Two years on and the grip tightens on basic freedoms in Belarus
On 19 December 2010, following a presidential poll during which Alyaksandr
Lukashenka was elected for a fourth term as President of Belarus, 30,000
protesters gathered in central Minsk to demand a second round of elections.
The demonstration, the biggest ever witnessed in Belarus, was peaceful until at about 10pm, a group of masked young men, who many believed to be provocateurs, called on the crowd to storm Government House and started to break windows.
Shortly afterwards, riot police moved in and violently cleared the demonstrators from the square. Many protestors and bystanders were beaten.
More than 700 people, most of them peaceful participants and bystanders, were detained.
Most of them were charged with violating the regulations for public gatherings and were sentenced to 10 – 15 days’ imprisonment.
However, six of the seven opposition presidential candidates, many leading journalists and opposition activists were charged with criminal offences including “organizing mass disorder” and “grossly violating public order” and were sentenced to prison terms of up to six years.
Two years on and six people remain in prisons and labour colonies for their connection to these events, others are still serving suspended sentences and live under constant surveillance and travel restrictions, and some are now in exile.
Those who are imprisoned face conditions that amount to torture and other ill-treatment. Andrei Sannikau, who ran as a Presidential candidate in the elections as candidate of the European Belarus Campaign, was released in April this year on a Presidential pardon.
He described the pressure he was subjected to during his detention as torture.
“They try not to touch you physically, but they put you through extreme conditions,” he reported.
He was held in solitary confinement recorded on 24 hour video. He was also sentenced to periods in the punishment cell, where in one case the temperature never rose about 8 degrees centigrade and his warm clothing was deliberately removed.
In addition, Andrei Sannikau described how the guards tried to isolate him from other prisoners: “They create a vacuum around you. They make you feel guilty by punishing people who speak to you.”
Another form of psychological pressure is to subject prisoners to frequent transfers from one establishment to another during which time they are held for long periods in railway carriages and temporary accommodation cells, and may be subjected to threats and intimidation by other prisoners.
Zmitser Bandarenka, served 16 months in pre-trial detention and subsequently in prison colonies before being released through a presidential pardon in April this year. He was convicted for walking in the road during the demonstration. He also paid a $40 fine for disrupting the bus service during the demonstration.
He described a regime of constant threats: “Threats of rape were constant. I was told ‘You will become a Petukh (lowest rank of the prison hierarchy, a prisoner used for sexual services)’. …. The tensions were constantly there…. I was internally prepared for death.”
Zmitser Dashkevich, a leader of the Young Front organization, was sentenced to two years on 24 March 2011 and has been subjected to constant transfers, which often lasted up to 10 days and during which time his family lawyer were not kept informed about his whereabouts.
Some opposition activists continue to serve suspended sentences for their involvement in the events. Alexander Feduta, a poet and philologist, was working in the campaign team of opposition candidate Uladzimir Nyaklyayeu and sentenced to a two-year suspended sentence for “actions grossly disturbing public order”.
That’s despite the fact he had not been present at all during the demonstration as he was guarding the campaign office.
Alexander Feduta spent 55 days in solitary confinement during his time in pre-trial detention in the famous KGB detention centre, Amerikanka, in Minsk.
“There are some things that I am grateful for. In solitary confinement you have to talk to somebody and you invent people to talk to. I wrote letters to my wife, and I wrote her poetry,” he said.
Alexander Feduta now lives under constant surveillance and a travel ban:
“It is very hard knowing you are not free. Earlier it was theoretical – you may live in an unfree country, but you could get on a plane and fly to London or Moscow. Now I know I can’t do this…..the idea of an unfree country has become concrete.”
Those serving suspended sentences face possible imprisonment if they receive more than two warning for violating the terms of their sentence.
Alexander Feduta received his first warning after he travelled to Russia to register for his doctoral studies at the University of Tver in Russia.
Mykalau Statkevich, who ran as an independent opposition presidential candidate was sentenced to six years’ hard labour on 26 May 2011 for “organizing mass disorder”, and remains in prison.
In January 2012, he was transferred from Penal Colony No. 17 in Shklou, where he had worked in a saw mill, to the stricter regime of Prison No. 4 in Mahiliou for allegedly violating the penal colony rules.
The authorities there also claimed Statkevich was inclined towards violence and liable to attempt escape. From 6 July to 16 July 2012 he was put in the punishment cell allegedly for refusing to request a Presidential pardon.
Marina Adamovich, his wife, has the right to one visit of up to four hours per year, and one phone call a month.
“These calls are always unexpected even though I am constantly waiting for them,” she said.
“Last time the lawyer warned me but it was still a shock. You talk about unimportant things – he tries to say that he is fine or tries to pass on information that is important for other prisoners… It is a sea of emotion and enormous joy.”
Amnesty International continues to call for the unconditional release of Mykalau Statkevich, Pavel Sevyarynets, Eduard Lobau and Zmitser Dashkevich who are still serving prison sentences in connection with the events of 19 December 2010.
The organization calls on Belarus to amend its Criminal Code to include the crime of torture, and to establish independent monitoring of places of detention.
The organization also calls for all restrictions against those sentenced for exercising their right to freedom of expression and assembly to be lifted.