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The Thaw Is Over

Hopes that Lukashenka had turned over a new leaf were definitively quashed with the brutality and extent of the crackdown during and after the recent “parasites” demonstrations.

by Paulina Kaltavicanka 3 April 2017

The first protests back in February gathered thousands people from all walks of life – upset that they, their friends and families, and others were being forced to pay a special tax on the unemployed and semi-employed for being out of work and not registered at local work offices. That required payment became known as the “parasites” tax to reflect how President Alyaksandr Lukashenka viewed those whom he considered freeloaders on the rest of society.

 

They came to voice their opposition for various reasons. Ivan (name changed to protect his identity) can’t find a job and has no money to feed his family. Natalia’s son has a severe speech disorder; she does not work as she has to take him to special classes. Vadzim from Baranavichy is self-employed but he didn’t demonstrate against the law because he felt ashamed of the authorities. Iryna and Viktar from Minsk have jobs, but their friends and relatives have been affected.

 

As protests unfolded in the capital and other cities in Belarus, observers watched warily to see how President Alyaksandr Lukashenka would react. Even though the atmosphere had seemed more open in recent months as Lukashenka tried to curry favor with the West, doubts remained about how long the president would restrain himself from a show of force – especially since these demonstrations appeared to represent something new. Until then, street rallies in Belarus had largely been associated with the opposition. However, the “March of Disgruntled Belarusians,” as the first wave of protests were called, gathered ordinary people in central squares. Protesters were holding not only national white-red-white flags (associated with the opposition) but also the official red-and-green ones, a modification of the flag from Soviet times that the authorities have used since 1995 (something virtually no members of the traditional opposition would wave).

 

Protesters in Minsk. Image via Gazeta.ru.

 

Yet no riot police forces were employed back on that February day. Demonstrators walked freely from Kastrycnickaja Square to Niezaleznasci Square where they stopped to call on the government to step down and then peacefully cleared the city center. Only one apparent violent incidents was reported (black-clad, unknown assailants versus protestors), but the gathering ended without detentions.

 

The Curtain Falls

 

However, after the next wave of protests spread to regional cities and towns, and showed little sign of fizzling out, the expected response finally came. On 9 March, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suspended the tax for one year, a rare retreat, but he simultaneously ordered the security apparatus to “clean up house.”

 

One evening later, people became aware that any kind of liberalization was over. After the end of the rally in Maladziecna, a city northwest of Minsk, opposition leaders were brutally detained along with ordinary protesters and journalists. They were dragged off and thrown into an unmarked van with their faces pressed against the floor. 

 

Political activists were sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative arrest for “violating mass event procedures” (in this case attending unauthorized rallies) in a clear move to prevent them from taking part in the forthcoming rallies. Punishment for ordinary protesters was lighter. The detainees were arraigned overnight, although courts in Belarus are usually closed on weekends and at night. On Saturday 11 March, at 1 a.m., the court finally adjourned hearings until the next morning after the judge refused to work so late.

 

The court in Maladziecna worked all through Friday night. Bchd.info

 

In the coming days, at schools and universities, students were warned to stay away from the spots where demonstrators were expected to gather. Some schools even introduced mandatory classes on Saturday, while universities forced their non-resident students to return to their family homes.

 

On the eve of the next string of rallies, which took place between 11 and 25 March, the police stationed prisoner transportation vehicles in great numbers in the courtyards of apartment blocks and on the streets, causing traffic jams on nearby roads.

 

 

Brand new water cannons were deployed in Minsk to disperse demonstrators.

 

Image via Tut.by

 

People were again brutally detained. Even after peaceful authorized rallies, men in plain clothes grabbed protesters off of public transport and pulled them to the ground. Young women were dragged by their hair. Passengers who had nothing to do with the demonstrations were also detained.

 

Given the current crackdown, including pulling people off public transportation, Trolleybus No. 37 has become a symbol, as a reference back to 1937, the year when Belarus faced Stalinist-era purges and repression. New Minsk Logo designed by Paul Dorokhin. Image via Facebook.

 

Piotr Markelau was present as an observer filming the action on his phone. He was sentenced to 12 days of arrest.

 

 

 

Detainees were treated poorly, remaining hungry for many hours before eventually getting sentences of 12 to 15 days – again for standard violations of the mass event procedures (for example, wearing a mask or allegedly disobeying  officials on duty). Belarus state television justified the harshness of the detentions by the need “to act according to the situation,” claiming “the detainees had brass knuckles, knives, and masks.”

 

Some prisoners went on hunger strike. Others had to starve unwillingly, because food at the detention center in Akrestsina Street was unbearable, they said, while parcels from relatives were restricted. Many ­­­­­detainees remained without foodstuffs, warm clothes, and hygienic products. 

 

“They stopped accepting parcels from non-family members. What if family members are not around? You have already isolated people, why do you need to keep humiliating them?” Julija Sciapanava, a young woman who helped collect necessities for the detainees, wrote on Facebook.

 

Freedom Day Becomes Detention Day

 

On the eve of the 99th anniversary of the independence of the Belarusian People’s Republic – a failed attempt to create an independent Belarusian state during World War I – the authorities took things a step further. The Facebook accounts and mobile phones of rally organizer Mikalai Statkevich and his family members were blocked and hacked. The hacked accounts spread information that the demonstration in Minsk had been canceled. The same news was disseminated by the state media. Statkevich himself disappeared on 23 March (and resurfaced only on the 27th, having spent several days in KGB custody).

 

Before the rally on 25 March, riot police units raided the premises of the unregistered Viasna human rights center in Minsk, forcing 58 human rights defenders and journalists then on the premises to lie face down on the ground. They were then detained and held at a police station for several hours, disrupting their observation of the ongoing demonstrations. Two Viasna activists, Alaksiej Lojka and Krystian Shynkovich, ended up in the hospital.

 

The demonstration, however, ended before it could even begin. People were stopped when approaching the assembly point near the Academy of Sciences headquarters. The nearby underground stations were closed. Ground public transport routes were diverted. 

 

Viktar remembered his first arrest after the 2006 presidential elections, so this time around, he was better prepared. With his wife and children left behind at home, Viktar came to the rally with a toothbrush, toothpaste, napkins, nuts, and dry fruit. 

 

“It is better to put toilet paper under the insoles. They will not spot it. If they see a roll, they will surely take it. Soap and shoelaces will also be taken,” he said.

 

Halfway towards the rally, however, Viktar made a U-turn: “I can sit behind bars when it makes sense. Here it makes no sense. I’d better warn my friends not to go there.” And he sent a wave of messages.

 

Viktar had entered a nearby church in order to pray for those who would not return home, but also for freedom in his country, when his wife called to say his brother and friends had been detained. Viktar did not hold back his swearing. 

 

Hanna also decided not to take part in the rally where she had planned to go along with her husband and three kids – after it became clear that the rally wouldn’t be peaceful. “We were taking strolls in a part of the city near Victory Square when we saw prisoner transportation trucks pass by. So we decided not to go,” Hanna said, holding her baby girl in her arms.

 

Those who defied the ban had to make their way through several cordons of riot police in full gear deployed along Niezaleznasci Avenue. The police prevented people from gathering by either forcing them to keep moving or detaining them. About 1,000 demonstrators managed to shape some sort of a column and unfold national symbols but they were immediately surrounded by the police.

 

 

Security forces severely beat people, even pensioners or passersby who had nothing to do with the rally. An elderly woman was pushed into a police vehicle as she was walking back home from a grocery shop. When she nearly fainted on the way to the police station, the riot police did not call an ambulance, but simply threw the woman out of the vehicle, as she explained in a video for Radio Svaboda (RFE/RL).

 

 

The majority of detainees walked free in the evening, their personal details taken down by the authorities., They will likely stand trial later on, as all pretrial detention centers were overcrowded on the night of the rally. Others were immediately convicted and sent to serve their sentences, while some would remain locked up awaiting trials.

 

The city’s quiet life was disrupted. People did not know how the public transport would work. 

 

“Could you please direct me to the main railway station? I usually take a tram but today they do not go there,” one 60-year-old woman asked.

 

In outer districts, people continued their normal life as if nothing had happened. On the next day, there were more detentions and beatings.

 

It was much calmer in other cities that hosted peaceful demonstrations, and where the detentions were isolated incidents. But on 26 March rallies in towns were also disbanded. 

 

The Media as a Target

 

The authorities were clearly wary of the crackdown being captured on film or in print and distributed widely. Between 10 March and 17 March alone, 25 journalists were hauled off by the police. They were removed from the scene under various pretexts: ID checks, parking violations, car theft, involvement in a fight, even scratches on a car bumper, and so on.

 

By 22 March, the Belsat TV channel had reported the detention of 18 of its staffers. Some were detained up to five times. Normally, journalists would be released after the rallies but sometimes they were fined or arrested. There were also more serious cases. After the rally in Kobryn, the police pulled Milana Kharytonava and Ales Liauchuk, two Belsat journalists, out of their car and beat them, threatening to kill them. Their equipment was confiscated. Larysa Shchyrakova in Homiel received threats that her underage son would be taken away from her.

 

Some were detained even if there were no rallies. For example, Belsat TV journalists were held on 18 March in the main square of Barysau where protesters never even showed up. 

 

“We were wrapping up when police officers came up,” says Volha Czajczyc.  “They asked if we had a special permit to film in the square, despite the fact that our right is guaranteed in the Constitution. I showed them my BAJ [Belarusian Association of Journalists] ID but the officers said it looked unimpressive and drove us to the police station for an interrogation. They demanded that we switch our cameras off, but we continued filming and streaming until the very end. An unknown man who introduced himself as [someone] ‘working in the interested agencies’ was filming us nonstop.”  

 

When at the police station, officers demanded that the Belsat crew turn in their equipment, but refused to draw up a statement. The journalists managed to avoid confiscation of their equipment by handing it over to a colleague who had showed up.

 

“We were brought to different rooms, which is already a pressure method, and searched. A female officer was filming me under the pretext of avoiding any misunderstanding, but it was impossible for me to rebuff this video session. I was forced to undress in front of the camera but I refused and said it was humiliation and torture. Then, they started touching me,” Czajczyc continued. Her cameramen Siarhei was not told to undress, suggesting the guards were intentionally targeting female journalists.

 

“They did not allow me to use my pen and paper in order to write down the questions of my interrogators. They made a police report about a ‘violation of the media law.’ While they were detaining us, they struggled to name the reason for the detention. They did not give me a copy of the report,” Czajczyc added. The journalists were let go three hours later, but Czajczyc said the authorities have been keeping an eye on her through tapping her phone. “When I called my husband, an unknown voice said: ‘I am listening to you!’ Shortly afterward, I heard my husband’s voice. It was an act of pressure to show me I was being monitored,” she said.

 

The crackdown continues even if the automatic rifles and prisoner transportation vehicles have disappeared from the streets of Minsk. Since 21 March, some of the detentions have looked more like abductions. Unknown men in plainclothes raid the apartments of opposition activists, and haul them off with black plastic bags on their heads. Their families call around various police stations and use social media to find their relatives. The authorities are apparently preparing a case to show a conspiracy to spark mass unrest.

 

“They are putting things together to show a group who allegedly prepared riots,” said Nasta Lojka, a human rights activist from Viasna, said. “This looks absurd as the defendants are in no way connected with each other.” 

Paulina Kaltavicanka is a freelance Belarusian journalist.

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