Sacha Koulaeva: In Belarus, restrictions are placed on prisoners of conscience even after their release

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Demonstrations of solidarity with civil society in Belarus have taken place all over the world. While citizens of many countries are able to express their position and show their solidarity with prisoners of conscience, it remains a sad fact that Belarusian citizens cannot do this. Sacha Koulaeva, head of the Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), believes that citizens of Europe are quite well-informed about the problems democratic society in Belarus is facing and about the situation with human rights in the country.

Sacha Koulaeva: This year demonstrations of solidarity have been taking place in a wide range of countries, particularly within Europe. FIDH also conducted a campaign on social networks where users of Twitter, Facebook, and other networks could simultaneously upload an appeal to free Ales Bialiatski. This campaign received the support of over 245,000 people and took place over the course of two weeks. It was unfortunate that arrests and detentions of human rights defenders in Belarus continued during the campaign.

- The online community showed a tremendous amount of support for this campaign. But what have been the actual results of publishing these posts in cyberspace? Have bureaucrats in Minsk taken any note of this wave of solidarity?

Sacha Koulaeva: It’s true, we really did receive a tremendous amount of support, and this goes to show that people in Europe are really quite well-informed about political prisoners in Belarus. Organizations like English PEN, Amnesty International, Freedom House, and hundreds of thousands of other organizations and individuals in the United States, Europe, and Asia, have also uploaded messages of support. Even official government agencies in many countries have made statements of support. Demonstrations of solidarity were held in Zurich, Paris, Prague, Warsaw, Vilnius, and other cities. Even people in Kyrgyzstan demonstrated in front of the Belarusian embassy. As far as briefing the Belarus government on these events is concerned, we have sent official communications, and more than once, of course. These communications have cited the UN resolution calling Bialiatski’s detention illegal and demanding his release, and we even forward this document to the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on a regular basis, but unfortunately we always receive the pat response that Minsk has no obligation to fulfill UN resolutions. But we know that this is utter nonsense. Belarus is a member of the UN, so even bureaucrats in Minsk have to follow international laws.

- Belarusian authorities are fighting not just human rights defenders and politicians, but even people who want to show their solidarity with them. Why is that?

Sacha Koulaeva: This is unfortunate but true. But we are using every opportunity we have to express our demands directly to the Belarusian government to stop this persecution. Obviously this is not just difficult to do in Belarus, but absolutely impossible right now. The last demonstration of this sort that we held took place in Brussels during a visit from the Belarusian Minister of Foreign Affairs. In general the situation continues to be quite grave both in terms of the observance of human rights and in terms of the situation for political prisoners. It’s not enough for prisoners of conscious to be thrown behind bars. They are also subjected to abuse and torture in the prisons. Prison administrators also take certain special measures against them and try to limit any chance they have for normal communications with other prisoners. All this leads to even further isolation. And these kinds of measures have been taken against Ales Bialiatski and other political prisoners as well. For our part, we have to do as much as we can to draw the attention of the West to these facts and educate people on what is happening. And I think that now a significant number of EU residents know what the situation is.

- Would it be correct to say that the goal of your activities is countering the efforts of the Belarusian government to conduct a political trade in people with Brussels?

Sacha Koulaeva: Our position, which we have publicly articulated, including at meetings of the UN Human Rights Council, is that there is no place for trade in people. We use any forum we can to address this, including in the presence of Belarusian officials. Our goal is for Europe to be uncompromising in this regard. People should not become hostage to any kind of trade, political, economic, or otherwise. They must be released outside of any trade negotiations, and the dialogue should begin only after their release.

- But still it is obvious that the Belarusian government will not change on its own. Is there an understanding of this in the West?

Sacha Koulaeva: Yes, the situation is quite complicated, especially since the Belarusian side refuses to perform the obligations it has undertaken. Naturally this narrows the possibilities for activity. So there’s really no effective resolution, and if there were one we would have used it a long time ago.  It is our belief that changes will occur only if the EU and the entire worldwide community, including the UN, the OSCE, and the Council of Europe, take a principled, uncompromising position.  And this demand for change should not just come down to releasing political prisoners. We are convinced that this is not enough, because we still remember what happened in 2008. At that time some prisoners were released, but soon others were arrested. This is why the Belarusian government wants to continue this trade. And this is why we demand the release of political prisoners as an unconditional term for renewing the dialogue. Without a dialogue, the country will not be able to continue existing politically or economically. Realizing this, we demand a complete end to political repression and systematic changes that will ensure that the situation does not spiral out of control again. We would also like to stress that new prisoners continue to join those who have been behind bars since the events of 2010. Also, it is important to remember that the people who have been freed still remain under the preventative surveillance of the security agencies and that the threat of arrest constantly hangs over them. They also continue to face restrictions on their freedom of movement and even on simply leading a normal life. And it is important to stress that we are not only referring to the 12 prisoners of conscious being held in the country, but also to individuals who have remained hostages even after their release from prison.

- The number of such individuals is growing from year to year. How do you think Belarusian society should react to this?

Sacha Koulaeva: I would really like to see Belarusian society become more active, because we have even seen the government either ban demonstrations of solidarity with Ales Bialiatski or track people who try to come out for these demonstrations. We do understand, though, that the level of fear and, consequently, the level of repression in the country are incredibly high. In the West, anyone can come out in solidarity with Bialiatski without risking anything. If a wave of solidarity were to sweep through Belarus as it did through Europe, this would be a solid enough argument for releasing political prisoners.

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