Thuggish arrests of activists and journalists mar Chernobyl anniversary march in Minsk, Belarus

ingressimage_ingressimage_radio_svaboda_ch_sh_13-1..jpg Photo: RFE/RL

The spate of detentions and reports of police brutality signaled another – though unexpected – ratcheting up of official repression after 2,000 people took to the streets in the Belarusian capital on the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe on April 26 in a demonstration called Chernobyl March 2013.

The event was green-lighted by local officials, according to Bellona correspondent Tatyana Novikova, but the well-established yearly event that has been taking place since 1996, the decade anniversary of the Chernobyl explosion, was characterized by an unusually high degree of government crackdowns.

This year, said Novikova, was the first year ever in the history of the march that activists were detained.

The Chernobyl March is the single ecological street demonstration traditionally allowed by Belarusian authorities. The single exception was in 2011, when after the reelection of Belarus’s repressive president, Alexander Lukashenko, the demonstration was suspended and reduced to public meetings in Minsk’s Peoples; Friendship park.

Marchers this year intended to draw special attention to the construction of Belarus NPP located in the city of Ostrovets, near the Lithuanian border, which is being built by Russia. They gathered under banners and slogans damning the Russian built plant as a second Chernobyl in waiting, and demanding that the money being spent on the plant instead be apportioned to the victims of the Chernobyl disaster, who remain to this day drastically undercompensated.  

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Belarus NPP has also run askance of numerous international regulations, and has drawn withering criticism from surrounding countries, international nuclear activists, and has even waved off citations for infractions of by the Espoo Convention’s Implementation Committee, which oversees compliance with the Convention’s agreement that countries hosting industrial projects that may endanger their neighbors take into account their complaints.

This year’s Chernobyl March

This year, Minsk’s city management committee officially permitted the Chernobyl March, although somewhat limited its scope, forcing marchers to walk down sidewalks rather than in the streets as in past years.

Other governmental bodies also approved the plans for the demonstration, allowing the use of public address systems, signed off on the planned route of the march and meeting places, and the laying of flowers around the Chernobyl Chapel.

The Minsk city executive committee even assured that participants in the march would not be detained “without foundation.” 

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These promises, however were shattered in the days leading up to the demonstration when activists, members of political parties and others who were suspected of wishing to participate in the march were targeted by a flurry of official warnings, threats, court summonses, and arrests.  Even residents of small outlying villages as far as 200 kilometers from Misnk that had planned to attend were intimidated by officials into staying home, Bellona was told.

Reporters detained and arrested

Six journalists who covered the Chernobyl March 2013 were also arrested during and after the demonstration in a move that drew harsh criticism for the international journalists; rights organization Reporters Without Borders.  Two reporters for the Radio Ratsyia Belorusian  radio station – Alexander Yaroshevich and Gennadiy Bararich were first detained then placed under arrest for three days for allegedly  refusing to comply with orders from the police.

Newspaper reporters Oksana Rudovich and Irina Arahuskaya of the independent Nasha Niva were arrested during the demostration by plainclothes policemen when they tried to film (video in Russian) other plainclothes police officers beating and violently arresting a demonstrator named Igor Trukhanovich, according to documents posted by Reporters Without Borders. The reporters were themselves later heard yelling for help in their tape, saying they, too, were being attacked by police.

The press watchdog said in its release that they were taken to a nearby police station, where their equipment and memory cards were given a detailed inspection, and they were then released without being charged. 

In a separate incident, said the press group, independent journalists Alexander Barazenko and Anastasya Yavmen were arrested in Ostrovets, while covering an opposition march at the site of Belarusian NPP. After deleting the video they had filmed, the police released them three hours later, said Reporters Without Borders.

According to the group’s international rankings of press freedom, Belarus weighs in at a low 157 out of 179 surveyed countries.

The plight of activists

Belarusian authorities also seemed to focus special attention on targeting influential activists and politicians for harassment and legal action in the days leading up to the march.

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One activist, Olga Karach of the “Nash Dom” (Our House) movement, was “preventively” excluded from the demonstration, when late last month she received a court summons for the day of the march.  Opposition political activists Vladimir Yermenko of “Young Front” and Pavel Vinogradov of the “Speak the Truth” movement were both arrested on the eve of the demonstration
On April 26, Nikolai Ulasevich, coordinator of the “Ostrovets NPP is a Crime” campaign was detained for three hours by traffic police on his way to Minsk on the pretext of the suspicion that he was driving a stolen car, Ulasevich told Bellona. He was to be one of the key speakers at Chernobyl March 2013.
In total, some 15 renowned Belarusian anti-nuclear activists were prevented from taking part in the March, according to figures cited by Reporters Without Borders. But accounts from Novikova and others suggest that far more rank and file activists were roughed up by police and brutally dragged from the demonstration.
“The impression is that authorities gave themselves the task of isolating politicians from ecologists and not permitting the traditional Chernobyl protest from taking place with anti-nuclear slogans,” said Bellona correspondent Novikova. “For this specifically we were detained and our anti-nuclear literature impounded.”
Anti-nuclear literature confiscated
Indeed, officials bore down hard on those who wished to distribute information on the building of the Belarus NPP at the demonstration.
Irina Sukhiy, a member of the organizing committee for Chernobyl March 2013, and a member of the ECODOM NGO, which produced anti-nuclear pamphlets for the demonstration, told Bellona she had been detained along with a group of three volunteers so that police could establish their identities. They were detained at a police station until the march concluded.
Further, uniformed police and state security officials blocked the assembly and distribution of anti-nuclear placards and banners that Sukhiy had brought in her car for the duration of the rally. Any anti-nuclear materials distributed at the rally were, according to Bellona’s Novikova, smuggled in before the march began.
Novikova herself – who was one of the official organizers of Chernobyl March 2013 – was herself forced to linger for three hours in Sukhiy’s apartment, located near the starting point of the march. Novikova said that police cars and uniformed officers surrounded the building.
Organized siege on activists
“I had two options,” she told Bellona. “Either go out and be detained or remain in the apartment.”
She said that as an official organizer of the march, she had to appear at the meeting.
“I decided to wait until the siege was called off in the hopes that I could at least make the meeting,” said Novikova. “But the security forces didn’t leave until the 10 minutes before the official end of the rally.”
Vitaly Rymashevsky, a member of the Belorusian Christian Democracy movement, who participated in the rally and witnessed many of the arrests, told Bellona that “what happened to many participants and organizers of the march was not detention – it was siege and violent kidnapping of people in the center of the city.”
“Uniformed thugs without any discernable reason attacked people and dragged them off in unknown directions,” continued Rymashevsky.”This is a sure sign that there is no liberalization underway in Belarus.”
Police brutality did not dampen turn out
Citing attendance figures at the Chernobyl March rally dating back three  years, this year’s march garnered the most supporters. In 2010, she said, some 1500 people participated in the March. In 2011, the year Lukashenko banned the demonstration, 200 still showed up. In 2012,  2000 took part in the march – the same figure estimated for 2013.
The largest march took place in its first year, when some 30,000 turned out to demonstrate. 
Tatyana Novikova reported from Minsk and Charles Digges from Oslo.

[picture3 {A placard reading “There is no place for the peaceful atom even on a trash heap,” which was also banned from being carried in the march. } right ]

One activist, Olga Karach of the “Nash Dom” (Our House) movement, was “preventively” excluded from the demonstration, when late last month she received a court summons for the day of the march.  Opposition political activists Vladimir Yermenko of “Young Front” and Pavel Vinogradov of the “Speak the Truth” movement were both arrested on the eve of the demonstration
On April 26, Nikolai Ulasevich, coordinator of the “Ostrovets NPP is a Crime” campaign was detained for three hours by traffic police on his way to Minsk on the pretext of the suspicion that he was driving a stolen car, Ulasevich told Bellona. He was to be one of the key speakers at Chernobyl March 2013.

“The impression is that authorities gave themselves the task of isolating politicians from ecologists and not permitting the traditional Chernobyl protest from taking place with anti-nuclear slogans,” said Bellona correspondent Novikova. “For this specifically we were detained and our anti-nuclear literature impounded.”

Anti-nuclear literature banned

Indeed, officials bore down hard on those who wished to distribute information on the building of the Belarus NPP at the demonstration.

Irina Sukhiy, a member of the organizing committee for Chernobyl March 2013, and a member of the ECODOM NGO, which produced anti-nuclear pamphlets for the demonstration, told Bellona she had been detained along with a group of three volunteers so that police could establish their identities. They were detained at a police station until the march concluded.

Further, uniformed police and state security officials blocked the assembly and distribution of anti-nuclear placards and banners that Sukhiy had brought in her car for the duration of the rally. Any anti-nuclear materials distributed at the rally were, according to Bellona’s Novikova, smuggled in before the march began.

Novikova herself – who was one of the official organizers of Chernobyl March 2013 – was herself forced to linger for three hours in Sukhiy’s apartment, located near the starting point of the march. Novikova said that police cars and uniformed officers surrounded the building.

Organized siege on activists

“I had two options,” she told Bellona. “Either go out and be detained or remain in the apartment.” She said that as an official organizer of the march, she had to appear at the meeting.

“I decided to wait until the siege was called off in the hopes that I could at least make the meeting,” said Novikova. “But the security forces didn’t leave until the 10 minutes before the official end of the rally.”

Vitaly Rymashevsky, a member of the Belorusian Christian Democracy movement, who participated in the rally and witnessed many of the arrests, told Bellona that “what happened to many participants and organizers of the march was not detention – it was siege and violent kidnapping of people in the center of the city.”

“Uniformed thugs without any discernable reason attacked people and dragged them off in unknown directions,” continued Rymashevsky.”This is a sure sign that there is no liberalization underway in Belarus.”
Police brutality did not dampen turn out

Citing attendance figures at the Chernobyl March rally dating back three  years, this year’s march garnered the most supporters. In 2010, she said, some 1500 people participated in the March. In 2011, the year Lukashenko banned the demonstration, 200 still showed up. In 2012,  2000 took part in the march – the same figure estimated for 2013.

The largest march took place in its first year, when some 30,000 turned out to demonstrate. 

Charles Digges