Eight years ago, in Belarus to observe the trial of two prominent journalists, I witnessed an elderly poet, white-haired and frail, being manhandled down the stairs by the Belarus State Security Agency (KGB). In a courtroom the two journalists waiting to be tried were held in a cage, barely larger than a dog kennel.
So while shocking, the images of 64-year-old Vladimir Neklyaev, a respected writer and presidential candidate, lying injured in the snow after he was beaten unconscious during an opposition rally in Minsk in December 2010, did not surprise me.
President Lukashenko has ruled Belarus with an iron fist since 1994. Six years ago, he altered the constitution to allow him to run for an indefinite number of terms.
On 19 December, following the outcome of the presidential elections in which Lukashenko secured a landslide victory – despite an unofficial exit poll giving him just 30 per cent of the vote – there were mass demonstrations. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe called the election ‘flawed’, saying it fell well short of democratic standards. Its Minsk office was abruptly forced to shut down.
Approximately 10,000 people took to the streets. When demonstrators reportedly tried to storm a government building, police set upon them, arresting hundreds, including journalists and human rights activists. The BBC reported that at least seven presidential candidates were among those detained, including Neklyaev, who is also a poet and a former president of the Belarus PEN Centre. He is the leader of the civil society organisation, Speak the Truth, set up in February 2010.
Neklyaev was brutally beaten by security services (doctors later diagnosed brain injury). Unconscious, he was taken to hospital from where he was then removed a few hours later by unknown persons. Later, the Belarus PEN Centre reported that he was being held by the KGB. The centre’s office in Minsk was raided and its computers and papers seized. Newspapers and pro-opposition media outlets were also ransacked and various news websites were blocked.
At the time of writing, Neklyaev is to be charged under Article 293 of the Criminal Code of Belarus (‘organisation of riots’). PEN reports that at least five other journalists are being held in KGB detention and awaiting trial on the same charge, some of them facing up to twenty-three years in prison if found guilty. They include Pavel Severinets, an award-winning writer and opposition activist, and Aleksandr Fiaduta, an author and literary critic. A former staff member of Lukashenko’s administration, Fiaduta resigned in 1994 and published a critical biography of the president that was subsequently banned in Belarus. He is also a member of Neklyaev’s Speak the Truth party.
Another journalist, Nadina Radzina, was arrested alongside all the staff and volunteers of the independent website Charter 97. She was badly beaten after her arrest and suffered bleeding from the ears. She has been charged with ‘organising and participating in mass disorder’, two separate charges in Belarus which carry potential sentences of fifteen and eight years’ imprisonment respectively. She is being held in an isolation unit and her lawyer has been forced to sign a gagging order. Irina Khalip, a journalist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and wife of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, is also detained. She was severely beaten by police after giving a telephone interview to the Russian radio station Echo Moskvy. She is being held in isolation by the KGB, and, like Nadina Radzina, is charged with ‘organising and participating in mass disorder’, facing twenty-three years in prison if convicted. Her lawyer has been forced to sign a gagging order.
Other victims of this brutal clampdown on free expression are members of the Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), a group of theatre practitioners now banned by the state in their own country. Tom Stoppard and the late Harold Pinter both openly supported the troupe. In 2008, this underground Belarusian theatre company brought their show, Being Harold Pinter, to England. They interwove Pinter’s work, including his Nobel Prize speech, with the torture testimonies of Belarusian dissidents. More recently, in December 2010, the BFT performed the UK premiere of Discover Love in a double bill with Numbers at the Young Vic, with guest appearances from Jude Law, Ian McKellen and Samuel West amongst other theatrical luminaries. Discover Love is based on the love story of Irina Krasovskaya and her husband Anatoli Krasovsky, a supporter of the Belarusian democratic forces who disappeared after being abducted in Belarus in 1999. Numbers depicts the bleak reality of Lukashenko’s oppressive regime.
Upon the BFT’s return to Belarus, writer and producer Natalia Koliada was held briefly and a warrant for the arrest of her husband and co-founder, Nikolai Khalezin, was issued by the KGB. As a consequence, they are now said to be in hiding.
Readers might like to send appeals condemning the arrest and ill-treatment of Vladimir Neklyaev, and other human rights activists and journalists; urging that all journalists and human rights activists be freed immediately; and calling for the dismissal of politically motivated criminal cases.
Appeals to be addressed to:
President of the Republic of Belarus
Alyaksandr G Lukashenko
Fax: 00 375 172 26 06 10 / 00 375 172 22 38 72
His Excellency Aleksandr Mikhnevich
Embassy of the Republic of Belarus
6 Kensington Court
London W8 5DL
Fax 020 7361 0005