“Better to be a dictator than gay.” That was Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Belarus, responding in 2012 to Guido Westerwelle, Germany’s openly gay foreign minister, who had dubbed Lukashenko “Europe’s last dictator.”
They both had a point. In Belarus, it’s probably better to be Lukashenko than anyone else, gay or straight. And Lukashenko, now in his 20th year of authoritarian rule, is indeed a dictator. He also happens to be the host of this year’s International Ice Hockey Federation’s world championship tournament.
But the tournament is moving forward. Sixteen teams, including the United States, will convene on Minsk this month to compete in brand-new Chizhovka Arena, which students were forced to help build. Lukashenko has also clamped down on dissent ahead of the tournament, arresting and detaining at least 16 activists in the last few weeks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and other world leaders should use the event to spotlight human rights abuses in Belarus and ensure that Lukashenko can’t use it as a PR vehicle. Pressure from Russian activists and their supporters forced President Vladimir Putin to defend his repressive policies during the Sochi Olympics; Lukashenko should be made to do the same.
Belarus is largely shut off from the rest of the world, and many people in the West know little about it. They might be interested to learn that it has a literacy rate of 99.6 percent, that some of its towns are more than 1,000 years old, that it was devastated by the Nazis, that it gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, that most of the radiation from the disaster at nearby Chernobyl fell on Belarus, and that this nation of only 10 million shone in Sochi, winning five gold medals.
The only president in the history of the Republic of Belarus, Lukashenko has steadily grabbed more power, unlawfully changing the constitution to allow himself to run for the presidency repeatedly and to weaken the legislative and judicial branches. He persecutes human rights activists and political opponents, and he controls almost all media outlets while harassing the handful of independent journalists. United Nations Special Rapporteur on Belarus Miklos Haraszti has said that human rights abuses there are “systemic and systematic.”
Most oppression in Belarus evades the global spotlight, but Lukashenko made international news in December 2011 when he cracked down on a protest following another victory in another election marred by fraud. Police detained more than 600 people, including opposition candidates and leading activists. Vladimir Neklyaev, an opposition candidate, was brutally beaten, then abducted by government forces in the hospital. More than two years later, Eduard Lobau, an activist with the group Young Front, and former presidential candidate Mikalai Statkevich remain in prison.
Lukanshenko often uses noncriminal laws, such as tax laws, to harass and prosecute dissidents. That’s what he did to internationally renowned human rights activist Ales Bialiatski, who’s serving a four-and-a-half year prison sentence on trumped up tax-related offenses.
LGBT activists also face persecution from Lukashenko, who depicts them as agents of a decadent West and has said they should be sent away to camps to perform public works. Last year, after 70 activists tried to register an organization called GayBelarus, the government launched a series of raids on gay clubs and arrested dozens. At least one activist, Ihar Tsikhanyuk, said he was beaten by the police.
An anti-LGBT “propaganda” bill modeled on Russia’s has surfaced in Belarus’s parliament. It will likely be formally introduced late this year; if the bill becomes law, it will codify homophobia and put LGBT Belarusians in even deeper peril.
Such is the country given the honor — and economic benefits — of hosting this prestigious sporting event. While every county has human rights problems, those in Belarus are unusually severe, and Lukashenko, content to preside over an outlaw nation, has shown no interest in reform. It’s mystifying that the hockey federation would choose to hold one of its signature events there.
Shawn Gaylord is Advocacy Counsel at Human Rights First and leads the organization’s campaign to combat violence against LGBTI people globally.