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'Lukashenka's Revenge': Nearly Four Years After Mass Protests, State Crackdown Still Reshaping Belarus

A protest in honor of Alyaksandr Kulinich, who died in a pretrial detention center in Brest in April, just days before his trial on charges of "insulting" strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka was scheduled to begin.
A protest in honor of Alyaksandr Kulinich, who died in a pretrial detention center in Brest in April, just days before his trial on charges of "insulting" strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka was scheduled to begin.

Belarusian opposition politician Ihar Lednik was arrested in Minsk on April 18, 2022. After two weeks in custody, he was charged with "slandering the president of the Republic of Belarus." He was held for months in pretrial custody, with lawyers complaining that his health was deteriorating.

In September 2022, Lednik's trial began, with prosecutors contending an article he'd published contained "deliberately false, defamatory, and degrading information about [Belarusian leader Alyaksandr] Lukashenka's honor and dignity." Four days later, Judge Tatsyana Shotsik pronounced the verdict -- guilty -- and sentenced him to three years in prison.

This February, Lednik was rushed from a prison in Babruysk, about 100 kilometers southeast of the capital, to a Minsk hospital. He died there on February 20, at the age of 63.

"I met Ihar in the spring of 2023," Alyaksey Haloukin, who was also serving time on dissent-related charges, said. "Ihar said his health was deteriorating and if he wasn't given medical help...he would not survive his term. And that is what happened."

Lednik's case is emblematic of the fundamental changes that have been under way in Belarus since Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and a sixth term in an August 2020 election that millions of Belarusians say he stole. The harsh crackdown against pro-democracy protesters that began on election day has been institutionalized into a regime of constant intimidation and fear that many observers say seems to be driven by Lukashenka's personal sense of humiliation.

"They probably can't jail everyone because they lack sufficient space," said Uladzimer Zhyhar, a former police investigator with BelPol, a group uniting former security officers who quit in response to the repression. "We aren't talking about 250,000 or 300,000 people. The number is more than 2 million at least. They start with the most active people. Then they go after anyone who did not support Lukashenka. Any form of dissent is equated with treason."

"This represents Lukashenka's retaliation for being rejected in 2020," Zhyhar concluded.

Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya holds a portrait of her imprisoned husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, during a protest in Vilnius on March 8, saying she had not heard from him in 481 days.
Belarusian opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya holds a portrait of her imprisoned husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, during a protest in Vilnius on March 8, saying she had not heard from him in 481 days.

Belarusian Nobel Prize laureate Svetlana Alexievich said the goal of the authorities was "to intimidate and humiliate, to make people incapable of resistance or even the thought of resistance."

"It's all revenge," she said, "the revenge of the leader, Lukashenka's revenge for the fear he endured, for the fact that the people turned out to be completely different from what he imagined."

"I think the people will not forget this humiliation, this historical trauma, for a very long time," she added.

Over a six-month period, RFE/RL's Belarus Service interviewed dozens of released prisoners, former security officers, human rights activists, and others for a podcast series, The Belag Archipelago, documenting how Lukashenka's government has created an atmosphere of pervasive fear by relentlessly seeking out and persecuting participants in and supporters of the largest anti-government protests in Belarusian history. The full series, with English subtitles, is available here.

The Belarusian human rights group Vyasna has documented some 55,000 cases of repression since the start of the presidential election campaign in 2020. At least 4,500 people have received criminal convictions, and Vyasna has designated about 1,500 of them as political prisoners. In January 2023, the Parliamentary Assembly of Europe estimated that between 200,000 and 500,000 Belarusians had fled the country of 9.5 million since the election.

'Just Vulnerability'

The announcement of the contested results of the August 2020 election sparked more than three months of nationwide pro-democracy protests, with hundreds of thousands of people demanding Lukashenka's resignation and a new election. Many contended that opposition candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya was the actual winner.

The government responded with an often-brutal crackdown. Several people were killed and by September 1, 2020, the United Nations had recorded 450 cases of "torture and ill-treatment," as well as reports of "sexual abuse and rape with rubber batons," as at least 6,700 people were detained.

Security agents detain two demonstrators during a protest in Minsk in November 2020.
Security agents detain two demonstrators during a protest in Minsk in November 2020.

Nearly four years later, the crackdown continues, with dissidents being shuffled in and out of the grip of law enforcement.

"The doorbell rang for 40 minutes," Hanna Vishnyak said, describing her arrest in October 2020. "I thought they were going to break down the door, so I opened it. As soon as I did, they kicked me in the gut.... They stormed in and started confiscating things."

Vishnyak was a volunteer with Voditeli 97, a Telegram channel that coordinated people with cars to distribute water and other supplies to demonstrators during the protests. She served 2 1/2 years for purportedly "organizing actions violating public order."

Such conduct by the police is the norm, Zhyhar says.

"Their objective is to intimidate, to break the will of detainees, and assert dominance," he explained. "Once you fall into their hands, there is no law, no rights -- just vulnerability. Everything happens behind closed doors -- in cars, prison vans, and trucks. You become a powerless person without rights, subject to their whims."

Valeria Charnamortsava (file photo)
Valeria Charnamortsava (file photo)

Valeria Charnamortsava, a researcher on the crimes of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and a co-creator of the Virtual Museum of Soviet Repression in Belarus, was detained at her home on October 18, 2022.

"They began looking for 'extremist materials' and laying out various books," she recalled. "They found a red-and-white umbrella. I had tried to be prepared, but it's difficult to find everything in an apartment where I've lived for 25 years."

After more than three months in pretrial detention, Charnamortsava was sentenced to 2 1/2 years of house arrest for allegedly "participating in mass disorder."

'I Didn't Think I'd Make It Out'

Arrests are carried out both by the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption (HUBAZiK) and by the State Security Committee (KGB).

"There's a big difference," said Alyaksandr Azarau, the director of ByPol. "We have not heard of cases of the KGB using physical violence and beating detainees. They are the 'white-collar workers' of Lukashenka's structure. But HUBAZiK officers are butchers, so to speak, who are drenched in blood up to their elbows."

Those arrested by HUBAZiK are often given 15-day administrative sentences for "petty hooliganism," usually on the accusation that the detainee "provoked law enforcement officers."

Such a 15-day sentence "turns into 15 days of torture in inhumane conditions," Azarau said.

Former police officer Zhyhar said detention conditions for political prisoners since 2020 had been "made as uncomfortable as possible...absolutely deliberately."

Mikalay Zayats, a former press officer for the Kupala National Theater in Minsk, was detained in March 2023.

"For political detainees, special conditions of detention are created," he told RFE/RL, describing his time at Minsk's notorious Akrestsina remand prison. "We weren't allowed to take a shower. We didn't have any exercise time. We had overcrowded cells. We slept on the floor. I was at Akrestsina for about a month, and frankly, I didn't think I would make it out."

Anastasia Bulybenka was first arrested on November 12, 2020, and was later sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison. After her release in 2023, she was again arrested and held in Akrestsina for 30 days.

A sign at the Akrestsina remand prison in Minsk in January 2021 states that parcels for prisoners are not being accepted.
A sign at the Akrestsina remand prison in Minsk in January 2021 states that parcels for prisoners are not being accepted.

"Thirty days is terrible," she said. "The food servings are small, simply not enough. At first I didn't eat anything, but after I was given a second 15-day sentence, I ate and even asked for more.... But it wasn't enough, and I came out quite thin."

"There are bugs," she continued. "They don't turn out the lights at night. It is torture through lack of sleep.... They wake you up twice during the night to distort your biological rhythms. If it's hot, they turn off the air conditioning. If it's cold, they turn it on. I cried a lot at Akrestsina."

Some Belarusians arrested for opposing the state are held in pretrial detention at Minsk Detention Center No. 1 in the Pishchalauski Castle, familiarly called Valadarka from the Soviet-era name of the street where it is located. Valadarka is best known as Belarus's death row, where prisoners condemned to death are held and executions are carried out.

"We had a political prisoner in our cell, a former security officer," said Aleh Hruzdzilovich, a journalist with RFE/RL's Belarus Service who spent nearly a year in custody before being released on pardon in September 2022. "As soon as he appeared, he said that he would immediately be placed in solitary confinement. And he was. Why? Because the prison head learned that he was a former officer.... So they took him away, and we never saw him again."

'A Kind Of Bait'

Although many of those arrested in politically charged cases are sentenced to prison, others are given various forms of house arrest or "restricted liberty," punishment that activists say allows for persistent oversight and humiliation at the hands of the state.

"You are at home, surrounded by your bed and your belongings," said Syarhey Drazdouski, who led an NGO that assisted disabled people before it was shut down in August 2021 and who spent about six months under house arrest in a dormitory. "But the police and the authorities have every opportunity to make this unbearable. You are forbidden to communicate with anyone except your investigator and your lawyer. Doctors are allowed if you need them."

Human rights activist and former prisoner Syarhey Drazdouski (file photo)
Human rights activist and former prisoner Syarhey Drazdouski (file photo)

"If you break the rules, you can be given a harsher sentence," he said.

Lawyer Illya Saley spent about six months under house arrest in 2020-21.

"In my case, house arrest was around the clock," he recalled. "I was not allowed to leave my apartment. I lived there alone, so none of my family members were with me or had the right to visit me. All the information I got came from my lawyers, who not only served as lawyers, but also brought me food and took away my trash. I was allowed to watch state television."

Nobel laureate Alexievich describes such house arrest as a form of torture.

"House arrest is a means of humiliation, but a sophisticated one," she said. "Sitting in one's house, not going outside for six months is humiliation, mockery."

Some convicts are handed a kind of sentence colloquially known as "chemistry," under which they are required to work at assigned jobs in "open-type" correctional facilities. The name comes from the Soviet-era practice of sending such people to dangerous work in the chemical industry. Now they are generally given low-skilled work, including on collective farms. There are 29 open-type correctional facilities in Belarus.

Former IT worker Viktar Parkhimchyk was sentenced in January 2021 to two years of "restricted liberty" in the northern village of Sushki, about 175 kilometers from Minsk. He worked, often 18 hours a day, as a cattle breeder on a collective farm for 300 rubles ($90) a month.

"You can see the results of this forced labor in Belarus -- relatively cheap milk and other goods," he said. "Among my duties were helping cows give birth, trimming their hooves...and other jobs I didn't understand anything about."

"There are usually very bad living conditions for people on 'chemistry,'" said Vyasna activist Natallya Satsunkevich. "There are rooms for six, eight, 10 people in which they live for a year or two or three. There is no personal space. There is hard, physical work. Of course, there is no communication with family, relatives, or friends. It is very difficult psychologically."

Still others are sentenced to so-called "home chemistry," where they are allowed to continue working at their regular place of employment while sending up to a quarter of their earnings to the state. Such people are not allowed to leave their homes on the weekends or holidays. They are subject to inspection at any time without warning, either at home or at work. If such a person does not have a job, one is assigned to them that they must accept.

Zhyhar says the use of "home chemistry" is on the rise in Belarus as a measure to keep the most active people in society monitored and isolated.

"In some cases, this is used to keep a person free but under constant control," he added. "Perhaps, through this person, they can locate other people who haven't been found yet.... It's a kind of bait."

'A Sink And A Toilet Hole'

Many of those who have been arrested since the 2020 protests have served time in prisons, including the strict-regime prisons at Zhodzina (No. 8), Mahilyou (No. 4), and Hrodna (No. 1). The country's best known political prisoners -- including Syarhey Tsikhanouski, a popular would-be 2020 presidential challenger who is the husband of now-exiled democratic opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, and banker and would-be presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka -- are kept isolated in these prisons for years with virtually no contact with the outside world.

"They just break people there," said one former prisoner who asked not to identified. "The prison in Zhodzina is simply hell on Earth."

In response to rumors that Tsikhanouski had died in the Zhodzina prison, the authorities released a video of him in July 2023.

"I barely recognized him in that video," Tsikhanouskaya told RFE/RL. "A completely different person. Only after I watched a few times and saw how he moved was I sure it was him. I can't imagine how hard it is for him. And there are thousands of people like Syarhey in prison."

On July 11, 2023, artist Ales Pushkin, who was serving a five-year sentence for purportedly desecrating state symbols and inciting hatred, died at a hospital after being urgently transferred from Prison No. 1 in Hrodna. He had been denied timely treatment for a perforated ulcer, according to Vyasna. He was 57.

Many of the most prominent prisoners are kept in solitary cells known by the acronym ShYZA.

"Day and night you are in a cell about 1 1/2 meters wide and 3 meters long," said former political prisoner Natallya Hershe, a Belarusian-Swiss dual citizen who was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for participating in the 2020 protests and was released in February 2022 after Switzerland agreed to return its ambassador to Minsk.

"There's a sink and a toilet hole. When you go there, you remove all your clothes. They gave you an old uniform. You are allowed some soap, toothpaste and a toothbrush, toilet paper, and a hand towel. There is no mattress, no pillows, no blankets. There are no walks. You spend 24 hours a day in that narrow room."

People detained during the August 2020 protests show bruises that they say were the result of beatings they experienced at Minsk's Akrestsina remand prison.
People detained during the August 2020 protests show bruises that they say were the result of beatings they experienced at Minsk's Akrestsina remand prison.

"It is impossible to sleep," she continued. "You can't lie down during the day. You can pace, or you can sit on the table."

"The administrations of various prisons are actively using ShYZA against political prisoners," said Vyasna activist Satsunkevich. "And it is illegal."

Rights monitors say at least 11 politically repressed people have died in custody since 2020, including Pushkin and Lednik. Most of them were denied medical care until it was too late.

Volha Harbunova, a former prisoner who is a member of Tsikhanouskaya's opposition United Transitional Cabinet, said at least 200 political prisoners in Belarus are currently in need of urgent medical care.

"But, in fact, the health of all of the prisoners has deteriorated," she said. "Everyone has big problems. Among the political prisoners are many people from vulnerable social groups -- the elderly, people with disabilities or chronic health issues or psychological diagnoses. There are cases of people being sent to prison with Stage 4 cancer, brain tumors, or in need of urgent operations. These are real political prisoners who are now in the clutches of the regime."

Life After Prison

The ordeal of Belarus's repressed dissidents does not end after they are released from custody or other punishment.

"You don't go free when you get out of jail or prison," Harbunova said. "You end up in the new prison that the entire country has turned into."

"When I was arrested in 2021, I said, 'I will not leave Belarus; let them leave,'" said former prisoner and human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka. "But now things have changed. I understood that it was only a matter of time before new criminal charges were brought against me. It was a difficult decision."

Like many released prisoners, Sudalenka left Belarus; he is now living in Lithuania.

Another former prisoner, who asked not to be identified, explained his decision to emigrate.

"They put me on parole for two years," he said, adding that he had to report to local police every Sunday. "Nonetheless, the cops came two or three times a week. It was very unpleasant, even worse than when I was on 'chemistry.'"

Volha Klaskouskaya also made the decision to leave.

"After I was released, it was hell," she recalled. "A sword of Damocles was hanging over me constantly. Security officers came to my home. I was summoned to the police.... I understood I would not be allowed to live peacefully in Belarus. It was only a matter of time before I was back in prison. So I decided to leave immediately."

"These people are still under control," said former police officer Zhyhar. "They can be detained again at any moment. If a person is detained again and again, it is a hint from the system that they should leave."

Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka signs a new law severely restricting civil rights and freedom of information amid the crackdown on dissent in May 2021.
Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka signs a new law severely restricting civil rights and freedom of information amid the crackdown on dissent in May 2021.

In January, another hint came. The authorities began arresting the relatives of political prisoners. In some cases, entire families were detained. Vyasna said at least 160 people were detained on January 23. Many of them were detained for accepting help from a nongovernmental organization that provides food and other supplies to the relatives of those affected by the repressions.

"As if unjustly imprisoning scores of critics and protesters was not enough, the Belarusian authorities are now targeting their families," said Marie Struthers, the director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia at Amnesty International.

"This represents a new departure in the chilling campaign to exterminate all vestiges of dissent in Belarus since the disputed 2020 election," she said. "The severity is surprising even for a country and a region that has witnessed more than its fair share of brutal reprisals."

Written by Robert Coalson based on reporting from the podcast The Belag Archipelago by RFE/RL's Belarus Service
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    RFE/RL's Belarus Service

    RFE/RL's Belarus Service is one of the leading providers of news and analysis to Belarusian audiences in their own language. It is a bulwark against pervasive Russian propaganda and defies the government’s virtual monopoly on domestic broadcast media.

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    Anna Sous

    Anna Sous is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Belarus Service.​ She is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism at the Belarusian State University. She worked for the independent newspaper Narodnaya Volya from 1997–2000 and has been with RFE/RL since then. She is a recipient of the Ales Adamovich Prize from the Belarusian PEN Center and was recognized as Journalist of the Year by the Belarusian human rights community in 2019. She is also the creator of Russia And Me -- a series of interviews with 12 former presidents of post-Soviet countries.

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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe.

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