6 December 2011
In the early hours of Monday morning, 5 December, on arrival at Minsk airport in Belarus, a four-person delegation, three from Norwegian PEN – publishers William Nygaard and Trygve Åslund, and the Centre’s Secretary General Carl Morten Iversen - as well as Danish PEN board member journalist Niels-Ivar Larsen, were denied visas and consequently barred from entering Belarus. The delegation had planned to visit members of PEN Belarus, the Belarusian Writers Union, the Belarusian Association of Journalists and local writers and publishers. The visit had been planned months in advance.
Upon arrival at at 1 am, the delegation applied for visitors’ visas for a two-day stay in Minsk. The group travelled as tourists as this is the only way that such a delegation can enter the country. The group had received a formal invitation from a local travel agency. The visa applications, as well as air transport and hotel bookings, were 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.
"The officer’s 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 result. I also called the Norwegian travel agent who tried to help, again with no result. I told the officer that nobody picked up the phone as it was the middle of the night - 3 am local time. His response was that we should have arrived on an earlier flight.
The atmosphere at the visa-office counter was building as two ladies arriving from Macedonia not connected with the delegation got into a heated 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 we gave a total of 360 Euros for four visas. After about 20 minutes, a lady in uniform arrived, took 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 border police official, it was not clear which, 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 departure flights. We would then be sent back to Norway and Denmark. Our passports would be given back upon boarding of the return flights.
No further explanation was given. At one point, a female customs officer who spoke decent English arrived and explained that this was the decision of the "consul" and the decision could not be challenged. She also said that the Belarusian authorities had the right 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 has 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 heated discussion between the doctor and our guard. Around 6 am local time, two seats were available on the morning flight to Frankfurt, and two of the delegation members left. Their passports were returned at the gate. The two remaining delegation members left on a return flight out of Minsk at 3.30 in the afternoon.
Delegation member, William Nygaard told 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."
PEN International protests the refusal by the Belarus authorities to allow PEN members to visit the country to meet with their Belarus colleagues, and demands an official explanation for the action.