Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BELARUS: Political Prisoners Facing Oppression

WARSAW, Jan 24 2012 (IPS) - “I had to fight to be treated like a human, not animal,” dissident Nikolai Avtukhovich wrote from prison. Last month Avtukhovich, Belarusian political activist and entrepreneur, convicted to five years in the penal colony for illegal storage of five cartridges for a hunting rifle, cut his veins.

The reason for such a dramatic move may seem trivial: he was put into one cell with homosexuals.

But the subculture of Belarusian prisons is brutal: gays and rapists are at the very bottom of the hierarchy. They are obliged to announce their status to the fellowship when they arrive in a new place so that other inmates will not lose their status coming in contact with them.

Prisoners are told they must not shake their hand, eat with them, nor stay in one room. Otherwise you could become “dirty” too; then the “clean” fellows may harass or beat you.

So Avtukhovich went for self-mutilation to get moved out of those cells. Soon after recovering from cutting his veins, Avtukhovich was on Jan. 17 found guilty of “malicious abuse of the colony regime” and ordered to be transferred to a high-security indoor jail, where conditions of confinement are much more severe.

In the penal colony convicts live in the barracks, able to spend free time outdoors. In closed jail they are cramped in the cells, and entitled only to a one-hour walk round a tiny yard. They have a right only to short visits and a food parcel not more than once a year.

Andrei Sannikov, the most serious rival to president Alexander Lukashenka in the 2010 election, serving five and a half years, faced similar issues. When an “untouchable” prisoner was allocated to his solitary cell, Sannikov immediately called hunger strike and stood close to the door. The new inmate was taken away within minutes.

“We have not witnessed that before: prison administration using the informal order to humiliate jailed dissidents,” journalist and former prisoner of conscience Andrzej Poczobut told IPS.

It is neither the prison administration nor the judiciary who call the shots. According to Poczobut “all decisions regarding political prisoners are taken at the high level, usually by KGB.” KGB is an acronym for the Committee for State Security.

“The regime is open in its intention: to break the dissidents, make them beg for mercy,” Poczobut said. Last summer this journalist from Grodno got a suspended sentence of three years for insulting Lukashenka. He was released after three months detention.

“Initially the investigators tried to intimidate me, but overall I was not treated badly,” Poczobut said. “They knew I was a journalist, ready to report any mistreatment abroad. And unlike most of the other inmates, I was conscious of my rights, having printed prison regulations with me.”

Prisoners seen as troublemakers are more prone to harassment and punitive measures. From day one in jail Avtukhovich helped other prisoners write complaints, then went on hunger strike to protest the refusal of medical assistance.

A week before Avtukhovich, Nikolai Statkevich, another former candidate for presidency in Belarus, was also sentenced to more rigorous imprisonment. He is serving six years for organising “anti-state riots” (means the demonstrations against election rigging).

Statkevich was declared by officials to be a “malicious violator” of the order who has refused to follow the path of correction. “He is seeking no early release on parole, but is going to wait till the end of his sentence and lead a criminal lifestyle in the future.”

According to his wife, the politician was accused of failing to carry a prisoner’s number tag on his clothes, and for failing to list handkerchiefs among his personal belongings.

Most of the 800 people arrested a year ago following after-election protests have been set free. President Lukashenka left eight of his enemies behind bars, the most high profile and as the regime sees it, unrepentant.

“This is the personal vengeance of Lukaskenka,” Ales Kirkievich, one of the leaders of the anti-regime Youth Front told IPS. Asked about his own treatment in jail, Kirkievich said it was “not as bad as in the 1930s, but certainly far from EU standards.”

Arrested in January 2011, and sentenced to four years of penal colony, Kirkievich was released in September after applying for a presidential pardon.

That is exactly what Lukashenka wants. “They hope to come out of jail as heroes. No way,” the President said recently, responding to questions about political prisoners.

Last September Uadzimir Kobiets, staff member of Sannikov’s presidential campaign, gave public testimony about his stay in a KGB prison on the website.

“Masked KGB officers armed with batons and paralysers abused us, made us run on steep stairs while handcuffed, do squats, forced us to undress, then to stand naked with feet wide apart for a long time. I felt pain, but must not move – otherwise the oppressors kicked and beat me.”

The worst was mental torture. Interrogators told Kobiets that the fate of his wife and children depended on his behaviour. “I thought I was in a hopeless situation. This lawlessness was suffocating, there was no one I could address,” he wrote.

Kobiets signed a collaboration agreement and got out of jail.

His testimony confirms Kiril Semianchuk’s story. In March this opposition activist from Grodno applied for political asylum in Poland, saying he suffered from beating and sleep deprivation in KGB custody.

“During the interrogation, KGB officers beat me with shoes filled with gravel, one of them strangling me. I was punched in the face, and my head would hit the wall,” Semianchuk told Belsat TV.

After a whole night of such interrogation, the politician agreed to appear on public television and express views critical of the opposition. He also signed an agreement to cooperate with the KGB. “They showed me a small plastic bag with white powder and threatened to plant it on me, so that I could be sentenced to 10 years,” he added.

The government in Minsk denies allegations of torture and ignores repeated calls from the EU and the U.S. to release all political prisoners.

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