The text was prepared for the Fallen Freedom Fighter’s Day conference in Tartu on 25 March 2012.
days ago I was in springtime Oslo. The conference was dedicated to the
situation in Belarus and it was organised by the Norwegian Helsinki
Committee in cooperation with the Norwegian PEN Club. At the dinner, one
of the hosts had tears in her eyes. Why? The lady said that nothing at
all would change, people were suffering. And not only in Belarus. I
could not comfort her in any other way but by saying that history is
full of indescribable horrors. World War II, deportations, suffering and
death in GULAG. Fortunately the horrors of today are not on that scale.
I had arrived home, I changed from my usual suit and tie to a T-shirt I
was given in Oslo, with the message “Freedom for Ales Bialiatski“. As I
am writing these lines, the picture of Ales's face is on my chest and
the text is on my stomach. Last year I met Bialiatski himself in Norway,
now I was given a T-shirt requesting his freedom.
was arrested in August last year. In autumn he was sentenced to prison
for four and a half years for alleged tax evasion. Money for supporting
Viasna Human Rights Centre led by Ales had been transferred to his
private bank account. As Viasna could not operate freely in Belarus or
have a bank account, there was no other possibility for supporting the
organisation. Amnesty Internationalimmediately declared Ales Bialiatski a
prisoner of conscience. As the activities of Ales Bialiatski in
defending human rights have been noteworthy, many parliamentarians
across Europe have supported nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
is the difference between a prisoner of conscience and an ordinary
political prisoner? The easiest definition of a political prisoner is
that somebody is in prison because he/she is against or criticises the
government of his/her country. It is not always easy to define it,
because often some other article of law is used for conviction, there
may be selective administration of justice or even clearly artificial
charges. For example, one of the typical patterns is “discovering” drugs
in the pocket of an arrested dissident.
of conscience are the people who have been deprived of their freedom
because of expressing their convictions. However, there is a clause that
these convictions should be peaceful and not call to support violence.
Those who try to overthrow the government in cooperation with the
intelligence service of another state are also excluded. Thus the
activists of Nochnoi Dozor, if their guilt in causing the so-called
disturbances of the Bronze Night had been convincingly proven, could not
in any way have expected to get the status of prisoners of conscience.
politicians, religious people can also be prisoners of conscience when
they refuse, because of their convictions, to fulfil an obligation
imposed by the state if their religion does not allow it. The notion of
‘prisoner of conscience’ was initiated in 1961 by the British lawyer
Peter Benenson. He also launched the campaign Appeal for Amnesty 1961.
This grew into the influential human rights organisation Amnesty
International. Although the organisation has expanded its original
principles in the course of time, and we may not like at all their
criticism against the Estonian language policy, the request to free
prisoners of conscience also today forms the core of the activities of
are about ten prisoners of conscience in Belarus. For example, last
year reporter Iryna Khalip was a prisoner of conscience in house arrest,
now she has certain right of movement. Let's say she is a prisoner of
conscience on parole. Iryna’s husband Andrei Sannikov, candidate at the
presidential elections of 2010, is in prison where the conditions are
very hard and everybody is worried about his health, except the
Government of Belarus. Actually Iryna, too, was in prison in the
beginning, but as she and Andrei have a small son who was left in the
care of his aged grandmother, the international pressure became so
forceful that the authorities decided to suspend her punishment. For
many months she had to stay in her apartment totally incommunicado, she
could not even go near a window.
is generally recognised as a pariah state, and the prisoners of
conscience there confirm that status. On the other hand, there should be
no political prisoners, not speaking of prisoners of conscience, in the
Member States of the Council of Europe. But actually it is not so. The
highest score there belongs to Azerbaijan who according to Amnesty
International at present has fourteen prisoners of conscience. These are
comparatively new cases – in their blogs and public speeches these
people have criticised the authorities and called people to
I would like to call upon all good-willed people to join the appeal
that when the journalists from Estonia and especially the Estonian
National Broadcasting go to Baku in the end of May, they would not
forget to pay attention to the situation of political prisoners and the
essential lacking of political pluralism in Azerbaijan. These issues
should not be forgotten because the privilege we have to live in the
free world really obligates us to do something. We should never forget
the sufferings of others.
are no such bright stars among Azerbaijan’s political prisoners of
today as the charismatic reporter Eynulla Fatullayev who was freed after
international pressure in May last year. I have described him in my
book “Letters from Azerbaijan” (2010) which I wrote on the basis of my
experience as a rapporteur. Of the new prisoners, maybe the most
outstanding is Tural Abbasli, 29-year-old reporter and blogger, head of
the youth section of the Müsavat Party. First of all, it is noteworthy
that so many young activists have been isolated from the society. Former
government ministers Farhad Aliyev and Ali Insanov are also political
prisoners in Azerbaijan, although they have not been declared prisoners
long-term prisoners of Russia, Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev,
have now also been promoted to the status of prisoners of conscience.
Khodorkovsky is the most famous of the two, but essentially we are
dealing with parallel cases. Maybe Lebedev was at first arrested to give
Khodorkovsky a sign to leave the country. Khodorkovsky stayed. In 2005
both men were sentenced to nine years in prison, but in 2011, when they
became eligible for parole, 12 years were added to their punishment with
new accusations. After that Amnesty International declared them both
prisoners of conscience. Besides that, political leaders like Boris
Nemtsov and others have been detained in Russia for short terms. As
Amnesty has reacted quickly to these cases, it can be said that the list
of prisoners of conscience in Russia has usually 2+x names, and at
present x equals zero.
third Member State of the Council of Europe that produces prisoners of
conscience from time to time is Turkey. Mostly these cases are connected
with conscientious objection or members of the Kurdistan Workers’
issue of imprisoned politicians in Ukraine is more and more on the
agenda. Until now, it has been tried to avoid calling the former Prime
Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former Minister of Internal Affairs Yuriy
Lutsenko political prisoners in official documents. The representatives
of Amnesty International also say that at least now they have no grounds
for declaring the former Ukrainian politicians prisoners of conscience.
At the same time the fact that the political motive is clearly visible
in the activities of both the investigative bodies and the courts cannot
be missed. When one case against Tymoshenko was closed, another was
immediately started so that there would not be even the shortest period
when she could have communicated freely with the outside world.
Armenia, there were tens of political prisoners and many people were
killed after the last presidential elections in 2008. By now the problem
of prisoners is solved, but in the beginning of May there will be
parliamentary elections. In the past, elections have been a risk factor
in conclusion, an example from a faraway land. How full of exceptions
the circumstances relating to political prisoners can be may be seen
from the life of the eleventh Panchen Lama Gedhun Choekyi Nyima, who was
born in 1989. He was separated from the world as a six year old boy,
received the status of the youngest political prisoner in the world and
now, when he is grown up, he is still in house arrest.
all prisoners of conscience are freedom fighters in the direct sense of
the term. The freedom to request alternative service to military
service for religious or other reasons is not fighting for freedom. Our
Jüri Kukk certainly was a prisoner of conscience and a freedom fighter.
Several people who spoke at Jüri Kukk Memorial Conference today – Enn
Tarto, Mart Niklus and Kalju Mätlik – have the same status. They deserve
great respect for what they have done. And fortunately in Estonia of
today we are speaking of political prisoners only in retrospect.
a democratic country people criticise the politicians but in an
authoritarian state the government and official propaganda criticise the
prisoner of conscience. Outside his/her homeland or among the
opposition of his/her country, a prisoner of conscience may be very much
respected. But the deserved official approval comes only after the
system of government has been radically changed. Fortunately this is
what happened in Estonia.