50 arrested as police storm play in Belarus


Tom Parfitt in Moscow
Friday August 24, 2007
The Guardian

Police special forces stormed the performance of a play by an underground theatre group in Belarus on Wednesday and arrested 50 people, it has emerged.

The British playwright Tom Stoppard, who has supported the Free Theatre for several years, told the Guardian he learned of the raid through a text message sent by one of the theatre's directors, who was detained in the Belarussian capital, Minsk. Stoppard accused the authorities of a "grotesque" attack on civil rights.

"One had hoped that the days when artists were arrested for free expression were buried with totalitarian states, but Belarus is as close to a totalitarian state as you can get in Europe," he said.

Members of the theatre were about to begin a performance of Eleven Vests by Edward Bond at a house in a Minsk suburb on Wednesday when armed officers from the Omon unit entered the building and detained everyone present. The actors, performers and spectators were taken by bus to a police station, but released three hours later. One political activist among the audience was thought to be still in detention last night.

Political opponents and counterculture groups have been suppressed in the former Soviet republic of Belarus under the leadership of Alexander Lukashenko. The Free Theatre angered the regime this summer by holding meetings with supporters outside the country like Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and former Czech president Vaclav Havel.

Nataliya Koliyada, managing director of the theatre, said: "The play had just been introduced when the Omon guys burst in. They claimed neighbours had told them people were firing weapons."

Stoppard said the performers were "unaggressive young people who just feel that the official art available to them [in Belarus] is very limited".



Natalia Koliada nksbel@yahoo.com
Director and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre

Nikolai Khalezin
Art-director and co-founder of the Belarus Free Theatre, playwright

Vladimir Scherban
Belarus Free Theatre Director