Belarus teddy bear arrests, two journalists fined


Belarussian journalists Irina Kozlik (L) and Yulia Darashkevich show victory signs from a police car after they were arrested for their involvement in a pro-democracy stunt in which a Swedish light aircraft dropped hundreds of teddy bears over Belarus.

Two journalists, Irina Kozlik, who works for Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, and Yulia Doroshkevich, a press photographer, were each fined 3 million Belarussian roubles (about $400) at separate court hearings in Minsk and released, Reuters reported.

The two women were accused of "carrying out an unsanctioned protest".

The arrests came as an angry Belarussian leader, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered his law enforcement officials to get to the bottom of the intrusion into his country's airspace last month by a private aircraft that dropped 879 teddy bears, each on its own individual parachute and bearing pro-democracy messages such as "we support the Belarussian struggle for free speech."

It prompted Lukashenko to sack his air defense and border guards chiefs and expel Sweden's ambassador.

Reuters said Lukashenko suggested on Thursday that the Swedish embassy in Minsk had been involved in planning the July 4 escapade - an accusation likely to widen a diplomatic divide with Sweden.

"Those who came and prepared the violation of the state border worked together with the (Swedish) embassy. We have proof of this," Lukashenko was quoted as saying by the Belarus state news agency Belta.

The Star said the pro-democracy teddy bear “blitz” was aimed at mocking Lukashenko’s iron grip on the country he has ruled since 1994, three years after the Soviet Union’s break-up.

Once described as Europe’s last dictator by the U.S. administration of George W. Bush, Lukashenko has been ostracised by the European Union and United States over a harsh crackdown on opponents who challenged his re-election in December 2010.

The Chicago Tribune reported with both Belarus and Sweden now pulling all their diplomats out of each other’s country, the diplomatic rift has worsened Belarus’s already poor relations with the West.