On 31 January 2022, Swiss citizen Natallia Hersche has been in detention in Belarus for exactly 500 days. Swiss Foreign Minister Ignazio Cassis has so far miserably failed to secure her release from the clutches of the Lukashenko dictatorship.
The woman from St. Gallen, who also has Belarusian citizenship, was arbitrarily arrested for taking part in a women’s rally in September 2020 and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison. Natallia Hersche is one of over 1000 political prisoners innocently thrown into jail by the Lukashenko regime.
In an open letter to Swiss Foreign Minister and President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis in January, a broad women’s alliance called for serious diplomatic efforts to finally secure Natallia Hersche’s release.
Nina Steffen, Vice-President of Libereco, signed the Open Letter and stated: “If Switzerland remains passive, Natallia Hersche will have to spend another year in precarious and unhealthy prison conditions. Of the six judges and prosecutors involved in her conviction, only one person has so far been placed on the EU and Swiss sanctions list. So there is a clear need for action here to sanction the other five responsible persons as well. Also, Ignazio Cassis should finally make the release of Natallia Hersche a top priority and personally demand her immediate release from Lukashenko. So far, unfortunately, the impression is that Cassis and the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs are simply sitting out her case.”
In case Lukashenko refuses to release Natallia Hersche, Libereco calls for economic sanctions against Belarus. An online petition with this demand already has more than 8,000 signatures.
As the FDFA told the Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger, Switzerland will soon send the new ambassador to Minsk. There she is to meet Lukashenko and hand her credentials to him as “head of state”. The FDFA sees this as a way to help Natallia Hersche. However, handing over the ambassador’s credentials effectively means that Switzerland recognises Lukashenko as the legitimate president of Belarus.
Lars Bünger, President of Libereco, sharply criticises this approach: “This clear partiality for Lukashenko is a slap in the face of the more than 1000 political prisoners in Belarus. This is certainly not in the spirit of Natallia Hersche. The official recognition of this brutal dictator is an absolute low point in Swiss foreign policy. President Cassis bears a clear share of responsibility for the 500 days of Natallia Hersche’s imprisonment. Because instead of effective measures towards Belarus, we have been witnessing a failure on the part of the Swiss Foreign Minister for 500 days, which now culminates in the shameful recognition of Lukashenko as Belarusian head of state.”
By recognising Lukashenko as Belarusian president, Switzerland is undermining the common Belarus policy of the EU and other Western democracies. At the same time, this action contradicts the ideals of the Swiss Federal Constitution, according to which Swiss foreign policy should first and foremost strengthen freedom and democracy. Moreover, by recognising Lukashenko, Switzerland is violating its very own principle, according to which Switzerland only recognises states, but never governments and presidents.
While Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the presumptive winner of the Belarusian presidential elections, is received by heads of government and heads of state of democratic countries all over the world, the Swiss Federal Council refuses to meet her. With this refusal to talk and the imminent recognition of Lukashenko as president, Switzerland is taking sides unilaterally and in contradiction to its values of democracy and freedom with a dictator who is responsible for a state-terrorist aircraft hijacking, thousands of cases of torture and political murder.
Switzerland’s interests in Belarus can also be safeguarded by a chargé d’affaires who does not have to hand over a credentials letter to Lukashenko. Unfortunately, the presence of foreign ambassadors in Belarus has neither prevented human rights violations nor led to the release of even a single political prisoner. Like France and other democracies, Switzerland should renounce the presence of an ambassador in Belarus if the price is the recognition of a state-terrorist dictatorial regime.