At a press conference on February 28, former Belarusian presidential candidate Ales Mikhalevich outlined details of tortures at the KGB Detention Center in Minsk. Mikhalevich had been released a few days earlier on condition that he turned informant for the secret police. Instead he used the opportunity to denounce his captors, declaring his concern for those still in KGB isolation cells and other facilities across Belarus.
On March 2, the Frunze district court of Minsk handed down sentences to three people detained after the mass protest in Independence Square on December 19-20, 2010, following the presidential election. Aliaksandr Astroshchankau, the 29 year old press secretary of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikau (who remains in custody) received a four year prison sentence. Dzmitry Novik, also aged 29, who was detained in Baranavichy on December 23, received a sentence of three years and six months; and Alyaksandr Malchanau, a 22 year old native of Barysau and a former member of the youth group Zubr (now disbanded) received a three year sentence (www.charter97.org, March 2). Two weeks earlier Vasil Parfyankou, 27, a member of the Uladzimir Nyaklayeu presidential campaign, received a four year sentence (Belapan, February 17).
The recent trial was another signal of how the Belarusian authorities intend to proceed. Numerous activists stand accused of inciting riots. They include four presidential candidates –besides Mikhalevich and Sannikau, future cases have been instigated against Mikalay Statkevich and Nyaklayeu. The latter is under house arrest, meaning that KGB agents occupy his apartment. Another candidate, Vital Rymasheuski, has been ordered not to leave Minsk.
In addition, a large number of prominent political figures have been in detention for more than two months, often without access to lawyers. They include two well-known leaders of the Young Front who were arrested the day before the elections in a well-planned preemptive strike by the KGB: Zmitser Dashkevich, the 29 year old leader of the association and Eduard Lobau, 22, a former chairman. Both were charged with criminal hooliganism. Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party and a seasoned campaigner was arrested on December 20 (www.spring96.org/be, February 18).
Another leader very familiar with Minsk prisons is Pavel Sevyarynets, the 34 year old member of the unregistered Belarusian Christian Democratic Party, who campaigned for fellow member Rymasheuski. Natalia Radzina, aged 31, is one of the founders of Charter-97 website, which backed Sannikau. Two of the detainees are Russian citizens, namely Artyom Breus and Ivan Gaponov. The Russian foreign ministry has expressed concern about the pair who were released and then promptly rearrested about an hour afterward on December 29. Their trial began on February 22, but was suspended. New evidence was then offered that they had wounded more than ten police officers during the melee on Independence Square (www.naviny.by, March 2).
Prior to Mikhalevich’s statement, there was only speculation as to the conditions in the jails and pre-trial detention centers. After his arrest, Mikhalevich was asked by the KGB to read a statement on television denouncing the other candidates, as Ramanchuk had done. He refused, and a week after his arrest, the security agents began to use torture. Evidently his was not an isolated case because the treatment was imposed on several prisoners simultaneously. He was physically abused by having his arms twisted in a high position for long periods and forced to stand naked against a wall in temperatures of 10 C. Other methods included sleep deprivation –prisoners were forced to lie directly under lamps and not allowed to cover their faces. They were also forced to walk outside in freezing temperatures and access to a doctor was limited to Thursdays. Prison cells were so overcrowded that some prisoners fainted (Nasha Niva, February 28).
Mikhalevich thus described the prison as “a concentration camp in the center of Minsk.” His very public statement offers a challenge to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka at a time when international attention is focused on mass protests and potential removal of long-term dictators in the Middle East and North Africa. Interestingly, a report on Polish Radio noted that the private airplane of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi had twice been seen in Belarus over the previous week suggesting that the besieged dictator might flee there (www.thenews.pl, March 1).
The motives of the authorities can be determined from the length of the initial sentences. Astroshchankau, Malchanau, and Novik are relatively minor figures. Their sentences, however, are notably severe on the grounds that they had tried to break into the parliament building. Their trials prepare the way for those of more prominent figures, headed by Sannikau and Statkevich. In addition to the now released Nyaklayev –who called an ambulance because of concerns about his blood pressure after a further dispute with a KGB official on March 2–the health of both former candidates is a cause for deep public concern. Sannikau had his legs broken by riot police on December 19. Statkevich, accused as one of the ringleaders of the assault on the parliament, was on hunger strike between December 19 and January 12 (Radio Free Europe, March 2; www.euroradio.fm/en/node/5820, January 25).
Lukashenka has little to gain from imposing heavy sentences on opposition leaders other than using them as pawns to gain compromises from the West. However, Europeans have distanced themselves from his regime, and the tortures provide further evidence that these are essentially “show trials” of carefully selected targets, for the most part young activists who openly oppose the regime.