Belarus: theres no such thing as a dictatorship, just human rights abuse

There’s no such thing as bad weather, the Russians say, just bad clothing. I take the point. Wear leaky leather-soled shoes (like me!) and you’ll slither around in the snow with freezing cold feet.

We Brits cling on to our skimpy clothes (and inadequate road-clearing measures!) and moan about the “atrocious weather”. Not smart. In places like Belarus (current temperature a balmy -5 degrees; lowest winter-time temperature in Minsk: -39.1) they deal with things more pragmatically. Fur-lined boots, thermal socks, big hats with ear-muffs. Giant road-clearers. True grit!

Anticipating protests over the disputed elections at the weekend, the authorities flooded Minsk’s main square turning it into a protestor-unfriendly ice-rink. To counter this, some of the 20,000 opponents of President Lukashenko’s government who turned up to protest reportedly took their own bags of salt into the square to thaw out the ice in an “ice-rink revolt”.

OK, the temptation now is almost overwhelming: we’re surely talking about a “frozen” Soviet-style authoritarian government and plucky democracy activists determined to bring the country out of its human rights deep freeze … aren’t we?

Well, I’ll resist the easy metaphor and simply say that Belarus is undoubtedly a country of real concern to Amnesty. Freedom of expression is curtailed – see the trail-blazing work of the Belarus Free Theatre, including playwright Tom Stoppard’s campaigning support; freedom of assembly is restricted (the “ice-rink” incident being just a minor example) and Pride activists have been stopped from marching; trials are sometimes-Soviet-style in their unfairness; and – as Amnesty has frequently pointed out – Belarus is the only European country that still has capital punishment (itself a pretty reliable indicator of other human rights abuse). My own anecdote on all this is as follows: my girlfriend used to work for a human rights organisation researching Belarus and she heard from a reliable source that her work had caused her name to be added to a “black list”; after that she was repeatedly denied visas to travel to Belarus and, as far as she knows, is still persona non grata in the minds of the Belarusian authorities).

For more detail on Belarus’ inglorious human rights record, see this recent Amnesty briefing.

At the time of writing events in Belarus are extremely worrying – with reports of the 64-year-old presidential candidate Vladimir Neklyayev being dragged out of his hospital bed in the middle of the night and hundreds of other activists languishing in detention. The country – you might say – is now skating on thin ice. We need to see restraint from law-enforcement officials and the rule of law being upheld over allowing detainees proper rights and protestors their democratic right to peacefully express their views on the street.

The media buzzword in reporting recent events in Belarus is to mention that the country is Europe’s “last dictatorship”. I don’t know. I tend to think that there’s no such thing as dictatorship, only countries that don’t respect human rights (to greater or lesser extents). Without question, though, the Belarusian state isn’t one that has recently exhibited a high regard for human rights.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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