Updated at 15:27,23-09-2020

Minsk encouraged to free political opponents before world ice hockey championship

By Tanya Korovenkova, BelaPAN

The Russian authorities released Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other people seen as political prisoners months before the Sochi Olympics. Minsk may take a similar step to improve its image in the run up to the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) World Championship to be held in the Belarusian capital later this year. However, observers note that authorities are afraid of losing face.

Belarus had 11 political prisoners at the beginning of 2014, human rights groups said. They included human rights defender Ales Byalyatski, former presidential candidate Mikalay Statkevich, businessman Mikalay Awtukhovich, opposition activists Eduard Lobaw, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalay Dzyadok, Yawhen Vaskovich, Artsyom Prakapenka, Uladzimir Yaromenak, Andrey Haydukow and Vasil Parfyankow.

Lack of progress so far

Authorities are reluctant to make any concessions on political prisoners, Tatsyana Ravyaka, of the Vyasna human rights group, told The Viewer.

The European Union made rapprochement with Belarus conditional on the release of all political opponents.

Four of the prisoners – Awtukhovich, Yaromenak, Lobaw and Parfyankow – are expected to complete their sentences in 2014. Vaskovich and Prakapenka may remain in prison longer than others, until 2018, if they are not granted early release.

This year, the government has several occasions for amnesties, including the 20th anniversary of the constitution, the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belarus from the Nazi invaders and the 20th anniversary of Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s rule.

But Ravyaka is pessimistic, noting that a possible amnesty program is unlikely to include political prisoners.

The 2012 amnesty program, for instance, did not apply to people convicted of mass disorder in connection with demonstrations and a journalist convicted of insulting the Belarusian leader.

Legal dead-end

Apart from that, Ravyaka says, political prisoners have been subjected to harsher treatment than other inmates and nearly all of them have reprimands that make them ineligible for early release.

“The only way to secure their release” is to have Lukashenka grant them his presidential pardon, she adds, noting that officials repeatedly stressed that prisoners must write pardon requests first.

Most of the remaining prisoners, including Byalyatski, Statkevich and Vaskovich, have refused to apply for pardon because they believe they had been convicted illegally.

Officials are afraid to lose face by releasing prisoners without pardon requests, Ravyaka says.

Ice hockey tournament gives some hope

Minsk may free controversial prisoners in the run-up to the IIHF World Championship to repair its diminished reputation, Yury Chavusaw, a political analyst and a leader of the Assembly of Pro-democratic NGOs, told The Viewer, citing the recent release of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot and Greenpeace members in Russia.

The move “would help build some trust in relations between Minsk and Brussels, but it would not stop civic society from putting pressure on the championship and highlighting the fact that it is being held in a dictatorial country,” he stresses.

“Belarus is not a law-ruled state and authorities here can release prisoners without any amnesty program. But an amnesty could be a good occasion to free prisoners and salvage some pride,” he says.

He stresses that Minsk needs improved relations with the EU to have more bargaining power with Russia before Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia launch the Eurasian Economic Union in 2015.

“Before signing Eurasian Economic Union papers, Minsk may make some overtures to the West so that it will not keep flying using one wing only,” he says, referring to Minsk’s possible effort to balance Russian influence.