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Belarus Scolded For 'Bogus' Tax Probes

by Tatiana Smolenskaya,, Russia

13 March 2013

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has denounced Belarusian authorities' "harassment" of the last human rights organization authorized to operate nationally, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee.

According to Human Rights Watch, on February 25, 2013, the Belarusian tax authority served a warrant to seize the property of Aleh Hulak, the organization's leader, in what HRW claims is government authorities' "latest effort to abuse tax and administration regulations to silence the independent rights monitoring group."

Rachel Denber, the deputy European and Central Asia director of HRW, stated: “Yet again, the Belarusian authorities are using bogus tax claims to harass human rights activists. The authorities can pretend that these are routine legal measures, but their intentions are blatant - to silence the last remaining critical voices in the country.”

Recounting the lead up to the latest accusations, HRW said that in 2004 the Taxation Ministry ordered the group to pay BYR155m (approximately USD18,000) in taxes and fines related to grants it received from the European Commission in 2002 and 2003. Under an agreement Belarus signed with the European Commission, these grants should have been tax-exempt. In 2004 and 2005, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee successfully appealed this order.

However in 2006, during the period leading up to the presidential elections, the Supreme Economic Court of Belarus overruled the previous court's rulings. Following this decision, the Government confiscated the Belarusian Helsinki Committee’s property, although its value was considerably less than the amount demanded by the Taxation Ministry.

In 2007, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee sued the Belarus Council of Ministers, or cabinet, for the value of the confiscated property. The group said it had suffered damages as the result of the council’s failure to bring the country’s legislation in line with the country’s agreements with the EU, including for funding civil society. The Supreme Economic Court dismissed the claim, holding that the Council of Ministers was “not a legal entity.”

In June 2011, Belarus's Justice Ministry warned the group that it was liable for “ongoing tax law violations,” and in December 2011, the Taxation Ministry asked the Justice Ministry to begin procedures for dissolving the group on those grounds. According to HRW, the sum of debt authorities allege BHC now owes amounts to BYR284m (approximately USD32,000).

Belarusian Helsinki Committee's leader, Hulak, has resorted to renting office furniture and equipment to prevent it from being seized, but believes his organization may soon be shut down.

Human Rights Watch claims that Belarusian authorities "routinely harass human rights defenders, independent media and defense lawyers."

"At least 12 political prisoners remain behind bars. Among them is Ales Bialiatski - the head of the Belarusian group Human Rights Center Viasna - who has been in prison since his arrest in August 2011, and is serving a four-and-a-half-year prison term on bogus tax evasion charges," HRW said, adding: "Bialiatski’s deputy, Valiantsin Stefanovich, had to pay a large fine on similar grounds. In 2012, several other human rights activists were summoned to the tax offices and told to provide proof of the sources of their income for several years."

Bialiatski's case drew international criticism in August 2011 led by Lithuanian authorities who alleged that Belarus had abused the Multilateral Legal Assistance to gain confidential data specifically on human rights protestors, including on Byalyatski.

Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, at the time warned Belarus. She expressed concern "over reports that the authorities in Belarus detained Mr Ales Bialiatski, a prominent human rights defender who is chairman of the non-governmental organization Viasna and Vice President of the International Human Rights Federation, and that Mr Bialiatski's private residence was searched, with the participation of the state security services."

"The High Representative calls on the authorities in Minsk to clarify as a matter of urgency the reasons for the reported detention of Bialiatski. The High Representative reiterates her strong regret at repeated acts of intimidation and harassment of peaceful human rights defenders in Belarus, and at the continued refusal to grant legal status to independent human rights organizations in the country."

TAGS: court | tax | European Commission | law | tax authority | agreements | legislation | Belarus | regulation | Lithuania | services | Europe

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