Valiantsin Stefanovich, Deputy Chairman of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, in his interview for spring96.org, tells about the human rights results of the Ice Hockey World Championship, which was held in Minsk from 9 to 25 May.
– The Ice Hockey World Championship has just finished in Belarus. Ahead of the event, human rights defenders, and “Viasna” in particular, feared that it would be transformed into an ideological and politicized show by the Belarusian authoritarian regime. Have these fears come true?
– Unfortunately, we can state that our concerns, both about turning the event into a politicized show and the arbitrary preventive arrests, have come true. Meanwhile, in the beginning we heard the authorities urging us not to politicize the event, not to confuse sports with politics. But the preventive detentions ahead and during the World Championship showed that the authorities themselves politicized the event, using it to exert pressure and isolate activists of various political groups who, according to the authorities, theoretically posed a threat to the public events arranged during the Championship.
– It should be noted that the Minsk city authorities kept all their promises related to the Championship. However, the city was not only cleared from so-called anti-social elements, as stated by the Minsk city executive committee. The campaign affected a total of about 40 activists, although their statements did not relate to these people… What in your opinion this behavior of the authorities may mean?
– First, although there were no statements by the authorities but there were several statements by the Minister of Internal Affairs. He said that there could be no preventive detentions and that all that was invented by human rights defenders. But the practice, which we encountered, shows that there was a campaign launched by the authorities to arbitrary detain citizens. Moreover, we can note certain trends here. First of all, administrative charges for several offenses at a time, which made it possible to prosecute for people a longer period – up to 25 days of arrest. Second, repeated administrative charges immediately after release, as it was with Mr. Rubtsou from Homel. We have seen that the detainees (representatives of completely different political groups: activists of the Young Front and anarchists, as well as fans of different football clubs) were previously involved in some activities. For example, the fans of FC BATE Borisov, who supported the Ukrainian Maidan and were prosecuted for posting photos on social networks. And by and large, even today we do not know the extent of everything that happened in the country during the tournament. Since all the people who came out of the detention center said that there were so many detainees that they had to be taken to Zhodzina [temporary detention at prison No. 8 – Ed.], as it was during the political campaigns of 2006 and after December 19, 2010.
Indeed, we observed, as the Minsk city executive committee had promised, clearing the city of “antisocial elements” – they isolated homeless persons and prostitutes, while alcoholics were sent to activity therapy centers where they will be for a year and a half “cure” for alcoholism using forced labor… I repeat that we’ll probably never know the dimensions of all this. And what unites all of these categories of citizens is lack of justice. The authorities did not bother too much to search for evidence against these people and very often isolated them without regard to the offenses on their part – just because of the campaign underway. This directly indicates that the established system in Belarus leads to the systematic and systemic human rights violations. The repressive machine starts on a certain occasion and at the appropriate political conditions of the authorities and works flawlessly performing its tasks.
That is, all this shows that the government can run its repressive machine when they need it and in any such occasion.
– How do you assess the reaction of the international community to this repression?
– Judging by the visits of journalists who came to Viasna’s office during the tournament, Belarus was in the focus of attention of the international community. I think there will be quite a lot of reports not only about the championship, but also about the background to it. We received journalists from various European countries – Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, representatives of several media from Sweden, who met with the relatives of political prisoners, as during the World Championship Belarus still held eight people for political reasons. And some of the expectations of the international community for their release before the World Championship did not materialize. Frankly, we did not have such hopes, because we believe that the value of this sporting event for the Belarusian authorities was exaggerated. On the one hand, they wanted to hold the World Championship, but this is not an event that could really push them to release political prisoners. And secondly, why should they take such steps if the championship in any case would be held in Belarus?
As for the statements, the EU condemned all arbitrary detentions that took place before and during the World Championship. And, of course, there were reactions from a number of international human rights organizations. For our part, we informed the UN Group on Arbitrary Detention, and I believe that the report of the Special Rapporteur on Belarus will reflect this information. In addition, the international community has condemned the execution of the last two death sentences in Belarus on the eve of the championship.
– International Ice Hockey Federation President René Fasel has been repeatedly criticized for having denied any connection between the increased pressure on the opposition and the Championship. When in Minsk, he said that he saw a beautiful clean city, celebration and hockey…
– Everyone sees what he can see or what he wants to see. In our work we see the other side of the coin. We see these people, who were forced to spend 25 days behind bars, their relatives. For example, Anastasia Dashkevich, who is now pregnant and had 25 days of nervous waiting for Dzmitry, who spent the term under arrest for nothing. We see so-called “anti-social elements”, who were unwelcome in this celebration, no one wanted to see them on the streets of this city, they were isolated and everyone pretended that they did not exist. So they decided to show the absence of the problem of alcoholism in the country? This problem exists and everyone knows about it. Analogy with the 1980 Olympics in Moscow naturally suggests itself, when people were also, so-called “anti-social”, ”parasites”, they were expelled to the 101st kilometer, clearing the capital. And the objective before the then Soviet leadership was partly the same – to hold the Olympics in a non-free country, to show the world how “well it is to live in the Soviet country”…
But the President of the International Ice Hockey Federation wanted to see celebration, hockey and happy faces… But the former does not deny the existence of the latter. As both is our reality. And for us, on the one hand, it is a problem always talking about the balance – non-politicization of sports – during large-scale events in repressive states. But it seems to me that if such events lead to systemic violations of human rights, I would, for example, refrain from their conduct. Well, you do not have to guess who is to blame for politicizing the sports event. All responsibility for this lies with the authorities. The authorities, who were the organizers of the championship. The authorities launched repressions against undesirable citizens for the sake of creating an illusory picture of a clean city. And I think that’s a good reason for the leaders of international sports organizations to think about this balance.
– Will you predict a decline of repression after the championship or will the summer be “hot”?
– After the championship, I think, the level of repression will decline, but I do not mean that the situation will change radically and there will be some system changes. Certainly not. Perhaps we should expect arbitrary detentions before July 3 [the official Independence Day in Belarus – Ed.]. But considering the situation that we saw during the World Championship, one immediately thinks about the context of 2015 – the presidential election. And you do not have to be an analyst to understand that large political campaigns in the country are usually accompanied by increased repression. And this practice of using the repressive machine shows that there is no guarantee that it will not be repeated. In principle, we, as human rights defenders, are preparing for the worst, to the fact that in 2015 we will face an increased repression and more stringent forms of harassment. There is no reason to believe that the election will be held in some other way.