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Belarus border guard reportedly sentenced over teddy bear drop

February 18, 2013|By Emily Alpert
  • Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, attends a military parade marking Independence Day in Minsk, the capital, on July 3, 2012.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, right, attends a military… (Nikolai Petrov / BelTA )

A Belarusian border guard reportedly will spend two years behind bars for failing to tell his superiors about a Swedish plane that entered the country in July to make an air drop -- of teddy bears. 

Hundreds of plush bears with parachutes and protest slogans such as “Free Speech Now” descended on the authoritarian former Soviet state July 4, dropped from a small plane piloted by members of a Swedish ad agency.

The teddy bear stunt was designed to draw media attention to human rights abuses in Belarus, the Studio Total ad agency wrote. Human rights groups deem Belarus one of the most repressive countries in Europe, so intolerant of dissent that some activists have taken to staging protests with toys -- part of what inspired the Swedes to drop the stuffed bears.

The tumbling toys were no laughing matter to President Alexander Lukashenko, who was infuriated that the country's heavily guarded airspace had been overrun “with impunity.” The stunt has already prompted the sacking of two generals and may have triggered the ouster of Swedish diplomats a month later.

The latest fallout was the sentencing of the guard for failing to report the plane had crossed into Belarusian airspace, according to media reports. The Belarusian Supreme Court told news agencies about the sentence Monday.

The plane was detected by a border patrol, which informed the border post, but “the individual on duty did not report this to the unit officer in violation of the established procedure,” an investigative committee found in its report, according to the Russian Legal Information Agency. The Associated Press reported that the Belarusian Supreme Court wouldn’t provide the name or rank of the jailed guard.

Belarusian officials also tried to summon the Swedish advertising team for questioning. The Swedes rejected the summons, saying they would meet with Lukashenko in Sweden and “tell you everything you want to know on how to cheat your expensive air defense systems” -- but only if he released “all the political prisoners in Belarus.”

At least a dozen political prisoners remain behind bars in Belarus, Human Rights Watch wrote in its recently released annual report. Others in Belarus have been detained and then released for peaceful gatherings or speech; among the cases mentioned by Human Rights Watch was that of blogger Anton Suryapin, who posted photographs of the parachuting bears and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of “complicity in an unlawful border crossing.”

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