Belarus: Elections DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Viscount WaverleyMain Page: Viscount Waverley (Crossbench - Excepted Hereditary)
My Lords, first, I warmly thank the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, who, as he said, is a UK delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, as, indeed, I am. I thank him for tabling this important subject for debate today. As he said, in PACE we have debated the situation in Belarus on a number of occasions and we have received strong support for the kind of action he is calling for today and, indeed, for going further.
The presidential election held in Belarus on 9 August last year, which saw Lukashenko returned based on the so-called official result was described by independent observers, and indeed by our Foreign Secretary, as neither free nor fair. I particularly commend the United Kingdom Government for rightly describing Lukashenko’s subsequent inauguration as fraudulent. However, the protests against the regime in Belarus have resulted in an unprecedented series of arrests of innocent political prisoners and a vicious crackdown on journalists—and, in particular, against civil society activists and opposition politicians.
Indeed, the lengths to which the dictator will go to clamp down on opposition activities reached a new height on 23 May with the hijacking by the regime of Ryanair flight FR4978 to detain an opposition activist, Roman Protasevič, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega. It was an unprecedented, astonishing state hijack, widely condemned by the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and almost everyone—with the notable exception of Russia, which considered it an “internal matter” for Belarus.
What can we do, here and now, to respond to these acts of repression and barbarism? First, as individuals we can protest. But even more usefully, as parliamentarians we can give some hope to individual prisoners—as I am doing, along with others here in Westminster and around Europe, by adopting one of them.
Ten months ago, the prisoner I adopted, an arborist called Stepan Latypov, was arrested on a trumped-up charge because one of the chemicals that he uses for his work as an arborist can be combined with others to make explosives. He was brought to court limping, with bruises and a bandaged hand resulting from the way he had been treated. He was threatened that if he did not admit his guilt, his relatives would be persecuted. He then attempted suicide. Meanwhile, pressure is exerted on him by refusing visitors, controlling correspondence, round-the-clock surveillance and limiting access to showers and other facilities.
The delay in bringing Stepan to trial puts more pressure on him; however, it also looks as if they are playing for time. The fact that he and other prisoners know that we are monitoring their situation gives them some hope and, I hope, lets the regime know that we are watching. Specifically, will the Minister arrange for our ambassador in Minsk to request a visit by an official from the embassy to Stepan in prison, to report back on his condition and whether and when he is to be charged? I hope he will deal with that in his reply.
As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, said, we need to go further collectively to help all the prisoners, journalists and opposition activists. We also need to get new, fully democratic elections in Belarus, as was in fact demanded by another of our colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in his report to the parliamentary assembly.
Along with other Peers, including the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, and Members of Parliament I have written to the Chancellor, urging stronger financial sanctions on the Lukashenko regime. We should be using our position on the IMF board to veto the billion dollars due to be allocated to Belarus. As the noble Lord, Lord Balfe said, the IMF previously denied funds to the Maduro regime in Venezuela, so there is clear precedent for taking such action.
In spite of Brexit, London remains one of the key financial centres, so our Government should look at further ways that we can bring pressure on Lukashenko to move quickly to accept the inevitable, because it is inevitable that he will have to go. I support the proposal in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, that we should join with the French, the Germans and the United States to pressure Russia to accept that there must be new elections in Belarus. But we also need to take our own action, individually and collectively here in the United Kingdom, to put pressure on the Lukashenko regime. I hope that we will get a positive response from the Minister on that action too.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, whose name is next on the list, has withdrawn from the debate, so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Northover.