Human rights defenders to launch international campaign #FreeViasna

Several key Belarusian and international human rights organizations announced plans to launch an international campaign of solidarity entitled #FreeViasna, following a coordination meeting held in Vilnius on September 6-7.

  • by EECA
  • 7 September 2021

The campaign will focus on efforts aimed to release the seven imprisoned members of Viasna, today’s press conference revealed. It featured representatives of domestic and foreign human rights groups, including FIDH, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights House Foundation, Barys Zvozskau Belarusian Human Rights House, Front Line Defenders, Östgruppen, Freedom House, Libereco - Partnership for Human Rights, Right Livelihood, Viasna, BHC and BAJ.

Ilya Nuzov, director of Eastern Europe and Central Asia Desk at the International Organization for Human Rights (FIDH), said that that the two-day event helped discuss measures that could help release the Viasna activists and all other political prisoners in Belarus. He stressed that Viasna is a partner organization of FIDH, and FIDH vice-president Valiantsin Stefanovic and former vice-president Ales Bialiatski are currently behind bars.

“We are planning a big campaign to achieve our goal, which is scheduled to begin on September 17, the day when a year ago Marfa Rabkova, coordinator of Viasna’s volunteer service, was detained and she is still in prison,” he said.

Natallia Satsunkevich of Viasna noted that despite the attack, human rights activists, like many other non-governmental organizations, continue their work to protect and promote human rights. She also quoted Ales Bialiatski, who said:

“As long as the last member of Viasna is free, we will continue our work.”

Aleh Hulak, chairman of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, said that human rights activists are perceived by the authorities as enemies, and their work as anti-state activities. That is why human rights activists are now behind bars.

“It is important that Viasna continues to work, and people continue to receive assistance,” Hulak said.

Andrei Bastunets, chairman of the Belarusian Association of Journalists, said that “everything possible should be done to change the terrible situation in the near future.”

Valiantsin Stefanovic’s wife, Alina Stefanovic, complained that she had only received three letters from her husband, and his mother – only one letter.

Natallia Satsunkevich supports Stefanovic’s wife, saying that the detention conditions for all political prisoners were unbearable. Among other things, they are facing groundless restrictions on receiving and sending letters. Most cannot see their lawyers. In addition, Marfa Rabkova faces psychological pressure. She was repeatedly interrogated without a lawyer. It is known that many political prisoners, including human rights activists, went through COVID-19, but did not receive proper medical care, and their living conditions are dire.

Heather McGill, Natallia Satsunkevich, Andrei Bastunets, Pavel Sapelka and Ilya Nuzov at a press conference announcing the launch of the #FreeViasna campaign. Vilnius, September 7, 2021

Anaïs Marin, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Belarus, noted in her speech that the UN Human Rights Council is concerned about the wellbeing of all imprisoned human rights defenders, whose detention was condemned as illegal and politically motivated. Ms. Marin, together with other thematic rapporteurs, has sent her comments and questions to the Belarusian authorities. Often, this communication alone can provide the country’s civil society with official information. The next report of the Special Rapporteur will be presented on October 25 at the UN General Assembly in New York and will address the situation of women’s rights in Belarus, including women human rights defenders.

Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s researcher on Belarus, said she was honored to be among the brave human rights defenders who are paying a very high price for their work. Amnesty International has been cooperating closely with Viasna, the BAJ and the BHC on various human rights issues for 20 years.

“Those who are in prison now pay the highest price. It is very difficult for me to realize that now I cannot work with Ales, Valiantsin, Uladzimir, but I can work for them,” Ms. McGill said.

Heather McGill assured that her organization would not stop working until the seven imprisoned human rights activists were released.

Anastasiia Zlobina, coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch, stressed that the scale of repressions against civil society over the past year is unprecedented.

“Viasna has been protecting human rights and helping people for 25 years, and now human rights activists themselves need international support, which is expected to be raised through the #FreeViasna campaign. This campaign will help draw attention to the problems of all human rights activists in the country. We have been counting on Viasna for a long time, and the work of many international organizations is impossible without human rights activists in Belarus,” she said.