27th Mar 2017

Belarus policeman writes to UN with torture revelations

Belarusian authorities are increasingly using torture to get confessions from political prisoners - a Belarusian policeman has stated in an open letter, with some EU diplomats in Minsk looking into the allegations and his whereabouts.

"A standing practice of using torture to extract confessions and evidence exists and is developing," Grodno region police investigator Pavel Melko wrote on 25 July in a text addressed to the UN and Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich.

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"[This includes] electric shock, smothering...poisoning by tear gas and neuro-paralytic agents, battery, straining of tendons, piercing of gums by an awl," the letter says. "Some cannot bear the tortures, faint, try to commit suicide. People, tired from tortures, leap out of the windows."

The statement also alleges fraud in the March presidential elections, saying "I witnessed as...the authorities pressed people at all enterprises, organizations and in collective farms to take part in the early vote and to vote only for [Belarus president] Lukashenko."

A senior diplomat at one of the 11 EU member state embassies in Minsk reacted to the news with concern but without surprise, adding that his office will make enquiries into the affair. Mr Melko left Belarus illegally before sending his letter and possibly went to Canada, Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza reports.

There are plenty of stories from victims of violence in Belarus, but it is rare for members of the security services to speak out. In 2001, state prosecutors Dmitri Petrushkevich and Oleg Sluchek spoke of "death squads" before going into hiding in the US.

Belarusian diplomats quickly poured scorn on the torture allegations. "These claims are bizarre," one official said. "Our police always act within the letter of the law. They are under more supervision than ever due to the world attention on our country these days."

Belarus opposition leader Alexander Milinkevich lent credence to Mr Melko's testimony however. "These kinds of things are quite possible here. I don't doubt that the allegations made in the letter could be true," he told EUobserver. "It would be natural for Mr Melko to fear for his own safety."

Mr Milinkevich was himself briefly arrested on 26 July but said the police treated him well due to reform sympathies within the security services. "In the police, the secret service, the nomenklatura there is a very wide feeling that people want change but they are afraid," he explained.

Fellow opposition leader Alexander Kazulin - jailed in July for five and a half years for "hooliganism" - has been less lucky. "I have reports, personal testimonies from him and people that visited him, that he is having problems with mistreatment," Mr Milinkevich said.

Neighbourhood tension

The EU has since the 19 March elections imposed a visa ban and foreign asset freeze on 37 Belarus officials on democracy and human rights grounds. In September, it aims to move ahead with plans for tariffs on €390 million a year of Belarusian exports to the EU.

President Lukashenko has reacted with mockery, saying he will ban US president George Bush from entering Belarus and freeze any assets of EU leaders he finds in his country. This week, Minsk refused visas for EU trade union experts and police raided the home of a Latvian diplomat.

Shunned by the EU and US, Mr Lukashenko has turned instead to Kazakhstan and Venezuela for profile-boosting top-level meetings in recent days. "We see here a model social state like the one we are beginning to create," Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez told press in Minsk on 24 July.

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