Saturday

27th May 2017

Belarus tightens grip on political prisoners

  • Crackdown in Minsk on the opposition in December 2010 led to the arrest and detention of presidential candidates (Photo: EPA)

As the Nobel peace prize nominee and human rights defender Ales Bialiatski continues to languish away in a penal colony in Belarus, his compatriots in Brussels attempt to secure his freedom and those of 10 other political prisoners.

Valentin Stefanovic, who heads the Belarus human rights group Viasna [meaning "Spring"] told EUobserver in Brussels that Bialiatski’s wife is no longer allowed to visit him until August. Meanwhile, their son is in self-imposed exile in Poland where he recently started his university studies.

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“We have not seen Ales since August 2011,” said Stefanovic on Wednesday (10 April).

Ales’ wife in November of that year told this reporter in a Minsk cafe that she was being followed by the Belarus secret service, the KGB.

She feared for a husband who had been taken away by men in black masks and thrown into a penal colony on trumped up charges of tax evasion following a trial in a district court that was widely regarded by international observers as making a mockery of justice.

He was sentenced to 4.5 years in a maximum-security prison in the east, near the Russian border, where he spends his days sewing.

The heavy-handed rule of President Alexander Lukashenko, in power since 1994, has given little leeway to any opposition. Civil society struggles to take root and media is largely state controlled.

The repression and the mood of the country have not changed since Ales’ arrest, says Stefanovic.

“There is no freedom,” he noted.

Stefanovic says the prisoners are enduring severe restrictions and are, in some cases, denied medical treatment.

“All eleven of them are being put under increased pressure,” said a spokeswoman from the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights (Fidh).

Those who want to leave must sign a letter of confession, an admission of guilt for charges that are politically motivated to begin with, says Stefanovic.

Some 25 political prisoners were pardoned or released in early 2011 to 2012.

But their release is conditional and some, like journalist Irena Khalip and wife of a former presidential candidate, are under close supervision and regularly harassed by unannounced police visits. All are on a so-called “preventive watch” list maintained by internal affair agencies.

“The release of all political prisoners must be a precondition to dialogue [between Belarus and the EU],” says Stefanovic.

The land-locked nation shares an open border with Russia. To the west it shares borders with EU member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

Lukahsenko famously jailed opposing presidential candidates following elections in December 2010.

The next presidential election is set for 2015, a year after the country is set to host the 2014 ice hockey World Championship.

Lukahsenko is a fan of the sport.

Large red banners set up in Minsk last year were already announcing the event. Construction is also under way to expand the metro to accommodate the expected arrival of hockey fans from around the world.

Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s foreign affairs committee will put to a vote the EU strategy on Belarus in July with a final vote scheduled at a plenary session in September.

German centre-right MEP Elmar Brok, who chairs the committee, on Tuesday at a hearing on Belarus said it was “time to overcome the chains of oppression and allow the people of Belarus to have a say in their own future."

The plenary vote coincides with Lithuania’s EU presidency. Lithuania hosts the Belarus free university in Vilnius but also maintains lucrative potash and petro-chemical contracts with Minsk.

Authorities in Lithuania and Poland had both handed over to the Belarus police, the bank details that led to Bialiatski’s incarceration.

Ausra Bernotiene ,who worked at the ministry of justice in Lithuania as its department director of international cooperation, at the time signed over the paperwork to Belarus. Bernotiene has since resigned from her post.

The EU imposed a number of targeted sanctions in 2011 against people inside Lukashenko’s entourage, freezing their EU-based assets and banning them from entering any member state. The list was expanded in 2012.

But Polish centre-right deputy Filip Kaczmarek says the targeted sanctions have not brought expected results.

“We must do our utmost to provide support for those in this country who think differently from the regime and who share the same values as we do in the EU,” he said.

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