Belarus: Teddy Bear Photo Journalist Jailed For Seven Years
A group of photojournalists have rallied together to support a Belarussian blogger who was jailed for seven years after posting photos of a pro-democracy stunt in which teddy bears were dropped from a plane.
About 800 toy bears were dropped from a light aircraft, chartered by a Swedish public relations firm, which crossed into Belarussian air space from Lithuania on July 4, the day after Belarus marked independence day.
Each bear carried a message urging the hardline former Soviet republic to show greater respect for human rights.
The stunt caused an uproar in Belarus, with President Alexander Lukashenko sacking his air defense chief and the head of the border guards for failing to stop the plane.
In the case of Anton Suryapin, the jailed blogger, a group of journalist have organized a photo project to raise awareness about his plight.
[Yulia Darashkevich, Photographer]:
"Well, above all it's a demonstration of journalist solidarity. Anton (Suryapin) is a photographer who just put photographs on his website, and it could happen to any of us. The situation is completely absurd. Every time we are detained while fulfilling our professional duty we think it can't get any worse, that there must be some limit to this craziness. But in this situation you just can't believe that this could actually happen, that a person could sit in prison for seven years for pictures of teddy bears. We're completely powerless in this situation, we can't influence it in any way.”
The journalists posed for photos with a small bear wearing a parachute - similar to the bears that were dropped out of the plane on July 4.
The photographs were then posted online in an attempt to raise awareness about the case.
[Dmitry Brushko, Photographer]:
"This action was thought up as an opportunity to make Anton (Suryapin)'s case public because it very often happens that someone sits (in prison) but no one writes about him, no one remembers him, and the case is forgotten.”
Suryapin's parents are in shock over the incident.
[Andrei Suryapin, Anton Suryapin's Father]:
"We were at work and a girl at work used her phone to go online and saw the news. We thought it was some sort of hoax but then when we came home and turned on the computer and I went online I was in shock, complete shock that something like this could happen to my son for some kind of photographs, even (that it could happen) to any journalist, not just my son. They don't show things like this at all on television, where they beat someone up and before this happened to my son I didn't even know that this happens in our country, that incidents happen like this, like that they beat up journalists. I only found out about this when they arrested my son, that something like this is possible.”
President Lukashenko, whose comments were reported by his media service, defended his actions, stating, "There should be no surprise here. On the contrary, you were lightly punished.”
In power since 1994 and once described as Europe's last dictator by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracised by the West because of a crackdown on his political opponents.
Authorities in Minsk initially denied that the air drop of teddy bears had taken place, until Lukashenko finally confirmed the incident last week.