We must not forget hundreds still in Belarus gulag, warns freed dissident

Democracy activist released by 'last dictator in Europe' tells of life as a political prisoner in camp

One of Belarus's most prominent political prisoners has for the first time described conditions in the notorious gulag prison camps where hundreds of pro-democracy activists have been incarcerated as the country's brutal dictatorship cracks down on dissent.

In his first interview with a British newspaper since his release at the weekend, Andrei Sannikov said he was held in solitary confinement for weeks and that the normal jail inmates were forbidden from contacting him once he rejoined them.

"There was special attention paid to me and I think there was a special operation organised against me to discredit me and make my life miserable in prison," the 58-year-old told The Independent from the flat he shares with his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist, and their son Danik, five.

"For much of my time I was kept in solitary confinement but when they moved me to my last prison it was forbidden to talk to me. If someone started to speak to me, and I don't mean showing support for me or expressing some kind of solidarity, they would be immediately moved into worse conditions or sent to another colony."

Mr Sannikov, a former adviser to the Belarusian diplomatic mission in Switzerland, and later Deputy Foreign Minister, was one of the most popular opposition candidates to stand against Alexander Lukashenko in the disputed December 2010 presidential elections. When protests broke out over claims of voting fraud, President Lukashenko responded with a brutal crackdown that led to hundreds of arrests, widespread torture, the imprisonment of almost all those who ran against him.

Although some opposition politicians fled, were eventually freed or were placed under less restrictive house arrest, Mr Sannikov and many others were sentenced to long jail terms after trials that were described by foreign observers as little more than kangaroo courts. In the run-up to those trials many, including Mr Sannikov, alleged that they were tortured by the secret police, which still uses its Soviet-era name, the KGB.

European countries responded by trying to isolate Mr Lukashenko's regime, withdrawing their ambassadors and placing hundreds of Belarusian officials on travel bans. EU foreign ministers will decide later this month whether to expand these sanctions.

The release of Mr Sannikov and his political aide, Zmitser Bandarenka, at the weekend came as a surprise to many observers and was hailed as a sign that the diplomatic pressure is working. But Mr Sannikov warned Europe against making concessions to the regime until all political prisoners are released.

"We have to continue because there are a lot of my friends and people who suffer for political reasons in prison today in Belarus," he said. "They have to be released immediately, all of them, and unconditionally. The authorities in Belarus don't understand any other language. I think it's absolutely moral to say that all measures must be taken."

Mr Sannikov and Mr Bandarenka owe their release, at least partially, to their decision to seek a presidential pardon. This allows the Minsk regime to emphasise that they have admitted their guilt and to stress that the authorities have been magnanimous in releasing them.

Those who refused to apply for a pardon, such as the last remaining incarcerated presidential candidate, Nikolai Statkevich, are still in prison. Other prominent dissidents left behind bars include Pavel Seviarynets, a former journalist turned opposition activist, and two youth leaders, Zmitser Daskevich and Eduard Lobau.

About 50 of Mr Sannikov's supporters greeted him in Minsk on Sunday after he was transported by train from a penal colony near the north-western city of Vitebsk. His wife, an award-winning reporter who has written extensively about corruption in Belarus, was unable to attend because she is not allowed to leave their home at night. "She is a hostage," Mr Sannikov said. "She has to stay home after 10pm and they can come and check on her any time they like. She is not free to move around, not even around the country."

The future for the pro-democracy movement in Belarus remains bleak. The crackdown has scattered what was already a small coalition of activists brave enough to voice opposition to what is often described as Europe's last dictatorship. Although restrictions on opposition groups were eased slightly before the 2010 election, any attempt to protest or voice dissent draws a swift response from the secret police.

After more than a year in a hard-labour camp, Mr Sannikov said his priority for now was his family, not politics. "Over the coming days and weeks I want to get my life back before thinking about what to do next," he said. "It was extremely hard for my family. Thank God, it is not in ruins but I have a very strong family and I love them immensely."

He said he was determined to remain in Belarus but that he was under no illusions about what kind of country he had returned to. "The situation has become really difficult here now. After the elections the power machine stopped pretending and declared openly that there is a dictatorship in Belarus. The consequences are felt every day."

Timeline: Sannikov's struggle

Summer 2010

Campaigning begins for presidential elections in a comparatively open atmosphere. State still controls media but opposition politicians allowed to stand.

December 2010

Protests break out after President Lukashenko wins fourth term with a suspiciously high margin. State responds with mass arrests, torture and show trials. Andrei Sannikov is arrested and held incommunicado.

May 2011

Sannikov is sentenced to five years hard labour for participating in "mass riots". He is one of more than 40 activists classified as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International.

February 2012

Relationship between Brussels and Belarus reaches its nadir as EU withdraws all its diplomats from Minks and ratchets up visa ban.

April 2012

Sannikov and his political aide Bandarenka are released after 16 months in prison.

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