Belarus is home to the last autocratic dictator Europe. President Alexander Lukashenko is the first and only president that the country has had.
Lukashenko has been holding on to power for 27 years and is increasingly brazen in his undermining of democracy as well as human and civil rights. The hijacking of a Ryanair flight and capture of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich on 23 May shocked politicians across Europe, such as Green MEP Terry Reintke and Green MP Samuel Cogolati who called for his release.
Honestly, the time for just being “very concerned” is over.— Terry Reintke (@TerryReintke) May 23, 2021
If the EU accepts something like this,
all rhetorics on press freedom, protection of human rights and solidarity with Belarus are empty, ridiculous words.#EUCO must react - determined and united.#Ryanair #Belarus
Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the leader of Belarus' democratic opposition, states in an interview that: "We just want to live in a democratic country and build open and transparent trade relationships with all neighbouring countries and others. We are not against Russia. We are against dictatorship." She is the wife of the now imprisoned activist Sergei Tikhanovsky, who was an electoral candidate before his arrest on 29 May 2020.
Today, a 'trial' against my husband Siarhei Tsikhanouski has started. I call on the international community to put maximum pressure on the regime. Your work will help to end violence and release all innocent people. pic.twitter.com/LS4MaKoOmQ— Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya (@Tsihanouskaya) June 24, 2021
Fighting for the Release of Political Prisoners
There are currently 529 recognised political prisoners in Belarus according to the Viasna human rights centre, and the actual number is likely to be higher. They contain journalists, former presidential candidates, and activists but also students, academics, and other civilians attending pro-democracy protests. Just recently, music teacher Hanna Vazhnik was sentenced to 1 year of restricted freedom for a joke about the state anthem of Belarus. "In Lukashenka's Belarus, there is no freedom of any kind. And the punishment for having an opinion is severe," says Tsikhanouskaya.
In a recent statement, the Belarusian Green Party has detailed instances of riot officers disguising themselves as plainclothes officers, and illegally monitoring and abducting youth activists. Most concerning is that police have not been allowing young people to get in contact with their relatives to inform them of their whereabouts.
Not only have their detainments been illegal, but their trials have been unfair – often occurring behind closed doors. The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been monitoring the situation and observed 12 of the trials. They have called for substantial justice reform and are also concerned about human rights violations in the country. According to Amnesty International, the rights to freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and the right to health are under threat.
We Stand By You!
The German-Swiss NGO Libereco dedicated to the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine started the #WeStandBYyou campaign. It aims to ensure that political prisoners are not forgotten and that they are supported by the broader European community in their fight for civil rights and democracy. The project connects members of European parliaments to Belarusian political prisoners, whom they adopt as symbolic godparents. 193 politicians have joined so far. Libereco calls for solidarity with all people in Belarus who struggle for free and fair elections, for democratization and for human rights.
Last year, Austrian ecological farmer, forester and Green MEP Thomas Waitz took up the symbolic godparenthood of Ksenia Syramalot, a student at the Faculty of Philosophy and Social Sciences at the Belarusian State University and spokesperson for the Belarusian Students Association. Ksenie Syramalot was detained on 12 November 2020 and accused of 'gross disruption of public order under Article 342 of the Belarusian Criminal Code'. Her trial started in May 2021 and is likely to take a several more weeks. Now, they are in the process of examining the massive case file, volume by volume.
As part of the solidarity campaign #WeStandBYyou of Libereco, the Vice-President of the European Parliament and the President of the European Green Party take over two godparenthood for political prisoners of the Lukashenka regime.https://t.co/Fp1KpeFUV0 pic.twitter.com/3K9w3xSjVx
— Libereco – PHR (@LiberecoPHR) December 7, 2020
Thomas Waitz has highlighted the importance of Belarusian activists' fight for democracy and freedom, one which should serve as 'model for all of us':
"We stand strong behind the peaceful protesters in Belarus. We support their demand for fair and free new elections. We support their call for the release of all unlawfully detained people. Young people and students are of pivotal importance for the protest movement in Belarus. Their courage and bravery is impressive."
On the case of Ilhar Losik, godparent Manuel Sarrazin, member of the Bundestag in Germany for Bündnis 90/ Die Grünen states that he views it as his duty to stand up for democratic values:
"Ihar Losik was the administrator of the Telegram channel "Belarus Golovnogo Mozga" (Belarus of the Brain). On June 25, 2020 his house in Baranavichy where he lives with his wife Daria and their little daughter was searched and Ihar was arrested. Last week his unfair trial started in Gomel. I am following the developments in Belarus closely and will not stop campaigning for the unconditional and immediate release of Ihar and all political prisoners in Belarus. They deserve our respect and our full solidarity and support."
Ilhar was engaged in a hunger strike, but stopped after pleas from Tsikhanouskaya to stop the strike and stay well for his loved ones. "Belarus needs you," she said. Indeed, Ilhar is also the father of a 2 year old daughter.
Ein trauriger Tag: @ihar_losik sitzt seit einem Jahr unschuldig im Gefängnis. Meine Unterstützung für ihn & seine Familie ist ungebrochen! Gemeinsam mit grünen Fraktionskolleg*innen habe ich ihm einen Brief geschrieben.#WeStandBYyou #StandWithBelarus pic.twitter.com/vNWh0P9KF7— Manuel Sarrazin (@ManuelSarrazin) June 25, 2021
Samuel Cogolati, Member of the Chamber of Representatives of Belgium from Ecolo, took up the symbolic godparenthood of Aliaksandr Shabalin. Along with Tatsiana Kaneuskaya, Yury Ulasau, and Dzmitry Ivashkou, he was accused "of 'rioting' and plotting to 'seize government buildings'." What should have been an open trial was in effect held behind closed doors due to what officials cited as 'COVID-19 measures'. In May 2021, he was convicted to 6 years in a penal colony and has been there since. Viktar Adzinochanka, a local human rights activist at the trial, stated that the verdict passed was not 'based on law' but rather 'on the current political situation'. Cogolati strongly denounces this sentence and calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners like Aliaksandr.
Samuel Cogolati reaffirms the rights of Belarusians to protest and organise in their country:
"All Belarusians should be able to organise peaceful gatherings, without having to fear for their own safety. What we are witnessing under the Lukashenko regime is unacceptable."
Dmitry Popov, social media manager for a YouTube channel, is currently in a pre-trial detention centre. He was detained on 4 June 2020 due to his involvement in an election picket, where he collected signatures for the presidential nomination of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. He was accused of organising riots, organising and preparing actions that grossly violate public order, or actively participating in them, obstructing the exercise of electoral rights, and inciting hatred. Unfortunately, a recent letter has indicated that he is in poor health due to stress.
Céline Vara is a member of the Council of States of the Swiss Green Party. When she took on the role of godparent for Dmitry Popov, she stated:
"I demand the immediate release of Dmitry Popov. Peaceful protests for democracy should not lead to imprisonment. Democratic states should not fear dialogue with young people, but listen to them. There can be no response from a state other than a peaceful and democratic one".
Green Solidarity: We are only as Strong as our Democracies
The Greens have been active in calling for the release of an increasing number of political prisoners in Belarus. The defence of human and civil rights and the protection of democratic principles are crucial issues that have bonded the Greens since our inception as a political movement and electoral force.
This is also a personal story for the Greens – the Belarusian Green Party's own deputy party chairman, Zmitser Kuchuk, was abducted on April 26 2021. The party denounced this illegal arrest. They have also criticised the government's response to protests on the handling of the Coronavirus pandemic and called for an end to the repression of all protestors and especially young activists. They have demanded "an end to the pressure on youth activists, the release of those arrested, and an investigation into the illegal actions of police officers."