Today, a group of 28 members of the U.S. House of Representatives urged the IIHF to move its 2014 World Championship from Belarus.
In the letter the members pointed to the “heightened crackdown on freedom of expression and association since the 2010 presidential election” and noted that,
“This unrestrained climate of repression in Belarus creates significant “reason for concern that the well-being or the safe freedom of movement of the players, officials, traveling spectators and media is in doubt” should the championship be held in Minsk in 2014. As such, the IIHF has the right to withdraw hosting rights from Belarus and allocate the championship to another Member National Association.”
Other signatories to the letter included Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).
Maran Turner, Executive Director of Freedom Now welcomed the letter. “This is an important recognition by members of the U.S. House of Representatives that it would be totally inappropriate for the IIHF to hold its World Championship in Minsk while the government there continues to repress its own people,” she said. “The remaining political prisoners must be released and former political prisoners like Andrei Sannikov and Zmister Bandarenka must have their political rights restored.”
Freedom Now, in conjunction with a team of lawyers from the international law firm Hogan Lovells US LLP, served as international pro-bono legal counsel to former Belarusian political prisoners Messrs. Sannikov and Bandarenka until their release in April, 2012.
The text of the letter is copied below.
Dear President Fasel,
We write to express our deep concern regarding the ongoing human rights situation in Belarus and request that the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) reconsider its decision to hold the 2014 World Hockey Championships in Minsk during the IIHF congress this May in Helsinki, Finland.
Individuals in Belarus—widely regarded as Europe’s last dictatorship—do not have the right to exercise even basic civil and political rights. Elections routinely fail to meet international standards of fairness. Those who publicly display dissatisfaction with the regime are quickly arrested and face the very real threat of mistreatment. Because the judiciary lacks independence, such disregard for the rule of law occurs with impunity.
Of particular concern is a heightened crackdown on freedom of expression and association since the 2010 presidential election. On the evening of December 19, 2010, tens of thousands of Belarusians peacefully gathered in downtown Minsk to demonstrate against the expected election results. In the ensuing crackdown, police arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters, including opposition candidates Mikalai Statkevich and Andrei Sannikov, and political advisor Zmister Bandarenka. After trials that failed to meet international standards of due process, the government sentenced Mr. Statkevich to six years in a medium security penal colony and Mr. Sannikov to five years.
Both men have suffered greatly while in government custody. Like other political prisoners detained in Belarus, they have suffered harsh physical conditions including beatings and deprivation of medical treatment for often serious medical conditions. When Mr. Sannikov’s lawyer expressed concern about his client’s “horrendous” condition he was disbarred and Mr. Sannikov was denied private access to counsel for months following. Additionally, both men were deprived of contact with their families and legal counsel for prolonged periods during their imprisonment.
In light of these facts, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Mr. Statkevich’s detention is the direct result of exercising his fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and political participation. The Working Group therefore concluded that his detention is arbitrary and a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Despite this, Mr. Statkevich remains in prison.
Unfortunately, these types of abuses by Belarusian authorities are all too common. Although Mr. Sannikov and his advisor, Mr. Bandarenka, were released on April 14 and 15 of this year, many others, including Mr. Statkevich, remain imprisoned and activists and civil society leaders continue to face intimidation and arrest. Because the Belarusian judiciary lacks real independence, such abuses go unchecked.
This unrestrained climate of repression in Belarus creates significant “reason for concern that the well-being or the safe freedom of movement of the players, officials, traveling spectators and media is in doubt” should the championship be held in Minsk in 2014. As such, the IIHF has the right to withdraw hosting rights from Belarus and allocate the championship to another Member National Association.
The United States Senate, the United States House of Representatives, and the European Parliament have each expressed opposition to holding the Ice Hockey World Championships in Minsk while political prisoners continue to languish in Belarusian prisons. Today, we reiterate this call and urge each member of the International Ice Hockey Federation to demand that Belarus release all political prisoners or forfeit the honor of hosting the Championship.