Will Belarus oligarchs follow suit after Mikhalchanka's win over EU?
The Court of the European Union has ruled to lift sanctions against ONT TV channel's journalist Aliaksei Mikhalchanka from Belarus. In 2011, he was banned from entering the EU member states in response to the violent crackdown on civil society in Belarus after the December 2010 post-election protests. Mikhalchanka, the host of the TV evening show The Way It Is..., filed a law suit with the Court of the European Union in Luxembourg. His defense lawyer was Lithuanian attornery Mazvydas Michalauskas who lilves in Paris. In 2012, Mikhalchanka was featured again in the updated 'black list'.
"We had a strong position with many arguments, explains Michalauskas. One of the decisive arguments was the procedural one. It was just that Mikhalchanka was not notified on time and we failed to support our case with arguments against the 2012 sanctions. The Council made a decision without having heard the other side - something that is not allowed under the law of procedure. If someone is accused of something, he or she must lay his arguments. That did not happen. It was much easier with the 2011 sanctions. They simply judged the motives had nothing to do with reality."
The lawyer explains that the Council of the EU brought no proof that Mikhalchanka had something to do with the repressions and violations of the electoral laws. The court recognized that his TV show was a propaganda program but saw no connection between propaganda and the violations of electoral laws, adds Andrei Yeloseyeu, an analyst with Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies.
"In principle, the court agreed with the arguments of the Council of the EU that ONT's TV show The Way It Is... is a good example of Belarusian media bias by supporting Lukashenka during the elections and offered no comprehended analysis and coverage of other candidates. This way, it was a mechanism of state propaganda supporting only one candidate - the incumbant. But the Council of the EU failed to prove there was connection. Mikhalchanka was blacklisted as as a person responsible for the violations of electoral laws and pressure on the opposition. But there is no immediate connection between propaganda and repressions. Therefore, the judgement was predictable. I reckon if he was subjected to sanctions under a different wording, he would most likey have lost."
Michalauskas' another client was Vadzim Ipatau, a member of Central Elections Commission. Unlike Mikhalchanka, he has lost his case against the Council of the EU and is unable to travel to EU member countries. But the lawyer is going to appeal the ruling on the grounds that CEC does not count votes but rather sums up the results from consituency commissions. Therefore, he did not take part in the violations of electoral laws, according to the defense lawyer.
Apart from Mikhalchanka and Ipatau, at least three more people - businessmen Uladzimir Peftsiyeu, Yury Chyzh and Anatol Ternauski - filed suits with the Court of the European Union.
"Their lawyers also try to make use of this loophole. They target the weak wording. If Peftsiyeu is banned as a person associated with Lukashenka, the defense lawyers ask to come up with a solid evidence that those people are very close to Lukashenka and enjoy benefits from being close to him, indeed."
Journalist Vadzim Hihin also was set to sue the Council but it is not totally clear if he did so. He refused to talk to Euroradio about it.
Andrei Yeliseyeu does not regard the ruling in Mikhalchanka case as an outstanding precedent. Previously, the Court of the European Union passed judgements about the abolition of 'black lists' with regard to persons from other countries than Belarus. Several blacklisted people from Iran filed their lawsuit with the Court of the EU.