The Belarusian government has scored an own goal by cracking down on civil society in a bid to silence dissenters ahead of the Ice Hockey World Championship, which opens on 9 May in Minsk, said Amnesty International as it starts a new campaign calling for the immediate release of peaceful activists.
Civil society activists are currently working in an atmosphere of heightened repression in Belarus. In the last 10 days, 16 have been arrested and detained.
“Instead of cleaning up their act ahead of the championship, the Belarusian authorities have preferred to silence those they feared would expose abuses. As criticism is increasingly quashed within Belarus, it must come more forcefully from abroad,” said John Dalhuisen, Director of the Europe and Central Asia programme at Amnesty International.
At least eight people were detained on 26 April following a peaceful march in Minsk to mark the 28th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. The march organizers had sought and received the necessary permission from the authorities to hold the event. They were all sentenced to various terms of administrative detention from 15 to 25 days. Eight other activists were detained in the days leading up to the march.
To coincide with the Ice Hockey World Championship, Amnesty International is launching a social media campaign with an interactive web portal calling on the Belarusian authorities to scrap draconian legislation and immediately and unconditionally release three long-term prisoners of conscience.
A “virtual ice hockey stadium” invites people to show solidarity by booking tickets alongside Belarusian prisoners of conscience Ales Bialiatski, Mykalai Statkevich and Eduard Lobau to observe human rights in Belarus. The signatures will be collected and sent to President Alexander Lukashenka.
The campaign highlights the Belarusian authorities’ notorious record for punishing those who speak out about human rights.
The country’s Law on Mass Events, introduced in 1997, includes provisions which make it practically impossible to hold any sort of public gathering without the express permission of the authorities. This severely restricts the right to freedom of assembly, or even activism by single individuals.
The Belarusian Criminal Code criminalizes the activities of unregistered non-governmental organizations. Most face serious hurdles in registering and people then face imprisonment for up to two years for participating in the activities of unregistered organizations.
“Belarus won’t win any fans until it starts to play by the rules. Releasing prisoners of conscience and lifting repressive laws would be a good place to begin,” said John Dalhuisen.
The prisoners of conscience profiled in Amnesty International’s campaign include:
Ales Bialiatski has served three years of a four-and-a-half year sentence. He was imprisoned because of his human rights activities as Head of the Belarusian Human Rights Centre Viasna. The organization campaigns for the promotion and protection of human rights in Belarus, against the death penalty, torture and other ill-treatment, and on behalf of political prisoners.
Ales was charged with “concealment of income on a large scale” for using his personal bank accounts in Lithuania and Poland to support his organization's human rights work. For years, the Belarusian authorities have denied registration to the organization, forcing them to operate covertly and with constant harassment. As an “illegal” entity, Human Rights Centre Vyasna was forced to set up banks accounts abroad.
Amnesty International believes Ales Bialiatski did not receive a fair trial. Some of the evidence presented was unauthenticated or anonymous.
Life in prison is tough for Ales. Visits from his wife have been severely restricted, food parcels rarely arrive and he is often isolated from other prisoners.
Last year, while in prison, Ales was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize in recognition for his work to improve the human rights situation in Belarus.
Mykalai Statkevich is serving six years of hard labour for his involvement in a mass demonstration which took place in late 2010, following the contested presidential elections.
Mykalai had run as an opposition candidate earlier that year. He was sentenced in May 2011 for “organizing mass disturbance”.
In January 2012, he was transferred from a penal colony to a stricter prison regime for allegedly breaking prison rules. According to his wife, Marina, Mykalai has been active while in prison and has been working to improve hygiene conditions across the penitentiary system.
Prison visits are limited to two a year, lasting two hours a time. He is allowed one phone call a month.
Marina recently told Amnesty International how she counts every day her husband has been detained, and now dedicates her days to raising awareness of the repressive situation in Belarus.
Eduard Lobau is a member of Young Front, the largest unregistered opposition youth organization in Belarus. He was arrested in December 2010, a day before the presidential election, and charged with “hooliganism”. He was sentenced to four years of imprisonment.
Eduard was arrested for allegedly assaulting passers-by the day before the elections. Another Young Front activist present at the time told Amnesty International that in fact it was Eduard and his friends that had been attacked.
Amnesty International believes he was arrested to prevent him from taking part in protests expected following the election. He is due to be released in December this year.