Three years ago, German President Frank Steinmeier attended the opening of a memorial to Maly Trostenets, the largest Nazi concentration camp on the territory of the old USSR. It was the first time a German President had ever visited Belarus.
Today, at Slutsk, 97 km south of Minsk, the Lukashenko regime is building a new detention centre. An eye-witness described it as “some kind of military unit, where prisoners are led past men in uniform, standing ten paces apart, holding a machine gun or a dog on a leash.”
A protestor, who was subsequently released from the camp, said : “When we spoke to workers setting up barbed-wire fences, they told us they were building a new Auschwitz.”
Such reports are consistent with comments allegedly made by Mikalai Karpenkau, now the Deputy Interior Minister. In the recording, made when he was still a police officer, Karpenkau calls on his subordinates to “target rubber bullets at the testicles, stomachs and faces” of protestors. He proposes “internment camps” to “rid Belarus of the people it does not need.”
Such comments, if corroborated, amount to ordering the police officers to commit crimes under international law. Denis Krivosheev, Amnesty’s Deputy Director for Eastern Europe has called for the recording to be immediately, impartially and effectively investigated.”
Meanwhile, across Belarus, protestors are kept in pre-trial detention, often for months, and then given prison sentences of up to seven years. Their crimes? ‘Falling’ on a policeman while being arrested. ‘Tearing’ a policeman’s jacket while resisting a police assault.
On 10 August, a young protestor, Alysaksandr Taraykouski was killed, when police fired rubber bullets at his chest. No action was taken against those involved. Over 900 criminal cases have been opened against protestors - none against the police or militia.
Red and white decorations
Over Christmas, people were arrested for having red and white decorations on their Christmas trees. One girl has been arrested for wearing red and white striped trousers.
Citing COVID-19, those held in pre-trial detention are prevented from seeing their lawyers. Some are beaten up and kept in punishment cells for weeks. All are denied medical treatment. The judicial system in Belarus is being used as an instrument of terror.
Today there are 189 political prisoners in Belarus. One , Igor Lostik, a young blogger, has been on hunger strike for 6 weeks. His condition is deteriorating and friends fear for his life.
Journalists have also been imprisoned, including Katerina Borisevich from TUT.BY, the largest free news portal before it was deprived of mass media status in 2020.
According to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), journalists have been detained 479 times since the start of the protests. 15 are facing prosecution, 9 are already in prison. The state has restricted access to 50 media sites dealing with political affairs, and closed down 4 newspapers.
Yet with extraordinary courage, everyday citizens, continue to find powerful ways to defy the Lukashenko regime. The protests continue, even as temperatures fall to 22C below zero.
Day-to-day living is ever more difficult. The government has increased taxes and some fear it is printing money. Medicines, food, gas and electricity have already risen by 10%.
There are fears about Belarus’ nuclear power station. Safety breaches have shut the plant down 3 times in the last 6 months. The last thing the world needs now is a new Chernobyl.
Against this backdrop, democratic majority in Belarus looks to the EU and international community for help. What do they see?
Rene Fesel, President of the World Ice Hockey Association, embracing Alexandr Lukashenko. (The attempt to secure the ice hockey championships failed - the sponsors wouldn’t wear it).
Meanwhile, Rene Fesel’s fellow citizen, Natalie Hersche, who is both Swiss and Belarus, is serving a 2.5 year sentence for pulling a balaclava off the head of a police officer.
Political leaders in the West have embraced Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, but there is so much more the EU and USA could and should do and do together that would be helpful.
Joe Biden’s arrival in the White House is the right moment to review the international community’s strategy towards Belarus and the region.
Firstly, the EU should urgently and massively widen the use of its new Global Sanctions Regime (Magnitsky measures) against individuals and companies with links to the regime.
Secondly, EU member states and others should follow the lead of Lithuania and open criminal proceedings against those who have tortured and injured people in Belarus.
Thirdly, the EU should recognise that the Belarusian Special Police Force is a terrorist organisation and add it to the EU Terrorist List.
Fourthly, the international community must increase its support for victims of the regime and their families, for civil society initiatives and for the work of the diaspora networks.
Fifthly, the West should continue to exert pressure on the regime of President Putin to secure the removal of Lukashenko from power and to facilitate a democratic transition.
Called to account
Lukashenko will one day be called to account, both by the international community and by a free, democratic government in Belarus.
As the charge sheet against him lengthens, so the repression meted out by his regime continues to grow – with dangerous implications.
Few Belarusians trust state media. Most receive their news via international news channels. We sit in the West and watch Belaurs. Belarusians are watching us, too.
On Holocaust Memorial Day, we should remember what it means to stand on the right side of history. We are all called on to act for freedom and democracy to prevail.
The issues raised in this article were discussed at an online conference Quo vadis Europe? Democracy, security and human rights in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine on 27 January (International Holocaust Memorial Day).
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