Introducing a Different Type of Social Media Campaign to Help Prisoners of Conscience in Belarus


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By Viachaslau ‘Slava’ Bortnik, Amnesty USA’s Country Specialist for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine

On May 9, the opening day of the Ice Hockey World Championship, the U.S. will play with Belarus in Minsk.

It is very rarely that Belarus holds an event of such large scale, and one would think that it would be in the interest of a country with such a notorious human rights record to provide a safe and comfortable environment for foreign guests and native hockey fans.

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Ten Ways to Repress a Journalist

People hold posters as they mark World Press Freedom Day in Tbilisi (Photo Credit: Vano Shlamov/AFP/GettyImages).

People hold posters as they mark World Press Freedom Day in Tbilisi (Photo Credit: Vano Shlamov/AFP/GettyImages).

Governments and other organizations across the world are perfecting techniques to prevent journalists from shining a light on corruption and human rights abuses. From trumped-up charges and removing work licenses to murder, here are 10 ways journalists are repressed and prevented from reporting freely and fairly.

1. Physical Attacks
In some countries such as Syria, Turkmenistan and Somalia, governments, military forces and armed groups attack and even kill journalists who are seen to be critical of their policies and practices.

In May 2012, 18-year-old citizen journalist Abd al-Ghani Ka’ake was fatally shot by a government sniper in Syria while filming a demonstration in Aleppo. Armed opposition groups have also attacked and killed journalists.

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10 Absurd and Unjust Arrests of 2012

Check out our list of 10 absurd arrests and sentences of the year. You might be surprised to learn what can get you thrown in jail in a few places around the world, and how harsh the sentences are once you’re there.

belarus teddy bears fly over minsk

Bears being dropped. Photo via Studio Total

1. Posting photos of teddy bears.

Anton Suryapin of Belarus spent more than a month in detention after posting photos of teddy bears being dropped from an airplane. The bears were part of a stunt by a Swedish advertising company calling for freedom of expression in Belarus. Anton is charged of “organizing illegal migration” simply because he was the first upload photos of the teddy bears, and still faces a prison sentence of up to seven years.

2. Tweeting.

After allegedly “publicly insulting the King” on Twitter, a Bahraini man had his six-month prison sentence upheld on appeal, while three others are serving four-month prison sentences. Article 214 of Bahrain’s penal code makes it a crime to offend the King.

3. Opposing the death penalty.

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Photos of Teddy Bears Land Belarus Student Behind Bars

belarus teddy bears fly over minsk

“Freedom” teddy bears drop into Minsk, Belarus (Photo via Studio Total)

Anton Surapin did what millions do every day: he posted photos of something interesting online. But he lives in ex-Soviet Belarus, the most authoritarian state in Europe, and the photographs in question were of teddy bears that had just parachuted out of the sky carrying a pro-human rights message.

For uploading on his website the controversial teddy bear photos, the twenty-year-old photographer and student was thrown in prison.

Charges against Surapin stem from the July 4, 2012 stunt organized by Swedish advertising firm Studio Total to highlight the clampdown on freedom of expression in Belarus. The company airdropped hundreds of teddy bears on parachutes with placards calling for free speech to be respected in Belarus. The campaign has most recently triggered diplomatic scuffle, with Belarus and Sweden expelling envoys over the controversy.

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Homophobia Olympics in the Former Soviet Union

LGBT Rights in Russia

Russian police detain a gay rights activists during an attempt to hold an unauthorized rally in central Moscow. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)

In the sporting world, countries from the former Soviet Union are used to winning medals. But in terms of gay rights, the only accolades these countries are winning are the wrong ones.

olympic medalsShort of outright criminalizing homosexuality as was the norm during Soviet times, Russia and most of its former satellite states are increasingly violating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights. If a 2012 Eurasia Homophobia Olympics were held today, the “winning” countries trampling on the human rights of LGBTI people would be as follows:

Gold Medal: Armenia, for officially (and utterly shockingly) justifying and defending the firebombing of a gay-friendly bar by self-described young “fascists.”

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Belarusian President: "Better to Be a Dictator Than Gay"

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko © STR/AFP/Getty Images

It sounds like a line from Sacha Baron Cohen’s upcoming comedy The Dictator, but it actually came from a real dictator.

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of ex-Soviet Belarus, said “better to be a dictator than gay” when responding to European criticism of the country’s democratic record. He was alluding to the sexual orientation of some European Foreign Ministers.

President Alexander Lukashenko has been ruling Belarus with an iron fist for almost 18 years. The country’s population is under 10 million and has faced sanctions. Belarus is one of the least democratic in Europe, and is Europe’s only country to have the death penalty. SEE THE REST OF THIS POST

A Theater of Abuses in Post-Election Belarus

Since Sunday’s controversial presidential election in the ex-Soviet republic of Belarus, where incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka pronounced himself the winner, a wave of human rights violations has been hitting opposition voices in the country (like it wasn’t bad enough in the first place). Among the silenced are Nikolai Khalezin and Natalia Kolyada, the founding couple of Belarus Free Theater who – according to The New York Times – “are now in hiding” after the arrest of their colleagues.

When my colleague phoned the Embassy of Belarus in Washington D.C. for a response on the Times report, she was told that the Embassy doesn’t comment on foreign newspaper content.

Here are other questions that the Belarus government doesn’t want to be asked:

- Why have seven of the nine opposition presidential candidates  been detained along with as many as 500 peaceful demonstrators, opposition activists, human rights defenders and journalists, many of whom were beaten by riot police?

- Why was there no autopsy to investigate the allegedly suicidal death of Aleh Byabebin, founder of the unofficial news website Charter’97, who had just joined the campaign team of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov (Sannikau)?

- And why are candidate Sannikau’s legs broken and why is he not receiving medical care in detention?