Prisoner of Conscience Represents 'Further Nail in the Coffin' for Freedom of Speech in Belarus
(Washington, D.C.) – Amnesty International today urged Belarusian authorities to immediately release a journalism student who faces up to seven years in prison, stemming from a picture he posted of a stunt involving teddy bears.
Photographer Anton Suryapin, 20, was charged after a Swedish advertising company, Studio Total, dropped hundreds of teddy bears carrying placards in support of free speech over north-western Belarus on the July 4. Suryapin was detained on July 13 after posting photographs of the stunt on the website Belarusian News Photos.
Suryapin had no connections with Studio Total and merely posted the pictures as part of his journalistic activities. Studio Total's Tomas Mazetti said the agency had no contact with Anton Suryapin and denounced the arrest.
"The charges against Anton Suryapin represent a further nail in the coffin of freedom of expression and association in Belarus," said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia. "Spurious charges are frequently used in the country in an attempt to silence those working to defend human rights."
Belarus authorities charged Suryapin on July 13 under suspicion of having illegally assisted an organized group cross the border of Belarus. According to Belarusian law, he should have been charged or released before July 23. He was not released on Monday and Amnesty International assumes therefore that he was charged.
Studio Total says the teddy-bear stunt was carried out to highlight the clampdown on freedom of expression in Belarus. Video footage released by the agency on July 5 shows two people wearing teddy bear masks throwing toy bears out of the airplane. Though police in Ivyanets quickly gathered up the teddy bears, eyewitnesses interviewed by Radio Free Europe and Belarusian independent media confirmed that they had seen the teddy bears fall from the aircraft.
Syarhei Basharimau, who works for a rental agency, reportedly rented a flat to the two Swedes connected to the airplane stunt and was detained on July 10. He was charged under the same article under which Suryapin is being held, and could also face up to seven years in prison.
Amnesty International considers Suryapin to be a prisoner of conscience, charged solely for the non-violent expression of his conscientiously held beliefs. The human rights organization demands that the charges against both men be dropped and for them to be released.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth and dignity are denied.