The EU Must Take a Clear and Firm Stance on Political Repression in Belarus

Point de vue | LEMONDE.FR | 03.11.11 |

By Souhayr Belhassen, Stephane Hessel, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Jonathan Littell

“History has presented us with a challenge. We have taken up that challenge”. Shortly before his arrest in Minsk in August, Ales Bialiatski described with emotion the work carried out by Viasna, the human rights centre he has headed since 1996. During the course of an interview he described fifteen years of activism in a country under a regime that destroys freedom. He described the support provided to political prisoners, the fight against capital punishment, and the battle against disinformation by the state. The centre has become an increasingly painful thorn in the side of the regime. All the more so since the presidential elections held in December 2010, when the victims of political repression received support, yet again, from the activists at Viasna, despite the thunder from the regime.

Ales is vice-president of the FIDH. He has worked for democracy and human rights in very diverse countries: Kirghizstan in 2010, Georgia in 2008, Cuba, alongside underground activists striving for democracy, the revolution in Tunisia; and many more.

On the 4th of August 2011, Ales was arrested by Belarusian authorities and accused of large-scale tax evasion. The trial opened on the 2nd of November 2011. The charges against Ales can incur a prison sentence of three to seven years.

This is not the first time that Ales runs up against the judicial system in Belarus; he first spent time in prison at the end of he Cold War.  But this time the attack is much more insidious. Overly eager Polish and Lithuanian authorities, seeking to shine, provided to their Belarusian counterparts the information that was used to snare the regime’s bete noire. The adage, “He who wants to drown his dog claims that it has rabies”, has become the regime’s motto. Since his arrest, Ales has become the target of a huge media conspiracy.

Independent NGOs have their hands tied. The only way for them to survive financially is to find ways to bypass government controls.

Funding sources understand the need for these strategies and in return they require highly detailed reporting of financial accounts. Viasna has always carried out the task with rigor, which unquestionably explains its longevity and efficacy, and has earned them the tenacious hate of the Lukashenko regime.

Parliament recently approved new emergency legislation aimed at banning  all forms of foreign funding. This was followed by the reinforcement of the already broad prerogatives of the KGB. Moreover, any demonstration or any call to demonstrate, not authorized by the Belarusian government is now punishable by a prison sentence of up to three years.

The international community remains rather reluctant to act, despite these warning signals. The Polish and Lithuanian governments have publicly apologized, and many official and frequently awkward declarations have followed. But what raises greatest concern is that the European Union has failed to take a clear stance. Since the resounding failure of pre-election liberalization Belarus-style, which led to the arrest of several hundred persons on election day, including seven of the nine presidential candidates, all of which was followed in August by Ales’s arrest, the EU has carried out a series of contradictory measures in an attempt to obtained the desired changes. While the sanctions taken against the regime have been strengthened, Poland, which holds the current EU presidency, has publicly proposed granting nine billion euros to Belarus, “[…]if conditions relative to human rights, civil liberties, and the holding of democratic elections are complied with […]”. This has resulted in Lukashenko filling his prisons with the aim of holding as strong a hand as possible during negotiations that promise to be difficult for him.

Lukashenko is now flaunting his alliance with Russia and is threatening to cut off ties with the European Union.  He has already signed trade agreements with countries such as China, Qatar and Iran, which doubtlessly explains EU tarrying. In the meantime, political prisoners, for whom detention conditions are worsening, have become hostage to this raising of the stakes.

Belarus, however, is undergoing an unprecedented economic crisis and needs EU financing more than ever, consequently diplomatic recourse is possible. This is why EU institutions need to speak with a single, clear and firm voice and demand that Ales Bialiatski be freed along with all other political prisoners and that lasting changes be enacted in Belarus so that in the future the shameful bargaining currently going on may be avoided.    And in keeping with the words of Ales, we want to put the following question to European Institutions, “History has presented you with a challenge. Are you able to take up the challenge?”

Souhayr Belhassen, President, Fédération internationale des droits de l’homme (FIDH);

Stephane Hessel, former French ambassador and Honorary President of the Committee Friends of FIDH;

Daniel Cohn-Bendit, co-president of the group European Greens–European Free Alliance in the European Parliament;

Jonathan Littell, author.

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