In early February, Ihar Tsikhanyuk was receiving treatment for ulcers at a Hrodna, Belarus, hospital when two plainclothes officers came in and dragged him to the local police station. There, officers ridiculed him for being gay and hit him, Tsikhanyuk told Xtra through an Amnesty International interpreter.
He asked repeatedly why he was there and, eventually, it was made clear he was being targeted for his activism, and in particular his efforts to officially register Gay Belarus with the government. That application was denied.
Although homosexuality has been decriminalized in Belarus since the 1990s, homophobia is pervasive.
“Just recently, I was in a grocery store in Minsk, and the top drawer of a fridge fell on me accidentally,” recalled Tsikhanyuk. “Everyone started looking at me, and then when they realized I was gay, they started taking pictures and laughing at me.”
But Tsikhanyuk refuses to be closeted or shamed.
“The quality of our life depends on the quality of our thoughts and actions,” he says.
Tsikhanyuk will be one of a handful of individuals receiving support in Amnesty International’s Write for Rights Dec 7. Last year, the mass letter-writing event drew an estimated 200 people in Toronto alone, according to Amnesty’s Marilyn McKim. They joined participants in more than 80 countries who collectively sent nearly two million messages.
In addition to Tsikhanyuk, this year’s cases will include jailed activists in Myanmar, Tunisia and Russia, as well as Nabi Saleh, a Palestinian village under Israeli occupation.
“We try to get a good balance of geographic region, types of human rights violations, and the identities of the people,” McKim says.
Write for Rights will also be targeting Canadian corporations violating indigenous rights around the world through mining, oil, and gas development projects. Canadian-headquartered corporations account for a large proportion of the world’s mining operations with almost $150 billion in mining interests across over 100 countries, according to Natural Resources Canada.
“We go around and grab indigenous land without free, prior, and informed consent,” says McKim.
Although not all of Write for Rights’ cases are likely to be resolved, McKim says these massive letter-writing campaigns put authorities on notice that the world is watching and lift the spirits of those seeking justice.
Tsikhanyuk agrees. “I hope that the volume of letters and the scale of the whole campaign will really make a difference in my case and help me achieve justice,” he says. “Receiving support from the international community and people around the world really gives me strength to carry on and to keep fighting.”
To date, no charges have been laid against the officers in Tsikhanyuk’s case, despite a formal complaint and a subsequent investigation. He is now considering bringing the case to the Supreme Court of Belarus and is eagerly awaiting the Write for Rights campaign.
In Toronto, Write for Rights will take place Sat, Dec 7 at the Centre for Social Innovation Annex, with letter-writers invited to drop between 1 and 6 pm. A wheelchair accessible entrance and washroom are available, but the Centre recommends contacting in advance for full details.