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Belarus on my mind, and maybe on Putin’s too

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Recent Russian protests against a stolen election were on the whole peaceful and well-policed. At similar protests in Minsk in December 2010, the Belarus police over-reacted, resulting in beatings and imprisonment for many of the demonstrators. Strong Russian support for the Lukashenka regime could indicate that future protests in Russia might be less peaceful, if the authorities start feeling threatened, says Yulia Gorbunova

Yulia Gorbunova
20 December 2011

‘Documents, please’, a man in a police uniform said, approaching me. As I handed him my passport, he added sarcastically:  ‘Make sure you take out all valuables out, dollars, pounds, …whatever else you’ve got there’.

The policeman seems to have been influenced by Prime Minister Putin, who recently referred affectionately to human rights defenders as ‘Judases who feed off of foreign grants’. (In another speech, Mr. Putin quoted Kipling’s Jungle Book to call opposition ‘Bandar-logs’, disorderly monkeys marching to be eaten by a python, but that’s another story...)

'It is certainly not going to be easy to find another instance in modern history where no fewer than seven presidential candidates had been jailed by the end of presidential election day.'

The policeman meticulously copied my passport details as well as the exact wording of the placard I was holding, calling for release of the Belarusian political prisoners, into his little black book. He then looked at me, contemplating. Clearly, he decided he was not done with me yet.  ‘If only you were a guy,’ he said dreamily. ‘We would have conscripted you on the spot.’

This exchange took place on 19 December across the street from the Belarusian embassy in central Moscow. A group of colleagues had organized a solidarity picket there in commemoration of democracy protests in Independence Square in Minsk a year before.  The Minsk protests were much like the ones that spread like wildfire through Moscow and other Russian cities in recent days, but the Belarusian authorities handled them very differently.

A year ago in Minsk

A year ago in Minsk, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they saw as another stolen presidential election. The protesters were largely peaceful, slightly disorganized and altogether harmless. But it didn’t take long for the police and security forces to move in with full force, beating unarmed demonstrators with batons, kicking those who fell to the ground, chasing and grabbing people, including bystanders.

According to various estimates, as many as 700 people were arrested that night and many of them were beaten right in the square or at police stations. It is certainly not going to be easy to find another instance in modern history where no fewer than seven presidential candidates had been jailed by the end of presidential election day.

MInsk_Meeting_2010

Several hundred protestors were detained following a peaceful demonstration against vote rigging after last year's presidential elections. Many have remained behind bars until now. More were arrested at a repeat demonstatioin on the first anniversay of the election (Photo: dranik80.livejournal.com/2010/12/22/)

Dozens of people were charged with criminal offences such as organizing or participating in mass riots; some remain in prison. Many are being held in the infamous KGB prison practically incommunicado. No lawyers have been allowed to visit and letters to families and friends only very rarely reach their destination. Those who have been released have in some cases publicly shared consistent allegations of mistreatment in detention.  Over 700 others were sentenced to 10-15 days of ‘administrative detention’ (to prevent further misdemeanours) in speedy proceedings that did not even resemble due process.

In the months that followed the protest, offices of non-governmental organizations were repeatedly raided and their equipment confiscated. More protests took place all over the country; more people were arrested and jailed.

Over the summer, creative Belarusian activists even invented ‘silent’ protests, during which they stand or walk around silently, sometimes clapping their hands in unison. Quite clever, since no ‘prohibited activity’ is going on yet everyone knows what the silence is about. Still, in a widely reported fit of absurdity, the police arrested a one-armed man who was fined by a Belarusian court for ‘applauding in public.’

Information about such events was circulated through social media. In November, the authorities responded by speedily adopting new regulations banning any kind of pre-planned public gathering in a place agreed upon in advance without explicit government permission. Additionally, organizers are required to report their ‘financial sources’ for the event, and are not allowed to spread information about it, including through social networking sites, until official permission has been granted to conduct it. Under the regulations, though, permission may be issued no earlier than five days ahead of time.  Another change bans actions directed at a ‘public call for initiating’ a gathering or a rally ‘in violation of established order.’

Throughout the last year, Human Rights Watch has on many occasions commented on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Belarus. In a report, as well as numerous news releases, statements and letters, we called on the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and end the unprecedented crackdown on civil society.  

Minsk scenario in Russia?

The situation has not improved and as Russia approached its own parliamentary elections in December, its support of the repressive Belarusian government seemed to be only getting stronger.

The massive protests against the Russian election results that broke out, unexpectedly both for the authorities and the opposition, in Moscow and other Russian cities were met at first with excessive police force. Then the Kremlin seemed to reconsider and allowed thousands to protest peacefully on 10 December, International Human Rights Day.

However, judging by Russia's willingness to back up Alexander Lukashenka, one might wonder whether the Russian authorities will be all that unwilling to repeat the scenario in Minsk, should they start feeling really threatened by the protesters at home. Whether inspired Russian activists have much awareness of that fact is a different question.

The Russian policeman I encountered the other day must have quite a lot of time on his hands. He examined the placard in my hands once more. ‘Who is Ales Bialiatski?’ he asked.

'...judging by Russia's willingness to back up Alexander Lukashenka, one might wonder whether the Russian authorities will be all that unwilling to repeat the scenario in Minsk, should they start feeling really threatened by the protesters at home.'

I explained that Ales is the head of Viasna human rights centre and a leading Belarusian human rights defender, sentenced at the end of November to four and a half years in jail on trumped up charges of tax evasion. He is in Zhodzina prison, known for its harsh conditions, awaiting an appeal court hearing, yet to be scheduled.

The policeman did not look impressed. ‘A pretty young thing like you,’ he said, condescending  and fatherly, before finally departing. ‘Stay away from those Moscow protests, or you might get your skull cracked’.

Under the circumstances, his kind warning, however absurd, does not seem entirely improbable.

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