Freedom for political prisoners: a problem of solidarity

On November 25th, 2011, the world learned of the harsh, politically motivated prison sentence handed down by a Belarusian court to Ales Bialiatski, vice president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and head of Viasna Human Rights Center. That same day, actions of solidarity with Bialiatsky and protests against political repression took place in cities across the globe: Paris, Brussels, Stockholm, Ankara, Buenos Aires, Yerevan, Bishkek… Despite differing cultures, political regimes, and human rights situations, Bialiatsky’s unjust persecution turned out to be important to non-indifferent people of all nations. Herein, the case may even be able to serve as an informal measure of the definition of “political persecution”, enough to uphold international protection against human rights infringements and backup demands of immediate release for prisoners.

Actions of solidarity with Bialiatsky also took place in Saint Petersburg, in the form of a series of solitary picketings outside of the local Belarusian embassy. Supporters of Bialiatsky stood peacefully with signs reading “Freedom for Ales Bialiatsky” and “Freedom for Political Prisoners”. However, directly after its start police demanded an end to the demonstration and detained two out of three protestors. The formal explanation given for these arrests was “protesting outside of a legal address” and “disobedience to police”. Notably, only in Saint Petersburg did these protests, similar to those happening simultaneously in other world cities, lead to arrests. The “evil” of the protests was obvious. (One can even imagine here “solidarity” of another kind — at the highest political level, all the more so as the pickets happened on the very same day that Lukashenko met at the Kremlin with the head of the Russian Federation).

Law enforcement officers knew about the upcoming protest and arrived in advance to its location, despite its legal and peaceful nature. Searching for a formal excuse to consider the protest unlawful, the peaceful public expression of opinion was labeled “disobedience of the authorities”. Unfortunately, within our law practices, this was not particularly difficult to achieve — but that topic is for a different discussion entirely.

When it comes to the problem of defining the “political prisoner” in general, attempts to delineate objective criteria have been made repeatedly by international organizations and individual scholars alike. Independent experts of the Council of Europe developed one set of criteria. These define a political prisoner as any individual who is pursued by authorities with political motives, and who are deprived of their human rights at the time of trial and sentencing. Amnesty International gives a broader definition: a “political element” is possible on either side of the conflict. The concept of a “political element” itself is considered in the broadest sense and covers nearly all politically motivated actions. In addition, for many political prisoners (for example, perpetrators of violent acts) the organization demands only a fair trial (which, of course, should always be carried out independent of the motives and identity of the defendant; the meaning of the isolation of “political” motives is incomprehensible, then, if only meant to raise public and media awareness.)

At a recent seminar in Kiev devoted to the issue, existing definitions were discussed in detail. All of them, however, characteristically proved to be inaccurate in the context of various real-world examples cited by attendees. Obviously, formal legal criteria do not work here (“We have no political articles”, confidently states the head of a nation in which the number of recognized political prisoners in incomparably greater than in all neighboring countries). Furthermore, there does not, and cannot, exist a special body to determine who does and does not count as a political prisoner, and laws by which the authorities pursue the accused differ greatly from country to country. Therefore, it becomes particularly important for human rights activities, civilian society and international organizations to recognize political prisoners (a kind of “conventional” approach to acceptance or rejection). Herein inevitably arises the problem of moral choice, in whatever form it may occur — human rights declarations, actions of solidarity, or defense in court.

Bialiatsky’s case is the most obvious, “unproblematic” and therefore “unrepresentative” example. Although officially the human rights activist was arrested on charges of “concealment of profits on an especially large scale”, no one is in doubt about the clear political motives behind his indictment. Viasna Human Rights Center has already spent 15 years providing help to residents of Belarus— victims of tyranny and violence. This includes numerous “non-existent” political prisoners who have been subjected to criminal charges and administrative penalties for their social and political activities. Viasna’s support of these prisoners could not have gone unnoticed in a country with such a repressive regime. The trial and unreasonable sentence of the head of an important human rights agency — in Belarus, this is the job of the authority.

In other, more complex and difficult situations, recognition of political prisoners depends upon a thorough evaluation of any specific case’s circumstances. For example, disputes often arise over the admissibility of violent actions and their limits. (In the defining a “violent action”, it seems logical to include only violence against individuals, although some experts include damage to or the destruction of property.) Another highly disputed issue is the matter of any “political motives” that might influence the convicted. In these cases, recognition of the political prisoner falls onto experts, who take into account all facts and circumstances. In this manner, Viasna Human Rights Center and the Belorussian Helsinki Committee recognized the human rights activists sentenced in the “case of the anarchists” as political prisoners. An analysis of the circumstances of the case, the trial, and the criminal prosecution was made; the organizations’ conclusion condemned the “long, clearly inappropriate prison terms and the unfair trial which was obviously influenced by the political motives of the authorities”.

Exactly because of cases like these, human rights defenders and civil activists of all nations are advocating against political persecution. Unrestricted power always exercises its punitive potential to deal with those who, by its own arbitrary notions, are considered dangerous. Therein, recognition of political prisoners plays a roll similar to the recognition of discrimination against certain groups, and their especial vulnerability; it is necessary in providing these groups with additional protections, including the right— at the core moral, rather than legal— to demand immediate release of political prisoners. Although, of course, recognition of prisoners as victims of political persecution does not, under current circumstances, guarantee their immediate release, or even a fair trial; in states practicing extensive political persecution, this known to almost always be impossible.

In our view, despite the search for “objectivity”, there still exist circumstances preventing the recognition of political prisoners. These encompass all actions motivated by hatred for vulnerable groups (for example, on the grounds of race, nationality, or gender). They are incompatible with the respect for human rights that the global community grants an individual in recognizing him as a political prisoner.