The West’s debate over how to deal with Minsk often leads beyond the prison gates, into the country’s house of horrors.by Paulina Kaltavichanka 31 May 2013
MINSK | As the European Union continues to look for ways to counter the authoritarian regime in Belarus, the issue of political prisoners remains central.
Last month at a conference in Brussels – just days before a documentary about torture at the hands of the country’s security services premiered at a film festival in Lithuania – members of the Belarusian opposition as well as European politicians came back to the issue time after time.
In different ways, they asked two questions: Should any dialogue take place with Minsk as long as political prisoners remain locked away? And what would spur the authorities to open the prison gates?
Meanwhile, the debate rages even among members of Belarus' opposition. At the Brussels conference, former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich said personal, high-level contacts between the EU and the Belarusian government – not sanctions – were most likely to win the release of political prisoners. In response, journalist Iryna Khalip, herself under house arrest and the wife of a former political prisoner, derided that approach. In a commentary for the website of the Charter ’97 opposition movement, she argued that visits by top EU officials to Minsk have sometimes made things worse for political prisoners in Belarus.
That is a sobering prospect, considering how bad life is for some of those unlucky enough to be sentenced for offenses such as hooliganism, inciting mass disturbance, or tax evasion, and considering that there may be many more political prisoners sitting in Belarus’ jails than are currently counted.
The International Federation for Human Rights, a Paris-based umbrella group of 164 organizations, and Viasna (Spring), a rights group in Minsk, consider 11 men to be prisoners of conscience. In addition to Viasna President Ales Bialiatski, they include former presidential candidate Mikola Statkevich; Pavel Seviarynets, co-chairman of the Belarusian Christian Democracy party; Zmiter Dashkevich, leader of the Young Front opposition group; Young Front activist Eduard Lobau; and Artiom Prakapenka, Ihar Alinevich, Mikalai Dziadok, Alyaksandr Frantskevich, and Yauhen Vaskovich, all convicted on charges of anarchy.
The list also includes Mikalai Autukhovich, an entrepreneur, Afghanistan veterans’ rights activist, and one-time opposition politician who is serving his second prison sentence in a decade, this one for illegal weapons possession.
There are likely others, whose cases have not been declared political because human rights organizations lack enough information to make that call.
In addition, the authorities continue to persecute former prisoners, and Viasna says 40 people face the imminent possibility of being re-arrested.
PRESSURE CELLS AND TB INMATES
Interviews with former prisoners paint a vivid picture of life behind bars, from the customary, even expected, practice of censoring inmates’ correspondence, to beatings and isolation, guards pitting inmates against one another, and intentionally exposing prisoners to dangerous diseases. Some argue that political prisoners have it worse than others, as authorities are keen to pressure them into confessions or requests for pardons.
Andrei Bandarenka was one of the “unrecognized” political prisoners, convicted of an economic crime after an unsuccessful parliamentary bid in 2008. He was held in jail from May 2009 until being released on appeal in March 2011.
Bandarenka said the charges were surreal: “They charged me with receiving an unspecified amount of money from an unidentified Lithuanian in an unidentified location.”
Once Bandarenka was behind bars, authorities were after an admission of guilt, he said. Among the methods was the “pressure cell,” in which “convicted seasoned criminals cooperate with the prison administration,” he said. “These inmates use physical force or threats to make other inmates cooperate with the investigators. When I found myself in such circumstances, I was beaten.”
Bandarenka said the beatings stopped only after he threatened to attack his tormentors as they slept and to tell other inmates what they were doing.
After that, Bandarenka said he was put into a cell with a prisoner infected with tuberculosis. Later, he said, the man bunked with Andrei Sannikau, a former presidential candidate and Khalip’s husband. “We called him a TB inmate on duty, the one they force others to share a cell with, if necessary.”
Other abuses included shutting him in a tiny, windowless cell where the fumes from the whitewash solution on the walls made breathing difficult. “I had to use my towel as a gas mask,” he said.
Bandarenka said prison guards often try to make scapegoats out of the political prisoners. For instance, in a jail where Statkevich was held, guards took down horizontal bars that inmates had used for exercising and blamed it on some infraction by him.
When Statkevich was transferred to another prison, he was paired with a cellmate linked to a death squad that had allegedly murdered President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s political opponents, Bandarenka said.
Conditions vary among prisons, according to Bandarenka.
He called conditions “terrible, or savage” in the pretrial detention center on Minsk’s Valadarskaha Street. “Cells with concrete floors and holes instead of toilets,” Bandarenka said. “There are 50 inmates per 25 square meters [270 square feet] there. Very bad ventilation, medicines are lacking. Inmates wait for their turn to sleep, taking three shifts, on wooden-plank beds covered with mattresses filled with a little cotton. It’s so hot there in summer that the walls get wet. A high incidence of tuberculosis.”
Things are better in the detention center in the central city of Zhodzina, he said, but the staff is notorious for its mistreatment of prisoners. “For instance, wardens take inmates to the corridor, order them to stand facing the wall and beat them with wooden hammers just for fun,” he said.
But some things – poor health services, a lack of medicines, bad food, and abuse by staff – are the same in all prisons, Bandarenka said.
Political prisoners are often subjected to “cruel and degrading treatment,” according to Viasna. In 2011, Bialiatski, the group’s president, was sent to prison for 4 ½ years on charges of tax evasion in connection with foreign accounts he used to raise funds for the group. In December, a UN panel declared his jailing “arbitrary” and a human rights violation.
“The authorities can hold political prisoners behind bars as long as they wish,” said Taciana Raviaka, a member of Viasna. “And the political prisoners are under intense pressure – violence, humiliation, and beatings. A different strategy has been used against Ales Bialiatski – he has been isolated. Other prisoners may end up in a punishment cell for just saying ‘hi’ [to him]. The prisoners can’t risk their freedom, their release. That’s why our leader faces double isolation.”
Raviaka said Bialiatski will be permitted to see his wife only one time this year, for a two-hour visit through a plastic-glass screen.
As prisoners are often barred from receiving parcels, meeting loved ones, or having telephone conversations, Raviaka said, sometimes their only connection with the outside world is a postcard.
“Details that people don’t notice in everyday life are very important in prison. Inmates look closely at the stamps, various pictures that give them an opportunity to have a look outside,” Raviaka said.
Sometimes inmates can hold out, but sometimes they cannot, Bandarenka said: “Most people, quite understandably, break down and give false testimony against themselves or someone else to save their life.”
Asked at a February press conference about claims by human rights groups that political prisoners suffer worse treatment than other inmates, Deputy Prosecutor General Alyaksei Stuk said they are not singled out for mistreatment.
“Obviously, they are held in prison conditions that correspond to the category of their crime and personality,” he said.
Regarding claims of health problems that arose in prison, Stuk said, “We have checked; imprisonment alone was not the cause of their diseases. It's possible that their pre-existing health problems were getting worse.”
He said complaints about violence and torture by some of the prisoners were unfounded.
“All complaints filed with prosecutorial agencies have been examined. We established no facts of the illegal use of force. But one can assume that some people, I mean those who complained, could have provoked violence by their inappropriate behavior. I mean the type of behavior where they failed to obey some legal orders from members of the administration.”
HELP FROM OUTSIDE
On his release Bandarenka set up Platform, an organization that defends prisoners’ rights. He said poor conditions and abuse are the result of prosecutors’ offices not performing their oversight function and of a feeling of impunity among prison staff.
He said expressions of concern from outside the prison walls are crucial to inmates’ well-being, for the psychological lift they provide and, sometimes, for the protection they offer.
He recalled that after one of his many stays in a “punishment cell” – solitary confinement, no books, no letters, no visits, no exercise, no chairs, and no beds in the daytime – he was called to the warden’s office and asked about his connections to the Swedish Embassy, of which he had none. Then the warden handed him a New Year’s Day postcard from then-Swedish Ambassador Stefan Eriksson.
“The prison staff didn’t know what to do with me for four days,” he said. “The administration thought Swedish Embassy officials might come and they might have problems. Nobody touched me. The postcard gave me a four-day break.”
Eriksson was expelled from Minsk in August 2012 for meeting with opposition groups. The move came a month after an airdrop of teddy bears over Belarus that bore messages in support of free speech, a stunt engineered by a Swedish public relations firm.
Eriksson said he tried to maintain contacts with prisoners’ relatives, as diplomats were often kept away from the prisoners themselves.
“I think that meant a lot," he said. "The country’s leadership did its best to lower the profile of political prisoners and isolate their relatives. That’s why authorities were angered when foreigners paid attention to them. In some cases diplomats were not allowed to come close to prisons.”
Bandarenka said ordinary Belarusians can do more to help political prisoners as well.
“People need to show elementary solidarity and demand respect for the law and human rights, to defend the rights guaranteed by our constitution,” he said. “Most importantly, the public should understand that what happens to someone else can happen to you. For this reason, we have to learn to show public solidarity.”