Ales Bialiatski’s book Enlightened by Belarusianness (Asvechanyia Belaruschunai) could “damage the image of the Republic of Belarus”, say the results of an expert examination ordered by Ashmiany customs department. 40 copies of the book were confiscated from human rights defender Tatsiana Reviaka on the Belarusian-Lithuanian border on July 3 this year.
The conclusions of the expert commission were received by Mrs. Reviaka on September 5. This was preceded by two months of correspondence with the customs authorities.
A notice sent to Tatsiana Reviaka on July 5 said that the examination would be carried out by head of the chief department for ideological work, youth and culture of Hrodna regional executive committee. On July 15 the human rights defender sent a petition to request a copy of the examination order, as well as information on the qualifications of the expert, including his or her education, degree, professional experience and the experience of conducting similar examinations. When doing that, she was guided by Article 138 of the Customs Code of the Customs Union, according to which “a customs examination shall be appointed by the customs authorities and carried out by customs experts as well as experts from other authorized organizations”, while the expert may be a person who “possesses the necessary expertise to give expert opinion.” In his response to the request, acting director of the customs department Siarhei Samushchau said (his reply was dated July 22, 2013), that the Ashmiany customs did not known who would conduct the examination, while the decision on the appointment of the examination had mentioned the name, P.K. Skarabko. In order to clarify the controversial response, Tatsiana Reviaka sent another petition to reiterate her previous demands, to provide information on the qualifications of Mr. P.K. Skarabko. This was followed by another stupid answer that completely ignored the petition.
After receiving this response, Tatsiana Reviaka sent on August 14 appeals to the State Customs Committee, expressing her concern that 33 days after the appointment of the examination (from July 5 to August 7), the head of the customs department still did not know the expert’s name. Meanwhile, the period of the examination may not exceed 20 working days from the date of submission of the expert materials (Par. 2 Art. 139 of the Customs Code), and the materials should be passed to the expert during the same working day. “As yet, I have not been informed about the results of the examination, and I have the impression that either the period or the examination procedure has been violated,” said the human rights defender in her appeal.
The response of the State Customs Committee dated September 9 said that “in accordance with a certificate issued by the expert commission, the examination commenced on July 24, 2013, and was completed on July 30, 2013.” “Thus, the terms and procedure of the customs examination have not been violated. The conclusions by the expert commission were sent to the customs of Ashmiany on August 14, 2013. The customs legislation of the Republic of Belarus does not provide for notifying the customs applicant on the customs examination results,” further said the reply.
Ahead of that, the human rights defender received a notice (on August 20) from Ashmiany customs department, which offered to “return the products (40 copies of the book published in Vilnius) to the territory of the Republic of Lithuania.” However, the officials also proposed an alternative to pay customs duty. The document stated that the decision was taken by the customs office owing to the frequency of Tatsiana Reviaka’s crossings of the border, as well as “the nature and quantity of goods transported”.
Disagreeing with the definition of “goods” (which implies a commercial basis) in respect of Ales Bialiatski’s book, Tatsiana Reviaka sent another statement to the customs of Ashmiany to provide arguments in favor of the fact that the edition was not intended for use with business objectives. “Forty copies of the book … are necessary for me, my family, my friends, for donating them to the libraries. The book is not meant for sale, as it was published from voluntary donations. The author of the book is A. Bialiatski, a friend of mine, with whom I’ve been working in the same organization. Among my arguments are the circulation, the artistic and journalistic style of the book, as well as lack of registration as a business entity…” As for the allegations on the frequency of crossing the border, Tatsiana Reviaka explained, “I am the president of a Lithuanian non-profit organization and I regularly travel there to perform my duties. I do not transport any goods that could present any interest for commercial use.”
As a result, the human rights defender asked the Director of the customs department, Ivan Niviarkevich, to review his opinion on the forty copies of the book and bring them back to her for the intended use. As the request was not followed by any actions by the head of Ashmiany customs, Tatsiana Reviaka filed a complaint to the State Customs Committee.