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In a Facebook photo, three people, including Uladzimer Labkovich (right), hold up photos of the "Byalyatski Three" activists, who are themselves brandishing images of jailed rights activist Ales Byalyatski.
Yet another form of dissent has sprung up in that fount of creative protest, Belarus, to express frustration with official retaliation against both an imprisoned rights campaigner and his supporters.

In an expression of solidarity with three activists who were fined after a photo circulated of them holding photos of jailed dissident Ales Byalyatski, pictures are appearing on social networks and elsewhere in which supporters are holding photos similar to the one that elicited the fines.

"Photos of people holding photos of people holding another photo," as Marat Abramovsky, leader of the youth NGO Avangard that itself organizes flash-mob actions, described the several-degrees-of-separation protest to RFE/RL's Belarus Service.

"I wouldn't call this action with pictures of Byalyatski a flash mob. At this point, it's more like an action of expression -- a political action with the goal of showing the system with which people disagree," Abramovsky said. "A classical flash mob means improvisation, spontaneity without a clear message and goal and [obvious] leader. Therefore, the classical flash mob is a way of spending time and doesn't have a clear objective. Here, it was the opposite...real political action with a well-defined goal."

It is a sign of the times in the fourth term of Alyaksandr Lukashenka's presidency that the list of unconventional protests in his country has grown so long.

They include weeks of "silent protests" in 2011 in which people were detained for milling about and clapping and stomping periodically. In July of the same year, authorities again cracked down on social-network-driven actions in which participants set their mobile phones to ring at a certain hour.

Activists Eugene Parchynski and Syarhey Malashenka photographed on the porch of the Navapolatsk City Court with the the same photo in early January.
Activists Eugene Parchynski and Syarhey Malashenka photographed on the porch of the Navapolatsk City Court with the the same photo in early January.
In 2012, there were jailings for "toy protests" in which stuffed animals with placards with slogans like "Free The People" were left out in a Minsk plaza. Also last year, the operator of a news photo website was arrested for allegedly helping a Swedish PR stunt to draw attention to the rights situation in Belarus by airdropping teddy bears in a daring cross-border flight; two journalists were subsequently fined after posing for photos with teddy bears.

In a case that the European Union has condemned as politically motivated, Byalyatski, the leader of the Vyasna (Spring) human rights center, was sentenced to prison and property confiscation in November 2011. U.S. officials at the time warned Minsk to "cease its campaign against critics of the government."

Lukashenka has kept a tight lid on the media, free speech, and other forms of public dissent since coming to power in 1994, but domestic and international outrage escalated after a brutal clampdown on protests following a flawed presidential election in December 2010.

In the latest prosecutions, activists Uladzimer Khilmanovich, Viktar Sazonau, and Raman Yurhel in the western city of Hrodna were fined the equivalent of around $175 each based on a photograph showing them with likenesses of Byalyatski and the United Nations logo to mark International Human Rights Day on December 10.

"We demonstrated our solidarity with the Hrodna human rights defenders who became the first victims of this absurdity, ready to ourselves face trial for that," Uladzimer Labkovich, one of the people in a Facebook photograph holding a photo of the "Byalyatski Three," told RFE/RL of his participation. "This [punishment] is not just a perversion of the constitution if people are being sentenced for photos on Facebook, this is a terrible stupidity and absurdity demonstrated by the government."

-- Andy Heil and RFE/RL's Belarus Service
Russian police try to separate gay-rights activists and supporters of a new law against disseminating "homosexual propaganda" to minors outside the State Duma in Moscow. The bill is one considered by Human Rights Watch to be of "an absolutely regressive and repressive nature" passed recently.
In its annual report, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) evaluates the human-rights situation in more than 90 countries and warns of the challenges to democracy many of them face.

Reviewing recent developments in the Middle East, the international rights-monitoring group says the willingness of new governments in the region to respect human rights will determine whether the Arab Spring uprisings will give rise to democracy or new forms of authoritarian rule.

It says other countries can be supportive both by setting positive examples with their own practices and by promoting rights in their relations with the new governments. It warns that "turning a blind eye to repression may be politically convenient but it does enormous damage."

In Russia, HRW says Vladimir Putin has unleashed "an unprecedented crackdown against civic activism" after his return to the presidency.

Anna Sevortian, director of HRW's Russia office, in a telephone interview with RFE/RL from Moscow, was harshly critical of Russia's use of laws to restrict civil society.

"We believe that this has been the worst year for human rights in Russia in its recent history, which was evidenced by a series of bills of an absolutely regressive and repressive nature," Sevortian said.

"These bills, which have now become laws, are radically changing the human rights and freedom situation in Russia."

In June, a Russian law came into force that dramatically raised potential fines for people found guilty of participating in unapproved public demonstrations.

Another law that went into effect in November requires foreign-funded nongovernmental organizations involved in what are deemed political activities to register as "foreign agents."

Continuing Repression

Human Rights Watch also criticized the rights record of governments across Central Asia. "Across Central Asia, 2012 was marked by restrictions on free speech and expression, and prosecution of government critics," HRW Central Asia researcher Mihra Rittlam told RFE/RL from Almaty.

Yulia Gorbunova, HRW researcher on Belarus and Ukraine, highlighted continued repression by Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime.

"We feel that the human rights crisis in Belarus has deepened in 2012. The fact that in the last parliamentary election the opposition won no seats in parliament basically shows that the status quo of the repressive regime led by Alyaksandr Lukashenka was preserved," Gorbunova said.

"And we very strongly feel that Belarusian human-rights activists need very strong international support now more than ever before."

In Iran, HRW says the authorities continued to repress civil society. In 2012, the report notes, Iranian authorities barred opposition candidates from participating in parliamentary elections, while prominent opposition leaders have been held under house arrest for more than a year and a half.

It also notes that executions, especially for drug-related offenses, continued at high rates. It said Iran leads the world in the execution of juvenile offenders, with more than 100 on death row in late 2012.

In Afghanistan, HRW says the government's failure to effectively respond to violence against women "undermines the already-perilous state of women's rights."

It also says "government efforts to stifle free speech through new legislation and targeting individual journalists were a worrying new development in 2012."

The 665-page report is HRW's 23rd annual review of human-rights practices around the world.

With reporting by Pavel Butorin

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