Update: On September 30, the Belarusian Supreme Court upheld the government’s move to liquidate the Belarusian Helsinki Committee. The ruling cannot be appealed.
(Berlin) – The Belarusian Justice Ministry has filed a lawsuit to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, one of the country’s oldest independent human rights groups, Human Rights Watch said today. On September 30, 2021, the Belarus Supreme Court is scheduled to hold a hearing on the lawsuit. The move is part of wider effort by Belarusian authorities to silence all independent or critical voices in the country.
In a September 22 letter, five international human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged the Justice Ministry to withdraw its lawsuit, calling it “inappropriate [and] inconsistent with the Belarusian government’s obligations to respect and protect the legitimate work of human rights defenders.” They also said the lawsuit “violates a number of fundamental rights, including those of freedom of expression and association and due process.”
“The Belarusian Helsinki Committee has a long record defending a wide range of human rights in the country and has worked with integrity to protect the rights everyone in Belarus,” said Rachel Denber, deputy Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The lawsuit is blatant retaliation for the group’s work and is another piece of the effort to annihilate the human rights movement in Belarus.”
In recent months Belarusian authorities have taken measures to close more than 200 independent groups. Some of the country’s most prominent rights groups, including the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Lawtrend, Human Constanta, Office for the Rights of People with Disabilities, and the Belarusian Press Club, have already been forcibly closed. Authorities have also jailed, pending trial on criminal charges, seven members of another of Belarus’s top human rights groups, Viasna.
The lawsuit, filed on August 27, alleges discrepancies in financial information the Belarusian Helsinki Committee provided the ministry. The ministry’s petition to the Supreme Court, which Human Rights Watch read, said that these discrepancies constitute a “one-time gross violation of the law.” The petition also stated that the documents exposing the discrepancies came to light as part of a criminal investigation but does not provide any information about that investigation.
The September 22 letter from international organizations said the move to dissolve the Belarusian Helsinki Committee was “an attempt to impose a draconian, punitive and irreversible penalty to bring about the elimination of a long-standing body of human rights defenders.”
“The Belarusian authorities’ efforts at eviscerating independent groups have been comprehensive, but it is never too late to stop and reverse course,” Denber said. “A good place to start is to drop the arbitrary lawsuit against the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.”