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Was that really Daddy on the phone? A woman’s battle with the Belarusian KGB

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Milana Mikhalevich’s husband was a presidential candidate in Belarus’ disputed election, and is now one of dozens to remain incarcerated in KGB jails. Denied access and fed cruel disinformation, her battle for liberty has been a terrifying and closely monitored one. Mikhalevich spoke to Alexa Chopivsky.
Alexa Chopivsky
9 February 2011

We didn’t see it coming. Some people are saying that we couldn’t have been so naïve, that we should have expected it. But it was such an unusual campaign, the most liberal campaign in memory. All the candidates had access to TV, spoke live on TV and there were debates — these were all things that had simply never happened before. People of the country saw the alternative and were surprised to see it. I don’t know how to explain what happened; perhaps you need to ask the the politicians for that. But I can say that what happened right after that was inhuman. I hadn’t expected it, and my husband wasn’t expecting it either.

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Ales Mikhalevich, presidential candiate in December, is one of dozens to remain in prison. Mikhalevich was not alone in failing to predict the severity of Lukashenka's post-election crackdown.

 

 

 

 

When we parted on that night of 19 December, we were sure we would see each other in a couple of hours. We didn’t even embrace when we left. I was staying at my parents because I had to look after my great aunt. He said he would probably come and spend the night with us, with me and our youngest.

Ales called me a couple of times that night. The first time was just before the government began their provocations, before they started breaking the windows and blaming it on protestors. He said I shouldn’t be worried, that he was leaving the square. A bit later on, his friends tell me, someone called from the office and asked for his help. He left before the real trouble on the square began. That much we can be thankful for.

We talked again on our mobiles at about 1am. He told me he wouldn’t be coming home because he had to take people to hospital. He was driving, carrying journalists to the hospital. From what I understand, there were a lot of serious injuries and not enough ambulances. He said that he would spend the night in our old flat. He didn’t even go to bed that night.

At half past four in the morning, KGB officers smashed down the door.

***

Ales was with his friends when they arrested him. There were two or three officers I think. They said the needed “a chat”, and that he would only be gone “for a few minutes”. The friends asked where he was being taken, and whether they should also come. “That won’t be necessary”, they were told.

I phoned everywhere I could think of. I got the KGB numbers from our friends: public numbers, information lines, the Minsk regional division. “No information, sorry”, was the usual reply. Occasionally they’d deny it outright: “what ever makes you think we’re holding him? He’s not here.”

The law says that prisoners are entitled to see their relatives. Yet as far as I’m aware, no-one has managed to get a meeting — be it with husband, son or daughter.

On the following day, the Tuesday, we tried calling again. The initial answers were the same as the day before — “no information, sorry”. Then, at about ten o’clock, I got another call from the KGB investigator. “Are you aware that your husband is being held here, at the KGB pre-trial detention centre?” I replied that of course I wasn’t, and that just minutes ago his very colleagues had claimed to know nothing about it. “No, he’s here all right, and he wants a lawyer”.

The lawyer saw him later that day. He sat through the initial interrogation, and saw him again on the day the charges were brought against him. But he hasn’t seen him since 6 January, the date that Ales was transferred to another pre-trial detention centre in Minsk. The lawyer found out about the transfer by pure chance and rushed to see him. It was just before the end of the working day, so they were only allowed five minutes together.

 

Lukashenka's regime suppressed a post-election mass demonstration with ruthless brutality

When we went to this other detention centre on the Monday, we discovered he’d been transferred again, yet nobody could tell us where to. The people on the door said he had been taken away the day before. They didn’t even use the word “transferred”. “Taken away” was the phrase they used. It was like the terror of the first day had returned, the terror of not knowing. We phoned the KGB investigators, who didn’t tell us anything. Of course, they knew full well that he had been transferred back to the first pre-trial detention centre.

The law says that prisoners are supposed to be entitled to see their relatives. Yet as far as I’m aware, no-one has managed to get a meeting — be it with husband, son or daughter. Our lawyer was threatened too, told he would be struck off if he distributed “inaccurate information” to his clients. Everything he saw — the number of peopled in a cell, the colour of the walls — was to remain a state secret.

And then there was the matter of that telephone call ...

***

I got the call the day before I was due to travel to Poland, to speak in front of the Polish Parliament about the problems. “Hello”. It was Ales’ voice. He asked where he could call to get a good connection so that everything could be heard clearly. I said I was at home, so he called me back on the home number. He told me very clearly that I was “not to go to Brussels”. I wasn’t going to Brussels, so it wasn’t much of a problem to promise not to go.

My eldest asked if it was really Daddy who had called. “No, no, no, you had a dream”, I said.

Ever since the December elections, I have been invited to many things, many meetings, and I have always insisted I wasn’t prepared to leave the country while my husband is where he is. I am practically the only one who can bring him parcels, who can file the petitions, who can communicate with the lawyers. But the trip to Warsaw was a different affair, not least because they promised that it would be very short. The plan was that I would arrive, make my speech to the parliament, and then leave without even spending a couple of hours there. In all probability I would be back the same day.

The girls were asleep at the time. It was only about six o’clock, but they had both had a tiring day and were having a nap. I hadn’t had a minute to think before my elder daughter woke up. She asked if it was really Daddy who had called. “No, no, no, you had a dream”, I said.

But then the third call came through.

“Sorry, darling, my mistake. Not Brussels. I meant Warsaw”. It was clearly Ales, but this time I could hear other voices in the background too. “OK, if you want me not to go, I won't go”, I said. But I also told him that I wasn’t intending to keep quiet. “Much better to keep quiet” said the voice in the background. I asked what would happen if I didn’t play ball. What will they do to me? And why shouldn’t I speak out? “Well ... nothing will happen”, said Ales. “And what will they do to you if I don’t keep silent?” I heard a sigh. A pause. “It won't make matters any worse than they are now and they won't do anything worse to me than they are already doing. ...  Though I’m the only one that doesn’t have any medical problems here so far”. Ales was saying things he wasn’t supposed to say, and the atmosphere was getting tense. The man urged him to wind up the conversation, and Ales hung up.

I asked for advice. “If somebody’s so afraid of you going to Poland, then you should go”, said a friend

At that point my elder daughter came out of the other room. Her hands were trembling, eyes distraught. She had been listening in on the other phone. “Mummy, what is the matter?!! Mummy?!!” She was nearly hysterical, and so afraid to say anything she had to write things down on paper. “Was that Daddy?”, she wrote. “What shouldn’t he do?”. 

The next thing I did was to call our lawyer and meet friends. I needed to organize for every eventuality, like who was going to take care of the children if anything did happen. Only then, at about 3am, did I sit down at my kitchen table to write my letter to the Polish parliament. I made several copies of the letter, and gave them to people in the hope one would reach its destination.

The following morning, I tried calling the KGB number and came through to automatic message telling me the line had been disconnected. I tried calling the mobile number of one of the KGB officers. No reply. I asked a friend for advice. “If somebody’s so afraid of you going to Poland, then you should go”.

***

The day had been a busy one, but I managed to pack and was about to take the older girl to my mother’s for the night. The youngest was coming with me. Ten minutes before we were due to leave there was a knock on the door. I heard the familiar voice of a KGB officer, known to me from the numerous searches I had already had already witnessed — the search of my husband’s office, the two searches that had already taken place in this flat, the searches in his sister’s flat, in our old flat, in his car and in my parents’ garage.

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Milana Mikhalevich: "I was crying as I wrote my letter to the Polish parliament" 

 

 

 

 

They said that they had come to “do their investigations”, and showed me the respective warrants. There were five of them in all: a colonel, two sub-colonels, two younger guys who didn’t show their IDs, and a search witness. Before about nine o’clock, they were going very slow, looking at the pictures, at all the family photos. Sorting documents, reading everything. About 20 minutes after my train for Warsaw had left, they suggested that it might be a good idea to wind up.

A female officer was present, presumably for a body search, but the only thing she did was to rustle through my handbag. What interested her most of all was my passport with its fresh Polish visa. They asked me if I wanted to go to Warsaw. I replied — honestly — that I didn’t. Believe me, there was no way I wanted to leave Belarus with the situation so unresolved.

And then they left. I don’t actually remember exactly when it ended, though it must have been some time after 10pm. Our immediate thoughts turned to the through-train from Moscow, which was due to leave at about midnight. The problem was I had no tickets and there wasn’t the time to get them. That was when a friend suggested he could take me in his car, since he was planning to go to Warsaw anyway.

**

We understood we were being followed as we left the city centre. The car was easily distinguishable — even by me! — with its very distinctive European transit number plates. We picked up a friend, made a couple of turns, and drove around a few blocks, just to be certain. Sure enough, we were being followed. I think there were about 3 cars at that point. I wasn’t unduly concerned: perhaps they were just supposed to find out what I was doing? Perhaps they would follow us for a time and then go away?

I looked back to see a picture I had previously seen only in films. One, two, three, four, five cars all behind us, following

Then came a curve in the road, and I looked back to see a picture I had previously seen only in films. One, two, three, four, five cars all behind us. Though they were following us at some distance, when we pulled over, we could see them very clearly. One car had tinted windows, but our friends counted two to four people in each of the other cars. That makes at least twelve people. All after a woman with a baby! If they thought I’d represent a danger to them they were clearly mistaken.

The road outside was dangerous, icy and very slippery. My friend told me to call somebody just in case something happened, so people would know to come and look for us. I managed to get through to a friend who was on night shifts, and I briefly explained our predicament. Of course, it’s no secret that lots of mobile phone calls are monitored and ours certainly were that night. We didn’t see our pursuers for a some time after we made that call. They had presumably been given orders to stop, or at least to be less conspicuous.

We drove on and on, and just after the town of Baranovichi, approximately 160 km from Minsk, we were stopped by the traffic police. Unusually for a traffic stop-point, there were men in civilian suits standing alongside them.  One of them came up to the driver’s window and said: “we have information that Milana Mikhailivna Mikhalevich, wife of the ex-presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich is in this car. We need to talk to her”

No sooner had I asked for the man’s identification that he responded: “in the name of First Lieutenant of the KGB, by order of the relevant authorities and pending resolution of the criminal case involving your husband, Aleksei Anatolievich Mikhalevich, you are hereby prohibited to cross the border of the Republic of Belarus”. When I asked him what relevant authority he had in mind, he couldn’t say. He simply repeated what he had already said, and kindly informed me of my right to appeal the following day to whatever higher body I chose. I asked him to repeat what he said, and he did so precisely, word for word. (There was another reason I asked him to repeat it, because there was a stench about him, like he had been drinking or had a really bad hangover).

“So does this mean that if we drive on we would be stopped at the border?”

“That’s right”

And so we returned to Minsk, followed again by all the cars except one. Five cars driving away from Minsk, and four cars going back.

***

By luck and fortune, the Polish Parliament got my letter. It was read out in Parliament. They told me that some people were crying. I was myself practically in tears when I wrote it.

 

Milana Mikhalevich's letter to the Polish Seijm (click to download)

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