In a fourth floor apartment somewhere in the centre of Minsk, a small group of Belarusian journalists work in secret. They are employees of the independent Belsat TV, and they move from one clandestine location to another to avoid being arrested by the KGB. Today, the apartment they work in belongs to a Belarusian musician on tour in the US.
'It’s like Stalinist times', the editor tells me. ‘They can enter without permission and take our cameras. The last time we got a tip-off that the authorities were coming to raid our office, we removed all our equipment except an old printer, and left a note “this is for you” with a Belarusian red and white ribbon.’ In Belarus, the country’s former red and white national flag [from 1991-1995] is a symbol of the opposition, and is banned.
This apartment itself is like any other. A kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and a long hallway that leads to a master bedroom, which houses four laptops and several Sony DVCAM cameras. Hanging from the bedroom window is a small hand-crafted puppet of President Alexander Lukashenka. With a noose around his neck.
Journalist Alina Radachynskaya, 23, has been with Belsat for one and a half years. Unable to work on official TV channels, Alina focuses on what is happening on the streets and to everyday people. She is not optimistic: ‘Belarusians are condemned to a history of defeat’, she says. ‘Young people see no future here. The educated leave, realising that they can’t change society’. The possibility of jail weighs heavy on her mind. ‘Yes, I am afraid, but when you’re working you don’t think about it. That only starts when you get home.’
Cameraman Alexander Barazenka, also 23, has already had his share of run-ins with the authorities. He has been beaten by police and has had his camera smashed by the KGB four times. In 2008, he spent two weeks in prison for protesting against Lukashenka’s decision to ban small and medium-sized enterprises from hiring non-related employees. Thousands of businesses were forced to fire tens of thousands of people then; thousands of others closed.
Alexander has been working at Belsat for two and a half years. ‘I have made my choice for democracy,’ he says. ‘There is no other way.’
Irina Khalip tells her four-year old son that his father is away on a business trip. In reality, her husband, presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, is most likely lying on a concrete floor in one of Belarus’ notorious prisons. ‘It would destroy his innocence and his vision of the world if he found out,’ she says.
Sannikov was sentenced to five years imprisonment for following the 19 December protests against Lukashenka’s re-election. Today, his whereabouts are unknown. He initially spent some time at the the Zhodzina penal colony, some 60 km outside Minsk, where prison authorities imposed a so-called ‘bitch’ status upon him: he was forced to eat alone, no was allowed to speak to him, and he received death threats from other inmates and prison guards.
Sannikov is apparently no longer at Zhodzina, but there are reports that his health has deteriorated. Khalip says prison guards deliberately put an inmate with tuberculosis into his cell. He has no legal counsel - his lawyer was debarred in March - and is no longer allowed to practise. There are suspicions that he is being transferred from prison to prison as a form of a psychological torture.
‘I have forgotten what time is,’ she says. ‘But I will keep fighting for my husband.’ Under heavy police surveillance and continually harassed by the KGB, she tries to find the strength to raise her child, while at the same time increasing public awareness of her husband’s incarceration. Khalip, a journalist by profession, was herself detained for over a month and sentenced to a two-year suspended prison sentence.
Marina Adamovich’s husband, Mikalai Statkevich, was one of seven opposition presidential candidates in the 2010 elections. For this he is now serving a six-year prison term.
The last news Marina received from her husband was in a letter that reached her about four months ago. In it he wrote that he had left prison and been sent to a penal colony outside Minsk to work in a sawmill. The labour would be gruelling, he wrote, but at least he would be outside and not stuck in a small, overcrowded cell. To date it’s the only news she’s had directly from him. ‘Even that letter brought me some happiness. It was a sign [he’s still alive]’.
Back in September, Marina also received several anonymous phone calls from supporters inside the prison. She was told her husband’s arms and ribs had been broken in two separate incidents. Despite this he was forced to work in the forest, felling trees for a lumber yard. Marina is still not allowed to speak to him directly.
‘The more pressure they exert, the more angry I become,’ says Marina. She believes her husband will be released eventually. ‘My husband has a very strong character and is well respected,’ says Marina. ‘Eventually he will win over his oppressors.’
Volha’s husband Dzmitry was a trusted adviser in presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov’s campaign team. With Sannikov, he co-founded the Charter 97 civil and human rights organization. Both political roles cost him dearly: shortly following the 19 December 2010 rally against President Alexander Lukashenka’s re-election, he was given to a two-year prison term.
The KGB made a number of attempts to recruit Volha following her husband’s arrest. ‘They wanted me to testify against him. They promised a meeting with him. They wanted me to try to get him to confess to the crime’. She resisted. The KGB also tried to make Dzmitry himself sign a confession and give evidence against others, but he too refused. Volha is worried about her husband’s health. Prior to being imprisoned, Dzmitry underwent a serious spinal operation, and is reportedly being denied medical treatment for his ailing back.
The past year has been the most difficult in Volha’s life. She is sure her phone is tapped and she is afraid to answer calls. Her 24 year-old daughter is studying in Poland and cannot return to Belarus as she risks arrest. ‘I try to remain strong,’ says Volha. ‘But I know Dzmitry will be released. I have hope.’
Natali is reluctant to speak about her husband, activist Ales Bialiatski, but she now sees no other alternative. She is resigned to the state handing him a maximum seven-year prison sentence.
The charges levelled at Bialiatski are tax-related, but the motive is clearly political. As chair of the Belarusian human rights centre Viasna [‘spring’], Ales kept foreign accounts in Lithuania and in Poland. This was an entirely necessary provision, as Viasna is not allowed to receive any funding in Belarus. Belarusian authorities made a formal request for Lithuania and Poland to release his confidential account details. Unfortunately, this they did without question. Both nations now claim they didn’t know Bialiatsku was head of Viasna and would be persecuted as a result. Some suggest that Lithuanian business interests in Belarus may have played an important role in their lack of curiosity.
Natali tries not to think about the trial too much. Her family is being torn apart. Her 22 year-old son is no longer in the country, but she won’t say where he is, since she fears for his safety. She is still haunted by the look of sorrow in her husband’s eyes when the KGB raided their home in December and then again in January. ‘It was a horrible experience,’ she says. ‘It was difficult to look at my husband because he understood what problems he had created for his family. He avoided looking at me. We both understood why.’
Mikita Likhavid was sentenced to three and a half years imprisonment for his part in the peaceful opposition protests following last year’s rigged elections. He spent his 21st birthday in solitary confinement. The Belarusian KGB expect those in solitary confinement to break after seven days. Mikita lasted for 20 days, before prison guards transferred him to a maximum security prison in Magilov.
Mikita demonstrated extraordinary courage throughout the ordeal. ‘I refused to work. I told them I was not guilty and that the terms of my imprisonment were unlawful. I told them I wouldn’t obey their rules since they don’t themselves follow the laws.’ The cell in Magilov was overcrowded and dirty. There was one small window, boarded up, with three iron bars. Extra strong bulbs illuminated the cell 24 hours a day.
‘My soul is calm because I stuck to the truth’, says Mikita. ‘My health deterioriated but the soul in these moments is more important’. Mikita won’t say if he was beaten or physically abused. When asked, he pauses, and then says that there certain prison codes one cannot break nor speak openly about.
Sitting next to him is his mother Alena. ‘When I first spoke to him he was behind plexiglas. I no longer saw a boy. I saw a man.’ Alena took sedatives to calm her nerves and found support from other parents whose sons and daughters had been thrown into prison for their political beliefs. ‘I told myself that this was just a phase in my life.’ She instructed her family, friends and supporters not to cry in court. The tears, she said, should be shed in private, away from the watchful eyes of the authorities.
At one point during a period of solitary confinement, Alena was pressurised to get her son to sign a confession. If she succeeded, her son’s prison conditions would improve. If she didn’t, things would get even worse. When she eventually succeeded in seeing her son, Alena broke down. He had lost a lot of weight. Despite her pleas, Mikita still refused to sign. ‘I now regret asking him to do this. He had chosen his path. I should have understood that.’
Mikita was released on September 14.
Like fifty thousand others, Dmitry attended the 19 December protest against President Alexander Lukashenka’s re-election. This was to prove the beginning of an eight-month ordeal that would almost cost him his life.
Two weeks following the demonstration, Dmitry received a visit from police officers in civilian dress. They had apparently identified him kicking down a barricade on CCTV. His court-appointed lawyer told him to sign an admission of guilt. ‘My lawyer didn’t help,’ he says. ‘I realised she didn’t want to either.’ Dmitry refused to sign but the judge, without a jury, found him guilty as charged and labelled him a criminal and a hooligan. He faced eight to ten years prison and hard labour.
In prison, Dmitry’s health quickly deteriorated. The cell that he shared with 25 others only had 15 beds and the window was always open. The men have to sleep in shifts throughout the day; by February, when temperatures dropped below zero, it became impossible to sleep for any length of time. Dmitry developed tonsillitis and then rheumatic fever. The infection spread to his heart and he had trouble breathing. ‘I have endocarditis, my joints ached and by March I could no longer walk,’ he says. Prison guards moved him to another cell with 10 inmates and eight beds.
With Dmitry near death, his mother, Klaudia, finally managed to get prison officials to send for a doctor, who recommended immediate antibiotics and hospitalisation. The prison hospital, however, lacked basic medical supplies: because they could not perform a simple blood analysis they were unable to continue treatment. Klaudia attempted to give the prison director the necessary supplies. He refused to accept it stating that doing so would be a violation of prison codes. ‘I asked him if he too had children,’ she says. He eventually agreed to take her supplies.
Dmitry spent the following month in a hospital bed. When he regained enough strength to walk, they sent him back to prison. He was then transferred on 14 September to the Mogilev maximum security prison outside Minsk, and released on parole a short time later. Dmitry must report to the police every month for the next five years.
‘Belarus will eventually change,’ says Dmitry. ‘But our society needs to be stronger. People need to understand themselves as citizens and not be afraid to fight for their rights.’
Pavel Vinahradau was at home with his wife and a friend when they came. ‘I knew it was them’, he says. ‘I looked through the peephole. I can always recognize a KGB face.‘ Within a few moments the door opened. Pavel’s landlord was standing outside the door with the key, surrounded by agents. They handcuffed Pavel and took him to the station.
The next morning, two officers entered his cell with a camera and started filming the interrogation. They wanted him to sign a letter of confession. He refused. They then threatened to put him in a ‘special’ cell where new arrivals get beaten and raped. He still refused. ‘I knew the film would be used for propaganda so I laughed at their questions and never showed fear.’ The film was indeed shown on state television a few weeks later.
Compared to other inmates, Pavel says he had it reasonably good. A hairdresser by profession, he was quickly recruited to cut the hair of inmates in Volodarsky prison in central Minsk. The job came with certain privileges. He had also received letters of support from Belarusian, European and US leaders. His fame helped him: Pavel says he was never physically mistreated. He even attempted to distil alcohol from bread, water and sugar – twice.
After three months, Pavel was transferred to Volchi Nory penal colony where conditions were better. They offered him the same job but when he learned he would have to cut the hair of prison guards, he refused.
Released after eight months on September 14, Pavel says he takes a certain pleasure from irritating the authorities. ‘If they dislike me so much then I will try my best to make them dislike me even more,’ he laughs.
‘Unfit for farm animals’ is how 25-year old Andrei Kim describes the place that he spent the first four of seven months at Lukashenka’s pleasure in 2008. Built in 1837 to a plan designed to accommodate 200 prisoners, Volodarsky prison now typically holds two thousand. Kim’s own cell had 13 beds for 60 people. The food was revolting: ‘they put industrial oil in the soup and if you don’t eat it hot right away it turns into a cement-like substance,’ he says.
Kim, unsurprisingly, fell seriously ill in prison. His eyes became swollen shut. Officials transferred him to another prison, in Bobruisk, where spent the last three months of his imprisonment. ‘Compared to Volodarsky, Bobruisk was heaven,’ Kim says (this despite the fact that several fellow inmates had tuberculosis).
Kim was arrested once again earlier this year after, after attending the 19 December rally. He was not at home when men in black broke into the family apartment, but he was eventually found and placed under administrative arrest. He was told he would be sentenced to 15 years for assaulting a police officer. By the quirk of an administrative error, however, they released him. ‘It was a miracle,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to go back to prison but I’m not afraid. God gave me strength.’
Kim’s small apartment overlooks the Svislac – a wide meandering river that runs through Minsk. Pouring himself a coffee, he leans back against the kitchen cabinet. ‘I could have easily sought asylum in Europe or in the US’, he says. ‘But I am 25, and I can remember Belarus without Lukashenka. I can still remember the old normal flag when there were no political prisoners. I am here to change the country. Otherwise, why would I be here?’
Alexander was waiting his turn at his parents’ apartment when they came for him at 10 am on the morning of December 20. As press officer of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, he knew that his employer’s office had already been raided and that at 5 am, the chief editor of the opposition news site Charter 97 was in handcuffs.
As the men in black uniform and ski masks hammered away at his parents’ metal front door, Alexander got dressed, made several hurried phone calls, packed his bag and hid his computer. Before opening the door to allow in the men, he said goodbye to his parents.
‘When I opened the door they rushed in, put a black hood on my head and began to beat me,’ he says. He later learned that they were Alpha – the state’s anti-terror squad. He was taken away to the KGB headquarters where he was accused of organising mass disorder and civil unrest. He faced as much as 25 years in prison, and possibly even the death penalty. In Belarus, capital punishment is a single bullet to the back of the head.
Then came the torture.
‘They put us naked in a cell with an open window. It was winter and below freezing. We spread our legs and put our hands against the wall. We stood like this without moving for about an hour,’ he explains adding that the slightest movement would provoke further punishment, more beatings, and isolation. They told him everyone had abandoned him, that he had no future, that his wife would leave him. All this without a trial, without a lawyer, without word from the outside world.
Atroshchonkau reserves much criticism for the behaviour of European politicians. ‘Europe says it supports democracy but this is not true. They must be firmer with Lukashenka — a dictator who poses a danger not only for the region but for the whole of Europe.‘ He is clear the time for dialogue with Lukashenka is at an end. ‘In December we offered to speak about the future of Belarus and about how to avoid violence. Our offer was rejected and instead met with brutal force.’
Alexander Atroshchonkau spent a total of nine months in prison
Andrei Bondarenko started his construction business in 2006 with two friends and USD 3000. Two years later, he ran for Parliament. The decision opened his life to hate, prison, death threats, and financial ruin. Just before he was sent to prison, the business had 200 employees and a USD six million annual profit.
Bondarenko’s wealth became an issue for some of Belarus’ highest authorities. ‘I was accused of fraud and abuse of power,’ he says. He then smiles and repeats verbatim the court’s charge that forever changed his life: ‘at a non-specific time at a non-specific place I received from a non-identified person an unknown sum of money’.
Bondarenko served two years before he was finally released 22 March 2011, when his sentence was suddenly annulled. He was declared innocent, received a court apology and released. Yet his business had long since been liquidated: financially ruined, he decided to fight back and launched ‘Platforma’, an NGO that investigates prison abuse. It’s a subject he knows only too well. He was himself beaten and spent the better part of his two years in completely inhumane conditions. Some of his teeth are missing and his joints have not stopped aching.
The abuse lasted for 40 minutes, he says. They put him in a special cell where new arrivals are beaten or raped by brutal inmates. ‘I was unable to defend myself,’ he says. But Andrei had a razor and threatened to cut his wrists. ‘They knew I was a political prisoner,’ he says. The prison guard entered the cell and withdrew one of the men. After ten minutes, the same inmate re-entered and told Andrei to leave. The ordeal was over but the daily violence of prison life had only started.
Andrei shared a 20 sq.m. cell with 50 inmates. They had one toilet and no ventilation. The walls were constantly wet. Those who suffered from illnesses received only aspirin. Anyone who lay on his bed during the day was beaten with a wooden mallet. Throughout his ordeal he was pressured to sign a statement admitting his guilt and to repent his ‘evil’ deeds. He refused every time. Because of it, he spent nine months in a punishment cell – a prison within a prison. ‘They deliberately put an inmate with tuberculosis in my cell,’ he adds. ‘I later found out that this same inmate was also put in Andrei Sannikov’s cell.’
Presidential candidate and poet Uladzimir Niakliayeu is finally in good health again. He nearly died in December 2010, when he was not only hit by several stun grenades as he pushed his way through a police barricade, but beaten by riot police. Images of his badly- injured body made headlines around the world. Today he continues to operate (illegally) out of a small apartment in central Minsk.
A large map of Minsk adorns his wall. He points to it and says that Lukashenka is turning the country into a military state. Indeed, Lukashenka recently granted each of the capital’s regional governors the status and rank of a major-general. Fear, he says, is eating away at the dictator’s regime. He then pauses and leans back into this chair.
‘I have such a longing to go to the seaside and swim. I can stay under water a long time. When I’m there I imagine how small the world up above is, compared to the vastness of life in the ocean,’ he says. ‘Instead of discovering the secrets of the ocean world, we destroy our own.’
Niakliayeu was chair of the Writers’ Union before he fled Belarus in 1999. ‘In 1999 Lukashenka was obsessed by the idea of being king and master of the Kremlin’, he says. ‘Lukashenka wanted to replace Yeltsin. I did not agree with his views on what Belarus should become’. Niakliayeu had the Writers’ Union send Lukashenka a letter of protest. In response, he says Lukashenka instructed the Minister of Interior Affairs to ‘take care’ of him.
Presidential candidate Dzmitry Uss once published atlases and maps for classrooms, but went into politics after President Lukashenka made the publishing of maps illegal for all except state companies. Dzmitry’s decision to enter politics resulted in a prison sentence and constant KGB suveillance. It also left him partially paralysed and without control of his right hand. When he attempts to write his own name, the letters drift off the page. His mind, however, remains sharp.
Dzmitry was a member of a municipal council in Minsk for some five years, but in 2004 was not re-elected in a contested election. Officially he received 3,000 votes while his opponent received 7,000. ‘But we gathered 6,000 thousand signatures from people in the district who said they voted for me’. Dzmitry is sure that his role in uncovering a money-laundering scheme was responsible for the result.
He then decided to run for president. ‘When I ran for president I had no hope of winning. I just wanted to show that our elections are rigged. I wanted to shape public opinion. We want to change election legislation and make it transparent. I was arrested for having the courage to stand as a presidential candidate.’
KGB agents came for Uss at 2am on 20 December 2010 – a day after an estimated 50,000 people descended upon Independence Square in central Minsk to protest Lukashenka’s re-election. Originally sentenced to 5.5 years in the maximum-security penal colony Magilov, he was released in October.
Former presidential hopeful Alexander Milinkevich continues his campaign for a free and democratic Belarus from his small office in Minsk. He describes his party, The Movement for Freedom, as an NGO with political and civil objectives. His organisation is banned from speaking at public venues and he himself is harassed persistently. ‘I’ve had my tyres slashed 29 times. Acid and paint have been poured on to my car’.
Milinkevich says that Belarus has become a country paralysed by fear, and that the economy has suffered as a result. ’If you are loyal you have a job. If you are not, you don’t. But an economy based on fear will not work. An economy needs to be free.’ Despite the economic free-fall (salaries have dropped from around 500 USD per month to 260 USD), he does not believe revolution is likely. Social riots, on the other hand, may soon become a common occurrence.
I asked Milinkevich how Europe should frame its policy towards Belarus. A policy of severe economic sanctions against Lukashenka may force the country towards Russia’s sphere of influence, he warns. ‘Lukashenka will fall and when he does we want a society that will choose Europe. Therefore Europe’s policy should not be primitive. If you wield a stick, you also need to offer a carrot…’
Inna Kuley is the chair of Salidarnasc, a Minsk-based organisation that helps people who have lost their jobs and been expelled from universities because of their political beliefs.
Salidarnasc runs the Kalindvsky program that places expelled Belarusian university students in EU universities – primarily in Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia. Over 700 have already participated. Some who have graduated abroad return to Belarus, but if they do, they find it impossible to work. The labour market is almost entirely state-controlled, but exposure to a Western education and taste of freedom is, Kuley adds, essential to a more open and just society. Salidarnasc, she says, is laying the groundwork for a post-Lukashenka era by disseminating the sense and idea of democracy and freedom throughout the country.
Salidarnasc operates under enormous pressure. When I ask why Lukashenka allows it to exist, she replies simply: ‘our time has not yet arrived’. Salidarnasc’s people are constantly harassed by the state authorities and the state media often portrays them as a gateway for human trafficking of cheap labour into Europe. ‘Our activities are not well liked’, says Kuley, ‘but our job is to destroy the atmosphere of fear and oppose the regime. Lukashenka remains in power because he is still in people’s heads. We must get people to realize that you can be free in a non-free country.
A former detective and investigator at the Prosecutor’s Office in Minsk, Oleg Vochek was told he no longer had a future in the service after he began to sympathise with the opposition (he couldn’t stomach the beatings of innocent people). ‘This is how I got involved in human rights’, says Vochek,
Vochek, who now runs an organisation providing free legal aid, continues his detective work, but on his own terms. He is currently working on the case of Yury Zakharenko, a former Interior Minister who disappeared under mysterious circumstances.
Vochek still has access to inside information from former colleagues in the force, and because he was ‘one of them’, he is able to operate with some flexibility, though he continues to receive regular threats by telephone and email.
He then says something rather extraordinary, although he gives a caveat that the facts need further confirmation: ‘Yesterday I received information that Vincent Lukashenka, son of the president and the current head of state security, was shot in the leg by his father during a dispute. Now you can see what our head of state is like’.
Pavel was fired from his job as a lawyer in early March this year. He made the mistake of defending currently jailed and former presidential hopeful Andrei Sannikov.
Pavel has worked as a lawyer for the past 15 years, but when asked to describe Belarus’ legal system, he simply laughs and says the system describes itself by sentencing and arresting peaceful protestors. Judges, prosecutors and even so-called defence lawyers all disregard basic legal principals, he says. Under pressure from the Minister of Justice, Pavel’s colleagues had him struck off the register of barristers.
Before Sannikov’s trial started, Pavel was allowed to meet his client, but only under the careful eye of the court investigator. Pavel was instructed that he could not discuss the case with Sannikov and so the two were forced to talk in code, use signs and body language. Pavel made repeated requests to meet Sannikov alone. ‘We were not even allowed to discuss non-confidential matters’, he says.
Pavel soon realised the investigator was only there to gather evidence against Sannikov. ‘When I understood what was going on, I started each meeting with the investigator by reading out the relevant passage of the penal code, which states that the defence has the right to speak to the client alone. Almost every time I challenged the investigator, he would get up from his chair, go to the window and take long drags on his cigarette’.
During his trial Sannikov stated that he was being tortured. But the judge, says Pavel, disregarded the allegation and made no attempt to investigate. Pavel was told he could not discuss torture at the trial. ‘This is the state of the legal system in Belarus’, he says.
Nasta Palazhanka has been in out and of prison since she was 16. Her crime? Speaking her mind against President Lukashenka. Palazhanka is the deputy chair of the Youth Front organisation, a non-registered and illegal body that unites young Belarusians to preserve their national identity and ‘awaken’ society. She joined it at 14.
Nastya’s activisim has not been without cost. Her father lost his job in 2007 and has been unemployed since. Last year, he suffered a stroke when Nasta was returned to prison. Her brother was also fired from jobs twice. ‘A person who walks this path should understand that their families will also suffer’ she says. ‘Hundreds of people have sacrificed their careers and their heath’.
Nasta is not about to quit the battle, however. ‘We have already paid a price, and we cannot stop now.
Lavon Volski’s band Krambambula receives no national radio or television coverage and newspaper and magazine journalists are forbidden to write about them. Yet Lavon’s songs, a combination of folk, rock and punk, have become the unofficial anthems of the country’s fragile protest movement. Mobile ringtones of his songs are common among members of the disparate opposition.
‘The first time we were banned we became depressed. Now it’s normal’, he says. Concert hall directors and owners of nightclubs dare not invite Krambambula to play. His wife points out that the group did manage to play a concert in 2008 – at the maximum security penal colony Shkolv outside Minsk. His father-in-law, a landscape architect, was imprisoned there for alleged accounting fraud.
‘We went to see him in March,’ says Lavon but the prison authorities refused them access. ‘The reason they gave was interesting: it was International Women’s Day and the prison was on holiday.’ A few days later, Lavon was contacted by the warden who said they would improve his father-in-law’s prison conditions if his band agreed to play. ‘We are banned everywhere….except at this penal colony.’ They played for 400 inmates and left behind their instruments. His father-in-law’s prison conditions, however, did not improve. He suffered a stroke and now has diabetes.
All photographs (c) Nikolaj Nielsen.
Special thanks to Volha Nikalaichyk of Bramafilm (http://vimeo.com/user5055916/videos)