Before the break-up of the Soviet Union, Belarus was known as Belorussia (White Russia). As well as Russia, it borders Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and Lithuania. Belarus declared independence in August 1991, following the failed coup in Moscow, and became a founding member of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The country and its people are still suffering the consequences of the worst nuclear disaster in recent times. Although Chernobyl is located in Ukraine, over 70 per cent of the radioactive fallout resulting from the meltdown and explosion in April 1986 fell on Belarusian territory. According to estimates by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 20 per cent of Belarus’s forests and over 6,000 square kilometres of prime agricultural land are contaminated. Writer and nuclear scientist Yury Bandazhevsky wrote about the effects Chernobyl had on the Belarusian population. He also criticised the Government for its failure to provide financial aid and its lack of concern for the people living in contaminated zones.Many international and local human-rights organisations believe that his arrest in 1999 and the eight-year prison sentence he received in 2001 were arranged in retaliation for his research and writing on the effects of the radioactive fallout from Chernobyl. Bandazhevsky is currently held in a labour colony, where he is said now to be in severe ill health. There were hopes that he would be released on parole earlier this year but his request was turned down. The President reportedly stated that Bandazhevsky should pay his debt and admit his guilt. Alyaksandr Lukashenko first came to power in 1994. Since 1996, President Lukashenko has effectively ruled by decree. He was due to leave office in 2006 but on 7 September 2004 he announced a referendum on an amendment to the Constitution that would remove the two-term limit for a presidency. This took place on 17 October, the same day as parliamentary elections. The EU expressed serious concern about the environment in which both the election and the referendum took place, and questioned whether the necessary conditions had existed for holding free and fair ballots.
The human-rights record of the Belarusian Government continues to deteriorate. The judiciary is not independent. Opposition politicians are harassed and, in some cases, have been subject to politically motivated legal proceedings. It has also been alleged that the Government organised a death squad to get rid of its opponents – the authorities were widely condemned for failing to investigate the disappearances of four political figures in 1999 and 2000. Persecution of the independent media is widespread. According to the FCO, the authoritarian rule of Lukashenko has earned the country the reputation of being ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’.
Belarus has come under increasing pressure from Western governments. A resolution on Belarus, tabled by the European Union and the United States, was adopted at the sixtieth session of the UN Commission on Human Rights in 2004, and a further resolution is planned for this year.
Professor Bandazhevsky, now forty-eight, has published over 200 scientific papers and articles. In 1990 he was made Rector of the Gomel Medical Institute, where he researched and wrote about the effects of radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl disaster on the local population. Bandazhevsky was openly critical of the Government’s response to the impact that Chernobyl had on public health, and of the research of the Belarus Ministry of Health’s Clinical Research Institution for Radiation Medicine. On 13 July 1991 he was arrested, his house and laboratory ransacked, and his books and computer confiscated. Bandazhevsky was eventually convicted on charges of receiving bribes from students at the Gomel Medical Institute and of falsifying travel documents in an attempt to escape trial. The charges of falsifying travel documents are apparently well founded, but Bandazhevsky claims that he did so because he feared imprisonment on account of his criticism of the Government. Bandazhevsky is considered a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International, who point to a number of breaches of international standards safeguarding free trial. He has also been adopted as an honorary member of the English branch of PEN, the international association of writers.
Bandazhevsky’s sentence has been reduced several times, and he is now due for release on 6 January 2006. He served part of his term in Minsk Prison but was hospitalised in late October 2004 with serious stomach problems (described as pre-cancerous) which also affected his kidneys and pancreas. Bandazhevsky also reportedly suffers from atrophy in his arms and legs and has tendon problems. He underwent an operation on his arm in November 2004. He has a history of ill health and it is feared that the stress of his current situation will cause his condition to deteriorate further.
In early January of this year PEN sent a petition signed by over three hundred writers to the Belarusian Government, calling for Bandazhevsky’s release. Having served a large proportion of his sentence, Bandazhevsky was legally entitled to parole, and had not committed any violations. Human-rights organisations both within and outside Belarus were disappointed that Bandazhevsky’s early parole was turned down on the grounds of his refusal to confess his guilt and of his inability to meet his legal costs – he has not earned an income for six years.
Readers can send appeals calling for the release of Yury Bandazhevsky to:
President of the Republic of Belarus
Alyaksandr G Lukashenko c/o His Excellency Alyaksei Mazhukhou
6 Kensington Court
London W8 5DL
Fax: 020 7361 0005