On the face of it an air drop of hundreds of teddy bears does not seem like the most serious breach of national security, but that has not stopped a Belarusian border guard being sentenced to two years in prison in a maximum security prison for failing to report the 'invasion'.
The teddy bear drop, which carried messages of support for human rights activities in the paranoid former Soviet state was organised by a Swedish PR agency, Studio Total, which flew over Belarus’s airspace undetected for two hours last year. The incident was initially denied by the government in Minsk but later, when Studio Total posted footage of the stunt on YouTube, the foreign minister and two generals were fired. A journalist who published pictures of the offending teddy bears on his blog was also detained.
The teddy bear incident was eventually acknowledged by President Lukashenko personally. “How can you explain the provocation involving a single-engine aircraft that crossed the Belarusian border with impunity? Safety of our citizens is the primary concern. Moreover, the aircraft was detected in advance. Why wasn't it stopped? Who took pity on it? Was it errors performed by individuals or errors in the very air border defence system? I would like to hear answers to these questions,” state media BelTA reported him as saying.
Indeed, so serious did Belarus take the cuddly invasion that it also expelled a number of Swedish diplomats, including the ambassador.
Belarus, sometimes described as Europe’s last dictatorship, has an abysmal human rights record. Activists say that President Alexander Lukashenko has increasingly curtailed freedoms since first being elected 18 years ago. “Lukashenko has steadily consolidated his power through authoritarian means. Government restrictions on freedom of speech and the press, peaceful assembly, and religion remain in place. It is a republic in name, although in fact a dictatorship,” according to the US.
A call to the Belarusian embassy about the case of the border guard jailed earlier this week remained unanswered today.
Heather McGill, Amnesty International’s researcher on Belarus, says that that there have been greater restrictions on civil rights since the country’s presidential election in 2010: “There have been lots of people convicted for what would ordinarily be considered as expressing their opinions, often on iffy evidence. There has been a complete clampdown on protest: you need permission for any type of demonstration – even a one man protest needs to pay for the police, ambulances and the clean-up costs.”