Updated at 23:17,14-04-2021

Ukraine crisis may prompt Belarus, West to reach compromise on political prisoners

Tanya Korovenkova, BelaPAN

Estimates vary on how many people are held in prisons in Belarus on politically motivated charges. Russia’s invasion of Crimea can affect a campaign for the release of Belarusian dissidents.

Guidelines on identifying prisoners

Human rights defenders at a meeting in Vilnius in October approved guidelines to harmonize their approaches to identifying political prisoners. The guidelines were drafted by activists from Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Lithuania, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.

Under the guidelines, the first category of political prisoners includes those imprisoned for their political, religious and other convictions, in connection with non-violent actions to exercise their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, assembly, association and speech, as well as those jailed on the basis of their gender, race, color of skin, language, religion, ethnic, social or family background, nationality, gender identity or ownership status.

The second category includes those convicted in violation to the right to justice based on false evidence, or those who were given sentences out of proportion with the offenses they had committed.

The guidelines advise human rights groups to press for the immediate release of first-category prisoners and for a retrial of those in the second category.

Different lists of prisoners

Belarus’ human rights groups tend to have longer lists of political prisoners than Western diplomats.

Vyasna, a Minsk-based human rights group, says Belarus has 11 political prisoners – 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.

The group stresses that Vaskovich and Prakapenka were given sentences out of proportion with the offenses they had committed and have been in prison long enough to be considered political prisoners.

Amnesty International, however, seems to apply more rigorous criteria, saying Belarus has only three political prisoners – Statkevich, Byalyatski and Lobaw.

The United States and the European Union (EU) have repeatedly called for the release of political prisoners in Belarus without specifying them. The EU office and the US embassy in Minsk would not name the prisoners in response to BelaPAN’s request, expressing only general concern.

A recent human rights report by the US Department of State mentioned Statkevich, Zmitser Dashkevich (released), Awtukhovich, Alyaksandr Frantskevich (released), Parfyankow, Paval Sevyarynets (released), Lobaw, Byalyatski and Yaromenak.

In a resolution issued last fall, the European Parliament named Byalyatski, Statkevich, Sevyarynets (released), Lobaw, Awtukhovich, Dzyadok and Alinevich.

Ukraine crisis may prompt Minsk, West to seek compromise

The Ukraine crisis may prompt Minsk to seek a compromise with the West on political prisoners, Yury Chavusaw, a Minsk-based political analyst, told The Viewer.

“The sides may agree to end the impasse to pave the way for a consensus on a more important issue – security in the region,” he adds.

He recalls that Minsk released political prisoners during the 2008 Russian-Georgian war, noting that Russia’s invasion of Crimea may prompt Minsk to cooperate closer with the EU.

He notes that the Belarusian and Kazakh leaders stopped short of throwing their weight behind Russia on Crimea after their meeting in Moscow last week. In addition, Belarusian officials repeatedly called for preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity.

As Minsk is reluctant to offer Russia its political support, it may seek better ties with the EU so that it will not end up in one camp with Russia that may face even harsher sanctions than Belarus, Chavusaw says.