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22nd Jun 2018

Interview

Ales Bialiatski: Two years of silence in Belarus penal colony

  • Ales Bialiatski in Brussels, 10 days after his release from prison (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Belarus political prisoner Ales Bialiatski spoke his first words in two years upon his release from a labour camp in late June.

The human rights defender worked six days a week in silence at a sewing factory inside the Bobruisk high-security penal colony in south-eastern Belarus.

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The isolation continued in his cell with other inmates.

“We were 15 people in the same room but for two years I didn’t speak,” he told this website in Brussels on Tuesday (1 July).

Bialiatski, shortlisted for the Nobel peace prize in 2012, had been arrested in late 2011 on trumped up charges of tax evasion and sentenced to four and a half years.

The 51-year old vice-president of the Federation International of Human Rights (FIDH) had kept foreign accounts in Lithuania and Poland to help finance his Minsk-based human rights centre, Viasna.

Viasna documents human rights abuse, provides support to political prisoners, and has uncovered gross irregularities in the past three presidential elections.

Sent to Bobruisk, Bialiatski spent his days packing gloves, shirts, and trousers made by other prisoners into boxes.

Around €3.5 a month was paid into a special account for his efforts. Prison food, water, and electricity were deducted leaving him with less than €1.

“This is forced labour. You have no right to say No,” he said.

Those caught talking to him were punished. His 15 cellmates ignored him. Some of them were informants, tasked to make sure everyone kept their distance.

“I was always under surveillance, even some of the prisoners were there only to watch over me day and night. I could feel they were provoking me, especially by other inmates put in my cell to do that, in they were watching how I react.”

The isolation left him alone with his thoughts. His numerous letters to his friends, later turned into two books, kept his mind active.

His unannounced and unexpected release on 21 June and the sudden transition to meeting top level EU officials in Brussels and Strasbourg over a week later still requires some adjusting.

“Little by little it becomes easier,” he responds when asked how he is coping.

On Tuesday, he met EU's Special Representative for Human Rights, Stavros Lambrinidis.

On Wednesday, he is meeting MEPs and EU enlargement commissioner Stefan Fule.

But the memories of being dragged away from his family all those years ago are still vivid.

Agents instructed by the Belarusian intelligence service, the KGB, arrived at his home in early August 2011. As they apprehended him, he avoided eye contact with his wife.

A few months later in the backend of a cafe in central Minsk, she explained why. “He understood what problems he had created for his family,” she told EUobserver.

“It was quite an unbearable moment,” recalls Bialiatski.

His wife still hasn’t fully grasped his newfound freedom and he has yet to see his son, who lives and studies in Poland, he says.

After his arrest, his long ordeal under Alexadner Lukashenko’s regime was set into motion.

He spent the next seven months in a KGB pre-trial detention facility where he was packed into an overcrowded cell with little ventilation. Inmates relieved themselves in a basket placed inside the cell.

“The room was tiny, so you can imagine what it’s like being locked up in this stinking toilet,” he said.

Alexander Lukashenko

Over the decades under his rule, Lukashenko has managed to create an authoritarian state, based partly on repression and fear on the one hand and on nostalgia for the Soviet past on the other.

EU diplomats like to poke fun at him and Stanislav Shushkevich, the first president of Belarus, describes the Belarus leader as “not very bright”.

Earlier this year, a Russian journalist handed Lukashenko a copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ “Autumn of the Patriarch.” Lukashenko had thanked her for the book, perhaps unaware of Marquez’s mocking portrayal of a fictional dictator.

“You can’t compare Lukashenko to dictators in the middle of the 20th century. He is not a Stalin. I would call him the degenerated grandson of Stalin,” says Bialiatski.

Speculation is rife into why Lukashenko released Bialiatski.

For his part, Bialiatski says the Belarus leader is attempting to mend ties with the EU.

Russia’s “friendly hugs” are becoming too tight, he says.

Last year, member states expanded targeted sanctions on his inner circle. The sanctions are set to expire in October.

But there are also other geo-political and internal stakes at play.

For one, Belarus’ immediate neighbour to the south, Ukraine is on the verge of war with Russian proxies.

While deemed a long-time ally to the Kremlin, Lukashenko does not support Russia’s annexation of the Crimea. In June, he attended Petro Poroshenko presidential inauguration in Kiev.

At the same time, Lukashenko wants to expand economic ties with the EU, Belarus’ second largest trading partner after Russia. The country’s economy is faltering.

Second, a new round of presidential elections are set for next year.

“We are one year to go and he knows for every election he tries to establish better contact with the European Union,” says Bialiatski.

Typically, it means the trickle release of political prisoners.

Political prisoners

Bialiatski says he is determined to secure the release of seven other political prisoners in Belarus.

“I think there is an opportunity after my release and I think I have to use the momentum,” he says.

Among the list of names is Mikalai Statkevich, a presidential candidate in 2010 and an avowed personal enemy of Lukashenko.

Others like Eduard Lobau, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Vasil Parfiankou, Yauhen Vaskovich and Artsiom Prakapenka, are said to face similar ordeals in penal colonies dispersed throughout the country.

The EU, for its part, has officially recognised all seven as political prisoners and has called upon their unconditional release and rehabilitation.

Belarus frees prisoners ahead of elections

Belarus strongman Lukashenko pardoned six political prisoners ahead of presidential elections in October, and one day after registration for candidates closed.

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Lukashenko angling for better EU ties

On paper still Europe’s biggest pariah, the Belarusian leader is keen to mend fences with the EU amid concerns on Russian aggression.

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