Justice Ministry official resigns due to Belarus-related scandal

  • 2011-08-24
  • By Rokas M. Tracevskis

VILNIUS - On Aug. 18, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite asked Justice Minister Remigijus Simasius to come to her office due to the recent Belarus-related scandal. The Justice Ministry has been severely criticized for having provided financial information on two Belarus-based human rights activists to the Minsk authorities. While Grybauskaite and Simasius talked, Ausra Bernotiene, director of the International Law Department at the Justice Ministry, laid down her letter of resignation on the table of Simasius’ office, as she was the highest standing ministry person who signed the scandalous data transfer to Minsk. Interestingly, the husband of Bernotiene has his law office in Belarus, but there is no proof that this could somehow have influenced her action regarding the request from Minsk. It seems that this data transmission to Belarus was just a brainless implementation of the Lithuanian-Belarusian agreement on cooperation in criminal cases, which was frozen by Lithuania after the scandal.

“The minister should strictly and quickly evaluate his employees,” Zivile Didzgalviene, adviser of Grybauskaite, said after the meeting of Grybauskaite and Simasius. Didzgalviene also pointed to the lack of coordination of actions between the government’s ministries and urged the solving of that communication problem.

“There were three persons who put their signatures in this case,” Simasius said. Opposition in the Parliament, especially the Order and Justice Party, speaks about the possible impeachment of Simasius and Foreign Minister Audronius Azubalis due to the scandal, but the proportion of seats is not in favor of the opposition in the parliament and these ministers must not worry too much.

The Prosecutor General’s Office of Poland and the Lithuanian Justice Ministry passed on the information on the bank accounts of two human rights activists to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime at the request of Minsk officials. The information resulted in the detention of Ales Byalyatski, head of the Belarus Human Rights Center Viasna, in Belarus. In Minsk, he is accused of tax evasion and faces up to seven years in prison, although he used his private bank accounts in foreign countries for getting donations from international sponsors for his center’s activity. The Belarusian KGB uses the old tactics of the Soviet KGB, which used to fabricate criminal cases against dissidents because such cases, unlike openly political cases, provoke less noise in the Western world. Another Belarusian activist, Valyantsin Stefanovich, can get some punishment, not resulting in his imprisonment, because the sum on his accounts was not sufficient for imprisonment (less than 5,000 euros, which would be punishable with imprisonment for tax evasion), according to laws of Belarus.

The chronology of the scandalous events is not so short. On Feb. 2, the Belarusian Justice Ministry asked the Lithuanian Justice Ministry for the data on bank accounts in Lithuania-based banks of Byalyatski and Stefanovich (there were only eight requests related to financial data from Belarus this year, according to the magazine Veidas, though requests regarding other data are quite common – Lithuania sends information on more than 500 criminal suspects to Belarus per year). DnB Nord bank immediately supplied such data on the request of the Lithuanian Justice Ministry and it was passed on to the Belarusian Justice Ministry on March 28, while SEB bank refused to pass along such data. The Lithuanian Justice Ministry appealed to the court in Vilnius, where Judge Jurate Gaidyte-Lavrinovic ruled that SEB must obey the request and, finally, on June 6, the data from SEB was also sent by the Lithuanian Justice Ministry to Minsk.

On June 21, after receiving some warning from the USA (according to unofficial information) about the dirty intentions of Minsk, the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry asked the Lithuanian Justice Ministry to stop temporarily data supplies on requests from Minsk. Lithuanian officials informed Byalyatski about the fatal mistake committed by the Lithuanian Justice Ministry. “We had contacts with Byalyatski and his family in June. He had the possibility to stay in Lithuania and ask for political asylum,” said Asta Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene, Lithuania’s quite slim foreign vice-minister, in her rather sexy low voice during her briefing after Byalyatski was detained in Minsk on Aug. 4 (Lithuania is a popular destination for Belarusian opposition leaders when they decide to get political asylum abroad – after the Byalyatski scandal, Natallya Radzina, editor of the most popular Belarusian news site, charter97.org, which, like many other opposition organizations of Belarus, has its main base in Vilnius, asked for political asylum in Lithuania). 

Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene was forced to use her charm twice in August – she also needed to explain why the Lithuanian embassy in Minsk issued a visa to Alla Bodak, Belarusian justice vice-minister, who is placed on the EU’s black list which forbids entry into the EU. Bodak was stopped at the Lithuanian border and forced to go back to Belarus, though she had a valid visa. Skaisgiryte-Liauskiene explained this visa issuance was a technical mistake made due to different transcription rules in EU official languages, which includes Lithuanian, from alphabets of non-Latin letters. The Lithuanian transcription can differ from the transcription in the pan-EU database. It allowed Mikhail Golovatov, former head of the Soviet KGB group Alpha suspected of killings of civilians in Vilnius in January of 1991, to get a Schengen visa from Finland (now annulled after Golovatov’s short detention in Austria) because in the Lithuania-issued European Arrest Warrant he was “Michail Golovatov.” Lithuanian prosecutors had not enough knowledge about this to understand that “Mikhail” is the only possible written version of this name in Golovatov’s Russian passport.

Some Austrian media, and especially media in Lithuania, were full of suggestions that the Byalyatski incident weakens the Lithuanian position in the Golovatov case. According to political analyst Vladimiras Laucius, such suggestions are groundless because the Austrian law-and-order institutions acted with premeditation and under pressure from Russia, with the top Austrian political leaders covering up the case, while the Byalyatski incident is the result of pure technocratic stupidity which is now investigated by Lithuanian officials who are expressing their apologies, while some members of the Lithuanian Seimas even speak about the necessity to increase Lithuanian financial support for the Belarusian opposition.