Kicked out of Belarus for allegedly “speeding”? This is what’s happening to prominent human rights lawyer Elena Tonkacheva. It seems that people who live in authoritarian countries and work on human rights had better not drive.
Tonkacheva, 44, is a Russian national who has been living in Belarus for 30 years. Her family and life are there. She moved to Minsk with her parents in 1985, still under the Soviets, received her education, and started practicing as a lawyer there. More than a decade ago she created the Legal Transformation Center, an independent group of legal experts and rights champions who work on human rights education and provide human rights analysis of legislative initiatives. Known as Belarus’s top human rights lawyer, Tonkacheva has devoted the last 15 years to this work.
Several weeks ago, police notified Tonkacheva that her residence permit, valid until 2017, would be annulled because of speed limit violations. Notwithstanding the minor nature of the alleged offense, and that 7,000 people signed a petition asking the authorities to reconsider, yesterday police told Tonkacheva that she had 30 days to leave Belarus and could not return to the country for another three years. According to Tonkacheva, the police read her the expulsion order, refusing to give her a copy. The order apparently said that under Belarusian law “a car represents a particularly dangerous means of transportation” and while operating that “particularly dangerous means of transportation” over the speed limit she “could have put citizens in danger and even caused their death.”
Given the Belarusian government’s longstanding Soviet-style practice of suppressing dissent, there is little reason to doubt this is a convenient pretext to silence one of its most vocal critics and effectively throw her life into chaos.
Tonkacheva told me she will appeal the expulsion order, but there was little optimism in her voice. When we spoke today, we recalled a song from an immensely popular Soviet film, which conveys the message that you’re better off not having certain things because they can lead to trouble. “Not having a husband means you won’t have to fight with him” – and so on. We could add a line to the song: If you work on human rights in Belarus, you’re apparently better off not having a car.