By Connie Hong
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe
MINSK, Belarus – A Swedish advertising company, Studio Total, flew a small plane across the Belarusian border and dropped hundreds of teddy bears to draw attention to violations of freedom of expression in Belarus on the country’s Independence Day, July 4. Photographer and journalism student, Anton Suryapin, now faces up to seven years in prison after posting pictures of the incident on his website.
Suryapin was arrested on July 13 on suspicion of aiding Studio Total to illegally cross Belarus’ borders. Pursuant to Belarusian law, he should have been either charged or released before July 23. Because he has not been released, Amnesty International believes that he was charged and thus, urges for his immediate release.
“The charges against Anton Suryapin represent a further nail in the coffin of freedom of expression and association in Belarus, where spurious charges are frequently used in an attempt to silence those working to defend human rights,” said John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s Director for Europe and Central Asia.
Suryapin has denied having any connections with Studio Total. He claimed that he received the pictures from an unknown source and merely posted them as part of his journalistic activities. Amnesty International believes that Suryapin was charged solely for the non-violent expression of his conscientiously held beliefs rather than any actual wrong-doing.
Studio Total explained the teddy bear stunt was done to demonstrate the lack of freedom of expression in Belarus. A video footage of the event released by Studio Total showed two men in teddy bear masks, dropping toy bears from an aircraft. The teddy bears wore tiny black parachutes and held placards saying “Belarus freedom,” and “We support the Belarus struggle for free speech.”
In an interview held after Suryapin was detained, Studio Total’s Tomas Mazetti criticized the student’s arrest. According to Mazetti, the Swedish agency had never came in contact with Suryapin.
The Belarusian Ministry of Defense had initially denied that an aircraft trespassed over the country’s borders, and claimed that the video was nothing more than a hoax. Eyewitnesses interviewed by Radio Free Europe and Belarusian independent media however, stated that they had seen the teddy bears fall from the aircraft.
After weeks of denying that the stunt took place, Belarusian President, Alexander Lukashenko, finally admitted that a small Swedish airplane had invaded the country’s airspace to drop the toy bears.
Officials are still puzzled at how the Swedish aircraft was able to penetrate Belarus’ security. Last week, Lukashenko assured that members of the military and security forces who permitted the plane to fly into the country will be punished alongside all the perpetrators.
So far, Dmitry Pakhmelkin, Belarus’ air defense chief, and Ignor Rachkovsky, the head of the border guards, have been dismissed “for not properly carrying out their duties in safeguarding Belarusian national security.” Other senior state security officials have also been reprimanded.
For further information, please see:
Reuters — Belarus sacks top brass over teddy bear scandal — 31 July 2012
Digital Journal — Confirmed: Belarus was invaded by teddybear paratroopers — 29 July 2012
Al Jazeera — Belarus confirms teddy bear air drop — 27 July 2012
Ria Novosti — Belarusian Leader Admits Teddy Bear Bombing — 26 July 2012
Amnesty International — Belarus urged to release “teddy bear” free speech activist — 24 July 2012