Belarusian environmentalists and public activists jailed in massive police raid as Minsk mires in panic over rift with Moscow, upcoming presidential election

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Publish date: September 17, 2010

Written by: Maria Kaminskaya

ST. PETERSBURG - September has seen a new vigour in the Belarusian government’s unrelenting persecution campaign against ecological and political activists, with police detentions swiftly becoming daily statistics across the country ever since September 3. This time, it’s not just the political opposition that the Belarusian state is attempting to root out, but people whose political ideology, or absence thereof, keeps them focused on issues other than state politics – environmentalists and anarchists.

In early September, authorities in the Belarusian capital Minsk undertook a series of searches and detentions in the apartments of several anarchists and public activists. Igor Bogachek, Valeria Khotina, Sergei Slyusar, Nikolai Dedok, Alexei Zhingerovsky, Alexander Frantskevich, and later, Anton Laptenok ended up in one of Minsk’s detention facilities.

All of the seven detained have been involved in a range of educational, humanitarian, or charitable undertakings, some are regular participants of peaceful ecological actions. Following these arrests, two prominent members of the activist community in Minsk were also detained – Vladimir Volodin, a member of the council of the Belarusian Green Party, and Tatiana Semenishcheva, who is active in charities working for the homeless and stray animals.

As police raids intensified, activists from Belarusian extreme-right parties – Igor Chepiga, of the unregistered Right Alliance (Pravy Aliyans), and Sergei Popov, of the likewise unregistered Freedom Party (Partiya Svobody) – were also arrested.

According to various reports, searches and interrogations have been under way across Belarus in Solegorsk, Gomel, and Grodno. The maximum allowable term of detention without charges, set by Belarusian law at seventy-two hours, has been prolonged several times for several of those detained. So far no official charges have been brought.

As of September 17, the police have not been denying the detained access to legal representation, and have released most of them – with the exception of Dedok and Frantskevich. According to latest reports, Dedok has now been detained a fifth time in a row and is suspected of committing a robbery. Frantskevich is held on suspicion of charging an attack on a police station in Solegorsk, where he has been transferred pending indictment.

What has brought this on?

Belarus, one of the former republics of the long-defunct USSR, has been credited with an abysmal human rights record. The administration of George Bush once famously called it the “last European dictatorship” – and things have not improved much for Belarusian society since Bush’s time. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has been in power for 16 years, and his iron-fist rule has all but denied his country any chance at the democratic reform it may have had when it became independent in 1991.

On the environmental front, perhaps no events sum up Belarus’s troubling human rights situation better than the campaign initiated against the construction of a nuclear power plant (NPP) in Ostrovets, Grodno Region – and the varied means of intimidation the government has been using to put out of action those resisting its plans. As it happens, one of those detained, Volodin, has been quite active in the protests against the Ostrovets project.

Because Belarus and Russia have historically been very close neighbours, it is not just the high-level political ties that have kept the two nations together – such as the Union State of Russia and Belarus, an odd supranational political entity still in the process of formation, and until recently, the Kremlin’s lending its clout to Lukashenko to secure his unchallenged presidency – but the common environmental causes and the common deterrents that activists and environmentalists in both countries come up against.

In the case of the anti-Ostrovets campaign, Belarusian authorities did not think twice about jailing the Russian environmentalist Andrei Ozharovsky for distributing “Critical Commentary on the State Environmental Impact Study for the Belarusian Nuclear Power Plant,” a report he co-authored and in which the nuclear plant project was declared untenable.

But changes, both subtle and not, have been reshaping the political landscape in Belarus. Lukashenko is up for re-election – just this week, the Belarusian parliament set the next presidential election for December. But, owing to a recently growing estrangement with Moscow over trade relations in the Union State and other issues, he is fast losing the support once readily obtained from the Kremlin. In Russia, where the situation with freedom in the media has also remained questionable in the past decade, a documentary called “The Godfather” has been aired on one of the national channels, with the Belarusian leader in the title role and a roster of human rights abuses attributed to the regime established by Lukashenko during his several terms in office.

The upcoming election may just yet give the opposition an opening to challenge this long-stagnating regime. But both the demands of the pre-election period and the tensions with Moscow may also be causing Minsk enough jitters that it takes the pressure out on any dissenters it knows, resorting to harassment at the hands of the police and the secret service it has inherited from the Soviet times, the KGB.

On September 16, Lukashenko was quoted in media reports as saying Belarusian opposition was “enemies of the people.”

“No way are they oppositionists! They are enemies of the people. Whatever chance comes up to make it worse for the state – they’re right there. Yesterday, Europe, Americans wouldn’t leave us alone – they were there. Today, Russia is pressing us – they’re there,” Lukashenko said.

The car burning that sparked the raids

This “Black September” started for Belarusian activists already in the last days of the previous month, when, in an August 30 incident that fast made the headlines of both Belarusian and Russian media, a group of unidentified perpetrators wearing black masks threw two Molotov cocktails into the territory of the Russian Embassy in Minsk. According to eyewitnesses, one of the bottles hit a car parked on the premises, and the car was destroyed. Rumours surfaced that the incident had been orchestrated by government quarters. For his part, Lukashenko said, much to Moscow’s outrage, that he would not rule out the Russians’ involvement.

On September 2, a statement appeared on the website of Indymedia Belarus – which is the national Belarusian chapter of Indymedia, a network of more than a hundred open-publication Independent Media Centres functioning all over the world with the stated purpose of allowing independent activists to offer “grassroots [and] non-corporate coverage” of pressing issues on the local and global agenda – which was signed by a previously unknown group called “Friends of Freedom.” Friends of Freedom claimed credit for the vandalism at the Russian Embassy, but the statement was deleted later the same day as “potentially misleading.”

According to Indymedia Belarus, Friends of Freedom claimed the action had been done in solidarity with the defenders of the Khimki forest – the now famous ecological campaign to protect a forest near the Russian capital Moscow from clear-cutting and subsequent construction of a highway. The Khimki campaign had quickly grown from a relatively small, though bitter, stand-off between local activists and the authorities into a national controversy, culminating in a Bono-featuring rock concert and an intervention from the Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. In the neighbouring Belarus, Indymedia Belarus said, “there is no shared opinion on [Friends of Freedom], though many people consider them to be a provocation [on the part of] the KGB.”

Whatever the suspected affiliations, on the following day, authorities in Minsk started rounding up activists who were all regular users of the Indymedia website. Seven activists – Bogachek, Khotina, Slyusar, Dedok, Zhingerovsky, Frantskevich, and, later Anton Laptenok – were arrested on suspicion of complicity in the arson at the embassy and ended up in one of Minsk’s detention facilities.

No grounds for arrests – but plenty of suspicions

On September 4, both Russian and Belarusian news websites were offering breaking news stories headlined along the lines of “Belarusian Police Close In on Embassy Arsonists.” Yet, two days later, according to information the police in Minsk later received, a group of unknown masked perpetrators threw Molotov cocktails at the front door of the detention facility where the activists were being held. Another attempt was made at posting a statement on the website of Indymedia Belarus, saying the same group, Friends of Freedom, was taking credit for the second incident and was demanding “Freedom for the innocent!” The post, however, never appeared on the website since the user was blocked by the moderator.

On August 8, the police came for Volodin, from the Belarusian Green party, and Semenishcheva. Volodin, as Indymedia points out, is an antinuclear campaigner who promotes alternative energy and has also co-authored the critical analysis of the government’s environmental impact assessment of the Ostrovets project. Semenishcheva, Indymedia said, is a participant of a campaign called Food Not Bombs, which provides food and clothes to the needy and the homeless. She also occasionally volunteers at animal shelters.

Chepiga and Popov, activists from the Belarusian extreme-right parties, were arrested on the same day. It is not clear whether the police may have been disoriented enough by the arsons to initiate such a broad sweep of arrests across the entire Belarusian political spectrum, but the result is that both anarchists and the ultra-right have apparently been held on suspicion of complicity in the same incidents that Friends of Freedom – a group unknown to both – is attempting to claim the credit for.

The police are furthermore yet to present any evidence that the detained were in any way involved in the arsons. However, as far as the car torched at the Russian Embassy is concerned, relatives of the first six held in detention have already provided alibis for all of them: Each of the activists was said to have been at home at the time the incident took place. The green activist Volodin, who was detained a week after the first arson, had been attending his father’s funeral on August 30.

In what may possibly be another disturbing piece of the puzzle, September 3 was also marked by the tragic death of Oleg Bebenin, a famous Belarusian opposition journalist. The death of the 36-year-old founder of the independent news website Charter-97 (Khartiya-97) quickly became a high-profile case and was initially ruled by the police as a suicide. The finding has been hotly contested by Bebenin’s colleagues and relatives, and last Monday, the Belarusian Prosecutor General’s office said publicly it was looking into murder as the possible cause of death.

The activist community certainly does not rule out a connection between the events. According to Indymedia, “the unravelling repression[s] against social activists in Belarus indicate the exacerbation of the pre-election hysteria of the Lukashenko government. The hunt for activists started on the same day as the dead body of [Bebenin…] was found.

The investigation: Police are desperate to find proof of any wrongdoing to keep activists in prison

The police failed in its attempts to pinpoint those responsible for the attack on the Russian Embassy within the seventy-two hours allowed by law to keep a suspect in custody. The charges were never brought and those detained had to be freed. To avoid that, their detention periods were prolonged for another seventy-two hours, and then again, when this period had expired as well. The police would let their suspects go after three days and then detain them again under different pretexts.

The Belarusian media quoted the Ministry of Interior’s press centre as stating that the authorities were looking into the possibility that the suspects were complicit in other incidents, those that date back earlier than the Russian Embassy attack. In particular, theories were floated that the suspects had participated in the May 1 attack on the building of the Trade Union Federation in Minsk and an attempt at burning the front door of a branch of Belarusbank.

The ministry’s press releases also said investigators had found drugs during one of the apartment searches and that a criminal case was being initiated. None of the Minsk human rights advocates or lawyers who have stepped in to provide counsel to the suspects have ever been able to ascertain which of their clients – if any – was suspected of drug possession. According to the lawyers, there is no mention of any drugs being seized in any of the paperwork drawn up on either the detentions or the searches.

After her second detention, on September 8, Semenishcheva reached for a letter opener during a questioning and made a point of cutting her own hands in the investigators’ presence. She was provided first aid and then the questioning resumed.  

On September 9, the first seven anarchists – suspected initially of the involvement in the Russian Embassy incident, and then of attacking the Trade Union Federation building – were let go for the second time. According to the human rights advocacy group Vesna (Spring), once out of the detention facility, they were immediately detained again and moved to a different police precinct. When the lawyers and human rights defenders who have been involved in the cases arrived there, they could find no trace of their clients.

Both Vesna employees and the lawyers point to a range of procedure violations committed by the police during the detentions and the investigation as a whole – the absence of a cause for arrest, denying the suspects the right to counsel, and other abuses of standing Belarusian law.

Frantskevich’s attorney, Pavel Sapelko, said his client was being accused of attacking the Trade Union Federation building, but he was doubtful the police had any proof.

“There are suspicions, which I consider to be unsubstantiated. At least the documents filed in the case do not provide any grounds for detention,” Sapelko said.

He added that the police had never found any cartridges, nor ski masks, nor any drugs during the search of Frantskevich’s flat. On September 6, Frantskevich was turned loose, no longer suspected of the Russian embassy attack, and then detained again for the Trade Union Federation building incident.

“I will file a complaint regarding this detention, and this is especially important now, because Alexander only has one kidney, he is 20 years old, and it is dangerous for a person suffering from such a health condition to be held in the conditions of a detention facility,” Sapelko said.

Sapelko was unable to find his client for three whole days following the second detention – as was the case with the other six detained and their lawyers.

In a motion regarding the detention of her client, Tamara Sidorenko, who represents Volodin, wrote: “In my opinion, the custody record was not drawn up according to procedure, and the very detention was done with violations. The case materials make no mention of any grounds for detention.”

Valentin Stefanovich, a lawyer with Vesna, said: “We believe the investigating authorities are committing blatant violations of the lawful rights of the citizens detained on September 3. First, none of them qualify for the list of causes warranting detention as per[…] the Criminal Procedure Code. To wit, no one saw them at the scene of the crime, no one has identified them as persons who committed the crime, and there are no incriminating traces found on their clothes, and so on.

“Most appallingly, their right to counsel has been gravely violated. Frantskevich’s lawyer never received any information as to the whereabouts of his client, nor any explanation why he was barred from being present during the investigative activities that involved his client,” said Stefanovich.

Stefanovich deplores the situation where so-called suspects are released and then immediately detained again, based on suspicions that are completely different than the previous times.

Stefanovich said that to his knowledge, both the activists’ lawyers and the human rights group Belarusian Helsinki Committee had prepared complaints detailing these violations, to be sent to the prosecutors.

What is the ultimate goal behind the detentions?

What information is available on the progress of the cases indicates the investigators’ objectives lie somewhere outside the scope of looking into the arson at the Russian Embassy – if only because the investigative measures taken show they have little to do with finding the perpetrators.

According to the relatives and friends of the detained, the searches, interrogations, and detentions were performed by plain-clothes policemen with the help of SWAT teams, but without showing any badges or providing any explanations as to the charges. The police seized all data equipment they could find at the activists’ apartments – notebooks, hard drives, mobile phones, flash drives and memory cards, as well as books and other literature.
Other suspects were asked if they had any relation or affiliation with any on the long list of parties and unregistered movements the police presented. Volodin’s lawyer, Sidorenko, said that “this was the first time either I or my client had heard of most of these names.” She also said the impression was that the law enforcement agencies were trying to steer an arson investigation toward familiarising themselves as best they could with the type of social circles the detained belonged to.

The Belarusian public and its reaction

On September 6, friends of the first several detained activists posted a statement on Indymedia Belarus, claiming the activists’ innocence, and started a web-based signature drive for a letter addressed to the Prosecutor General’s office, the police headquarters, the KGB, and the president with a demand to release the suspects.

The Belarusian Green party issued a statement of its own, noting the conspicuously provocative nature of the attack on the Russian embassy in Minsk and the unlikelihood of the civil activists’ complicity both in that and the newer, continued acts of vandalism, whose real perpetrators remain at large.

“As the presidential election is getting close, political tensions are growing dramatically in Belarus,” the Greens said. “Certain unknown forces have stepped up their activities in the republic, setting themselves the goal of aggravating Belarus’s relationship with the traditionally friendly nation of the Russian Federation and escalating the situation with civil rights and liberties in Belarus itself.”

Along with a demand to free the detained activists, the Greens urged the Belarusian public to denounce the actions of the law enforcement agencies and, for all the civil initiative groups and political parties in Belarus, to work out a joint programme to prevent the realisation of this “tension strategy.”

A joint open letter addressed to the higher administrative and law enforcement officials of Belarus appeared also in defence of Vladimir Volodin, of the Green party, signed by a number of ecological organisations as well as high-profile public figures from Belarus, Russia, and the neighbouring former Soviet nation of Lithuania. Among the signees were the prominent Russian ecologist Alexei Yablokov, the human rights advocate Yelena Tonkacheva and the nuclear physicist Georgy Lepin from Belarus, the environmental group Ecodefense! from Russia, and many others.

Other statements have also been made in defence of Volodin, by the European Green Party and the Lithuanian parliamentary Commission for Nuclear Energy. All demanded that Volodin be released immediately. In an official note sent to Lukashenko, the European Green Party said it condemned, “in no equivocal terms, the numerous unjustifiable and politically motivated detentions of human rights and civil activists that have taken place in the past several months.”

The Commission for Nuclear Energy of the Lithuanian parliament, the Seimas, pointed out the likely connection between Volodin’s detention and his opposition to the construction of the Ostrovets Nuclear Power Plant: “An impression is created of a persecution campaign against a person who is considered undesirable by the government, [as…] Volodin has expressed criticism of the [Ostrovets NPP].”

All that these appeals led to, however, was that on September 11, Volodin, after being released, was detained again, according to his lawyer, Sidorenko, who said the police take no notice of the alibis or explanations provided by him and his family.

“He never even left the [detention facility],” Sidorenko said. “No grounds for his detention have been detailed in the records – meaning, they simply do not exist. This is yet another violation.”

In all, said Sidorenko, the actions taken by the police with regard to Volodin are surely connected to the recent arrests of other public activists and cannot but be interpreted as an attempt to put pressure on citizens who have active social positions in the run-up to the Belarusian presidential election this December.

Volodin was only released on September 17, according to latest reports. There has, however, been little progress in the cases of those still remaining in detention.