yana and Marta, who is only four, are waiting for him from prison. Alina says that the children send their drawings to the father, and he, in turn, sends them his:
“But it’s all hard. My eldest daughter, when she sees her father's drawing, starts crying. … [The kids] need to hear from their father, but it is a sad event, not without tears.”
Alina says that this is the first time when Stefanovich family will meet the new year without Valiantsin.
“The absence of [Valiantsin’s] was felt. It's important to me to keep all the rituals, so we made gingerbread cookies like we always do, and we put up a big Christmas tree and made dinner. We also wrote a list with the kids of 12 things we want to get rid of next year. And our eldest daughter wrote ‘Lukashenka’ as the first item.”
Valiantsin, in turn, told his wife about his New Year in prison:
“But through the open window we heard the rumble of New Year's Eve fireworks and firecrackers, which started at 23:34! We were very excited. […] Of course, it was a little sad that we were not with our relatives now. […] I believe in the best, in miracles, in the fact that everything will be fine!”
In his letters to his wife, Valiantsin writes how much he misses his family:
“I miss you very much, my darlings, the dearest in the world.”
According to Uladzimir Labkovich's mother Liudmila, the correspondence with her son has decreased lately, with only a few letters from the family being forwarded to him. Even New Year greetings have not been passed on to him:
“ I have not received holiday greetings from Nina [my wife], my children. I almost do not receive letters from them. Everyone in the cell gets piles of letters. And I have not received a single one.”
During his six-month imprisonment, Uladzimir 's health deteriorated significantly. He complains of frequent headaches and insomnia. His eyesight has also deteriorated badly.
Uladzimir has a daughter and two twin boys, each 8 years old, waiting for him at home. He is very worried that they are growing up without him and he cannot take part in their upbringing. Liudmila says that in every letter her son writes how much he loves his kids.
In his letters to his colleagues, Viasna member wrote how he spent the evening of December 31:
“They don't celebrate New Year here. We had dinner and went to bed by 10 pm. That's even good. Everyone laid down and thought about their own things."