28th Sep 2023


True scale of horror in today's Belarus hard to comprehend

  • Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, appearing at the European Parliament from exile, last year (Photo: European Parliament)
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Supporting democracy in today's Belarus is a risky business but the true scale of the horror is difficult for foreigners to understand.

Imagine waking up one morning to find the secret police breaking into your house. They beat you and destroy your home before ferrying you off to a KGB detention cell. There, they torture you until you 'confess' in a video which is then posted on YouTube. After around two weeks you are tried in a kangaroo court and sentenced to up to 15 years in jail.

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You are kept in solitary confinement, marked with a yellow badge which means no one is allowed to speak to you and beatings can occur at any time. Contact with the outside world is strictly prohibited. Any attempts at suicide only lead to more beatings.

Meanwhile, outside jail, they harass your wife and children, and confiscate your apartment on trumped-up "terrorism" charges.

Victims of this moral and physical destruction include Ales Bialatski, a literary scholar and gentle amateur mushroom hunter whose commitment to human rights in my homeland has earned him successive jail terms.

His latest 10-year sentence was imposed last March, five months after he was awarded a share of the 2022 Nobel Peace prize. Amnesty International described the proceedings as "a blatant act of injustice" and "a shameful pretence of a trial".

There is also Mariya Kalesnikava, a professional flautist who became the artistic director of the OK16 cultural hub in Minsk. Before the presidential election in May 2020 she joined the campaign team of Viktar Babaryka, a leading opposition candidate. When Babaryka was arrested on bogus charges she refused to be silenced and was last seen in public a month after the election, being bundled into the back of a black minivan by a group of masked men.

Months later Mariya was charged with "conspiracy to seize state power in an unconstitutional manner" and has been in jail ever since — spending long periods in an isolation cell and at one point requiring emergency treatment in hospital for a perforated ulcer.

Then there is my husband, Sergey Tikhanovsky, who turned a successful career as a video producer and blogger into a popular platform for democratic opposition to the man who has clung to power in Belarus since 1994. Alexander Lukashenko is Europe's longest-serving leader, a title acquired largely by ruthless contempt for the wishes and welfare of the people of Belarus.

Sergey is in prison, too, his decision to run as a maverick presidential candidate earning him rapid arrest and an eventual 18-year prison sentence. It is widely believed in Belarus that when I decided to run for president in Sergei's place, the only reason I wasn't arrested too is that Lukashenko was sure he couldn't be beaten by a woman. I was threatened and forced to flee the country after he realised how mistaken he had been.

All this helps explain why this week I visited Vienna for the first major event in the 75th anniversary year of the 1948 adoption by the United Nations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The Human Rights 75 initiative seeks to energise global solidarity on behalf of citizens denied their fundamental rights to freedom, equality and justice.

As the elected leader of Belarus and wife of a political prisoner, I know a great deal about the potential power of universality in promoting the rights and values so many of us have lost. We have been more than grateful for past support from the international community, not least the Nobel prize committee. As the UN initiative's organisers put it: "If ever there was a moment to rekindle the hope of human rights for every person, it is now".

We were pleased to read a recent statement from the UN human rights commissioner's office making clear that the situation in Belarus remains a focus of their serious concern. The Viasna Human Rights Centre — an activist group co-founded by Bialitski — recently reported that 1,511 people have been detained on politically motivated charges since Lukashenko stole the 2020 election. The true figure is likely to be several times higher.

The experts also found that prominent detainees including Viktar Babaryka, Mariya Kalesnikava, my husband Sergey, and Maksim Znak, a prominent opposition lawyer, had all been "denied access to timely and appropriate medical examinations and treatment, adequate legal representation and prevented from contacting their families".

The experts concluded: "Incommunicado detention — with a risk of enforced disappearance — is indicative of a strategy to punish political opponents and hide evidence of their ill-treatment and torture by law enforcement and prison authorities…the unprecedented level of repression must stop".

With so many opposition leaders jailed or, like me, forced into exile, we have to rely on the solidarity of the international community to apply meaningful pressure for change in Belarus.

So much more could be applied. The United Nations General Assembly could adopt a resolution condemning Lukashenko's systematic crimes against humanity. The G7 could follow Poland's lead and impose devastating sanctions on the so-called judges, prosecutors and prison staff who prop up this totalitarian nightmare. The International Criminal Court could recognise Lukashenko as a war criminal.

Only proper accountability can stop the terror and put an end to this humanitarian catastrophe.

People are dying. International institutions must act now, not wait and see. We need the world's help to restore respect for human rights in Belarus.

Author bio

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is the exiled Belarus political opposition leader. She stood against dictator Alexander Lukashekno in the 2020 Belarus presidential elections, after the arrest of her husband Sergei Tikhanovsky, the previous candidate, and has now fled to exile in Lithuania.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.


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