It's no teddy bear's picnic for free speech in Belarus

The teddy bear must be the most universally loved children’s toy by young and old alike because of its innocuous cuddliness and charming innocence. You can’t really imagine a parent banning their child from having a teddy bear in the way they might object to, say, a toy gun.

But it is this very inoffensiveness that makes teddy bears such a powerful symbol of dissent, as the recent invasion of Belarus by a squadron of small stuffed bears in pro-democracy t-shirts shows.

In case you missed it, the stunt was the brain-child of two Swedes who released the parachuting bears – which were holding placards supporting free speech - from a small plane they flew into Belarus from Lithuania. They say they did it to show solidarity with the opposition in the country, where there are severe restrictions on freedom of expression, association and assembly. Amnesty is also concerned about prisoners of conscience who are tortured and suffer other forms of ill treatment, and about restrictions on the right to a fair trial.

The Belarusian government at first denied there had been a soft-toy infringement of its airspace, but yesterday it emerged that President Lukashenko had sacked his air force chief and the head of border guards after the incident.

The poor human rights record of Belarus under Lukashenko, sometimes dubbed Europe’s “last dictator”, means the president is under an EU travel ban and has been unable to enter the UK for the Olympics  However, he has demanded Belarusian athletes bring back 25 medals, including five golds, and is lobbying hard to host the 2014 ice-hockey championships. The Times reports he has made no secret of his aim to use international sport as a way of rehabilitating himself

The fear is that he would use the use the glamour and kudos associated with international sporting events to gloss over the reality of life for ordinary Belarusians. The response to the teddy bear incident has been utterly disproportionate. Last week Amnesty warned that journalism student Anton Suryapin, 20, faces up to seven years in prison after posting pictures of the stunt online. An estate agent, Syarhei Basharimau, who allegedly rented an apartment to the Swedish pair is also in custody on the same charge. Meanwhile, a 16-year-old, believed to have taken the photographs posted by Suryapin, was reportedly detained and questioned last week.

This is not the first time teddy bears have been used to make a human rights point. The juxtaposition between their innocence and the cold reality of human rights abuses tends to make you sit up and take notice.  Amnesty TV ran series of short films last year starring the dissident Misery Bear, a friendly, furry chap who in one episode posts anti-government comments online, only to be arrested and beaten up by fellow bears dressed in military uniform, who sling him in jail and finally dump him on a roadside and leave him for dead. I won’t tell you how it ends, but you can watch it for yourself here.

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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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