Belarusian journalist Iryna Khalip, was sentenced to two years prison. Here with her son Danil 4 years.

Election Belarus: Lukashenka sentences his opponents to jail but faces a deep economic crisis

Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrested all his opponents during the Election Day. Four months after the presidential elections in December 19th last year, one of the mayor oppositional candidates, Andrey Sannikau, has been sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison camp by the court in Minsk.

Published on on May 17, 2011

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Alyaksandr Lukashenka arrested all his opponents during the Election Day. Four months after the presidential elections in December 19th last year, one of the mayor oppositional candidates, Andrey Sannikau, has been sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison camp by the court in Minsk. Together with Andrey Sannikau, four young activists working for him during the election campaign were also sentenced to several years in prison: Uladzimir Yaromenak, Ilya Vasilevich and Fyiodar Mirzayanau got three years in prison and Aleh Hnedchick was sentenced to 3 ½ years. They were all accused of having prepared and organized ”mass disorder” during the peaceful demonstration that took place on the 19th of December in Minsk. The wife of Andrey Sannikau, a well-known Belarusian journalist  Iryna Khalip, was sentenced to two years prison in suspension after the verdict against her husband.

Four other presidential candidates, all of them arrested during the night between the 19th and 20th of December last year, are waiting for their sentences: Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu, Vitali Rumasheuski, Mikalay Statkevich and Dzimitry Vus. In addition, several of the young activists who supported their election campaigns are on trial in Minsk. Statkevich is charged under a paragraph that can give him up to 15 years in prison camp. The charge against Uladzimir Nyaklayaeu, who was heavily beaten on the 19th of December, has been changed to a less sever paragraph. He might be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison camp.

The show-trials now taking place in Minsk are only a part of all trials being held against the democratic opposition in Belarus. Already in the beginning of March two young activists from the liberal organization ”The Young Front”, Ales Kirkevich and Zmitser Dashkevich were condemned to 4 respective 2 years prison camp. More trials are now being either held or in preparation in other parts of Belarus. In the town Grodno in western Belarus, the foreign correspondent of the biggest Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, Andrei Pochubut, who is a Belarusian citizen, is being held in arrest since the beginning of April. He is officially charged under two articles of the criminal codes – Article 367 and Article 368 – for having ”insulted and slandered the president of the country”. According to the law he can be sentenced to labor camp prison between 2 and 4 years.

”This trial is only a manifestation of the fear by the authorities for the changes that inevitable will come”, Andrey Sannikau said in his final statement to the court.

During the process he also made a longer statement describing the torture he had been subjected to during his four months in prison:

”I was badly beaten, but they kept me for 5 hours without letting me to the toilet in the overcrowded cell, practically on the floor, i.e. on the bare boards that were put under the bottom bunk. The space between the bunk and the floor was very narrow. It was difficult to be in this position with the badly injured leg. The cell was cold. Very cold. After 3 or 4 days I was given a place on the bank bunk, but was ordered to lie facing the ‘daylight’ – bright light on the ceiling (at night there was ‘night’ light), not being able to change the position. When I would fall asleep and turned over, I was woken up, the whole cell was woken up, and forced to lie facing the light in the same position.

At some point, especially before all the interrogations had started and during the period when first few interviews were conducted, this procedure was used on a daily basis. What is it? One is taken out of the cell with all his things. With all things means all personal belongings (which means the mattress and bedding). The person is chased down fairly steep stairs. Why do I say ‘chased’? Because from the very first days masked men of unknown origin appeared in the KGB detention center, they were well trained in handling us, political prisoners, showed aggression and were rude towards political prisoners. I can only speak for myself, with regard to other prisoners I could only guess.

So going back the procedure of personal search. One is being chased down while these masked men were banging batons on everything around – on the walls, on stairs – to make everything shake. Then the prisoner is lead into the cellar, a large room, cold with concrete walls.

Stripped naked the prisoner is made to stand by the wall, stretched, i.e feet wider than shoulders, much wider. Naked, with twisted arms in a cold room they could keep me for quite a long time. Then I was forced to squat. Every time I drew their attention to the fact that I have injured leg which was recorded in the KGB jail infirmary. It had no effect. Then I would be allowed to get dressed. The whole procedure takes place in the presence of at least three masked people who keep banging on the walls and scream on the top of their voices. After getting dressed one would be gathering one’s belongings. Particularly I had ‘fun’ when amongst these personal things was a parcel my mother just passed on to me. Firstly, it is heavy, so it’s even more difficult to go up and down the stairs. Secondly, there were oranges and apples that rolled away and got scattered all over the floor. Perhaps it gave these masked men a special pleasure to see how prisoners were collecting them.

I repeat that this procedure was repeated daily, during the period of initial interrogations.”

The Council of the European Union will discuss the present situation in Belarus at its meeting on March 23. The democratic opposition in Belarus has since the end of last year asked for directed economic sanctions against the regime. The European Parliament raised once again the same question in a resolution adopted the day after the verdict against Andrei Sannikau. So far the EU has however been divided on the question of economic sanctions and restricted to punish the regime by a ban for travelling to EU-countries for some hundred Belarusian politicians and officials. The signals from Brussels after the trial of Andrey Sannikau might indicate a change in the EU-policy towards the Lukashenka-regime, introducing directed economic sanction against some of the most important state-companies.

The signals being sent from Moscow to Minsk are also more critical than before. President Medvedev stated that the rights of the citizens must be upheld in the country and last week the Russian minister of finance Aleksei Kudrin rebuffed the loan of three billion dollars promised to Lukashenka before the elections. Belarus might receive one billion dollars from the Euro-Asian Fund, not more, Kudrin told the journalists and directed Lukashenka to the International Monetary Fund. The new signals from both EU and Russia are coming as the economic crisis in Belarus is sharpening on an almost daily basis due to the lack of foreign currency and lack of imported goods. The National Bank has reacted with a floating of the Belarusian ruble. The effect has been a rapid devaluation of the ruble towards the dollar and the euro, a racketing of the prices on several consumer goods and clear indications that public unrest might take place.

The reasons behind the ”new” policy towards Lukashenka from Moscow remains unclear. The answer may come during the visit of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to Minsk next week. It might be that Putin will reach out his hand and offer an emergency loan to Lukashenka, given that some key industries be privatized and sold to Russian business interests, among them Gazprom. If not we might, for the first time since Alyaksandr Lukshenka came to power 17 years ago, witness some sort of co-ordinate policy from the EU and Russia, towards the ”last dictatorship” in Europe.

  • by Peter Johnsson

    Peter Johnsson is a foreign correspondent. Working for Nordic media and based in Warsaw he has covered the countries in East-Central Europe since 1980. He is the author of several books on Poland and polish history.

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