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Campaigners call on stars to abandon Belarus concerts

Belarusian dissidents have called on international pop stars to boycott their country in protest at the ongoing imprisonment of hundreds of pro-democracy activists.

Shakira and Moby, two singers with a long track record of support for progressive political movements, are expected to give concerts in Minsk over the next two months but human rights campaigners have called on them to abandon their plans. The rock group Deep Purple, which has a loyal following in former Soviet republics, are also playing at the state owned Minsk Arena on Sunday night.

Over the past three months more than 700 pro-democracy activists have been arrested in what human rights groups and foreign governments say is a brutal crackdown opposition forces within Europe’s last dictatorship. Virtually all the politicians who dared to stand against President Alexander Lukashenko have been charged with organising a mass riot and face the prospect of lengthy jail sentences. Belarus is also the only country left in Europe that carries out the death penalty.

Prominent dissidents have reacted with dismay that despite the ongoing crackdown and widespread human rights abuses pop stars are still willing to play in Belarus, a country where 80 percent of industry – including almost all the major music stadiums – are state owned.

Only last month a host of stars, including Beyonce and Nellie Furtado, were forced to hastily announce that they had given away proceeds from gigs played for the family of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi when protests against his regime broke out.

“I was appalled when I heard that these artists are coming to perform in Belarus,” said Irina Bogdanova, the sister of imprisoned presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov. “Throughout recent history prominent singers, sportsmen and musicians have always taken a strong position towards the countries when human rights are violated and where there is no freedom or justice.”

Natasha Koliada, from the group Free Belarus Now, which represents the families of those who have been arrested by the Belarusian authorities, said: “We appeal to these artists to cancel their concerts in Belarus because any visit would give a sign to the dictator Alexander Lukashenko that kidnappings, murders and torture in KGB jails are acceptable.”

Mrs Koliada is a founding member of the Free Belarus Theatre, a clandestine theatre group that takes extraordinary risks to hold underground plays that are critical of the government. Scores of its actors and actresses have been arrested and imprisoned over the years. It has received support from a host of international artists and playwrights including Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Jude Law, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Mick Jagger. Next Monday Mr Law is joining dissidents and human rights campaigners to protest outside the offices of Grayling, a British lobby firm owned by Tory peer Lord Chadlington which is the only global communications company with offices in Minsk.

Activists have expressed particular surprise that Shakira and Moby – both of whom have spoken out against rights abuses in the past – have agreed to play in Minsk.

Colombian-born singer Shakira is a UNICEF goodwill ambassador who runs her own charitable foundation for children and has regularly come out in support of progressive politicians in Latin America and the United States. Last year she was one of a number of prominent celebrities to speak out against Arizona’s controversial immigration laws.

American songwriter Moby has previously campaigned for Move On, an American charity that raises money for progressive politicians, and he also helped produce a fundraising CD for Tibet.

Mike Harris, Head of Public Affairs at Index on Censorship, said international artists should consider very carefully what kind of message their arrival in Belarus gives out.

“Every time a Western artist plays a concert in Belarus the authorities use this as propaganda to prove that their regime isn’t a dictatorship,” he said. “Yet the disappearances, suspicious suicides and detention of 42 prisoners of conscience tell a different story. If Moby and Shakira genuinely do care about human rights they’ll donate the proceeds of their concerts to the families of the detained and missing or speak out against free expression violations while they are there.”

The Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group inside Belarus, said it prefers not to support a boycott and instead urges artists to use their visits to speak out publicly.

“If global stars emphasise human rights problems in Belarus in their public statements, if they somehow support the work of human rights defenders, it would contribute to promotion of human rights values much more than our a boycott would,” said Oleg Gulak, the committee’s chair. “But of course if they just come and do not mention any problems - there might be a risk that the authorities will use it for propaganda purposes.”

Shakira’s concert, part of her global The Sun Comes Out tour, is set to take place in the Minsk Arena on 19 May. Belarusian websites have begun selling tickets for Moby’s concert on 12th June, although his official website has yet to list the venue. Management representatives for both artists failed to reply to repeated requests for comment from the Independent over whether they felt comfortable playing in Belarus given the ongoing human rights situation.

For many years the authorities in Belarus, a quasi-Soviet state with no independent broadcast media, viewed western music with outright suspicion and rarely gave international stars permission to play. But in recent years the government has opened the country up to foreign investors and has cautiously welcomed a handful of international acts including Sting, Sir Elton John, the Scorpions and German heavy metallers Rammstein.

So far Sting is the only artist to have spoken out publicly against the political situation in Belarus, recording an anti-death penalty video message and meeting with human rights activists after his concert.

Gay rights activists were particularly angered by Elton John’s agreement to play in Belarus, a country where gay pride marches have been routinely crushed by the police. The Independent asked Sir Elton’s management for comment on whether the singer received a fee for the concert but they declined to comment.

Mrs Bogdanova, whose brother is one of two presidential candidates still held in a KGB jail, said: “I hope the artists made their decisions without knowing much about Belarus and what is happening there. But it's not too late to change for them to change their decisions and show her support for people of Belarus not its dictator.

The artists

Elton John – The 63-year-old singer played his first concert in Belarus last June, even though the country’s Public Morality Council openly expressed concerns about his homosexuality. Gay rights groups and pride marches are routinely suppressed by the Belarusian authorities.

Sting – One of the few artists to have played a concert in Belarus and spoken out against abuses, Sting met with human rights campaigners after his concert and recorded a video condemning Belarus’ use of the death penalty. “In Europe, just one country carries out the death penalty, and that country is Belarus,” he said. “It’s time to change.”

Shakira – The Columbian pop-star regularly campaigns on a wealth of issues and last year received a medal from the UN's International Labour Organisation. She is a Unicef ambassador, owns her own children’s charity and was vocal in her condemnation of Arizona’s immigration laws.

Moby – The American DJ and song writer has signed up to a host of progressive issues and has campaigned on issues such as democracy in Tibet and greater gay marriage rights. A strict vegan, he is also a staunch animal rights activist.