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Human Rights

Minsk authorities close human rights office

The Belarusian government has closed Viasna's office in Minsk, hoping to end the NGO's work in the country. But the human rights activists have pledged to continue their fight against despotism.

Belarusian authorities this week closed down the Minsk office of the country's leading human rights organisation, Viasna ("spring") in downtown Minsk. The shutdown was part of a court ruling against the group's founder Ales Beliatski.

In November 2011, the human rights activist was sentenced to four and a half years in jail, allegedly for tax evasion. The court ordered authorities to confiscate his property, including the Viasna office registered under his name. A year later, on Monday (26.11.2012), marshals sealed the NGO's offices.

The evacuation comes as a major blow to the human rights activists. A group of journalists and representatives from other human rights organisations gathered at the office ahead of the eviction, which had been announced a week in advance.

Activists lose base

Deputy chairman Valentin Stefanovitch called the shutdown "a sad affair", as the office had become a second home to the activists over the past 12 years. Thousands of people knew Viasna's address, he said. "This is where people came when they needed our help," he said. "And we tried to help. Reporters knew our office, and so did politicians and regular citizens," Stefanovitch said.

Ales Bialiatski behind bars EPA/TATYANA ZENKOVICH

Behind bars: Viasna founder Ales Bialiatski

Tatiana Reviako, a member of Viasna's board of directors, said the evacuation is a turning point in the NGO's history. She pointed out the organization had expected such a turn of events, but would not accept it. "We bristle at the thought that we will never come back here again," she said.

The loss of an office, however, will not keep Viasna from continuing its work,  Valentin Stefanovitch said, adding the activists would resume their work next year from a different location. The opposition group For Freedom has promised to help Viasna out with office space. "We are showing solidarity with the human rights activists," the group's head Chef Alaksandar Milinkievic said.

Fight against authorities

Viasna has supported victims of state political repression since 1996, offering legal and financial aid for political prisoners and their families. The group has, however, been forced to operate more or less clandestinely in Belarus for many years. In 2003, authorities withdrew the organization's state permit after Viasna participated as an observer in the 2001 presidential elections. All efforts to recover accreditation failed.

As a result, Viasna followed in the footsteps of many other Belarusian NGOs and sought refuge in neigboring Poland and Lithuania. There, the organization opened bank accounts for financial donations from foreign supporters.

In the end, these bank accounts proved to be Viasna leader Beliatski's undoing: the Minsk authorities used the existence of these foreign bank accounts to convict the human rights activist for tax evasion.

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