Belarus has finally confirmed that an airplane "invaded" its territory earlier in July to drop a payload of teddy bears holding signs promoting free speech, infuriating a regime often known as "Europe's last dictatorship".
Confirmation came on Thursday from Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko at a meeting on the modernisation of the country's armed forces, according to Russian news agency Interfax. "This plane was discovered in time, but why didn't the senior officials stop the flight?" asked Lukashenko. "Where did the fault lie? In these bungling officials or some error in the airspace control system?"
Chartered by Studio Total, which bills itself as "northern Scandinavia's most notorious ad agency", the single-engine aircraft - piloted by a co-founder of Studio Total - crossed over the Lithuanian border on July 4, dropping 876 teddy bears on the capital Minsk and the small town of Ivyanets.
For weeks, Belarus' government denied any plane illegally entered the country's airspace that morning, claiming that videos of the airdrop released by Studio Total were faked.
Meanwhile, on July 13 the KGB - Belarus' state security service - detained Anton Suryapin, a 20-year-old journalism student, after he posted a picture of one of the teddy bears to a website he runs called Belarusian News Photos. Suryapin is being held by the KGB under Article 371, Part 3 of Belarus' Criminal Code, which concerns "organising illegal migration", according to Amnesty International. The charge can carry a jail sentence of up to seven years.
Syarhei Basharimau, a real estate agent who rented apartments in Minsk to the plane's two pilots, has been charged under the same article.
Andrei Savinykh, the spokesperson for Belarus' Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said police believe that the flight couldn't have taken place "without some previous preparation", and that they believe Studio Total "might have accomplices" who helped plan the mission.
Amnesty International researcher Heather McGill said "there's absolutely no evidence at all" that the two are guilty of the charges. The KGB did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Al Jazeera.
|On Thursday, Belarus admitted that a small aircraft crossed its borders on July 4 [Studio Total]
The idea to bombard Belarus with bears was inspired by a similar campaign launched by Belarusian activist Pavel Vinogradov. Per Cromwell, Studio Total's CEO, said it carried out the airdrop pro bono on behalf of Charter 97, a pro-democracy Belarusian news site. Two Studio Total employees, Tomas Mazetti and Hannah Lina Frey, flew the airplane, said Cromwell, who himself was "on the ground in a getaway car if something would happen".
When the plane passed over Minsk, an air traffic controller began speaking to them in Belarusian, explained Cromwell. They then turned the plane around and flew back to Lithuania.
Savinykh told Al Jazeera that the aircraft was detected, "but the air defence did nothing. They didn’t consider the aircraft as a military threat because it was a small aircraft and usually the air defence system is focusing on high-speed heavy crafts." However, Savinykh said their failure to act was a "violation of instructions" and that the responsible personnel will be punished.
The stunt was initially met with scepticism - and not just from the Belarusian government. In 2011, Studio Total staged a hoax announcing the opening of an "Austrian International Sex School" as part of a campaign to raise awareness of Austria's low birth rates.
"People didn't really think that this [airdrop] was real, and I was one of those who also doubted it," said Martin Uggla, the head of Östgruppen, a Swedish human rights group. "And that meant that a lot of the discussion was about that issue and not about the situation in Belarus."
Since the flyover, Cromwell says there has been silence from governments. "We haven't been contacted by Belarussian authorities, not Lithuanian authorities, Swedish … No one has contacted us, which is a bit strange actually."
Savinykh described the penetration of Belarusian airspace as a "crime". "The citizens of the Western countries, they are simply committing crimes out of their countries in, as they say, [a] fight for freedom. It looks like a Western fundamentalism".
Meanwhile, the detentions of Suryapin and Basharimau typify Lukashenko's continuing clampdown on media freedoms in Belarus, critics say.
In 1994, three years after Belarus declared independence from the Soviet Union, Lukashenko - who had a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader - unexpectedly won the country's first post-Soviet presidential election, which was widely considered to be "free and fair". Since then, however, Belarus has become progressively more autocratic.
After protests against the 2010 presidential elections, in which several candidates and hundreds of others were arrested, Belarus launched a "clampdown on press freedom", said Ilya Kouzniatsou, a freelance producer in Belarus. Independent journalists are routinely harassed or detained.
"To be in this group," said Anna Melnik, a freelance Belarusian journalist now living outside the country, "is always a risk". Melnik requested that her real name not be used in this article.
She said a friend of hers, who worked for Belsat, an independent satellite television channel, had her apartment raided by police, who confiscated her computer and other possessions. "Such experiences kill in young journalists the wish for working … After this situation, she left the country because to be [a] journalist here is sacrificing yourself."
Melnik, who was herself briefly detained for reporting on a meeting with a Belarusian political prisoner, left Belarus in part because, she said, journalists can either "work for government" or "be detained".
Since December 2010, McGill said authorities have increasingly used Belarus' administrative code, which governs minor offenses, to imprison people for up to 10 days. "You'll see an awful lot of human rights defenders appear to be suddenly using very bad language in public," explained McGill, "because you can be put away for 10 days for swearing in public".
The crackdown, Kouzniatsou noted, is not excessively violent: "They don't shoot people yet." However, Kouzniatsou said the government harrasses journalists by threatening to "not give you an exit visa to leave the country" or saying they will "complain to your wife about the girlfriend".
Kouzniatsou said that although he admired the stunt, the teddy bears "didn't help much with the raising awareness of the free speech".
"Everybody knows there is no freedom of the speech" in Belarus, he told Al Jazeera. Rather, he said, the airdrop's real importance was that it highlighted the country's vulnerabilities.
"Belarus and Russia have common union and common border, so the Belarus military is supposed to defend Russian airspace as well." Furthermore, he noted, the airdrop was carried out the day after Belarus' Independence Day, when the Belarusian military "showed off with flying jets over Minsk at low altitudes".
Uggla agreed the incident was embarrassing to Belarus. "Obviously they were not prepared, and they did not know what to do once a plane went into that territory," he told Al Jazeera. One of the aims of the airdrop, he said, "was to laugh at the regime, to show how incompetent they are, and they managed to do that".
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