Today, Thursday 26 July, panicked Belarusian officials working at the Embassy in London were forced to call in the police after they came under attack… from a group of Teddy Bears.
An armed bike unit from the Metropolitan Police Diplomatic Section rushed with sirens blaring and blue lights flashing to the Embassy on Kensington Court, after they received a high priority alert from the Embassy. When they skidded to a halt outside the townhouse, they were confronted by an intimidating group of stuffed toys. Many were armed with dangerous pieces of paper, demanding greater freedom of speech and the release of political prisoners in Belarus.
The teddy bear protest was performed by free speech activists, including members of English PEN, in solidarity with detained journalists in Belarus.
Why bears? On 4th July, the Swedish PR agency Studio Total managed to parachute almost 900 stuffed toys bearing free speech messages into Minsk. This was a source of huge embarrassment to the Belarusian government – so much so, that they denied that that the drop had ever taken place, claiming that photo and video evidence were fabricated. It was not until earlier today that Lukashenko finally admitted that the stunt had indeed happened, and pledged that those responsible would be punished.
Concerns are now mounting for Anton Suryapin, a young freelance photographer and journalism student who was arrested on 13 July for posting images of the skydiving teddy bears on his website. Anton is understood to be being held for alleged complicity in a border crossing, for which he could face up to seven years in prison.
Around the world, activists are adopting the teddy bear as a symbol of resistance to the brutal regime of Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko, branded ‘Europe’s Last Dictator’, is subject to an EU travel ban, and earlier this week was denied accreditation by the Olympic organising committee in London. The EU ban, which also affects more than 200 other Belarusian officials, was put in place “due to the part he played in the violations of international electoral standards in the presidential elections in Belarus on 19 December 2010, and the crackdown on civil society and democratic opposition that followed”.
Thursday was the ninth day that teddies – who first appeared on 19 July, exactly 19 months after the crackdown – have been placed outside the Belarussian embassy in London. The day before, a member of embassy staff attacked the protestors and attempted to seize the toys. The bears’ silent protest on Thursday was more peaceful, with Belarusian officials preferring to call in armed police to disperse the fluffy, inanimate animals, rather than mount a defence of the building themselves.
The Belarusian Government can expect a further onslaught of cuteness in the coming days, as activists have pledged to return to the embassy with more bears. However, the Ambassador and his staff will be able to sleep easy. As the police rode off to their next call, one officer quipped: “If the bears cause any further disturbance, we may have to arrest them.”
Bears for Belarus
To show our support for Anton and others detained in Belarus in violation of their right to free expression we will be joining colleagues from Free Belarus Now to hold a protest from 12.45 – 2pm next Monday, 30 July outside the Belarusian Embassy in London (6 Kensington Court, London, W8 5DL). Please do join us – and bring a bear!
For those of you unable to come along on Monday, you can still show your support by photographing a teddy bear, complete with free expression placard, ideally in front of an iconic landmark in your area. If you are on Twitter, please tweet your pictures using the hashtag #BearsForBelarus – if not, simply email them to us (via firstname.lastname@example.org) And for those of you outside the UK, why not consider staging a Bears for Belarus protest outside your local Embassy? Do let us know if you do…
Write a message of support
If you would like to write a message of support to Anton Suryapin and his family, please send it via email to email@example.com or by post to the English PEN office (Free Word Centre, 60 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3GA).