PEN-delegation denied entry to Belarus
A delegation with members from Norwegian and Danish PEN was denied visa at the Minsk airport and had to return home.
At the Minsk airport in Belarus last Monday morning (December 5th around 2 am local time), a delegation with members from Norwegian PEN (boardmember William Nygaard, publisher Trygve Åslund and secretary general Carl Morten Iversen) and Danish PEN (board member and journalist Niels-Ivar Larsen) was denied visa and, consequently, entry to Belarus. Over the next two days, they were supposed to meet with representatives from PEN Belarus, the Belarusian Writers Union, BAJ – the Belarusian Association of Journalists and local writers and publishers. The trip had been planned for months.
Upon arrival at the Minsk airport early Monday morning (01.00 a.m.) they wanted to obtain visitors visa for a two days stay in Minsk. The group travelled as tourists as this is the only way to get into the country. Invited by a local travel agency, the visa applications, as well as air transport and hotel booking, was handled by a local Norwegian travel agent specializing in Eastern-Europe. All the paperwork was correctly presented to the visa-officer at the airport visa office at the Minsk 2 International Airport.
«The officers initial reaction upon presentation of my application and passport, was that he wanted to talk to the person who was going to pick us up and drive us to Minsk», says Iversen who had organized the trip. «I called him and they talked. Obviously, this was not enough and the officer then wanted to talk to representatives from the travel agency that invited us. I called an emergency number without results. I also called the Norwegian travel agent who tried to help, but with no result. I told the officer that no body picked up as it was the middle of the night – 3 am local time. His response was that we should have arrived with an earlier flight».
The atmosphere at the visa-office counter was building as two ladies arriving from Macedonia got into a heather argument with the officer. After they left, the officer seemingly started processing our visa applications. At one point he asked for the visa fee and received a total of 360 Euros for four visas. After about 20 minutes, a lady in uniform arrived, got our passports from the officer, told us to stay and wait and then disappeared. After a little while we were escorted down to luggage reception to get our luggage as the airport was closing. We were then escorted back to the visa office. An airport or boarder police official then escorted us to a transit area were we were told to wait, guarded by a female officer. Very little information was given, but we understood that we had to wait until the morning flights departed. We would then be sent back to Norway and Denmark. We would get our passports upon boarding of the return flights.
No further explanation was given. At one point, a female customs officers who spoke decent English arrived and explained that this was the decision of the Consul and the decision could not be tried. She also said that it was the rights of the Belarusian authorities to deny entry, while still claiming the visa fee.
We were kept in a place with no access to food or water. At one point, one of the members of the delegation who had a heart condition, said he needed water to take his medicine. The female guard did not understand and thought he wanted a doctor. After a while, a female doctor arrived and wanted to examine him, something he denied – he only wanted water. The incident lead to a heathed discussion between the doctor and our guard. Around 6 in the morning local time, two seats were available on the morning flight to Frankfurt, and two of the delegation members left. They received their passports back at the gate. The two remaining delegation members left on a return flight our of Minsk at 3.30 in the afternoon.
Said delegation member Nygaard to the Norwegian daily Aftenposten´s web-edition: «It is important for us to show the world what kind of regime that rules in Belarus – this is among the issues PEN is focusing on. Belarus is a UN-member and it is important that we react when they behave like this.»
Oslo, December 5th 2011