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Belarusian Online Activists Detained, Drawing Inquiry From Dutch MEP

BY Miranda Neubauer | Thursday, August 30 2012

Dutch Member of European Parliament Marietje Schaake is calling on the European Commission to take action in response to reports that the administrators of Belarusian opposition groups using the Russian social network Vkontakte were arrested in Minsk by the authoritarian government of President Alexander Lukashenko.

Schaake cites a report from the pro-human rights news site Charter97. According to that report, authorities "hacked" two of the biggest opposition groups on the social network, "We're fed up with Lukashenko," with over 37,000 members, and “Only SHOS” with 15,000 members, and arrested at least three activists.

Reuters reported that at least four people had been detained, citing local human rights Vesna-96, and that the group's page was unavailable today.

"This is a clear violation of freedom of expression and assembly online, it shows that authoritarian regimes are very much aware of the potential of peaceful political rallying via social media and fear the intangible power of online opposition movements," Schaake said in a statement. "The EU should prevent EU companies from assisting the Belarusian authorities in cracking down on dissent online."

Schaake is asking the European Commission how it will pressure Belarusian authorities to respect digital freedom and to release the group administrators. She notes that the issue is of particular concern ahead of scheduled parliamentary elections on September 23. Given the alleged hack, she asks whether the Commission is willing to impose trade restrictions and ad hoc sanctions on the export of technologies and services to Belarus, similar to how it has been done against Syria and Iran.

The Belarusian government has been in the headlines for its reaction to a July stunt organized by Swedish PR company Studio Total, in which the company airdropped teddy bears bearing human rights messages into the country. The government at first denied the event had taken place, but also made arrests, including a journalism student who had posted pictures of the teddy bears on his website. Lukashenko's government then fired the foreign minister and two generals in charge of air defense and the border patrol over the incident.