Lukashenko: the dictator in the dock

British lawyers prepare for prosecution of Belarusian President as outcry against Europe's last dictator gains momentum

Further evidence of systematic torture inside the KGB-run prisons of Belarus has emerged, as a British law firm announced yesterday that it is preparing to bring a private prosecution against the former Soviet republic's President, Alexander Lukashenko.

Human rights investigators have interviewed hundreds of activists who were arrested in the aftermath of last December's disputed presidential elections and have found that torture, beatings and inhumane prison conditions are commonplace in a country which still calls its feared secret police the KGB and is often described as Europe's last dictatorship.

At least 689 people are known to have been arrested on 19 December, when Mr Lukashenko ordered riot police to crush a pro-democracy protest in central Minsk. Hundreds more have been arrested since, and scores of opposition politicians, journalists and democracy activists are known to be facing jail sentences of up to 15 years on charges of organising a mass riot.

Belarusian and international human rights activists have interviewed 205 released detainees, many of whom were quickly processed in trials without defence lawyers and given short jail sentences. Of those surveyed, at least 148 reported beatings during pre-trial detention – including 57 who said they were beaten with batons.

"In many cases security forces beat and humiliated people detained after the protest and held them for hours in the cold with no access to food, water, or lavatories, and the courts then sentenced them in hasty trials with no semblance of due process," said Anna Sevortian, Russia director at Human Rights Watch, which published the findings. "It was a mockery of justice from beginning to end".

One 19-year-old demonstrator called Svetlana described how three policemen assaulted her when she asked for a lawyer and then refused to sign her arrest report. "One of the policemen held my hands behind my back and the other two were kicking me and beating me with sticks," she said. "Other detainees started yelling at them not to beat me, and then they took me to another room and filled in the report. They did not even show it to me saying, 'You won't sign it anyway, but it doesn't matter'."

The leading human rights firm H20 Law, which pioneered the use of Britain's legal system to go after the financial assets of the Real IRA, says it intends to bring both a private prosecution and civil action against Mr Lukashenko unless he releases all political prisoners.

The firm represents Free Belarus Now, a pressure group set up by the families of opposition politicians, campaigners and journalists who have been arrested in the crackdown.

"We believe we have got all the ingredients to pursue both a private prosecution and civil action against Alexander Lukashenko," said Jason McCue, H2O's founding partner. "We are ready to go and the families that we represent are determined."

Mr Lukashenko, a 56-year-old former collective firm manager, has maintained a quasi-Soviet state in the country of 10 million, allowing no independent broadcast media, stifling dissent and keeping about 80 per cent of all industry under state control.

Lawyers hope that a private prosecution could eventually result in an arrest warrant being issued for him or his associates. The Belarusian President and many of his supporters are already restricted by a European Union travel ban, but an arrest warrant would cover those countries outside the EU with which Britain has extradition agreements.

H2O also intends to sue Mr Lukashenko on behalf of his victims and, if successful, pursue any financial assets held by the President in Britain or around the world.

The firm had initially been brought in to pressure the UN and the International Criminal Court in The Hague to act on human rights violations. But the torture allegations have prompted it to take a more direct approach. "We already had a wealth of evidence concerning torture inside the KGB detention centres, but the real game- changer was the recent testimony from Ales Mikhalevich," said Mr McCue.

Ales Mikhalevich is one of a number of candidates who ran against Mr Lukashenko in last December's disputed presidential elections and were promptly arrested and charged with inciting a mass riot. His case, along with dozens of others, was highlighted in The Independent yesterday.

Mr Mikhalevich spent eight weeks inside the KGB's Amerikanka detention centre in Minsk. Last week he gave a press conference in which he claimed he was repeatedly tortured by his interrogators. The KGB has denied his allegations.

Viasna, a human rights organisation inside Belarus, says 38 people have now been charged under riot legislation and four have been convicted. Of those charged, 26 people – including two presidential candidates – are still in custody, two are under house arrest and nine have been released on bail which forbids them leaving their towns of residence.

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), Europe's main security and rights watchdog, is so concerned about the conduct of the trials that it has announced it will send monitors to attend them. OSCE monitors described last year's presidential election as "seriously flawed".

If H2O proceeds as planned, it would be the first time that human rights lawyers have gone after a sovereign head of state. Under international law, torture is one of a small number of crimes that can challenge sovereign immunity.

"If charges include torture it potentially allows the court to exercise universal jurisdiction and it could also annul Lukashenko's claim to sovereign immunity," said Matthew Jury, an H2O lawyer who has spent the last month interviewing Belarusian refugees who have fled to Europe.

H2O Law has used US courts to pursue Muammar Gaddafi for providing the Provisional IRA with Semtex. Two years ago it succeeded in winning £1.6m in damages from the Real IRA for the Omagh bombing.

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