First Minister Humza Yousaf has said the Scottish Government “will do all we can” to help further the cause of continued freedom in Europe, following a call with a Belarusian opposition leader.

Mr Yousaf met with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya last week, who stood as the opposition candidate against Alexander Lukashenko, known as ‘Europe’s last dictator’ in Belarus’ widely-accepted as rigged 2020 presidential election.

Over a million people took to the streets to protest the results and mass arrests followed – including of Ms Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced into exile in Lithuania.

Following last week’s call, the First Minister announced he would be assuming the role of ‘godparent’ of a Belarusian political prisoner, the first head of a government anywhere in the world to do so.

The ‘godparenthood’ programme, run by charity Libereco, pairs politicians across the world with a Belarusian political prisoner to show solidarity and advocate for their release. Godparents will typically write to them in prison and keep their name in the media and parliament.

Mr Yousaf has been paired with Dzmitryi Halavacz, member of Belarusian rock group ‘Tor Band’, whose songs were popular during the 2020 pro-democracy protests.

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Lukashenko declared the band “extremist” in January last year and Mr Halavacz was sentenced to nine years behind bars.

Ken McBain, UK representative for Libereco, described the sentence as being “like The Proclaimers or Dougie MacLean being sent to Barlinnie just because they've written songs about Scotland.”

Four ministerial colleagues from the Scottish Government have also taken on the role of godparenthood to amplify the voices of those suffering human rights abuses in Belarus.

The Herald: Belarus

External affairs secretary Angus Robertson will be the godfather of Eduard Babaryka, who led his father Viktar Babaryka’s campaign as an opposition candidate in the 2020 elections and was subsequently given an eight-year sentence last July.

Wellbeing Economy Secretary Neil Gray, Minister for Europe Christina McKelvie, and Minister for Equalities Emma Roddick are also participating in the #WeStandBYyou campaign as godparents for three Belarusians in jail.

Mr Yousaf said: “Those fighting for democracy in Belarus have the full support of the Scottish Government. I was privileged to be able to meet with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and hear her story - her courage and commitment to the freedom of Belarus and its people are a source of personal inspiration.”

The First Minister added: “The Scottish Government wholly condemns the despicable actions of the Lukashenko regime and the ongoing human rights abuses in Belarus. Fighting for freedom there is also an act of fighting for continued freedom in Europe and across the world– and wherever possible, the government I lead will do all we can to further that cause.”

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The announcement that Mr Yousaf would become the 400th politician to become a godparent came the week the situation of oppression further deteriorated in Belarus.

On the day of Mr Yousaf’s announcement, more than 150 people were persecuted in a fresh crackdown on dissent according to CNN. The Belarusian State Security Committee, referred to as the Belarusian KGB, conducted mass raids, interrogations, and arrested dozens of friends and relatives of political prisoners.

Since the clampdown after the 2020 election, much of the repression has moved to monitoring online activity; it is enough to press ‘like’ on a social media post against the regime, or even to wear red and white nail polish – the colours of the banned flag used by the opposition which Lukashenko replaced with the Soviet era one used now in the early days of his tenure – to be branded an ‘extremist’.

Ken McBain, UK representative for Libereco, said: “In the dictatorship run by Lukashenko, Belarusians have no hope of justice or any parliamentarian who cares about them or will support them.

“The regime wants to crush any solidarity among Belarusian people. They tracked online payments to two supermarkets from foreign credit cards and then the KGB raided ex-political prisoners and families of existing political prisoners just because they had their groceries paid for by friends and supporters outside Belarus.”

Mr McBain described the conditions the human rights group have heard of the political prisoners living in: “We have heard that a strategy of the prison authorities is to put political prisoners in beds next to non-political prisoners who have scabies, HIV and other infectious diseases.”

The five ministers are not the first Scottish politicians to have taken up godparenthood in the scheme. Four MSPs were already supporting, as well as five members of the UK Houses of Parliament and Lords.