As the EU-Eastern Partnership summit, scheduled to take place in Vilnius at the end of November, approaches, a heated debate has been going on about the possible participation of official representatives from Belarus. Those who would normally get the invitation –President Alyaksandr Lukashenka or foreign minister Vladimir Makey – are both on the EU’s visa ban list, which makes their participation in Vilnius highly improbable. Some EU states suggest that the foreign minister’s name is suspended from the list so that he can attend the summit; others insist that the Belarusian authorities should not be engaged unless all remaining political prisoners are released and rehabilitated. The EU is of course right to push the regime to free those who rot in jail for their political activities. But just how many such prisoners are there in today’s Belarus? And would their rehabilitation really mean?
Today, EU member states and the EU’s diplomatic service EEAS expect Belarus to release and rehabilitate all political prisoners – but although several EU member states and EEAS officials say that they currently have 9 such people on their list, one cannot find a single reference to the exact number of political prisoners in any of the EU's most recent documents related to Belarus. One of the oldest Belarusian human rights NGOs, Viasna, lists 11 such people – a number that many European Parliamentarians also adopted and used in their interventions. The difference is due to the fact that actions of 2 out of these 11 prisoners “contain traits of an offence” which usually means those people cannot be considered political prisoners – hence their exclusion from the EU member states’ and EEAS list (see the full reasoning for their inclusion in the Viasna list here). The problem with numbers does not stop here. Recently, Amnesty International published its annual report on the human rights situation in Belarus, which mentions the country’s 5 prisoners of conscience. A similar number is mentioned in the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur on Belarus report (it mentions the names of 7 political prisoners, 2 of whom have been released since the report’s publication). In yet another list, Belarusian news portal Charter97 mentions 13 political prisoners.
The difference in numbers of political prisoners is not just confusing – it might also become a practical problem for European policymakers. Let’s imagine a purely theoretical situation: next week, Aliaksandr Lukashenka calls the EU’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and asks her how many political prisoners he should release in order to restart the political dialogue with Brussels. Catherine Ashton might reply that Minsk has to free and rehabilitate all those nine people that the EU member states list as political prisoners. But would the European Parliament, which claims there are eleven such people, accept subsequent rapprochement between Minsk and Brussels, even if those two people remain in jail? What would be the reaction of the Belarusian human rights NGOs? And how should the EU act if Minsk releases the five people identified as prisoners of conscience in the Amnesty report, keeps the rest in jail but claims that all ‘internationally-recognised’ prisoners have been set free?
Even if all political prisoners were released anytime soon, would that in itself be a sufficient reason for the EU to officially re-engage the Belarusian government – or would all those released also have to be rehabilitated? Previously, the EU had re-launched dialogue with Minsk after political prisoners were freed, despite the fact that none of them were rehabilitated. Yet if the EU's previous steps serve as any kind of blueprint for the steps Brussels might take in the future, why does it continues to insist on the prisoners' rehabilitation anyway? And what would this mean for those political prisoners who were released because they had asked for clemency? How can they be rehabilitated when – by signing the request – they de facto admitted that they committed the crime they were imprisoned for (such requests were usually signed by the prisoners after suffering a great deal of physical and psychological pressure)?
Although there are some voices among the Belarusian government who might be more open to the release of the political prisoners, such steps by Minsk are unlikely in the near future – the past two years show that the regime is only willing to free those who ask for clemency, thereby officially admitting their guilt. The EU's insistence on the rehabilitation of all prisoners further maximises the demands put on the official Minsk despite the fact that – if history could be any guide – Europeans seem ready to engage Belarus even if those released are not fully rehabilitated. Although the EU is right to keep pressure on the Belarusian authorities, clarifying just how many political prisoners it expects Minsk to release and what would their rehabilitation entail would help if the current 'dialogue of the deaf' is to result in something more fruitful.
Just as a footnote: according to a report prepared by the Council of Europe rapporteur on political prisoners, Christoph Strasser, earlier this year, there are at least 50 political prisoners in Azerbaijan. Sadly, that report was never adopted by the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly as an official document, mainly thanks to intensive lobbying from Baku. But despite the huge number of political prisoners in Azerbaijan, no one is seriously discussing the option of not inviting the country’s president to come to Vilnius in November. This is not to imply that the plight of Belarusian political prisoners should be overlooked at the expense of engaging in political dialogue with official Minsk. But it does beg a question about the coherence of motivations and objectives the EU has vis-a-vis its eastern neighbours. If I were a Belarusian official, I’d be confused.
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