On 19 September 2020, the Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen Natallia Hersche took part in a women’s rally against the regime of dictator Lukashenko in Minsk. She was arbitrarily arrested and sentenced to a draconian prison term of 2 years and 6 months. Hersche is considered a political prisoner by human rights organisations – and yet Switzerland’s diplomatic efforts to obtain her release remain minimal.
Now a broad women’s alliance of 36 signatories is calling on Foreign Minister and President of the Swiss Confederation Ignazio Cassis to take decisive action:
The opposition movement in Belarus was led by the women’s trio Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Valeria Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova. The women’s marches of 2020 were strong and peaceful signs against the regime and for democracy. However, according to a report by Amnesty International, women have also been disproportionately affected by human rights violations of the Lukashenko regime.
The violent repression of the democracy movement has also affected Natallia Hersche, one of almost 1000 political prisoners of the Lukashenko regime.
Natallia is the only political prisoner in Belarus who is also a citizen of a Western democracy. However, Switzerland’s diplomatic efforts to secure her release have so far been insufficient and unsuccessful. This is also criticised by the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya in an interview with the newspaper Tages-Anzeiger: “The name of Natallia Hersche should be everywhere in your country. A lot can be done, so just do. Because we are fighting, so we ask Switzerland to be more active. You can’t communicate or cooperate with a criminal who suppresses thousands of Belarusians and tortured and humiliated them physically and morally. So it is your task, your moral obligation as well to be with us, and when we are together, of course we will be positive about the future of Belarus.”
Foreign Minister Cassis has so far been largely inactive in terms of campaigning for the release of Natallia Hersche. The Swiss Foreign Ministry is even adopting the Belarusian regime’s demand that Natallia Hersche submit a request for clemency to dictator Lukashenko. However, with such a request, the arbitrarily imprisoned Natallia Hersche would have to confess her guilt and recognize her unlawful court sentence.
In an open letter, a broad alliance of women is now calling on President Cassis to finally begin serious diplomatic efforts to secure Natallia Hersche’s release. The signatories include 14 Swiss women’s organisations and 22 public figures, among them Anna Jikhareva (journalist), Irene Kälin (President of the National Council) and Regula Mühlemann (opera singer).
Barbara Gysi, a Member of the Swiss National Council, has taken on a godparenthood for Natallia Hersche and states: “We must be aware of what political imprisonment in Belarus means: the hygienic conditions are catastrophic, the prisoners are often denied medical care. There are numerous reports of torture and ill-treatment. Natallia Hersche must be freed from these conditions immediately. In addition, Switzerland must take a firm stand for the release of all of the nearly 1000 political prisoners.”
If Switzerland remains passive, Natallia Hersche is due to spend another full year in precarious and hazardous prison conditions. Libereco is therefore calling on the Federal Council to impose economic sanctions on Belarus with an online petition that already has more than 8,000 signatures. Nina Steffen, Vice President of Libereco Switzerland, points out: “While Natallia Hersche continues to be held in Belarus, the people directly responsible for her imprisonment remain at large. A total of six prosecutors and judges were involved in her conviction. Only one of them is on the sanctions lists of the EU and Switzerland. The other five persons can continue to travel to Switzerland and to deposit their assets here. Libereco therefore calls on President Cassis to campaign for all prosecutors and judges involved in the verdict against Natallia Hersche to be placed on the sanctions list.”
The Open Letter to Swiss Federal Councillor Ignazio Cassis:
Dear Mr. President The Swiss-Belarusian dual citizen Natallia Hersche has been in prison in Belarus for over a year. On 19 September 2020, she took part in a women's rally in Minsk, protesting against the regime of dictator Lukashenko. On that day, she was arbitrarily arrested. In December 2020, Hersche was sentenced to a draconian prison term of 2 years and 6 months in a show trial. Our fellow citizen, who campaigns for women's rights, human rights and democracy, has been a hostage of the Belarusian regime ever since. Just like the more than 900 other political prisoners in Belarus. The opposition movement, led by the women's trio Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Valeria Tsepkalo and Maria Kolesnikova, and the women's marches were an emancipatory act for many Belarusian women. According to a report by Amnesty International, women are disproportionately affected by human rights violations in Belarus. Discrimination based on gender stereotypes and patriarchal notions of gender roles could already be observed in the presidential election process. They are once again revealed in the treatment of women protesters and political prisoners. Amnesty International traces this misogyny directly back to the ruler Lukashenko, who publicly insults women in a sexist manner on state television, thus further driving the spiral of violence. Women who are politically active in the opposition are regularly threatened with sexual violence or that the authorities will take away their children. Women like Natallia Hersche, who are detained as political prisoners, are often denied basic necessities. In political imprisonment, they are at the mercy of the regime and live under the constant threat of gender-based violence. The Swiss government has so far done too little to secure the release of Natallia Hersche. It is not enough to adopt the EU's sanctions against Belarus. More political pressure and more decisive measures are needed against a regime that is guilty of serious human rights violations on a daily basis! We call on the Federal Council to impose targeted bilateral sanctions: An entry ban should be imposed on all members of the Belarusian government. Belarusian state television should be put on the sanctions list so that Swiss companies such as Nestlé or Sandoz can no longer advertise there. In addition, we call on you as the President of the Swiss Confederation to personally plead with Lukashenko for Natalia's immediate and unconditional release. The signing of a pardon petition, which is demanded by the Belarusian regime as a condition for her release, is not acceptable. This would mean an admission of guilt. Natallia, who is innocently imprisoned, firmly rejects this – just like the leading opposition politician Maria Kolesnikova, who has also been imprisoned as a political prisoner in Belarus for over a year and sentenced to 11 years in prison. Finally, we ask you to take a firm stand against the criminal regime that is holding such courageous women and hundreds of other innocent people hostage! Bring Natallia home! Most respectfully Barbara Gysi, Member of the National Council and godparent of Natallia Hersche Claudia Friedl, Member of the National Council and of the Commission on Foreign Policy Nina Steffen, Libereco Switzerland – Partnership for Human Rights, Vice President Anna Jikhareva, WOZ – Die Wochenzeitung, Reporter Bettina Ryser Ndeye, ACAT-Schweiz, General Secretary Cfd / The feminist Peace Organisation Ella Rumpf, Actor Evelyne Sydler and Denise Mäder, Green Liberal Women, Co-Chairs Feministischer Streik St.Gallen feministischer verein kanton solothurn Feministisches Kollektiv Winterthur Feministisches Streikkollektiv Zürich Franziska Ryser, Member of the National Council (Green Party) Franziska Schutzbach, Sociologist Frauen*streikkollektiv Bern frauenrechte beider basel / frbb Frauenzentrale Zürich Irene Kälin, President of the Swiss National Council Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin, Activist and Feminist Julia Küng, Junge Grüne Schweiz, Co-Chair Leonie Rohner, Libereco Switzerland – Partnership for Human Rights Leonie Ruesch, Libereco Switzerland – Partnership for Human Rights Luna Wedler, Actor Maya Graf and Kathrin Bertschy, Alliance F, Co-Chairs Medienfrauen Schweiz, Vorstand Nora Scheel, Campaigner, Campax Omas gegen Rechts Regula Mühlemann, Opera Singer Schweizerischer Verband für Frauenrechte / SVF-ADF Silvia Süess, WOZ – Die Wochenzeitung, Member of the Editorial Board SP Frauen (Social Democratic Women) Valeska Steiner, Musician Verein Feministische Wissenschaft Schweiz / Association suisse Femmes Féminisme Recherche WIDE Switzerland