Valiantsin Stefanovic: Authorities Created a System to Persecute Freethinkers
Just before the Freedom Day, activists of Young Front are interrogated again. Is the tactics of the law-enforcing structures effective? Can it intimidate the people who are ready to participate in the street actions on March 25? Young Front activist Zmitser Khvedaruk and human rights defender, lawyer Valianstin Stefanovic discuss the issue on the waves of RFE/RL.
Tsyhankou: Just before the Freedom Day, activists of Young Front are interrogated again. On March 13 about 20 youth activists all over the country were summoned to prosecutors’ offices for interrogation. Minsk high school student Nasta Palazhanka and Aliaksei Yanusheuski received official statements from the prosecutor’s office that they were suspects in the criminal case for participation in an unregistered organization, which had been launched by KGB. Zmitser Khvedaruk, who participates in our discussion, is also a suspect in this criminal case.
On February 4 the Belarusian special services detained 27 activists of Young Front at a private apartment. When reports of detention were drawn up, the young people, except for Zmitser Khvedaruk and Aleh Korban, were released. Khvedaruk and Korban were kept in detention center for 3 days and charged with acting on behalf of an unregistered organization. They face a fine, or an arrest for up to 6 months, or imprisonment for up to 2 years.
Zmitser, in your opinion, what is the ground for the present wave of interrogations and can it influence the intention of Young Front members to take part in the street action on March 25?
“They will not stop us, repression will not stifle us“
Khvedaruk: Probably, such preventive actions of the authorities will influence the Young Front activists, but in a positive way. With every new interrogation we become more ready to participate in the celebration of the Freedom Day – to mobilize as many people as possible and to organize as much as we can. They will not stop us, any repression will not stifle us. Young Front is a phenomenon of youth resistance in Belarus.
Tsyhankou: What exactly do investigators and prosecutors tell the Young Front activists? What threats do they use? Do they tell you what will happen if you join the street protests on March 25?
Khvedaruk: Primarily, they use moral pressure. They say, if you come to the street action, that will be your last action for several years. Probably, this is the only weapon they have now.
Tsyhankou: Why do you say that this can not intimidate you? You think these are just idle threats?
Khvedaruk: May be, there is more to that, than just words. But we know what we are risking with, and why we are doing it. We are not representatives of political parties, which are afraid of taking strong actions because they do not want to lose official registration. We are young people who are ready to bear the cross for our country, and to bear responsibility. We took this responsibility and will defend our country from everything which does not belong here.
Tsyhankou: Mr. Stefanovic, do you know of facts of law-enforcing bodies violating the law during these interrogations? What should youth activists know to prevent violations of their rights, how should they prepare for interrogations?
“Young people have the right to refuse to answer certain questions”
Stefanovic: Several facts have been reported about KGB investigators violating the Code of Criminal Procedure. Basically, it happens when young people who are interrogated as witnesses, are in fact, suspects in the case. Officially they are witnesses, and are warned about criminal responsibility for giving false testimony, or for refusal to testify. This way the investigators receive information which may be used against an individual. Later they announce the individual a suspect in the criminal case.
That is hwy I would like to recommend the young people who are summoned for interrogation, to always remember that, according Art. 27 of the Constitution, they have the right to refuse to answer questions that may be used against them. That means, if representatives of KGB or prosecutor’s office suggest that you, being a witness, write that you are members of Young Front – that question may be used against you. The Constitution gives you the right not to answer this question.
“Intimidation is an awakening factor”
Tsyhankou: Zmitser said in the beginning of our conversation that interrogations will not intimidate activists of Young Front. However, may be the law-enforcing structures have another goal – to intimidate the society, the people who are potentially ready to participate in the street events on March 25? To punish you so that the others don’t stand up?
Khvedaruk: There was a similar situation last year. Members of “Partnership” were arrested before the presidential election. KGB threatened with capital punishment, and mass repression. However, even more people than we could hope for joined the protest. It turned out that intimidation is an awakening factor. Now – the more the authorities press on the society, the more the society will respond.
Tsyhankou: the members of your unregistered organization are being persecuted in such a serious way. Why wouldn’t you join some registered party or structures? Is it your principle position?
Khvedaruk: Yes, but we are preparing the documents for registration of Young Front both in Belarus and abroad. It may stop the trials for some time, because we will act in the framework of the organizing committee to create YF. Because one of the main claims of the authorities is the alleged fact that we have never intended to register Young Front.
Tsyhankou: Valiantsin, how is the Freedom day likely to go? Will the day become a sign, or a certain indicator for both the international structures and the Belarusian society.
Stefanovic: Even if the authorities do not take any violent measures against the protesters, this does not really mean anything. That can be just a demonstration for the West. As if the authorities made a step on the road to democracy.
However, the authorities created a system for persecuting freethinkers in the country. Basically, I am talking about politically-motivated Criminal Code, information blockade of the citizens, liquidation of non-governmental organizations, and presence of the state ideology. I don’t see any intentions of the authorities to change the situation. Moreover, I didn’t hear the authorities announce any liberalization policy.
Tsyhankou: mostly other people comment on this, instead of the authorities…
Stefanovic: Yes. And certain Western politicians too. In fact, the Belarusian authorities talk a lot about economic projects and cooperation with the West. But they haven’t even claimed any political “thaw”. That is why I don’t see any steps in this direction.