To get arrested at a demonstration, you normally have to be there. Not, however, in Belarus.
A court in the western city of Hrodna this week convicted three human rights activists — Uladzimer Khilmanovich, Viktar Sazonau, and Raman Yurhel — for participating in an unauthorized demonstration on December 10 on International Human Rights Day. They were each fined 1.5 million rubles ($173).
But the men weren’t arrested at the time of their demonstration, but after a photo of them protesting was published online. In the photo, they are holding a portrait of Ales Byalyatski, a human rights leader who in 2011 was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison on charges of tax evasion. His supporters say those charges are politically motivated.
The photo appeared on the website of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, which Byalyatski heads.
Yurhel told RFE/RL’s Belarus Service that the four police officers who testified against him and the other activists in court were not present at the demonstration. He says no witnesses were brought forward in the trial.
«In truth, I understood, I was convicted for what I advocate, for having engaged in activities not prohibited by law,» said Sazonau, another one of those convicted. «I was convicted for what I had done: cooperation with Ales Byalyatski.»
Byalyatski has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International; Western leaders have called for his release. His wife says she has been denied visiting rights and Byalyatski is not allowed to receive food packages in jail. In November, officials took away equipment and furniture from Vyasna’s offices.
Following protests that erupted after the reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in December 2010, Belarus tightened its law on protests. In October 2011, the Belarusian parliament passed amendments to the Law on Mass Activities in the Republic of Belarus that prohibited organizers from announcing any gathering before it had been sanctioned by the government and banned protests that were organized through the Internet.
It is not the first time in Belarus that activists have gotten into hot water for photos of themselves that have appeared online.
Increased Public Exposure
In July 2012, after Swedish activists dropped teddy bears over Belarus carrying messages supporting the country’s opposition, a number of journalists were arrested for taking photos with the bears.
Anton Surapin, who runs a Belarusian news photo website, was arrested by the KGB for his alleged involvement in the stunt. Subsequently, two journalists were fined the equivalent of $360 for posing in solidarity at a photo shoot with the teddy bears.
While the Internet is better enabling activists to get their messages out in repressive states, the increased public exposure can give the state more evidence to use against them.
In Russia, members of the punk collective Pussy Riot were tried and convicted not just on the basis of witness testimony when they performed inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral but also on what appeared in the YouTube video of the incident and on material taken from their computers.
The tactic of hunting down protesters using the Internet was widely employed in Iran after the postelection demonstrations in 2009. The authorities published sets of photographs on news sites and called on users to identity people who had taken part in the demonstrations.
A new report by the U.K.-based Index on Censorship on the Belarusian Internet points out that, while the authorities restrict free speech using some degree of web filtering and surveillance, their clampdowns on the opposition still rely on «applying a repressive legal framework, including draconian laws such as criminal libel, legal prosecution, and the misapplication of the Criminal Code.»