Belarus minister accused of torture defies EU travel ban with visit to France

Trip revealed by The Independent prompts lawyers to press for arrest of police chief

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The Independent Online

A prominent Belarusian politician accused of spearheading the arrest and torture of pro-democracy protesters travelled to France for a meeting with Interpol this week despite being subject to a European Union travel ban.

Anatoly Kuleshov, the head of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, visited the Lyons headquarters of Interpol on Wednesday to sign an agreement recognising the international police force's passports.

His arrival prompted lawyers in Paris to try and force the French government to arrest Mr Kuleshov for allegedly overseeing the torture and detention of scores of opposition politicians.

The Ministry of Internal Affairs is in charge of the country's police force, which is accused of being behind hundreds of arrests and beatings over the past year. The country's secret police, the KGB, is controlled separately by the President, Alexander Lukashenko.

Multiple allegations of torture and abuse have been documented by human rights groups and international observers have condemned a series of show trials that were held last year to convict dissidents. The regime denies the allegations.

More than 350 Belarusian officials – including Mr Lukashenko and Mr Kuleshov – have been placed on an EU travel ban and had their assets frozen because of the deteriorating human rights situation. Lawyers for Free Belarus Now, an umbrella group of dissident Belarusians, lodged a complaint with French prosecutors calling on them to arrest Mr Kuleshov. However, so far, they have refused to act.

Opposition activists say Mr Kuleshov's presence in Europe – which could only have gone ahead with agreement from the French government – calls into question the efficacy of visa travel bans. "The French authorities have betrayed the Belarusian people and their own democratic principles," said Irina Bogdanova, sister of the jailed presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov.

"They have missed a rare opportunity to hold one of Lukashenko's closest advisers to account."

Like the Vatican, Interpol is classed as its own international territory, and the organisation can invite anyone it likes. However, to get to Lyons, Mr Kuleshov would have to have been granted an entry visa to France.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Internal Affairs told the Telegraf news website that Mr Kuleshov cannot be arrested while in France because he has diplomatic immunity. "The minister is in Lyons at the invitation of Interpol," the spokesperson said.

The police in Belarus have previously asked Interpol to issue "red notices" for opposition politicians living in exile. In December, an exiled dissident Ales Mikhalevich was briefly detained by Polish police while on his way to London because his name had been flagged through an Interpol notice.

The Independent asked Interpol whether it had any reservations about signing deals with a police force that is accused of human rights abuses. A spokeswoman insisted the international police force was apolitical and is concerned with co-operation between states.

"The nature of Interpol's work is to promote international police co-operation," she said. "The Minister's visit saw the signing of an agreement recognising Interpol's passport, providing visa waiver status for Interpol staff travelling on official business to Belarus – clearly important to global police co-operation."

Matthew Jury, from the law firm McCue and Partners which represents Free Belarus Now, said: "France's obligation under international law was to take Kuleshov into custody for his part in the torture and hostage-taking of innocent Belarusians. The international prohibition on torture is meaningless if states choose not to enforce it."