The Fight Against Europe's Last Dictator Continues

In Europe there is a country failing to hold fair, free and open elections. In Europe there is a country which tortures political prisoners. In Europe there is a country with a dictator.

In Europe there is a country failing to hold fair, free and open elections. In Europe there is a country which tortures political prisoners. In Europe there is a country with a dictator.

Where we in Britain have journalists questioned at Leveson, in Europe a country arrests them for speaking out against the government.

In Belarus, a country within Europe and bordering the European Union, Alexander Lukashenko's regime continues to stifle free speech and fend off calls for democracy. Still in Europe people are arrested and tortured for speaking out against an authoritarian regime, young democratic activists beaten and elections rigged.

In December 2010, Lukashenka was re-elected president of Belarus, with 79.7% of the vote in elections deemed to fall massively short of OSCE standards. Under his leadership, the Belarusian regime systematically violates basic liberties. With parliamentary 'elections' planned for this September Europe is host to a fake, rigged election in the 21st century. Yet not many will see or hear about it.

For too long Lukashenka has been able to commit appalling acts against human rights with his secret police arresting and torturing all those who oppose him in what can only be described as a throwback to the Soviet Cold War era. What I find most worrying is that activists in Belarus who like me, campaign for democracy and freedom, are greeted with batons and imprisonment. The more stories I read, the more solidarity I feel with them. Whether a young activist standing up to tanks in the Arab Spring or those still fighting a dictator in Europe there is a strong solidarity with those are want the same freedoms we enjoy in this country. Their bravery and determination in the face of an authoritarian regime is humbling and deeply thought provoking.

I have been attempting to raise awareness of the situation in Belarus for some time now, yet two weeks ago I was spurred on to try something different.

Recently a Swedish PR firm parachuted teddy bears holding messages about democracy over Minsk, in an attempt to break through the heavy media censorship. This caused a diplomatic dispute, with Lukashenko asking all Swedish diplomats within Belarus to leave. Since then two journalists have been arrested in Belarus before eventually released and fined. Arrested just for taking photos of themselves with one of the teddy bears dropped over Minsk.

In a show of solidarity, as International Officer of Liberal Youth, I help began the Bears for Belarus campaign, as part of our broader campaign to raise awareness of Lukashenko's regime. To show their support for the arrested Belarusian journalists, and for human rights and democracy not just in Belarus but worldwide, Liberal Youth members were asked to send in a picture of themselves with their teddy bear.

Within two weeks it has already had over 16,000 hits, with 3,000 coming from inside Belarus itself. It has also gathered the support of several Lib Dem MPs including Jo Swinson, Nick Clegg's Private Parliamentary Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, the government's deputy chief whip and Liberal Democrat Party president Tim Farron. The campaign has extended far beyond Liberal Youth members - not only members of other political parties, but also people never before active in politics sending in pictures and messages of support. The campaign is too important for party politics.

Furthermore articles were written about the campaign in several different Belarusian media outlets, showing our message can get across to those who campaign for democracy and freedom in the country. The wonder of online campaigning is the ability to communicate a message of solidarity with activists around the world almost instantly.

The past two weeks has become a humbling experience - with what started out as two pictures and a handful of views has grown to show it does not matter what country people face hardships, we will stand with them. Messages of support and thanks from Belarus demonstrate that human rights campaigning goes far beyond national borders.

It is shameful that in the 21st Century we still have a dictator in Europe committing such appalling breaches of human rights. It is time we opened people's eyes to this problem and get the message out there that much work is needed on our doorstep to ensure that human rights around the world are respected.

It is time to stand up for those who cannot speak and rid Europe of its last dictator.

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