(PRAGUE, Czech Republic)
In a surprise move, Belarusian authorities granted RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin a visa to participate in celebrations marking the 55th anniversary of RFE/RL's Belarus service, Radio Svaboda -- one of the only sources of independent news in the country. Gedmin was the first President in the history of RFE/RL to visit Belarus.
The US Embassy in Minsk hosted an event celebrating the 55th anniversary of Radio Svaboda [read in Belarusian
], where the station received an outpouring of support and good wishes on its anniversary from Belarusian dissidents and advocates of free expression in Belarus. According to the Paris-based media watchdog group Reporters without Borders, Belarus ranks 154th out of 173 countries in press freedom.
"I am honored to be here," Gedmin said to the gathering of some 100 attendees, including leading oppositionists and former political prisoners and their families. "We recognize and respect the fact that many of you pay a high price for speaking out on behalf of a free Belarus," Gedmin told the guests.
My only opportunity to get a taste of freedom was to listen to Radio Svaboda.
Opposition leader Alyaksandr Kazulin, a candidate in the 2006 Belarusian presidential election who spent two and half years in jail, which included a 53-day hunger strike, said: "We are very grateful that the voice of Svaboda can be heard in Belarus, even behind prison bars. When I was in detention, my only opportunity to get a taste of freedom was to listen to Radio Svaboda."
At the ceremony, RFE/RL's Belarus Service presented the new book "One Day in the Life of a Political Prisoner
," a compilation of 41 conversations with internationally recognized Belarusian political prisoners.
Belarus Service director Alyaksandr Lukashuk noted that "One Day in the Life of a Political Prisoner" is the 15th book published and distributed as part of the service's Belarusian-language "Liberty Library" series. "This book is a modest tribute to remarkable individuals. They inspire all of us, day after day," Lukashuk said.
We recognize that many of you pay a high price for speaking out on behalf of a free Belarus.
"I would like to thank Radio Svaboda and the journalists who created this book. It is a memorial, a monument to an era of human pain, suffering, struggle, and courage," said Mikalay Statkevich, the leader of Belarus' Social Democratic Party.
At the conclusion of the event, Kazulin proposed the formation of an association of former political prisoners: "On behalf of all those present, we announce our intention to form an association of political prisoners. Let this event be our founding congress."
While in Minsk, Gedmin met with independent journalists and visited a group of youth activists [read in English
/ in Belarusian
] who recently took part in a two-week hunger strike protesting the recent arrest of three businessmen on what the accused men have called "politically motivated" charges. Gedmin also visited the Kurapaty mass graves outside Minsk [read in Belarusian
], where he laid flowers next to one of the memorial crosses. Tens of thousands of Belarusians, Poles, Lithuanians and others were murdered and buried at the site by Stalin's Soviet forces in the 1930s. About RFE/RL's Belarus Service (Radio Svaboda)
RFE/RL's Belarus Service was established in 1954 as part of Radio Liberty's broadcasts to the former Soviet Union. With much of the independent media in Belarus silenced, the service remains one of the few media outlets accessible to Belarusians in their own language, providing timely, objective, and balanced information to residents of "Europe's last dictatorship."