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No Regrets

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Twenty-year-old Nasta Polozhanka was detained by the Belarusian KGB for more than two months. One of the leaders of the youth movement Molodoi Front, she is accused of organising ‘mass disturbances’. If convicted, she faces up to 15 years in prison. The ‘mass disturbances’ in question were a largely peaceful protest against last year’s rigged presidential elections. As soon as polling stations closed on 19 December, the Election Commission announced yet another landslide victory for Aleskandr Lukashenko, ‘Europe’s last dictator’, who has been in power for 16 years.

People marched peacefully to Independence Square in Minsk, demanding democracy, freedom and civil rights, watched by hundreds of law enforcement agents. A group of about 20 masked men – none of the other protesters seemed to know who they were – started smashing windows and banging on the gates of Government House. Riot police, presidential guards and KGB agents moved in, breaking up the crowd and surrounding groups of protesters. They beat everyone within reach with batons and stamped on anyone who fell to the ground. Protesters who tried to flee the square were chased by security forces who grabbed people at random, including bystanders, and loaded them into buses – up to 70 in a vehicle with a capacity of 30, witnesses told me.

At least 639 people (according to official data) but probably many more were arrested that night and in the following days: the police used mobile phone records to identify protesters. People were held for many hours inside police vehicles. Some were kept spread-eagled against the walls, with no access to food, water or toilets. Police rubber-stamped detention reports and beat anyone who refused to sign them.

The trials that followed were in the best tradition of ‘speedy and merciless’ Soviet justice. Most of the accused never saw either a lawyer or witnesses, and within 10 minutes were sentenced to 10 to 15 days of administrative detention. One of the witnesses told me that the language of the ruling was almost always identical. She was aware of one exception: a deaf and mute young man. In his case the judge eventually changed ‘chanted anti-governmental slogans’ to ‘carried posters with anti-governmental slogans’.

I met with many of those who served time in administrative detention. They described freezing cells, some of which held twice the number of detainees they were intended for; lack of food and water; guards who often refused to take them out to go to the toilet and forced them to use a hole in the floor of the cell instead. Aspirin was the only available medication. And they had no opportunity to contact their families.

Those who were eventually released considered themselves lucky, though, compared with Nasta Polozhanka and another three dozen people – including presidential candidates, activists of opposition parties and journalists – who have been charged with criminal offences. Nasta and a few others have recently been released on their own recognisance but at least 32 remain in detention. There is almost no information about their fate. Relatives have not been able to see them and at best have received one or two heavily censored letters. Their lawyers have not been allowed to meet with the detainees in private: there are not enough rooms in the facility, the KGB says. A few lawyers who publicly raised concerns about their clients’ health or conditions in detention were quickly silenced when the Justice Ministry threatened to have them disbarred.

Over the last month, security forces have conducted hundreds of abusive searches in the offices of opposition parties, human rights groups and independent media outlets, as well as at peoples’ homes. They have not found much, but confiscated all the computers they could get their hands on: ‘An interesting way to restock our law-enforcement agencies with new computers,’ an activist told me, laughing. Everyone I spoke to agreed that such a massive crackdown on civil society was unprecedented. Before the election, in the hope of gaining European support, Lukashenko softened his grip over the media, political opposition and non-governmental organisations. He even allowed opposition candidates to campaign against him on state television. But the short thaw ended quickly and brutally on election night.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe said that the elections were marred by egregious violations; the European Parliament and the Council of Europe issued resolutions condemning the crackdown; the Unites States and the European Union boycotted Lukashenko’s inauguration. Eventually the EU imposed sanctions, including a visa ban for more than 150 Belarusian officials, including President Lukashenko, the defence minister, the head of the secret police, and many others implicated in the repression. Russia congratulated Lukashenko on his victory and called the EU sanctions ‘counterproductive’, but condemned the wave of arrests and supported the Council of Europe’s resolution calling for the release of the detainees.

More important, the people of Belarus, especially the young, are demanding change. Nineteen-year-old Irina I. came to the protest with other Belarusian Christian Democrats. She took a loud hailer from a man who’d been beaten by the police and was covered in blood: his friends were trying to get him to hospital. She used the loud hailer to tell protesters not to run, ‘because we’d done nothing wrong,’ she said. She was arrested, beaten and sentenced to 12 days in detention. She went on hunger strike, asked for a pen and paper, a phone call to her family, and a meeting with a lawyer. The authorities ignored her. ‘I could have continued with the strike, several of my cellmates did,’ Irina said. ‘But then we got newspapers, and I realised just how massive the crackdown was, with most of the opposition leaders, and hundreds of others, behind bars. I knew then I would need all my strength to get to work as soon as I got out.’

It was hard to believe I was talking to someone who’d only just left school. But Irina is a seasoned activist: last spring she ran in local elections in her home town, and was promptly kicked out of university. Now the police keep summoning her for questioning. She told me she carries a copy of the criminal procedure code to every interrogation. ‘It’s much better than a lawyer. They can threaten and disbar a lawyer but it’s much harder to silence their own law.’

For other young people, the December protest was their first act of resistance. Eighteen-year-old Svetlana S. told her parents she was going to a movie. After her arrest, she was beaten, humiliated and threatened by the police. ‘They slapped me, hit my head against the wall, and twisted my scarf around my neck so that I started suffocating. They said they would rape me if I didn’t answer their questions. I never expected to end up in detention. But I have no regrets. It was just one of these moments in life when you have to make a choice, and I made it. And now I will not give up – after all, what can they do to me?’

Not all the protesters were young, however. Aleksandr Klaskovskiy became famous when video reports from Independence Square showed him in police uniform, his head covered in blood, confronting the riot officers. He quit his job with the local police a few years ago, his wife, Natalya, told me – the uniform was from those days – and started his own business. Things were going well. They have three children, a new apartment, a nice car. When I asked Natalya why he’d gone to the protest, she seemed a little perplexed by the question. Like the other relatives of detainees that I spoke to, she expressed no regrets. I never heard one of them say: ‘I wish he had stayed at home that day.’

Support for the protesters goes much wider than their immediate families. Released detainees told me they had received parcels from complete strangers while in detention: warm clothes, chocolates, books. ‘I wish I had a library like that at home,’ Svetlana said, laughing. ‘The only problem was that people mostly sent us books like The Gulag Archipelago; we ended up with three copies of it in our cell. I am very grateful for the support we got. But I would like to pass on a message. Next time I am detained, please don’t send us too many serious books. It would be great to get Bridget Jones’s Diary instead.’

Comments on “No Regrets”

  1. cigar says:

    “… Next time I am detained, please don’t send us too many serious books. It would be great to get Bridget Jones’s Diary instead.’”

    Or perhaps “Reading Lolita in Tehran”? With that kind of opposition, I think Comrade Lukashenko can look forward to a peaceful death and a dynastic transition worthy of the envy of a Central Asian despot. Perhaps the EU and US should use the money they waste on these pampered activists to bribe Putin into cutting all economic aid to Belarus, bringing about a quick revolution such as that we have just witnessed in Egypt.

    Unfortunately, since all the EU can offer is austerity and debt peonage (+ military service in the US), in no time Lukashenko or another of his cronies will return, surfing on a wave of Russian money and oil.

    But for the Belorussian color revolutionaries there will always be money from Soros and the NED, and a place at the table of the Polish FM:

    http://www.thenews.pl/international/artykul148569_sikorski-warns-lukashenko—youre-losing.html

    • Thomas Jones says:

      It’s a bit much to describe them as ‘pampered’: ‘They slapped me, hit my head against the wall, and twisted my scarf around my neck so that I started suffocating. They said they would rape me if I didn’t answer their questions.’

      • Geoff Roberts says:

        Makes me wonder why you have such high standards for protesters. Been there yourself, have you? Admittedly, the EU has its conventional way of dealing with dictators, but surely you are expecting a lot of those students if you think that they are going to storm the Winter Palace. The post gives a very good picture of the degree of repression that I think you might aknowledge.

        • cigar says:

          If they really had the majority of people behind them, they wouldn’t need to storm any palace. They would fill the streets with hundreds of thousands for weeks, and as in Egypt and Tunisia, when the riot and secret police found itself overwhelmed and the army was called, if the soldiers joined the protesters, the game would be up for Lukashenko. Now google Belarus and protest and see how many recent links you get. All refer to the post election December 20 protests.

          In reality the opposition in Belarus has zero legitimacy in the eyes of the majority of the people, because they all dependent on one or another foreign power’s money for their survival. Lukashenko must have secretly thanked the idiotic cold warrior Radek Sikorski (married to the russophobe Anne Applebaum) for tainting the opposition, making it appear like a tool of Poland’s revanchist right. And one opposition website itself carries an exit poll from a respected London-based firm (http://ibelarus.eu/?p=1387) that gives close to 3/4′s of the vote to Lukashenko.

          “Been there yourself, have you?”

          So Adam Schatz should not write about the protests in Lybia because he isn’t there? Reminds me of a complaint by some soprano’s supporter in youtube: I am not qualified to criticize her performance because I am not a singer myself.

          • Joe Morison says:

            The majority of the population are probably too damn scared to follow the example of these exceptionally brave people. And it certainly is a pertinent question to ask if you’ve been there yourself: you’re not making an aesthetic judgement, you’re making a moral one; and unless you can show that you’ve been in a similar situation and done better, you have no right to criticise.
            The world is full of armchair revolutionaries making banal criticisms of people they have not one tenth of the bravery of: perhaps, cigar, you have performed so many great exploits in the cause of justice that you know whereof you speak and have the right to condemn; personally, i am in awe that these people can dare so much and can only hope i could show such courage if i was in their position.

            • cigar says:

              “The majority of the population are probably too damn scared to follow the example of these exceptionally brave people.”

              So brave they never returned to the streets after that. Am I supposed to hold them in as high regard as those in Iran, Lybia, Egypt and Tunisia, who faced (or are still facing) much worse violence in the streets? Day after day, for weeks?

              “And it certainly is a pertinent question to ask if you’ve been there yourself:”

              Please, don’t come up with these childish smear tactics. Because I am this or that (or not), everything I say is automatically wrong? Then you will find this site to your liking: http://www.freerepublic.com

              According to you, the fact that these demonstrators took to the streets and risked their life is enough proof of their good intentions. So one shouldn’t question their ideals. One shouldn’t wonder who’s supporting them, and if their leaders are just using them to promote the agenda of some foreign power or other. No, sez Joe and Geoff “Unlike you they are revolutionaries, so shut up!” Indeed I will, but not because you are right. Rather, because you are just plain dumb. Hope the banana puree is to your liking.

              • Geoff Roberts says:

                Let’s tone down the exchange here. The young protesters can’t choose their allies in the west, they can only recognise the extent to which they are being repressed and persecuted. Some of their supporters may be right-wing denizins but that’s not their fault. When I wrote -’been there …’ I was using it in the figurative sense (been there, done it ..) asking if you have been an observer or actor in any of the recent uprisings. The Chinese opposition is very heterogenous and has some wierd supporters in the west but that doesn’t detract in any way from their courage and idealism. Your ad hominem stuff (you are just plain dumb ..)is uncalled for.

  2. Joe Morison says:

    No-one has said you shouldn’t question the protesters intentions and ideals, wonder who’s supporting them, and whether they are being used by their leaders to promote the agenda of some foreign power: these are valid and perhaps fruitful lines of enquiry. But you didn’t do any of that in a remotely useful way: your original post made a very personal attack on the character of an 18 year old girl for no other given reasons than a lighthearted quip about the reading matter she had been sent in prison, the assertion that Soros and the NED support some opposition groups (all of them, the ones Svetlana S. and Nasta Polozhanka are part of?), and a link showing that the odious Polish foreign minister had sent words of support (Iran’s Ahmadinejad sent words of support to the Egyptian protesters, so what?).

    You don’t need to be able to sing in order to judge others’ singing, and you don’t need to have been present during some event to write informatively about it, but you definitely do need to have stood up to something as hideous as these people have, with the bravery they have shown, before you accuse them of being pampered and, implicitly, of being cowards for not having returned to the streets. Perhaps, cigar, in their shoes you’d have been a hero; or, perhaps, you wouldn’t have had the guts to even turn up in the first place. Until you’ve stood somewhere like they have, you don’t know and your insults are just pathetic.

    Discuss all those issues you mentioned, tell us something we didn’t know about them, your arguments may well be good ones. But to make such personal attacks on the integrity and bravery of the people Anna Neistat spoke to with no submitted evidence or personal testament is nothing more than trollish mud slinging.

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