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Belarus political prisoners face abuse, no medical care and isolation, former inmate says

A human rights activist imprisoned for three years in Belarus accused authorities of holding political prisoners in conditions amounting to “torture.”

Yuras Karmanau
Sunday 17 December 2023 05:04 GMT

During his three years in a Belarusian penal colony, human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka says he and other political prisoners were regularly deprived of family visits, phone calls and parcels. He nearly died when COVID-19 swept through the facility. And he was forced to spend the last nine days of his sentence in a damp punishment cell, sleeping on the concrete floor with a roll of toilet paper for a pillow.

He had to wear a yellow tag on his uniform — as do all the estimated 1,473 political prisoners held in Belarus — so they're easily identifiable to guards who he said routinely bullied, abused and humiliated them.

“The Belarusian authorities deliberately create terrible detention conditions for political prisoners, which qualify as torture,” Sudalenka said in an interview with The Associated Press after he finished his time behind bars and fled to neighboring Lithuania.

Belarus has cracked down on opponents of authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko ever since the August 2020 election that gave him a sixth term in office in balloting that was widely viewed as fraudulent.

Protests swept the country for months afterward, bringing hundreds of thousands into the streets. More than 35,000 people were arrested, thousands were beaten in police custody, and hundreds of independent media outlets and nongovernmental organizations were shut down and outlawed.

Although most demonstrators served a few days or weeks in jail, those like the 58-year-old Sudalenka — a political activist for two decades — were hit with more serious charges that landed them in prison for years. Last month, he learned authorities had opened a new case against him, although he is now safely abroad, having sneaked out of Belarus last summer.

Still imprisoned is 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski, who founded Viasna, Belarus’ oldest and most prominent human rights group. He is serving a 10-year sentence and is being held “in complete isolation,” without access to doctors, said his wife, Natalia Pinchuk, in an AP interview.

A few prisoners haven't survived incarceration, she said, noting that artist Ales Pushkin died in July of a perforated ulcer after receiving no medical care, and Vitold Ashurak, whose body was turned over to his relatives in 2021 still bearing a head bandage.

Some have vanished into the prison system after their arrest. There has been no word on the fate of Viktar Babaryka, who sought to challenge Lukashenko in the election and reportedly was beaten while serving a 14-year sentence. Another opposition leader, Mikola Statkevich, hasn't been heard from for nearly a year.

“The world needs to know this and respond to it,” Pinchuk said. “People disappear in Belarusian colonies and prisons, and the relatives of many political prisoners do not hear anything about them for hundreds of days.”

She has taken her husband's case to U.N. human rights officials.

Officials at the penitentiary department of the Belarus Interior Ministry told AP on Wednesday that they have no comment on the allegations.

At the time of the protests in 2020, Lukashenko labeled reports of abuse and beatings of protesters in detention as “fake” and “not true.”

“Listen, why torture them? They were not being investigated there. If someone there had bruises, then they got them in the street, when they charged toward the domestic troops and riot police,” he told reporters. “There was no torture. You invented it because you had to invent it.”

Sudalenka was first detained in the southern city of Homel in January 2021 and charged with “organizing and financing actions that grossly violate public order” — a common allegation.

The evidence against him included making a Facebook post in which he collected money to buy firewood for the family of someone accused of “mass rioting” in the protests. The court also said he once held a workshop on digital security for human rights activists and had helped pay fines and legal fees for others who were accused.

A police search of his office and apartment yielded over 350 files on protesters for whom he helped prepare appeals of their cases.

He said he learned at trial that authorities eavesdropped on his conversations with his wife when she visited him in detention, and “then used it against me.”

“A terrible conveyor belt of repression has been launched in Belarus, and the courts have been turned into blind executors of this state lawlessness,” Sudalenka said.

He was sent to the Vitba-3 penal colony near the northeastern city of Vitebsk and had the distinctive yellow tag sewn onto his uniform marking him as a political prisoner “prone to extremism,” which he said singled them out for abuse. The tags, he said, were “too clearly reminiscent" of those that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany.

“All political prisoners with yellow tags are subjected to extra trouble and humiliation every day,” Sudalenka said. “Methods of bullying can range from punishment cells and complete information isolation, to refusing a meeting with a lawyer and denying of medical care and medicine.”

About a third of Vitba-3's 1,000 inmates are political prisoners, he said, noting their number “increased noticeably after the start of the war in Ukraine," when arrests were stepped up against Belarusians who opposed the Russian invasion.

Around the time the war started in February 2022, there was an outbreak of COVID-19 at the penal colony, and Sudalenka said he got sick, running a fever of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), losing his sense of smell and having difficulty breathing. His pleas to see a doctor were ignored, with guards instead giving him an unidentified pill every day.

“I was delirious for 20 days, between life and death, and miraculously remained alive, since the doctor never examined me,” he said.

Sudalenka submitted a complaint to the U.N. Human Rights Committee that was registered in October and later forwarded to Belarusian authorities, who still have not responded. He said the new criminal case launched against him in November on extremism charges was “a form of a response.”

On Monday, authorities raided his house near Homel and seized his land.

This month, U.S. authorities demanded Belarus release all political prisoners or else sanctions imposed on Minsk will be tightened. New U.S. sanctions against 19 Belarusian individuals and legal entities who support Lukashenko were announced Dec. 5.

Belarusian opposition leader-in-exile Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband is serving a 19½-year prison term, met this month with State Department officials and lawmakers, and a Belarus-U.S. working group on political prisoners was formed.

“We are willing to talk about changing our policies, easing sanctions, and improving our relations once the regime releases all of its political prisoners, stops its repression of the Belarusian people, and ends its complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Lukashenko refuses to discuss political prisoners with the West.

“They give me conditions: ‘You let this one go, let that one go.’ He broke the law, how can I let him go?! There must be certain conditions for this. They put their knee on my chest and start pressuring me for something. Oh, go to hell!” he said in November.

Independent analysts like Valery Karbalevich believe the situation will worsen ahead of next year's parliamentary election and a presidential vote in 2025.

“Lukashenko’s algorithm hasn’t changed in several decades," he said. "After every election, the Belarusian leader grabs as many political prisoners as he can and starts bargaining with the West, demanding the softening of sanctions in exchange for the release of democratic leaders.”

Sudalenka, who has continued his work with Viasna from Lithuania, estimates that 15-20 people are arrested for political reasons every day in Belarus.

After leaving the penal colony, he said he had to report to police twice a day and have weekly “preventative conversations” with them.

“I realized that in Belarus I was released from a prison to (another metaphorical) prison,” Sudalenka added.

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