lawyer at Viasna, sentenced to 7 years in prison
Date of birth: 22 October 1978
Date of detention: 14 July 2021
Art. 228 of the Criminal Code — Contraband
Part 2 of Art. 342 of the Criminal Code — Financing of group actions that grossly violate public order
Sentence: 7 years
Penalty: imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony
Prison sentence start date: 21 April 2023
Judge: Maryna Zapasnik
Prosecutor: Aliaksandr Karol
Prison: Penal colony No. 17
Godparent: Stefan Gelbhaar, Member of the German Bundestag
Uladzimir Labkovich is a lawyer at Viasna and the coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign. He has been engaged in human rights activities at Viasna for 23 years. He joined the work of the human rights center in 1998 as a volunteer. After the presidential elections in 2001, he became a full member of Viasna.
Uladzimir Labkovich was detained together with his wife Nina Labkovich on July 14, 2021 after a search in their apartment. They were taken to the Financial Investigation Department and then to the Investigative Committee for interrogation.
During his imprisonment, his health has deteriorated significantly. He complains of frequent headaches, insomnia, and vision impairment. In his letters to his colleagues, he expresses his worries about his daughter and twin sons.
On September 26, 2022, it became known that the criminal charges of ‘tax evasion’ under Part 2 of Article 243 of the Criminal Code against Valiantsin Stefanovich, Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Labkovich, and other Viasna members were dropped. However, Bialiatski, Labkovich, and Stefanovich were not released from custody as they were charged with ‘smuggling’ by "having illegally been moving cash across the customs border of the Eurasian Economic Union in large amounts by an organized group” under Part 4 of Article 228, and with ‘financing of group activities, grossly breaching public order’ under Part 2 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code. It is known that the state's claims refer to the same amount of money, which appeared in the charges of tax evasion. The three political prisoners faced from 7 to 12 years in prison.
The Belarusian human rights community nominated Uladzimir Labkovich for the title of Human Rights Defender 2022.
On November 28, 2022, the General Prosecutor's Office sent the Viasna case to the court. The trial began on January 5, 2023 in the Lieninski District Court of Minsk. The case was considered by Judge Maryna Zapasnik, with Aliaksandr Karol as the prosecutor. Ales Bialiatski, Valiantsin Stefanovich, and Uladzimir Labkovich did not plead guilty to any of the criminal charges.
On March 3, 2023, in the Lieninski District Court of Minsk, Judge Marina Zapasnik sentenced:
- Ales Bialiatski, the chairman of Viasna and Nobel laureate, to 10 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony
- Valiantsin Stefanovich, the deputy chairman of Viasna and the vice-president of FIDH, to 9 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony
- Uladzimir Labkovich, a lawyer and the coordinator of the Human Rights Defenders for Free Elections campaign, to 7 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony
- Zmitser Salauyou, a human rights defender of Viasna, to 8 years of imprisonment (in absentia).
The sentence is two years shorter than that requested by the prosecutor Aliaksandr Karol. All of the defendants, except Ales Bialiatski, were also fined BYN 111,000 (approx. USD 38,950). The chairman of Viasna Ales Bialiatski was fined, as requested by the prosecutor, BYN 185,000 (approx. USD 64,912). Besides, it was decided to jointly and severally collect from Bialiatski, Stefanovich, Labkovich, and Salauyou the amount of BYN 752,438 (approx. USD 297,650), which they allegedly "obtained by criminal means" through "smuggling by an organized criminal group". That was the very amount that had appeared in the charge under Part 4 of Art. 228 of the Criminal Code.
The sentence has not yet entered into force, and the human rights defenders can appeal it.
Their colleagues, other human rights defenders, the international community and ordinary Belarusians have reacted harshly to the sentence. The UN issued a statement on this occasion.
Prosecutor Aliaksandr Karol filed an appeal against the sentence: he had demanded two-year longer prison sentences and larger fines, but Judge Maryna Zapasnik passed a different sentence.
On April 21, 2023, in the Minsk City Court, Judge Sviatlana Bandarenka considered the appeals against the verdict filed by the political prisoners and their defenders. She uphold the sentence and dismissed their appeals.
On May 2, 2023, it became known that the human rights defender was transferred from remand prison #1 in Minsk to penal colony #17 in Shkloŭ, Mahilioŭ region.
“Criminal prosecution of Viasna members is not related to their work,” authorities responded to the UN request
The website of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has published the official response of the Belarusian government to the request of four Special Rapporteurs on the search and detention of human rights defenders, NGO representatives, and independent media, which took place in July 2021.