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Arab Spring is a wake up call for European dictatorships

By Index on Censorship / 27 September, 2011

Minsk is as close to Berlin as London is. Yet, an iron curtain separates the two capitals. In 2011, over a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the nation of Belarus holds out as the last dictatorship in Europe, writes John Kampfner

A version of this article was published in the Independent, 27/09/11

A former Index on Censorship award nominee, journalist Natalia Radzina was smuggled out of Belarus in a clandestine operation just a few months ago. She feared she would end up in prison, or worse, alongside former presidential candidates prosecuted after the rigged elections last December. Allegations of torture, disappearances, persecuted journalists, theatre directors threatened with rape by the security services: all this is happening in Europe today.

Europe’s leaders have done too little too late. The EU’s neighbourhood policy has in practice meant treating our region’s dictators like Ben Ali, Mubarak and Belarus’s Lukashenko with kid gloves – long trade sessions with a cursory mention of human rights. The Arab Spring proved a wakeup call.

Just last September, Oleg Bebenin, a journalist for civil society group Charter97 and renowned opposition activist was found hanged with his son’s hammock around his neck.

No one in Belarus believes his death was suicide. Yet, just weeks later Germany and Poland placed the possibility of a $3 billion IMF loan on the table — if December’s presidential election was deemed free and fair. No matter that the OSCE’s observers say every election since Lukashenko took power has been “unfair”.

As for Britain, our state-backed bank RBS was doing business with the Belarusian government until a campaign by Index on Censorship and Free Belarus Now shamed them. RBS alongside 3 other banks raised a total of $1.85 billion for the government of Belarus in bond issues. They were the regime’s broker even after the post-election clampdown in which 7 of the 9 presidential candidates were arrested. It’s estimated that 30 per cent of the bonds were bought by institutions based in the City of London.

Where European governments have failed, individuals have risen to the challenge. Lawyers from McCue & Partners, backed by Free Belarus Now, have produced an open source prosecution pack (pdf)that allows citizens across the world in democratic countries to file for an arrest warrant if Lukashenko travels to their country.

The prosecution pack is a damning indictment of the regime’s show trials, details the suspicious disappearances of a former Interior Minister and former chairman of the Election Commission, and shows the harassment and torture of civil society activists and journalists.

No longer will the victims wait for states to take action, individuals can use this evidence — democratising justice. As torture and hostage taking are universal crimes under the Convention Against Torture, which has been ratified by 146 states including all 47 members of the Council of Europe, Lukashenko is now effectively imprisoned in his own country. The irony will not be lost on Belarus’s opposition.

John Kampfner is Chief Executive of Index on Censorship

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