International human rights defenders: Journalists must testify about what is happening in Belarus
April 4 marks the day that Belarusian human rights defender Ales Bialiatski will receive the prestigious “Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award”. But he is not even aware of it, as he sits isolated in a maximum-security prison because of his courageous work. Today Civil Rights Defenders releases a report that clearly demonstrates how freedom of speech is limited in Belarus. The Belarusian regime is intent on doing everything in its power to limit foreign journalists’ reporting on human rights abuses in the country during the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship.
Andrei Bandarenka, the leader of the Belarusian human rights organisation Platforma, has consistently campaigned against the International Ice Hockey Federation from hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus, unless all political prisoners are released and authorities stop persecuting human rights defenders, journalists and civil society. In response to his actions he has been regularly threatened by the state prosecution office having received a warning and a prosecution notice for having “discredited the Republic of Belarus”. This is alas but one of the many examples of the every day persecutions faced by human rights defenders in the country. In this report produced by Civil Rights defenders entitled “State Versus Human Rights Defenders - Unfair Play” the briefing paper looks at the situation of human rights defenders in Belarus and will be released to coincide with the awarding of Ales Bialiatski the “Civil Rights Defender of the Year Award”.
Ales Bialiatski has devoted his life to the peaceful struggle for human rights, and is a key symbol of Belarusian civil society representing the hopes and aspirations of a better future in Belarus. In 1996 he founded the organisation Viasna, which has quickly become the principle defender of civil and political rights in Belarus. Without the establishment of Viasna it would have been extremely difficult to monitor the extent of the abuses that people in Belarus are exposed to on a regular basis or mount support from other disenfranchised human rights activists. The organisation became illegal in 2003, but Ales and his colleagues courageously continued their work, despite numerous warnings and threats from the authorities. He was fully aware of the risks this work posed to him and his family but he chose not to leave Belarus when it became obvious that he would be arrested in the aftermath of demonstrations following the 2010 presidential elections. He was jailed in August 2011, and was subsequently sentenced a few months later to four and a half years in a high security prison. Ales’ property was also confiscated in a clearly politically motivated trial into alleged tax evasion charges mounted against him.
Despite Ales being held in detention, Viasna continues its important work. Meanwhile, the authorities continue unabated in their persecution of Viasna members and other human rights defenders in Belarus. In this report the “State Versus Human Rights Defenders - Unfair Play” we describe how Ales colleague Tatsiana Reviaka was exposed to stressful interrogation by the KGB. Reviaka notes that she and her colleagues are accustomed to threats and persecution, but often wonders if anyone can continue resist such on-going pressure.
The very big question today is whether Swedish journalists will also be able to resist such pressure at the time of the Ice Hockey World Championships in May. The Belarusian regime has issued visas to journalists on the very clear understanding that they may only report on the hockey tournament despite all the human rights abuses going on around them. Every journalist who find themselves in an authoritarian country such as Belarus must have an obligation to stand up for free speech and report on human rights violations in such a country. It is clear that the risks to foreign journalists are far less than the potential threats to their Belarusian counterparts. Therefore, we hope that Swedish journalists will now take the opportunity to describe what is going on in Belarus beyond the sports stadiums and not allow themselves to be misled by the propaganda of the regime. The information is available - they just have to go out there and get it.
Robert Hårdh, Executive Director of Civil Rights Defenders
Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the right of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association
Margaret Sekaggya, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders