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 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.
Belarus Police on the Edge of Reform
Despite being "over-policed" Belarus has one of the highest rates of crime per capita among ex-USSR countries.
This fact contradicts a famous myth about stability and order in Lukashenka regime. Belarusian system of justice and law enforcement obviously needs a serious reform, which Lukashenka publicly acknowledged. Such a reform presents quite a task for the government, as police serves as one of the main pillars of authoritarian regime in Belarus.
Statistics Breaks the Myth
Very little official information about inner processes and problems of police reach the public in Belarus. Still it is possible to find and analyse some data which can tell much about the issue.
The first publication of criminal statistics that recently appeared at National Statistical Committee website shows a rather interesting picture of crime in Belarus. The diagrams below suggest a small comparison of police and crime rate per capita.
It is a widely known fact that Belarus has the largest per capita number of police among the ex-USSR countries. While the world average for this proportion is around 3 officers per 1000 citizens, in Belarus it reaches 14 officers. It is twice as much as in Russia or Ukraine and three times as much as in Moldova or Azerbaijan.
If compared to statistics of registered crimes per capita in the region, the excess of police presents a real problem for society. Although the number of crimes per 100 000 citizens in recent 5 years clearly decreased, Belarus stays among the leaders of crime in post-communist area. It firmly holds the second place after Russia throughout the period.
This fact contradicts a widespread myth about due public order in Belarus which is a result of high state effectiveness. It turns out that actually the inflated staff of police could not deal with crime and situation remains very bad. However, lack of information and massive propaganda make many people think differently.
The last diagram shows some interesting distribution of crime rates over the territory of Belarus. The cleavage between Western and Eastern Belarus, which exists in politics, culture and identity, reveals itself in criminal statistics too.
Western regions of Hrodna and Brest have a 1/3 less crime than eastern regions and 1/2 less than central Minsk region. Minsk city and region are most criminal areas, apparently because of higher economic and human concentration in the heart of the republic.
Police on Modernization Agenda
On the 8 May this year, Lukashenka made an annual “Address to the People and the Parliament”. This time the main message of the address proclaimed a need for an extensive modernization of Belarus. One of the most important issues that appeared on modernization agenda was the reform of Ministry of Internal Affairs – Belarusian police.
This reform, according to the Belarusian leader, will become the next step of a comprehensive reform of system of justice and law enforcement, which started with a creation of Investigatory Committee (The Committee was supposed to take investigatory functions from other security services such as KGB and police and thus make this function more independent).
During the Lukashenka rule, security services as practically whole system of public administration, remained out of citizen control. Belarusians have no information about what is going on there and cannot influence or lobby any change. The only channel of information remains Lukashenka himself, who sometimes reveals major problems that exist inside the bureaucracy.
Back in 2009, he mentioned such crimes as corruption, abuse of authority and betrayal of service interests as well as ineffective personnel policy among the problems of police. Since those times, no major changes were made to improve the work of this service.
This year, Lukashenka publicly confirmed another well-known problem of security services. He insisted that security services should act within legal boundaries. There should be no “shakedowns, reprisals, lawlessness”, when security services pursue their own interests covering under “combat against corruption”. Apparently, such facts took place systematically within the system.
Lukashenka started the reform from the very top – he sacked notorious Minister of Internal Affairs Anatol Kuliashou, who managed the crackdown on protests after presidential elections in 2010 and “silent protests” in 2011. The new minister, Ihar Shunievich, got a task to lead the reform of police.
Neither a program of reform nor any public discussion was suggested to make the process more democratic. Nevertheless, citizens know that the reform has already started in progress from scarce information pieces that appear in official media.
According to them, reform aims to improve police image in society. For example, the reformers plan to estblish civic councils to consult and assess police work, to amend service regulations and create the code of honour, and to introduce some other changes to enhance citizens involving in police operation.
According to Minister of Internal Affairs, the reform will proceed in three main directions: ideology and personnel, public security police and criminal police reform. Such plans sound not bad indeed, the question though remains how the reform will actually be implemented.
A Delicate Challenge
Reform of security services poses an extremely delicate task for any government, since they serve as one of the pillars of state authority in all societies. In non-democracies, where authority is not based on trust in government and rests upon coercion, the issue becomes even more complicated.
An unexpected mistake can lead to discontent among relevant social groups which will lose positions and benefits within the system. Subsequently, they can even join the opposition or create a new political group.
This group will be different from present opposition in Belarus, which consists of intellectuals, dissidents, and mere fans of “extreme sport”. The regime will have to face a coherent legion of combatants with extensive connections within the regime, power skills and thorough knowledge of the system.
Lukashenka, as a very insightful leader, fully realises all dangers of such enemies. That’s why the phrase “the most important thing is not to hurt the people (“the people” means dismissed policemen)” became a central message of the police reform rhetoric.
One may only guess what benefits the regime can suggest to those who will suffer from downsizing and restructuring of security services. Any financial tools will hardly apply here, as the reform implies reduction of expenses. For some of the policemen, gloomy future is approaching already. The regime on his part faces another challenge of badly needed change with unpredictable outcome.