Ales Mikhalevic, a prominent Belarusian presidential candidate who testified publicly that he was tortured in KGB custody, has fled the country, The Independent has learned.
The 36-year-old father of two is just one of several opposition politicians who ran against Belarus strongman Alexander Lukashenko and were promptly charged with mass rioting in the aftermath of last December’s disputed elections.
More than 700 pro-democracy activists have been arrested in what human rights groups and foreign governments say is a brutal crackdown opposition forces within Europe’s last dictatorship.
In a posting on his own blog, Mr Mikhalevich announced that he was now “out of reach of the KGB” after being summoned to return for questioning at a detention centre run by Belarus’ secret police.
“I have grounds to believe that I would not be able to leave the building of the KGB any more,” he wrote. “So I’m not going to visit the KGB. Now I am in a safe place out of reach of the Belarusian KGB. I am going to continue the work on putting an end to tortures and release of everyone who are unlawfully imprisoned on political reasons.”
Mr Mikhalevic’s mobile phone was unreachable this morning. But The Independent was able to contact his wife Milana who said she was determined to remain in Minsk with the couple’s two children.
“I don’t have a lot of information, but I know he is safe,” she said. “He had to move, he had to make the decision very quickly. We didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye and he didn’t have time to collect any of his things. I don’t know exactly why he had to leave but he must have had serious grounds for doing so. He had always been against leaving the country.”
Mr Mikhalevic was arrested alongside hundreds of democracy activists in the immediate aftermath of a pro-democracy rally on 19 December. The 30,000 strong rally was called to protest the results of Belarus’ presidential election, which has since been judged flawed by international observers. It was crushed by riot police after a small number of protestors began attacking a government building.
Mr Mikhalevic was held in “Amerikanka”, a KGB detention facility in central Minsk, until 19 February when he was released on the condition that he told nothing about his nine weeks in pre-trial detention.
But two weeks later he appeared in public and gave an emotional press conference in which he publicly stated that he and other pro-democracy activists were tortured.
Speaking about his time in jail Mr Mikhalevich said guards repeatedly made him stand outside naked in the cold, used excruciating stress positions during searches, forced him to sleep in a cell where the temperature was kept at 10C and refused him access to defence lawyers.
In one particularly brutal interrogation on 10 January, he claimed he was physically tortured by a group of masked men. "Some people wearing camouflage uniforms and face-masks, with no insignia, dragged me out [of my prison cell], handcuffed me behind my back and pulled my arms so high my face was hitting the concrete floor," he said. "They took me down a spiral staircase into a separate room and started pulling my arms up so high that my bones cracked, demanding that I promise to do whatever I was told to do by State Security officers. And they kept pulling my arms up until I said yes."
A spokesperson for the secret police, which still uses its pre-Soviet independence name, said Mr Mikhalevich's descriptions of conditions inside the jail "did not match reality". But his testimony adds to a growing body of evidence collected by human rights groups on what they say is as a vicious crackdown inside Europe's last dictatorship.
This morning Human Rights Watch published a new report on the past three months in Belarus which claims that the authorities have “arbitrarily detained and abused hundreds of people.” The report concluded that there is widespread “persecution of opposition candidates and activists, abuse of detainees, trials behind closed doors, and raids on human rights organizations.”
"For well over a decade the Belarusian government has steadily tightened its grip on civil society," said Anna Sevortian, Russia director at Human Rights Watch. "Now, the new wave of persecution is a crisis that requires a strong UN response."