• Prison conditions for Belarus human rights defender Ales Bialiatski are getting worse (Photo: joquel)

Opinion

Belarus: convicted, imprisoned, silenced

18.07.12 @ 09:13

  1. By Souhayr Belhassen

BRUSSELS - Ales Bialiatski, Nobel peace prize nominee, vice-president of the International Federation for Human Rights and president of the Belarusian human rights centre “Viasna” was arrested nearly a year ago on the 4th of August 2011 and sentenced to four and a half years imprisonment.

To put an end to his unswerving devotion to promote and protect human rights in Belarus, the Lukashenko regime fabricated charges of tax evasion in November 2011 swiftly followed by a blatantly politically-motivated trial which put this well known human rights defender behind bars.

Once the initial shocked reactions and public declarations from the EU have fizzled out, what happens behind bars?

In recent weeks, the penitential administration has drastically reduced his food parcels and his already scarce visiting rights, has punished fellow prisoners for talking to him, and has piled on disciplinary sanctions and extra duties, which prevents him from being amnestied or released.

Ales Bialiatski is not the first victim of penitential harassment orchestrated from the top to psychologically break political prisoners, as was the case for former presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.

When Lukashenko attended the final match of the Euro 2012, Ales Bialiatski should have been far from his mind. The truth, however, is different and this human rights defender remains a thorn in the Lukashenko regime, an itch that refuses to go away.

Indeed, despite continuous and worryingly increasing measures of coercion used to make Ales publicly recognise his guilt, he stands firm. But behind bars in Belarus, this firmness must find an echo within the EU.

How does the EU deal with these overblown dictators?

While the Union is to be praised for sponsoring the United Nations Human Rights Council resolution of 5 July establishing a UN Special Rapporteur for Belarus, more can be done. Fourteen political prisoners remain in prison and sporadic liberations, like the one of Sannikov and Bandarenko in April, only serve the regime as a ploy to buy time, avoiding new EU sanctions.

Since then, the situation has worsened for political prisoners and the Polish journalist Poczobut, although freed, still faces a possible accumulated seven-year prison sentence. The amnesty law signed by Lukashenko on the 10 July deliberately contains criteria which exclude political prisoners.

While the Belarusian regime wants to convince the EU that it should release pressure and engage in unconditional dialogue, the EU must on the contrary stand firm on the necessary unconditional release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners as a precondition for engagement.

Member states waited until last spring to adopt serious targeted sanctions directed at persons and entities providing financial support to the oppressive Lukashenko regime.

Adopting a coherent approach combining targeted sanctions against these 'bagmen' and engaging the responsibility of EU companies investing in the economic interests they control is necessary to prevent this regime from surviving at the expense of the Belarusian people.

At the Fourth Eastern Partnership foreign ministers' meeting (23-24 July) in Brussels, the EU must take a firm and uncompromising stance towards the last dictator in Europe. This would be a concrete expression of the political commitment taken by the 27 member states through the adoption last June of the EU strategic framework for human rights and democracy.

The EU should also keep on meeting opposition leaders and supporting independent civil society, at a time when the regime systematically prevents them from exiting what increasingly resembles a giant prison, threatening the EU’s attempts to establish a 'dialogue on modernisation' with Belarus. As Belarus still refuses to negotiate visa facilitation, the EU must offer alternative solutions to allow a breathing space for the Belarusian people.

Has Ales Bialiatski found an echo? Is his silence so loud it resonates in Lukashenka’s mind? Time will tell. The International Federation for Human Rights will continue to closely monitor the outcome of all EU relations with Belarus.

To our friend Ales and all human rights defenders and political prisoners behind bars, your voices are not unheard.

The writer is the president of the International Federation for Human Rights