The year 2011 proved to be a difficult one for Belarus, in particular its opposition and human rights activists. Despite the release of some designated political prisoners over the summer, the crackdown on activists that began shortly before the December 19, 2010 presidential elections has continued. Evidence also suggests that the Ministry of Interior has been significantly weakened, but it is unclear exactly which security sectors this has strengthened in turn. Some sources posit that there has been a power grab by the president’s son, Viktar Lukashenka. Nonetheless, in general the security forces (the KGB, the new Investigative Committee, and the Prosecutor’s Office) have taken on a more influential role at a time when the state is facing increased economic difficulties.
Violations of human rights have become so commonplace in Belarus that it is easy to underrate them. There are perhaps as many as 50 designated political prisoners, headed by the renowned human rights activist Ales Byalatsky, sentenced last August to serve four years and six months in prison as a result of his organization’s receipt of funds through banks in Lithuania and Poland (EDM, September 14). High-level political opponents, such as Andrey Sannikau, Mikola Statkevich, and Dzmitry Dashkevich, remain behind bars more than one year after their arrests. Sannikau has found it difficult to send and receive mail, he has been moved frequently from one penal colony to another, and has been denied access to his lawyer for the past two months. Dashkevich’s health remains a concern after his hunger strike last September. After a year apart, Statkevich’s wife was allowed to visit him recently (RFE/RL, December 21). Aleh Hulak, the head of the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, notes that many of the lawyers who defended the presidential candidates have been deprived of their licenses (BDG-Delovaya Gazeta, December 12).
Sannikau’s wife, the noted journalist Irina Khalip, comments that the regime resented her husband’s moral authority among the prison community, and decided to intimidate him by limiting his contacts, withholding his mail, and denying access to his lawyer (Nasha Niva, December 12). The additional possible goal of the authorities – as has been applied to other former presidential candidates (successfully in the case of Yaraslau Ramanchuk, less so with that of Ales Mikhalevic, who has given evidence in the United States about the tortures applied in KGB holding and isolation cells) – may be to solicit confessions and pleas for mercy to the president. If so, it has been notably ineffective in the cases of Sannikau and Dashkevich (www.svaboda.org, December 12).
Sannikau’s flagship website, Charter-97, one of the leading opposition sites, was targeted by cyber attacks on December 29, after which its service went off line. According to its editor, Natalya Radina, now in exile in Lithuania, saboteurs broke into the site, destroyed archives, and created a false news story about Sannikau. In her view, the likelihood is that the perpetrator of the attacks was the Belarusian KGB (RIA Novosti, December 31). Just over one year ago, the founder of Charter-97, Aleh Byabenin, was found hanged in a case that was never satisfactorily resolved (see EDM, September 20, 2010). In another recent case of KGB overreaction, three members of the Ukrainian women’s rights group Femen, were abducted after organizing a bare-breasted protest in central Minsk, taken to a forest near the city of Homel, beaten and doused with oil. Though they feared for their lives, they intend to conduct further actions in Belarus (www.naviny.by, December 22).
Even in what appeared initially to be a more clear-cut case, that of the alleged leaders of the terrorist attack at a central Minsk metro station last April, public opinion seems to be divided and largely uncertain as to the guilt of the two young men who have received death sentences. Many are convinced that the trial was largely fabricated and that the evidence against the two men (Uladzislau Kavaleu and Dzmitry Kanavalau) is flimsy at best. Some 60,000 have signed a petition questioning their guilt, while Amnesty International has gathered 250,000 signatures in support of the abolition of the death penalty in Belarus. The two accused have reacted very differently: Kavaleu has sent a plea for mercy to the president; neither Kanavalau nor members of his family have appealed his sentence. His subdued attitude at the trial has led one analyst to suggest that he had been heavily medicated beforehand. While attending the trial, Kavaleu’s mother, who traveled from Vitsebsk to Minsk, stayed at the home of one of the victims of the explosion, which also suggests that at least one of the families affected is unconvinced of the son’s guilt (Belaruski Partyzan, December 15).
On December 12, the Belarusian media reported the arrest of Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs, Yauhen Poludzen, who bore chief responsibility for civil order and was heavily involved in the violent responses to the post-election demonstration and subsequent protests by activists of the campaign Revolution by Social Network last summer. Intrigues within the various security agencies in Belarus are frequent and there have been a variety of speculations as to what this one signifies. According to one source, it could constitute an assault on the Minister of Internal Affairs, Anatol Kulyashou that would lead eventually to the appointment of someone close to Viktar Lukashenka. The president’s oldest son resorted to a similar strategy in order to uproot the previous minister Uladzimir Navumau, with the backing of the KGB. At that time, however, Lukashenka and his KGB allies failed to have one of his supporters appointed in Navumau’s place (Belaruski Partyzan, December 12).
Whether or not Viktar Lukashenka is accumulating more power, the removal of Poludzen is more symptomatic of the contrived rivalry between the various security agencies of Belarus, a tactic applied by Alyaksandr Lukashenka to keep his minions divided. Meanwhile the president, beset by economic problems and falling popularity, has declared open season on his opponents and the level of repression is reminiscent of 1999, generally regarded as the darkest period for abuses of power and persecution of opponents in Belarus.