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Belarus arrests 2 for toy bear photo-shoot after airdrop

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Aug. 9, 2012, 4:07 p.m. | Russia and former Soviet Union — by Reuters

Swedes Tomas Mazetti, left, and Hannah Frey, right, reach out for a teddybear on a parachute behind them as they pose for a photo in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012.
© AP

Reuters

MINSK - Belarus police arrested two journalists for posing for photographs holding teddy bears after hundreds were dropped by air on the country in a pro-democracy stunt that embarrassed authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko.

One of the two, Irina Kozlik, who works for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, was fined 3 million Belarussian roubles (about $400) by a Minsk court on Thursday, while Yulia Doroshkevich, a press photographer, was to appear in court later in the day.

An official for the ex-Soviet republic's journalist association said on Thursday that Kozlik, 27, and Doroshkevich, 31, were detained on Wednesday evening in the capital Minsk.

They were accused of "carrying out an unsanctioned protest," deputy association head Andrei Bastunets told Reuters. "This the fine) shows that Kozlik was recognised as guilty of violating laws on protest."

The July 4 escapade, in which a light aircraft chartered by a Swedish PR firm dropped 800 toy bears carrying pro-democracy messages over Belarussian territory, prompted Lukashenko to sack his air defence and border guards chiefs and expel Sweden's ambassador.

The teddy bear "blitz" marked the latest pro-democracy stunt aimed at mocking Lukashenko's iron grip on the country he has ruled since 1994, three years after the Soviet Union's break-up.

Once described as Europe's last dictator by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracised by the European Union and United States over a harsh crackdown on opponents who challenged his re-election in December 2010.

Last summer, dissident groups staged waves of "silent" protests in Minsk in which people engaged in synchronised public clapping and coordinated their mobile phones to ring out in unison to show their disapproval of Lukashenko's style of rule.

WIDENING RIFT

With both Belarus and Sweden now pulling all their diplomats out of each other's country, the diplomatic rift has worsened Belarus's already poor relations with the West.

In a statement on Thursday, the U.S. State Department said the expulsion of Swedish diplomats only served "to deepen Belarus' self-isolation ... We again call on Belarus to immediately release and rehabilitate all political prisoners, and to put an end to the repression of civil society and the democratic opposition."

It took more than three weeks for Belarus to formally confirm the teddy bear air drop. It was all the more embarrassing for Lukashenko and his defence brass since the incident occurred a day after Independence Day, which also marks Minsk's World War Two defence against Nazi Germany.

He sacked two generals, including the head of the air defences, and told the incoming border guards chief to use weapons if necessary to shoot down any future foreign intruders into Belarussian air space.

Belarus's KGB state security agency has since charged two Belarussians, Anton Suryapin and Sergei Basharimov, with complicity in the "illegal intrusion" by the Swedish plane.

Suryapin, who is aged about 20, had earlier been identified as a blogger who was arrested after the first photographs of the toy bears were published on the Internet. In the past week, some Belarussian journalists have shown solidarity with Suryapin by posing for photos on the Internet holding miniature toy bears.

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