Dear Mr. Federal President,
Dear members of the Federal Council,
We, the members of the Belarusian-Swiss Association RAZAM.CH, are writing to you in connection with the latest developments in Belarus that directly impact the regional security in Europe and affect Switzerland as a state as well as Swiss citizens and residents.
Hijacking of an EU airplane and linking this to Switzerland
On 23 May 2021 Belarusian authorities hijacked a Vilnius-bound Ryanair airplane and forced it to make an emergency landing in Minsk over a false bomb threat. A MIG-29 fighter jet belonging to Belarusian Air Forces escorted the civilian plane to the airport in Minsk. When the plane’s 126 international passengers disembarked, Belarusian police took Raman Pratasevich, an opposition journalist and blogger, away. The activist was arrested along with his 23-year old girlfriend Sofia Sapega. Both are now facing criminal charges.
In the aftermath of the hijack, Belarusian authorities have released a number of conflicting statements blaming the false bomb threat on the Palestinian organisation Hamas. Alexander Lukashenka, a former president who has lost the re-election in 2020 but refused to give up power, claimed in his speech that the bomb threat has come from Switzerland. He has provided no further detail, but some other officials have earlier stated that the threat originated from the Swiss portal ProtonMail.
Situation around political prisoners, including Swiss citizen Natallia Hersche. Persecution of their families
We keep receiving concerning news about Belarusian-Swiss dual citizen Natallia Hersche, who has been serving a 2.5 year-sentence in Belarusian jail, for her participation in a peaceful protest in September 2020. Over the past weeks, there have been clear indications of pressure applied against Natallia and her family. Belarusian authorities have, without a plausible reason, cancelled the planned prison visit by Natallia’s brother Henadz Kasian. Further, on 25 May 2021 Henadz’s flat was raided by the police and he was informed that he is now a suspect in a criminal case. We believe that Henadz is being targeted for his family connections to Natallia Hersche. We are also concerned that the Belarusian authorities are trying to mentally break Natallia, and that they are trying to prevent the information about Natallia and her wellbeing from surfacing and reaching international community.
We are also worried about Natallia’s wellbeing, as the harsh conditions in Belarusian prisons, and the ‘special’ derogatory treatment of political prisoners is well known. Last week a 50-year old political prisoner Vitold Ashurak, who was sentenced to 5 years in prison for participation in peaceful protests in 2020, suddenly died in jail under questionable circumstances, presumably of heart failure. Vitold’s family said that he had no health problems prior to jailing.
Mass arrests of independent journalists and blocking of the main independent news portal
On 18 May 2021 Belarusian authorities burst into the homes of editors and journalists of the most popular Belarusian portal TUT.BY, which covers 63% of Belarusian internet users. Police has also raided its offices and blocked access to the internet resource. On the same day the management and journalists of TUT.BY and other news and hosting companies (15 people in total) were detained, and they remain in prison or under house arrest.
We consider this to be a direct attack on free speech and an attempt to limit the dissemination of uncensored information in and outside of Belarus. After the 2020 election dozens of independent media outlets were closed or blocked, and the authorities are further persecuting the remaining outlets and individual journalists and bloggers.
Other Belarus-related matters that affect Swiss reputation
We have been receiving requests for comments in respect of other Belarus related matters that involve Switzerland and that are likely to affect the reputation of Switzerland negatively, especially in the aftermath of the recent events:
- Switzerland did not join the Joint statement on the human rights situation in Belarus of 21 May 2021, which was issued on behalf of 37 OSCE participating states and which highlighted the worsening human rights situation in Belarus.
- Official Boeing 767 EW-01PB belonging to the Belarus government, that normally transports Lukashenka and his family, has spent about two weeks at Basel Airport in May 2021. It was previously seen at Basel Airport in the end of August 2020 (after the contested elections and protest crackdown). The Belarusian side has refused to comment on the reasons for the aircraft presence at Basel Airport.
A year ago, on 29 May 2020, Belarusian authorities arrested Siarhei Tsikhanouski, the husband of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who then went on to win the presidential elections in 2020. This was just the beginning of the widespread repression against Lukashenka’s opposition. A huge police crackdown has followed – it curbed the street protests and sent opposition leaders to prison or into exile. Within a year, over 30 000 people have been detained and over 2300 criminal cases have been brought against the opposition. There are currently 426 officially recognised political prisoners in Belarus. Despite the scale, this was until recently viewed by many predominantly as an internal problem of Belarus, but the situation has escalated and now Lukashenka is also a threat to the regional security in Europe.
THEREFORE, WE CALL ON THE SWISS GOVERNMENT FOR AN URGENT ACTION IN RESPECT OF BELARUS, TO PROTECT THE VALUES OF DEMOCRACY, PREVENT PERSECUTION OF BELARUSIAN AND SWISS CITIZENS AND AVERT A REGIONAL SECURITY THREAT.
We call on the Swiss Government to join other nations in:
- Applying all possible political pressure to free Natallia Hersche, Raman Pratasevich, Sofia Sapega and other political prisoners and to stop persecution of opposition activists in Belarus;
- Conducting an investigation of the plane hijack and surrounding circumstances involving Switzerland and other nations, and issuing a strong statement reflecting Swiss position in this respect;
- Conducting an independent investigation of all reported cases of human rights abuse, while also ensuring the safety of affected Belarusian and international citizens involved;
- Adopting the next sanction packages aimed against Lukashenka and his environment (Switzerland has fallen behind the EU and US in this respect and needs to catch up and extend its sanctions list);
- Denying political recognition to Alexander Lukashenka and his government, and making it clear to Belarus, Russia and other governments as well as companies which cooperate with or support the Belarusian authorities, that any agreements concluded with Lukashenka’s government shall we invalid and will be annulled;
- Withholding investments, loans and other financial support to Belarusian government initiatives and projects, Belarusian banks and companies with state participation, to prevent any such contributions from being redirected for funding of human rights abuse and terrorist activities;
- Demanding that international businesses, and in particular Swiss companies (such as Stadler, Franck Muller and Nestle) that conduct business in Belarus, adhere to their human rights commitments and conduct proper due diligence of their business activity in Belarus and the activity of their Belarusian business partners, to ensure they do not contribute to human rights abuse;
- Stepping up the support to Belarusian civil society, independent media and repressed activists.
We would greatly appreciate if you could respond on the points raised in this letter and outline the action plan of the Swiss government that goes beyond the mere monitoring of the situation. If needed, we will be happy to provide our perspective and discuss any potential steps and actions in greater detail.