Monday

18th Jun 2018

Investigation

Lithuania and Poland complicit in Belarus crackdown

  • Relative pleads for access to prisoners in winter last year (Photo: EPA)

A cell in a top security penal colony in eastern Belarus is now home to human rights defender Ales Bialistki, a man whose relentless pursuit of freedom for his fellow citizens is costing him four and a half years' hard labour.

Bialistki was transferred to the Babruisk labour camp in February following a trial which made a mockery of justice.

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  • Natalia Bialiastki: 'He avoided looking into my eyes. We both understood why' (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

He is forced to build wooden boxes, while his Minsk-based human rights organisation, Viasna, struggles to provide badly needed services for people under the scourge of a regime 18 years in power and counting.

His wife, Natalia, told this reporter in November in a cafe off Victory Square in central Minsk that she fears for her husband's wellbeing.

KGB agents have been trailing her for months and her son has fled the country. But despite the almost insurmountable pressure on her, she was able to smile and reminisce about life with a man who had brought her happiness.

Long before Lithuania and Poland handed over confidential information to Belarusian authorities which led to Bialistki's arrest, Natalia had begun preparing herself for what she saw as the inevitable day when police would drag him off.

Then it came. On the evening of 5 August 2011, masked KGB agents in black uniforms forced their way into their summer dacha.

"It was a horrible experience," she said of the raid. "It was difficult to look at my husband because he understood what problems he had created for his family. He avoided looking into my eyes. We both understood why. He then said goodbye to his son."

For the past 15 years, Viasna has provided practical support for families and victims of political oppression. It is one of the few voices that still makes itself heard in the cacophony and white noise of President Alexander Lukashenko's regime. Every year it publishes a book-length analysis of human rights violations in Belarus. Every year it gets longer.

It has a history of run-ins with the KGB.

When it was banned from receiving international funding, it opened bank accounts under Bialistki's name in Lithuania and Poland. In March last year, authorities in both countries handed over those very bank account details to Belarus.

Ausra Bernotiene, the former head of the international law department at Lithuania's ministry of justice, who delivered the information, has since resigned and now heads the international relations unit at Lithuania's national court administration.

"Having in mind the sensitivity of this issue, I do hope that you will respect my decision not to present any personal view or position concerning this story [which] all of us are sorry about," she told EUobserver in an email.

Some analysts say it was an innocent mistake and that she was made a scapegoat.

Lithuania plays dumb

According to Lithuanian officials, the transfer of personal information to Belarus without prior screening is routine. The two countries have a bilateral agreement, dating back to 1992, on legal assistance and legal relations in civil, family and criminal matters.

The ministry of justice claims nobody knew who Bialistki was and that the blunder should not discredit its previous pro-human-rights work in Belarus.

The claim is hard to believe given that Lithuania was at the time the chairman of the Vienna-based rights watchdog, the OSCE, and had a special office in Minsk. Despite an outcry by MPs which nearly cost the minister of justice his job, promises of an enquiry were never kept.

Meanwhile, Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, a former EU commissioner, then as now, continues to protect the regime.

In October 2010, two months before Lukashenko's re-election and the violent crackdown which followed, she was photographed shaking the president's hand in Minsk. "Lukashenko is a guarantor of economic and political stability in Belarus, its independence," she said in November. In early March this year, she reiterated her long-standing position against economic sanctions on Belarus.

A Belarusian politician told EUobsever that her loyalty helps keep the lucrative transit of Belarusian potash and oil flowing to Lithuania's main port. Should she waiver, Lukashenko will divert the transit to competitors in Latvia and Estonia.

"The President of Lithuania needs Belarus' trade through its port in Klaipeda. The port was her main presidential campaign backer," Irena Khalip, the wife of another prominent political prisoner in Belarus, Andrei Sannikov, told this website.

As for Ausra Bernotiene, her husband is a partner in a law firm with extensive business ties in Belarus.

A week after Bialistki's arrest, his company won the Corporate Intl Magazine 2011 Global Award for "Banking & Finance Law Firm of the Year in Belarus." That same year, it held several presentations and meetings in Belarus with Belarusian lawyers and investment and consulting companies. It also met consultants to develop the country's image, Belarussian venture capital investors and representatives from the securities market.

Like its neighbour to the north, Poland also handed over bank details to Belarus. But unlike Lithuania, it does not claim ignorance or inter-institutional incompetence.

To compound its embarrasment, the country's prosecutor general sent the information shortly before Warsaw hosted an EU summit dedicated to improving the situation in six post-Soviet countries, including Belarus - the so-called Eastern Partnership.

Poland says sorry

"I'm sorry on behalf of the republic," Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski tweeted back in August.

Marcin Bosacki, the Polish foreign ministry's press spokesman distanced the government from the prosecutor. Bosacki said the ministry had warned him not to hand over any details. "Unfortunately, these warnings had no effect on one institution, meaning the prosecutor general's office. Why not? That's a question for the prosecutor general," he said.

However it came about, Lithuania and Poland's action has had serious consquences beyond Bialistki's incarceration.

On top of his jail sentence, authorities are to confiscate the first floor apartment in Minsk which he purchased 12 years ago and Viasna, which operates out of the premises, has been given two months to clear out.

Viasna vice-president, Stefanovic Valiantsin, whose personal bank details were also on the Lithuanian and Polish lists, has been fined €2,000 - a king's ransom in a country where the average wage is less than €200 a month.

'Tragic mistake'

"It was a tragic mistake for Viasna, for me, and for Bialistki and it shows that EU co-operation with this regime is very dangerous. But it was our government who imprisoned Bialistki, not Lithuania or Poland," he told EUobserver.

Irena Khalip made clear just how badly Belarus needs people like Bialistki and Valiantsin to keep doing their work.

She is currently under house arrest and cannot travel outside Minsk. Amid reports of torture in Lukashenko's jails and claims that an inmate with tuberculosis was deliberately introduced into his cell, she last saw her husband in January and says that he is nearing death.

"He looked like someone who had just spent a decade in Stalin's gulag," she said.

Who is Lukashenko anyway?

Eighteen years and still in power, Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko retains a mesmerising hold on a country which glorifies Soviet-era rule.

Belarus executions compound EU outrage

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