Shot in knees and jailed: what Belarusians risks for their anti-war stance
Since Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Belarusians have been protesting the war. People hold rallies and pickets, disrupt railway transportation to slow down the movement of Russian military equipment, disseminate information about military actions, and join Ukrainian forces to fight the aggressor.
In almost a year, 10 Belarusians were detained for sabotage on the railroad, and seven of them were already sentenced to jail terms. At least 30 people were convicted for passing pictures of Russian military equipment to the media. Another seven are behind bars for wanting to fight on the side of Ukraine. In the first 50 days of the war, more than 1,500 people were detained for anti-war actions in Belarus.
Viasna recalls stories of persecution for taking an anti-war stand.
Arrests and torture for participation in anti-war actions
The largest anti-war protests took place all over the country on February 27 and 28, the first weekend after the war outbreak. Over 1,100 people were arrested in Belarus in these two days.
Even the slightest antiwar sentiment such as wearing clothes and symbols in blue and yellow, laying flowers at the Ukrainian embassy, or wearing a No war T-shirt could become grounds for detention. Protests were held not only in the capital but also in small towns.
People arrested at the rallies were tortured by the security forces. Some protesters were beaten at police stations so badly that were taken to hospitals.
“When I was in the hospital, my friends sent me a link to a TikTok video of me that was viewed about 60,000 times. It warmed my heart, and I hoped that if some of the Ukrainians watched this video, they would at least understand that real Belarusians would never in their lives fire rockets towards them,” said Pavel, who was arrested at an anti-war rally and taken to the hospital from the police where he was beaten.
Another anti-war protester shared his story with human rights defenders.
He recalled that people started shouting “Putin is a d*ckhead!” at some point. That was the reason for the brutal arrests, he believes. Three or four law enforcement officers immediately rushed up to the man, threw him on the ground, and started beating him with their batons. He got 14 blows, five of which were to the head. After that, a riot police officer ran up and held the boy while he waited for his colleagues. As a result, several security forces dragged the boy by the legs and hands into the car.
A woman arrested at an anti-war rally spoke about her conflict with the notoriously violent officer Yauhen Urubleuski at the Akrescina detention center.
Inmates asked him for toilet paper and to open the food hatch, so there would be more air, but he rudely declined their request. but he rudely declined their request.
“The conflict began. […] Urubleuski took one of the women out into the corridor and banged her head against the wall.”
In late December 2022, it became known criminal proceedings were started against a 68-year-old woman from Brest. The woman wrote Long live Belarus and No War on a bus stop in Brest. She was accused of desecration of buildings and property damage.
For almost two and a half years repression has been going on in Belarus. The human rights situation in the country is deteriorating every day. Last year, it got to the point where firearms were used to arrest “rail guerrillas” and some detainees’ pets were shot. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the authorities have been actively prosecuting Belarusians for anti-war protests. A total of at least 6,381 people were arrested in 2022, according to human rights activists. This makes a minimum of 17 people a day. Read our yearly review of administrative persecution.
“Rail guerillas”: shot in the knees and record jail sentences
Russia, with Lukashenka's consent, is actively using the territory of Belarus in a war against Ukraine. Belarusian railways are used to transport military equipment. The Belarusians react by disabling railroad equipment to prevent military transportation.
Railroad disruptions have caused the authorities to make special amendments to criminal law. Now capital punishment can be imposed not only for an act of terrorism but even for an attempt to commit an act of terrorism.
Human rights defenders are aware of at least 10 detained “rail guerrillas”; seven of them have already been convicted, and the rest are awaiting trial in January.
On December 22, Vital Melnik was sentenced to 13 years in prison for five criminal offenses including “an act of terrorism”. The man was accused of setting fire to the relay cabinet of an automatic blocking traffic light at the Navasady-Barysaŭ railway line in March 2022, thereby disabling the railway signaling system. His actions created a real threat of a serious accident, damage to railway rolling stock, and death or injury to people, the prosecution claimed.
Vital Melnik lives in the village of Chadakova, Minsk region. He has a small child.
On December 27, the Homieĺ Regional Court sentenced three men from Svietlahorsk in the case of “rail guerrillas” accused of terrorism and treason against the state. Dzianis Dzikun was sentenced to 23 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony, Dzmitry Ravich received 22 years, and Aleh Malchanau was punished with 21 years in jail.
So far, this is the harshest sentence for railroad sabotage in Belarus.
The men were accused of setting fire to the relay cabinet and informing about it Peramoha plan project and BYPOL.
Siarhei Hlebka was detained on the night of March 1–2 in Stoŭbcy for setting logs on fire in order to prevent the movement of trains on the railroad tracks, the Ministry of Internal Affairs said. A criminal case under Article 289 of the Criminal Code (An act of terrorism) was brought against him.
A “confession video” posted shortly after Hlebka’s arrest shows signs of beatings.
On October 19, 2022, the Minsk Municipal Court sentenced the political prisoner to 11 years in a medium-security penal colony and a fine of 9,600 Belarusian rubles ($3,800).
On 16 September 2022, the Viciebsk Regional Court pronounced a verdict and sentencedSiarhei Kanavalau to 15 years of imprisonment and a fine of 9,600 Belarusian roubles ($3,800). He was found guilty of several counts, including terrorism (Article 289 of the Criminal Code).
Kanavalau is an employee of the Viciebsk branch of Belarusian Railways. According to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the man planned to disable the systems that ensure the safety of railway traffic.
Aliaksei Shyshkavets, 43, was detained on March 2 in Asipovičy. The man, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs, “joined the extremist formation BYPOL, having authorized a mobilization chatbot to commit unlawful acts in Belarus”.
On October 12, 2022, the Mahilioŭ Regional Court convicted him of ‘terrorism’ and ‘participation in hostilities on foreign soil’ under Article 289 Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code. Judge Siarhei Mazurau sentenced the political prisoner to 11 years of imprisonment in a medium-security penal colony.
Yauhen Minkevich, Dzmitryi Klimau, and Uladzimir Auramtsau from Babrujsk were arrested by a special unit of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on March 30. They were suspected of destroying two relay cabinets near Asipovičy. During the arrest, the officers used weapons against Dzmitryi Klimau and shot him in the knees. It was revealed later, that it was made on purpose despite the men did not resist the arrest.
Since the onset of the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops, including from Belarusian territory, the “Rail War” has unfolded in Belarus. Belarusians are disrupting the railway network. Despite the state considering such actions as acts of terrorism, sabotage on the railroad does not stop: over a month more than a dozen of such acts have been recorded. At least 11 people have been detained, human rights activists report. Law enforcers are on the lookout for “rail guerillas” and conduct raids in towns where acts of sabotage have taken place. Viasna tells what is known about the “purge” of railroad employees all over Belarus.
In 2022, at least 30 people were convicted for sharing photos of Russian military equipment, according to human rights defenders.
Another type of anti-war resistance is the so-called information war. All over the country, people are taking pictures of Russian military convoys and sending information to the military activity monitoring project Bielaruski hajun or to independent media. Virtually all non-state media are recognized as “extremist formations” and this enables authorities to consider any interaction with them as “promoting extremist activities” (Article 361-4 of the Criminal Code), “participating in an extremist formation” (Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code) or even “high treason” (Article 356 of the Criminal Code). All those who report the movement of the Russian military face from two to six years in jail under Article 361-4 and seven to fifteen years for treason.
Thus, on December 15, a Brest-based state media published broadcasted the arrest of former military officer Dzmitryi Hulin, who is accused of high treason.
In the video, he was called by the officers “an agent of the Ukrainian special services”. The former serviceman allegedly passed Ukrainian military information about the deployment of Russian units on the territory of Belarus.
On December 6, former teacher Iryna Abdukeryna was sentenced to four years in jail under four articles, including Article 361-1, “participating in extremist formation”.
Political prisoner Iryna Abdukeryna is a former English teacher from Chojniki, a town in the Homieĺ region just about 60 km from the border with Ukraine. She was detained on the morning of April 5, 2022, at her summer house. The reason for the arrest was that the woman had allegedly recorded the movement of a Russian military convoy and forwarded the video to the Bielaruski hajun Telegram channel.
Yahor Lebiadok, a military analyst, was convicted under Art. 361-4 (“promoting extremist activities”) on December 23. He received five years of imprisonment for an interview with Euroradio about the war in Ukraine.
Lebiadok was arrested 13, 2022.According to the case file, the reason was that he “gave an interview to a representative of the named channel on the subject of a special military operation on the territory of Ukraine by the Russian Armed Forces and the role of Belarus in it”.
Persecution for wanting to fight for Ukraine
With the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, many Belarusians joined the Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment. But the desire to fight on the side of Ukraine and any attempts to join the regiment could result in detention and accusations of “attempted participation in an armed conflict on foreign soil” (Article 14 and 361-3 of the Criminal Code) or “mercenarism” (Article 133 of the Criminal Code).
As of today, there are at least seven convicted political prisoners in Belarus for wanting to fight on the side of Ukraine: Andrei Raptunovich, Anatol Mikhailau, Andrei Maslau, Mikhail Listapadau, Yauhen Karpau, Siarhei Vaitsiuk, and Aliaksandr Ainutdzinau.
Here come the stories of some of them.
Siarhei Vaitsiuk, 37, was one of the first to be convicted for wanting to fight on the side of Ukraine after the start of a full-scale war.
According to the indictment, Vaitsiuk “found out through various Internet resources the procedure and possible ways of enlisting in the armed units of Ukraine, and contacted their representatives in April 2022”.
On April 24, the man was taken into custody on suspicion of “mercenarism” under Article 133 of the Criminal Code. The charge was later reclassified to a slightly milder one, namely ‘attempted participation in hostilities on the territory of a foreign state’ under Part 1 of Article 14 and Part 1 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code.
On July 28, in the Brest Regional Court, Vaitsiuk was sentenced to two and a half years of imprisonment in a general-security penal colony under Part 1 of Article 14 and Part 1 of Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code.
At the end of December, the state TV broadcasted a film about detained Belarusians who wanted to fight on the side of Ukraine.
Andrei Raptunovich, 20, was convicted in Minsk for wanting to join the Kalinoŭski Regiment.
Raptunovich is an artist and a further education teacher. He was detained on May 16, 2022. In a “repentant video” of him that appeared on pro-government Telegram channels he “confessed” in participating in protest actions and registering in the Peramoha chat and the regiment chatbot.
On November 14, the Minsk Municipal Court, sentenced Raptunovich to four years in jail under part 1 of Article 13 and Article 361-3 of the Criminal Code for intention to fight on the side of Ukraine and under part 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code for registration in the Peramoha chatbot.
Aliaksandr Ainutdzinau, 46, was detained in July. Among other things, he was accused of intending to fight on the side of Ukraine.
In the “repentant video”, the man says that on February 24, when Russia had started a war in Ukraine, he had started reading various Telegram channels and decided to join Kastuś Kalinoŭski Regiment to defend Ukraine. To do this, Ainutdzinau attempted to cross the border illegally, but was detained by Belarusian border guards.
On November 16, the Homieĺ Regional Court, sentenced Ainutdzinau 25 months of imprisonment in a general-security penal colony under Part 1 of Article 361-3 and Part 1 of Article 317-2 of the Criminal Code.
Kalinoŭski Regiment: trashed apartments and criminal persecution
The authorities are also actively persecuting those who have already joined the Kalinoŭski Regiment. On September 23, the Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized it as an “extremist group”. On October 11, the Investigative Committee initiated criminal proceedings against the founders and participants of the regiment.
In 2022, a new method of harassing and intimidating self-exiled dissidents was invented—by trashing their apartments. The law enforcers make before-and-after videos of vandalism, which they then post on Telegram channels. In the “after” part, one can see scattered things, broken furniture, and gutted wardrobes.
Thus, at the end of November, law enforcers trashed the apartments of the Kalinoŭski Regiment spokeswoman and her husband. They also vandalized the apartment of Natallia Suslava, mother of the deceased Kalinoŭski Regiment member.
Arrests for solidarity with Ukraine
In mid-September, law enforcement officers arrested five Minsk residents for hanging up large national flags of Belarus and Ukraine on a residential building. A criminal case was brought against them for “malicious hooliganism committed by a group of persons” under part 2 Article 339 of the Criminal Code, and they were all taken into custody in Žodzina prison. Two weeks after their arrest the Ministry of Internal Affairs recognized the channel in the Zello application, through which the participants communicated while organizing the action, as extremist formation.
At the end of February, a man called Aliaksandr donated about two thousand euros to the Ukrainian army. After that, he was taken to the KGB for an interview, and then he was declared a suspect in the financing of terrorism. His apartment, business, and personal accounts, and even a bank card of his 10-year-old son with a disability were seized.
The man managed to leave Belarus with his family, but the law enforcers started to put pressure on his parents threatening to arrest the couple in their late 60s if they fail to persuade their son to come back to Belarus.
Throughout 2022, the Belarusian judicial system has been actively criminalizing citizens for political reasons, as documented by the Human rights center Viasna. Viasna has collected information on at least 1,242 persons convicted on political grounds over the past year. Of this number, 942 were men and 300 were women.