Belarus: Fears for student rights campaigners

Brendan O’Malley

13 March 2011

Issue: 162

The European Humanities University has voiced concern over the plight of two of its students in Belarus. One has been sentenced to four years in prison. Another, who could face a sentence of up to 15 years, last week received the 2011 International Women of Courage Award from United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.

President Alexander Lukashenko has clamped down on opponents following his landslide election victory in December, after which students, academics and thousands of others protested against alleged electoral fraud. The US also rejected the election result.

Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, a third-year student of international law, was sentenced to four years in prison in the Fruzenski District Court in Minsk, Belarus, on 2 March.

Irena Vaisvilaite, a Vice-rector of the European Humanities University (EHU), said: "Atroshchankau was sentenced for just being active in [the] presidential election campaign. He was exercising his civic rights and did nothing violent or illegal. He will spend [the] next four years behind bars instead of studying, being with his family and working for the good of his country."

Atroshchankau has been held in custody in the KGB jail since his arrest at home on 20 December, and charged with committing a crime under part 2 of article 293 of the Criminal Code (rioting).

A spokesman for Belarusian presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov during the election campaign, he has worked as a journalist for for the past 10 years.

He has been recognised as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International.

Maksim Milto, president of EHU's Students' Representative Board, and Kirill Atamanchik, coordinator of the student initiative StudAlliance, issued a joint statement saying there was "not a single piece of evidence" for Atroshchankau's guilt for so-called mass disturbances.

"In executing his duties as a journalist he was located in the middle of the action, but did not commit any illegal actions, which was made obvious at the trial," they said. They appealed to the international community to "not remain indifferent" to the "violation of human rights in Belarus and failure to comply with international law".

Anastasiya Palazhanka, 20, a second-year student in political science and European studies, was unable to attend the ceremony for the 2011 International Women of Courage Award in Washington DC on Wednesday as a result of travel restrictions imposed by the Belarusian government pending a criminal case it had brought against her.

At the awards ceremony, Clinton said: "Nasta Palazhanka has been living through such a difficult time. A country right in Europe that is still oppressing its people, rigging elections, jailing political opponents in the most brutal and oppressive ways, is an intimidating force. But, she has stood up and spoken out. So for her resolute commitment to promoting civil society and youth political activism, and...bravely helping to chart a peaceful path toward democratic society, we applaud her."

The Women of Courage award was established in 2007 by then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to recognise and honour women around the globe who have shown exceptional courage and leadership in promoting women's rights and advancement.

Palazhanka is accused of violating paragraphs 1 and 2, article 293, of the Criminal Code, which refer to the organisation of and participation in "mass disturbances", and faces imprisonment of up to 15 years. She was released on 17 February after spending two months in prison, but it is not known if she will be prosecuted.

Vaisvilaite said the charges against her have not been dropped and she could still face prosecution.

"She has shown exceptional courage when expressing her views and stood by her convictions. She is the face of young people who want to live in a free and just society," Vaisvilaite said.

In addition to Atroshchankau and Palazhanka, another EHU student, Nikolai Dedok, has been detained for five months, according to student representatives. Charges have also been brought against EHU professor Alexandr Feduta, who is currently in custody in the KGB prison, they said.

Last month higher education ministers from eight European countries wrote to their counterpart in Minsk demanding academic freedom for students and lecturers. There have been beatings, detentions and expulsions from universities of students and academics in response to protests over the presidential election result of 19 December 2010.


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