COPENHAGEN, 25 November 2011 – OSCE Parliamentary Assembly leaders today expressed deep disappointment with yesterday's ruling in the case of Ales Bialiatski, leader of the Belarusian human rights organization Viasna.

On 24 November, the Pervomaiski District Court of Minsk sentenced Bialiatski to four and a half years in prison, confiscation of property and a fine for "concealment of profits on an especially large scale in pursuance of prior agreements."

"Rule of law is a key element in a developed, democratic society. We have been following the developments with Belarus with grave concern," said PA President Petros Efthymiou. "After observing the 2010 elections and the post-election trials, the OSCE called for significant reform of the justice system in this participating State. The OSCE PA has repeatedly called for the immediate and unconditional release of political prisoners in Belarus."

"From its inception, this case has been a tragic violation of human rights," said Matteo Mecacci (Italy), chair of the OSCE PA Committee on Democracy, Human Rights and Humanitarian Questions. "Bialiatski and his courageous colleagues were conducting exceptional work in Belarus. Since the closure of the OSCE Office in Minsk, these voices are fewer and fewer. This case represents the next step in the obvious pattern of harassment and intimidation of dissenting voices in Belarus. I call on the authorities of Belarus to remember and implement their OSCE commitments in human rights – civil society must be able to freely operate in Belarus."

Human rights organizations have said the trial amounts to judicial harassment. Bialiatski was arrested 4 August after the authorities of neighbouring Poland and Lithuania (current OSCE chair-in-office) provided the Belarusian authorities with his information on Bialiatski's bank accounts, which had been used to support human rights activities in Belarus.

Bialiatski's non-governmental organization, Viasna, has been repeatedly denied registration in Belarus, where it is illegal to conduct activities "on behalf of unregistered organizations." Subsequently, Bialiatski was arrested in Minsk for tax evasion. Viasna is prominent for its human rights and democratization work. Belarus recently introduced provisions further limiting freedom of association whereby civil society organizations are prohibited from holding foreign bank accounts.

Representatives of Viasna have participated in many international forums, including the Belarus side event at the OSCE PA Annual Session in Belgrade. The OSCE PA ad hoc Working Group on Belarus, chaired by German parliamentarian Uta Zapf, frequently meets with civil society from Belarus on the margins of OSCE PA events. The Group has not been able to visit Minsk since the December 2010 Belarusian elections.