As the Belarus opposition chief, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, will give evidence to the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs later nowadays, RTÉ Correspondent Paul Cunningham examines a campaign linking political prisoners in Belarus with politicians throughout the EU, which include here in Eire.
“I was genuinely shocked: saddened and shocked at the information.”
Fianna Fáil TD Seán Haughey remembers his response when informed last May well that the prisoner he experienced sponsored – Vitold Ashurak – experienced died in detention.
It was “quite suspicious”, he claimed, emphasising the “pretty”.
If anything at all, this is an underneath-assertion. Ashurak was aged 50, experienced no health and fitness situations, and died, reputedly, of cardiac arrest.
A disturbing online video subsequently emerged in which he looked visibly weak and dishevelled as he staggered and then collapsed in his cell.
When his overall body was introduced to his loved ones, Mr Ashurak’s head was wrapped pretty much completely in bandages.
He had been an organiser in the opposition get together, BPK.
A glassblower by trade, he had come to be ever more concentrated on politics and on tough the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko.
Immediately after final year’s election, Ashurak was place on demo for “organising and collaborating” in protests, as well as “threatening violence versus the law enforcement”. He was sentenced to five decades in prison.
Lukashenko has held an iron-grip on Belarus because he came to energy in 1994. Mass protests erupted in the state after he was re-elected past August – his sixth time period.
Nevertheless, the Organisation for Safety and Cooperation in Europe explained the election was not transparent, totally free or reasonable.
The Belarus opposition declared they had received. The response from Lukashenko has been to deploy safety forces to crack-up demonstrations and institute a policy of common arrests and detentions.
The European Union dismissed past year’s presidential elections in Belarus as fraudulent, and condemned Minsk for the surge in repression because then.
The Irish Govt has known as for an unbiased investigation into Vitold Ashurak’s loss of life, but to no avail.
Seán Haughey determined to sponsor a next prisoner – this time, journalist Dzianis Ivashyn – who experienced been jailed for “interfering with a law enforcement officer”.
But the Dublin Bay North TD was in for one more shock – Ivashyn, he was instructed, had also endured a heart assault though in detention. This 1 was non-lethal.
Mr Haughey told me that this was also “quite suspicious”, as it appeared that prisoners “seem to encounter bad health pretty much quickly on detention”.
Mr Haughey is a single of 29 Irish politicians – TDs, Senators, and MEPs – who are sponsoring prisoners in Belarus, in a plan organised by the human rights team, Libereco. The campaign, called #WeStandBYyou, is presently supported by almost 200 parliamentarians across the EU.
Mr Haughey has gone so far as to sponsor a Dáil movement calling for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus. He informed the chamber: “Their only criminal offense was standing up for democracy and essential human rights in their place.”
Politicians from throughout the political spectrum right here are supportive, with the exception of Sinn Féin, which has yet to explain why.
The recently elected Labour TD for Dublin Bay South, Ivana Bacik, has signed up.
She advised me: “The occasions in Belarus have a specific resonance for me because of my loved ones record – my Czech grandfather took a stance in opposition to the Nazis, and was also strongly opposed to the Communist routine.”
Mr Bacik is sponsoring Aliaksandr Tsiareshka who has been jailed for extra than six decades for “participation in riots” immediately after last year’s presidential election.
The former senator mentioned she had been motivated by “courageous individuals like [Opposition leader] Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya who have stood-up for democratic rules and have taken on authoritarianism”.
When I requested her if sponsoring a prisoner could have any impression, given the total regulate being exercised by President Lukashenko, she replied: “I consider it does make a variance when European legislators speak out on this.”
Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon concurs. He explained to me: “We should all stand in help of their induce. It is really a small act on my section, but our silence more permits tyrants these as Lukashenko.”
He is sponsoring Siarhei Maushuk who has been sentenced to extra than six a long time for “participation in riots”.
Mr Gannon feels that even though the EU has imposed some sanctions on Minsk, it desires to go even more. He thinks a “far more sizeable act” would be to “sanction the petrol and fertiliser barons in Belarus who fund and enable the reign of Lukashenko”.
A couple of political prisoners in Belarus have high-profiles – these types of as Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega who had been pulled off a Ryanair flight in Minsk.
The forcing down of the aircraft has been explained by Minister for Overseas Affairs Simon Coveney as “state-sponsored aviation piracy”.
Nevertheless, most detainees are strikingly normal. Fantastic Gael’s Neale Richmond has sponsored college pupil Tatsiana Yakelchyk Impartial TD Denis Naughten is representing musician Aliaksei Sanchuk whilst Fianna Fáil TD Cathal Crowe is linked with secondary college pupil Siarhei Hatskevich.
Fine Gael Senator Barry Ward is another backing the marketing campaign.
He is supporting Maksim Pauliushchyk, who was jailed for two decades for portray a “We Will Not Overlook” slogan on a pavement shut to in which a protester had been killed.
Senator Ward advised me that Belarus is a region he is aware of well and has expended time in. “I have a lot of good friends there, and Belarusian good friends below.”
He suggests he is “acutely” knowledgeable of the undemocratic nature of what occurred in previous year’s presidential elections in which “regular good individuals caught the heads previously mentioned the parapet and were being arrested”.
Senator Ward feels that Ireland can enjoy an significant part.
“We are not concerned in the type of geo-politics that other international locations in Europe are included in. I feel Ireland is now in a exceptional placement, with a seat on the UN Stability Council. I hope that we would be in a position to deliver some diplomatic tension to bear.”
Fianna Fáil MEP Billy Kelleher has been extremely energetic in this campaign. He explained: “The moment I listened to about Hleb Hatouka’s story, I knew that I had to get concerned. His treatment method by authoritarian Lukashenko is simply repugnant and immoral.”
Hatouka was jailed for four many years for “organisation and preparing of steps that grossly violate general public purchase violence or risk of violence resistance to a law enforcement officer”.
Mr Kelleher claimed: “The prisoners and their households will need to know that they are not alone – that there are all those of us in the EU who are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them.”
Frances Fitzgerald, the Fine Gael MEP, experienced a relatively diverse encounter from other parliamentarians – the prisoner she sponsored was sooner or later unveiled.
Volha Paulava experienced been sentenced to 3 decades of house arrest for “organisation and preparation of steps that grossly violate general public order”.
The MEP explained she had supported the sponsoring initiative since “a single can only think about the isolation, panic and terror of remaining held in the current situations in Belarus”.
She extra: “Supporting an activist in these conditions felt like a modest gesture that may make a difference.”
Ms Fitzgerald has resolved to befriend a 2nd detainee and is waiting around to be educated of their identity.
It seems there is an raising quantity of prisoners to pick out from, as Lukashenko makes an attempt to silence his opponents.
Spring 96, the Belarus-based mostly human legal rights NGO that partners with Amnesty Intercontinental, estimates there are presently 555 political prisoners held in Belarusian jails.
Among them is Syarhei Tsikhanousky, who became a figurehead for mass protests from the routine, and has been in detention because May of very last 12 months.
His wife, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who now qualified prospects the opposition in opposition to Lukashenko, and is pressured to reside in exile, will deal with the Oireachtas International Affairs Committee currently.