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Belarusian Political Prisoners Get Special Treatment

In addition to sending their political opponents to prisons for years, Belarusian authorities make sure they get "special treatment" there. Today 12 political prisoners are serving sentences. Most of them remain incarcerated in disciplinary cells or stricter regimes. Last...


In addition to sending their political opponents to prisons for years, Belarusian authorities make sure they get "special treatment" there. Today 12 political prisoners are serving sentences. Most of them remain incarcerated in disciplinary cells or stricter regimes. Last year Mikalaj Autukhovich even had to cut his wrists to make the prison administration stop provocations against him.

Information that comes from prisons clearly shows that the prison administrations constantly create problems for the “prisoners of conscience”. The authorities try to make political prisoners write personal pleas for pardon in Alexander Lukashenka’s name.

Release of political prisoners remains a dilemma for the Belarusian and international community. Lukashenka is open about his readiness to release them after certain concessions or financial aid from the West.

Who are Belarus's Political Prisoners?

At present, Belarusian human rights centre Vyasna considers 12 people to be political prisoners in Belarus. Among them there are five anarchists, who are not broadly recognised as political prisoners. However, the human rights defenders think that “actions of these persons contain traits of an offence, but their qualification is unfair and the imposed penalty is excessive”.

At the same time, there are no real offences in other political cases which have been in fact made up. Therefore, we can say that there are seven+five political prisoners in Belarus at the moment:

Mikalaj Statkevich was a presidential candidate in the 2010 election. The Partyzanski district court of Minsk decided that Mikalaj Statkevich organised mass riots on 19 December 2010 and put him in prison for six years. Later, the court decided to send him to serve his sentence in a closed prison.

Mikalai Autukhovich is an entrepreneur. The Supreme Court sentenced Autukhovich to five years and two months of imprisonment for illegal storage of gun cartridges. Later, the court changed the confinement conditions to stricter ones. Autukhovich’s case stands out as obvious proof of the authorities’ abilities to use any minor excuse.

Pavel Seviarynets is leader of the Belarusian Christian Democrats. The Zavodzki district court of Minsk resolved that Seviarynets organised and prepared actions which severely violated public order. The court sentence was three years of restricted freedom. Pavel Seviarynets remains the only political prisoner who is serving punishment not in prison.

Zmitser Dashkevich is Chairman of the Youth Front. The Maskouski district court of Minsk sentenced him to two years of imprisonment allegedly for “malicious hooliganism”. The case is absurd as the authorities accused him and Eduard Lobau of beating two men who even never appeared in court. They gave evidence from the neighbouring room. Later, the court added eight months to the term of imprisonment for Dashkevich for “disobedience to the demands of the correctional colony’s administration” and transferred him to a closed prison.

Eduard Lobau is a Youth Front activist. According to the court’s resolution, he conducted "especially malicious hooliganism", unlike Dashkevich, and got four years of imprisonment.

Ales Bialiatski, is chairman of the human rights centre Vyasna. The court sentenced him to four and a half years of imprisonment property confiscation. The trial took place because of official information provided by Poland and Lithuania. The documents confirmed that Ales Bialiatski received money for human rights activities from the West.

Vasil Parfiankou was sentenced to punishment in the form of six months of arrest for "breaking the conditions of the preventive control”. Prior to this, Vasil had been sentenced for events in the square and was subsequently pardoned by presidential decree. 

Anarchists Mikalai Dziadok, Ihar Alinevich, Aliaksandr Frantskevich, Yauhen Vaskovich and Artsiom Prakapienka were sentenced in 2011 and got three-eight years of imprisonment. Some consider them political prisoners, others not. 

The Case of Dashkevich

The Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich remains the most persecuted politician in Belarus. He had been charged and sentenced four times to date.

Belarus Digest discussed with Dashkevich’s fiancee Nasta Palazhanka what life behind the bars is like. Nasta has not had a single meeting with Zmitser in prison and they still cannot get married. For almost two years, the prison authorities have claimed that they cannot find Dashkevich’s passport. Dashkevich needs a passport to register his marriage.

All Palazhanka knows she gets from Dashkevich’s letters or from his lawyer. She says that cold overcrowded cells define the present-day prison reality. Dashkevich used to do many push-ups in order to get warm before going to sleep. This raised his body temperature and he managed to get some sleep this way. He had to do several sets of exercise during the night.  

While Norwegian terrorist Andrers Breivik in Norway complains that his coffee is not served hot enough and he could not use his notebook, Belarusian prisoners are not allowed even to use spoons. They have to stir tea in a mug with a toothbrush case or a toothpaste tube.

Zmitser Dashkevich describes these and other details of his prison life in his open letter to the General Public Prosecutor and summarises that any Belarusian prison tends to “humiliate and morally destroy a person, to force a human being forget that he is a human being”. Zmitser has already paid for that letter.

The Youth Front leader disappeared after the court trial which resolved to send Zmitser to a closed prison until the end of his term. The Belarusian authorities provided no information on Dashkevich’s whereabouts to either his relatives, his fiancé Nasta or his lawyer.

Nor did the authorities post Zmitser’s letters during this time. The prison administration not only reads Zmitser’s letters, but also commits small tricks such as crossing out a white-red-white flag painted on the envelope.

People from both Belarus and abroad keep sending many letters of support, but it remains unclear whether all of them reach the addressee. For instance, right after the December 2010 crackdown of the opposition the authorities totally isolated political prisoners from the outside world and did not pass letters to them. 

Another new feature is that prison authorities prohibit other arrestees from talking to the political prisoners. The political prisoners exist in isolation even though there are people around them. Therefore, Palazhanka says, it is very important to send letters of support. They remain almost the only opportunity for contact with the outside world for the political prisoners.

Lukashenka’s Interests and Political Prisoners

Why do the authorities keep political prisoners locked up? Lukashenka has two geopolitical goals. First, to intimidate opponents inside the country. Second, to preserve the geopolitical equilibrium. He cannot fulfil these two aims at the same time and hesitates with regard to his priorities.

The persistence of the authorities in forcing the political prisoners to write pleas for pardon clearly shows that Lukashenka is willing to get rid of the prisoners of conscience. Political prisoners remain the only obstacle for his geopolitical flexibility. On the other side, Lukashenka does not want to release political prisoners without certain conditions as it may be considered his weakness.

The economic problems remain the only opportunity for the political prisoners’ release. In a situation where the Belarusian economy is devastated, the authorities are seeking understanding with the West, even through Vatican. The European Union does not trust Lukashenka anymore. Besides, negotiations behind the scenes are the only way out.

Ryhor Astapenia

Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia
Ryhor Astapenia is the founder of the Centre for New Ideas and an associate analyst at the Ostrogorski Centre.
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