Political Prisoner Cut His Abdomen Protesting against Administration Abuse
On 19 September, human rights organisation “Innovation Platform” announced that political prisoner Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič cut his abdomen in protest to the abuse suffered by the prison administration.
Shortly after that he published a letter in Narodnaja Volia newspaper where he explained why he had to employ such dangerous tactics of protest. The letter reveals the widespread violations of human rights and technical, sanitary and other norms of prison operation in Belarus.
The Belarusian corrections system remains completely unreformed since Soviet times. The judiciary tends to impose custodial sentences on offenders rather than fine them or put them on probation. As a result, Belarus occupies one of the leading positions in Europe in its per capita rate of prisoners.
Meanwhile, no effective system of social adaptation for former convicts exists in the country. Coupled with the poor conditions of life in prison, the system constitutes a truly serious social problem for modern Belarus.
The Old Enemy of the Regime
Mikalai Aŭtuchovič is now serving his second term in prison. A veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, after completing his service in army he started a business in his native town of Vaŭkavysk. In 2006 he was accused of tax evasion and put to jail. Human rights activists have called his case made up, as the prosecution showed no clear evidence and held a non-transparent investigation.
It remains unclear who inspired the case against Aŭtuchovič and whether their motives were political or economic, or whether it was only the local authorities or primarily the central government that were involved.
In 2009, authorities had to release Aŭtuchovič under pressure from western sanctions. Shortly thereafter, however, they forged another case charging him with property damage, attempted terrorism and the illegal possession of weapons. Finally, the prosecution accused Aŭtuchovič of possessing a rifle and five cartridges for which he received five years in prison.
Since his sentencing Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič has become one of the most well-known Belarusian political prisoners. He actively communicated with the media trying to reveal the unlawful reality that exists in Belarusian prisons. Because of his efforts to reach out, he has experienced constant pressure from the administration which fears garnering the widespread attention of the public.
Aŭtuchovič is also well-known for his radical methods of protest to the authorities' abuse in Belarusian prisons. He has held several hunger strikes that have lasted up to three months. In 2012, he cut his veins and recently in September he cut his abdomen. Shortly after the accident he published a letter that explained his actions. The letter reveals the inhumane conditions of life in prisons and widespread violation of law hidden by prison administration.
The Reality of Belarusian Prisons
The main reason for Mikalaj cutting himself was the systematic violation of his rights throughout his imprisonment. He wrote applications to visit the doctor and a lawyer but all too often his applications disappeared and no one was informed about it. In 2013 he received notice that the prison administration considered him a persistent troublemaker, though he received no prior warning. These accusations were made in order to prevent him from early release from prison.
Both in 2012 and 2013 he received such warnings right before the slated annulment of his previous violations. Finally, Mikalaj decided that there was no other effective way to protest against these schemes by the authorities and turned to radical measures to draw attention to the problem.
Since 2005, the first year Mikalaj appeared in prison, the situation with prisoner rights has been deteriorating, according to his opinion. No state bodies outside the prisons observe what happens inside them. Prisoners know that the more they try to defend their rights, the worse they will be treated by the prison administration. Sometimes it is impossible to file a complaint as the administration do not simply let them get sent out.
Mikalaj acquired several serious illnesses, but prison doctors have never done any analysis on him and or for many other prisoners. He asked for medical help 40 times over the span of a year and in only six instances did the doctors respond, only to say they could not help him. “It is easier to file your death than to treat you”, was one of their responses. Other prisoners sometimes do not get even basic medical care. As Mikalaj said, in Hrodna prison there was no dentist for a whole year.
The daily food allowance of a prisoner does not match the norm provided by the law. Sometimes the food that is cooked is impossible to eat. At times the “purée” has been put in containers for 20 people. In another case, the prisoners detected worms in the fish and then found the boxes where the fish was preserved. The labels on the boxes said “for feeding fur-bearing animals”.
Aŭtuchovič concludes that these violations present the result of businesses that exist in Belarusian prisons and where high ranked officials are involved. Meanwhile, prisoners can receive a parcel from their relatives only once a year. Moreover, it is sometimes impossible to buy vegetables in prison store. For 20 month in Hrodna prison, Aŭtuchovič saw onions only three times.
Another major problem is tied to personal care products, which the prisoners can not possess. According to Mikalaj, in his prison 500 people had access to and used only one pair of scissors. Administrators in some prisons allow this unofficially, yet if an issue arises, they can use it as an evidence of violation of prison norms. Only in 2013 did prisoners received disposable razors and soap, and they have not received any toilet paper since 2005.
According to Aŭtuchovič, in his prison 500 people had access to and used only one pair of scissors. Read more
Aŭtuchovič also notes the poor quality of clothes and linen, as well as constant lack of basic infrastructure like electricity, heating and lamps. Often prisoners have to renovate the facilities from their own funds, which sounds like nonsense but is the sad reality they face. These kinds of situations could be brought up by many convicts, convicts who have no possibility of reporting it due to pressure from the prison administration and intimidation.
A Massive Social Problem
Although the population of prisons in Belarus has been decreasing over the last decade, it remains very high in an European context. According to the data from International Centre for Prison Studies, Belarus stands at third place among European and former USSR countries, coming in after Russia and Azerbaijan with 335 convicts per 100,000 citizens. The Belarusian judiciary still tends to impose custodial sentences instead of fines or probation.
The cases Mikalaj Aŭtuchovič described demonstrate the general state of the correction system in Belarus. It has hardly seen any reforms after those carried out during Soviet times and remains an institution that is very much closed to the public. Both its physical premises and methods of managing the system, including the prevention of recidivism, rehabilitation and programs for social adaptation for former convicts remain very poor.
The government continues to neglect the problem and tries to avoid discussions about it. Yet society too has by and large not changed their attitude towards convicts and sees them as criminals that deserve punishment rather than human beings who made a mistake and have the right to fair treatment and rehabilitation.
Only a few NGOs have tried to shed light on the problem and put it on the public's agenda, though without any success. A great deal of effort from both the government and society is needed to overcome this sad legacy, and so far no one is showing the will to do so.
Lithuania’s EU Presidential Policy – A New Approach towards Belarus?
The Lithuania’s six month European Union presidency which started in July has led to talk of a new Eastern policy. Lithuania wants to keep EU enlargement on the European agenda, showing Eastern neighbours that the European Union wants enlargement. It acts as an answer to Russia and that the Russian inspired Customs Union is not the only answer for the former-Soviet Union region.
Lithuania wants to improve economic relations with Belarus and develop them by opening up borders and liberalising the Schengen visa regime. By liberalising visas for Belarusians, the Lithuanian government hopes it will force Minsk to liberalise, once Belarusians experience the liberalism and economic well-being of the European Union.
Lithuania’s Policy Concept
Trade between Lithuania and Belarus (2012) was €1.7 billion ($2.3 billion). This increased from 6.4% of Lithuanian GDP in 2011, to 14.4% in 2012. The Lithuanian vice minister for Foreign Affairs (Andrius Krivas) in August demanded more cooperation and modernising of the Belarusian economy.
The Lithuanian ARVI and VMG groups, with Belarusian partners have established a joint industrial venture in Mogilev. Further investments (€90 million) have been made by the two Lithuanian groups, in improving the Belarusian banking system industry, energy, tourism, furniture and manufacturing.
Whilst Belarus has an its own embassy at the European Union, Lithuania according to the chairman of Lithuania’s parliament’s European Affairs Committee Gediminas Kirkilas is Belarus’s representative in the European Parliament. Kirkilas hopes Lithuania will help integrate Belarus into the European Union in the future. Lithuania’s government contends that sanctions imposed on the regime should not harm Belarusian people.
The government continues holding a dialogue to bring Minsk closer to it. Minsk views Lithuania as a bridge to the European Union and Belarus’s Interior Minister Anatoly Savinykh stated in June that Lithuania’s change in EU policy had created “a constructive decision in the right direction”.
The Lithuanian government wants to become a reconciler in world diplomacy. Belarus is seen as an opportunity to improve their mediation skills.
Justas Vincas Paleckis, (MEP), in August contended that Lithuania will continue its policy, as it was improving human rights in Belarus. Enhanced trade and visa regime would develop this further.
The policy consists of three concepts. Firstly, trade and dialogue serve as basis for negotiation. Negotiation will lead to additional trade and dialogue. By incorporating Belarus, it would offer Belarus alternatives to its reliance on Russia, giving the European Union leverage. Belarus would not willingly lose access to European markets. Increased trade would modernise the Belarusian economy, establishing a middle-class independent of the regime.
Secondly, Lithuania, (after Poland with 291,822), provides the most visas to Belarusian’s (193,129), rejecting only 0.17% applications, as opposed to Poland’s 0.35%. Lithuania, like Poland does not charge visa fees for Lithuanian visas for Belarusians. It advocates lowering costs of a Schengen visa for Belarusians. Increased travel would allow Belarusians to witness the European Union’s wealth and liberalism — which would be detrimental to Minsk.
The third aspect revolves around building a democratic minded external Belarusian civil-society, creating Western minded elites through education, training and more engagement with civil society actors from Belarus.
Lithuania spends 0.13% of its Gross National Income (Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs) on development aid to Belarus. Belarus and the EU have a number of common issues to discuss, such as migration, the environment and natural resources. Lithuania hopes discussion would lead to future negotiation.
EU Policy to Belarus: political conditionality does not work?
The German government of Angela Mekel argues Lukashenka is not concerned with human rights or democracy. Therefore, EU sanctions on the regime will remain in hopes that they will make the regime respect human rights and elections. Poland also advocates sanctions and travel bans for Belarusian elites.
With the end of the Christian Democratic Union and the Free Democratic Party coalition, Guido Westerwelle will not be foreign minister. His relationship with the Belarusian regime was frosty and a new German foreign minister will have a different approach to Belarus.
This has occurred already. The German ambassador to Belarus Wolfram Maas in September stated that Germany would improve economic cooperation with Belarus, although sanctions would remain.
Understandably, the European Union uses sanctions. Lukashenka has cynically called the EU’s bluff promising improvements with respect of human rights and reforms but failing to implement them. This has not been helped by the regime’s attacks on the media, Internet, civil rights and the jailing of opposition. EU sanctions have entrenched the regime in the belief that the West offers little.
Although Belarus and Russia are close, Lukashenka wants other outlets. Ukraine’s prime minister Mykola Azarov in September discussed with Belarusian elites possible economic cooperation. Belarus looks to European Union states too, for new trade avenues.
Belarus does not want the political conditionality of the European Union, but access to its markets. Read more
Belarus does not want the political conditionality of the European Union, but access to its markets. This may cause problems in the future, as further trade with the European Union is dependent on the Belarusian regime making political and economic reforms
Cathy Ashton in September contended that the European Union needs a new relationship with Belarus and that the Lithuanian presidency offers a “unique opportunity to improve relations” leading to “resumption of negotiations”.
The European Parliament spoke of lowering Schengen visa costs for Belarusians from €60 to €35 “opening all gates, doors and…windows” for people-to-people contact. The Belarusian foreign ministry has been conciliatory, wanting a new dialogue on a road map. Currently both sides want dialogue.
Any prospect of serious changes?
Lithuania’s policy of openness towards Belarus could increase dialogue and if it works, it could bring both sides closer.
At some point the policy will come up against its internal weaknesses. To continue the relationship, the European Union will want political changes. With no end to the Lukashenka regime in sight, it is unlikely he will allow any opening of the political system.
Lithuania’s presidency only lasts 6 months, as this is the length of its EU presidency. It remains unlikely a policy reliant on longevity for fruition, will be maintained once the term ends.
Lithuania will not change the sanctions policy. Its tenure is too limited in duration and it requires changing the views of intransigent member states like Germany and Poland on the sanctions issue. Even the limited lifting of sanctions for Belarusian ministers to attend meetings with EU delegates have not led to the Belarusian authorities making any significant response to even these timid overtures by the European Union.
Member States that want to keep sanctions question the need to make make further concessions, when the Belarusian regime does not reciprocate. Lithuania’s policy given time could work, however the Belarusian regime seems determined only to speak on dialogue, but its actions, or rather lack thereof, belie this discourse.
Stephen is a contributing author based in the United Kingdom