Belarus Signals It Could Seize Opponent's Son


MINSK, Belarus - Ever since riot police officers crushed a large protest against apparent fraud in presidential elections here last month, the security services - still called the K.G.B. in this authoritarian former Soviet republic - have been rounding up people across the country for even the most tangential affiliation with the opposition.

Danil was with his parents, Andrei Sannikov and Irina Khalip, at a polling place in Minsk on Dec. 19.

Now, it seems, they have gone a step further.

The government warned recently that it might seize custody of the 3-year-old son of an opposition presidential candidate who was jailed along with his wife, a journalist. The authorities said that they were investigating the status of the child, who is now living with his grandmother, and that they expected to make a decision by the end of the month.

In 16 years as ruler of Belarus, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has often been called Europe's last dictator. But the plight of the child, Danil Sannikov, may represent a new tactic in the government's persecution of the opposition, one that harks back to the Stalin era, when the children of so-called enemies of the people were sent to orphanages after their parents went to the gulag.

"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," said the child's grandmother, Lyutsina Khalip.

Thousands of protesters had filled a large square in central Minsk on the night of Dec. 19, incensed over Mr. Lukashenko's claim of a sweeping victory in elections that independent observers deemed a farce. The police violently broke up the rally, which had been largely peaceful, arresting more than 600 people.

Within 24 hours, seven of the nine opposition candidates for president had been arrested.

Danil's parents, Andrei Sannikov, a leading opposition presidential candidate, and Irina Khalip, a respected investigative journalist, were among those arrested, yanked from their car while Ms. Khalip was giving a telephone interview to a Moscow radio station. Mr. Sannikov was severely beaten and, his lawyer said, his legs were broken.

They are among about two dozen people facing up to 15 years in prison on charges of organizing and participating in the protest. Many are being held at the K.G.B. detention center in Minsk, where they have been denied access to lawyers and contact with family.

Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother, said she had not heard from her daughter since the day after her arrest, when she received a letter instructing her to take care of Danil.

"She wanted me to tell Danil she really loved him," Ms. Khalip said, fighting back tears.

She said her daughter had received threats about the boy even before the elections. One e-mail from an unknown sender read: "Don't think about yourself, think about your son."

Ms. Khalip said she first had an inkling that the authorities were turning their attention to Danil shortly after his parents were arrested. She said she was at the K.G.B. detention center trying to deliver a parcel of food and clothes to them when she received an urgent phone call that made her rush to her grandson's kindergarten.

There, she was confronted by two women from the government's child welfare service. She said the women were friendly, though they delivered an implicit warning:

"If you don't have the financial means or the physical means, don't worry," she said they told her. "The child won't remain alone."

For Ms. Khalip, whose daughter has frequently run afoul of Belarus's security services over the years, the message was clear.

"This is an effort to put pressure on Irina," she said. "They are capable of squeezing her, and this of course is the most sensitive place."

A representative of the child welfare service could not be reached for comment. Antonina Drugakova, the government social worker overseeing Danil's case, told the Interfax news agency that the K.G.B. notified her about the boy shortly after his parents' arrest.

"We are required to respond if a child is left without the care of his parents," Ms. Drugakova said. She said she hoped Danil would be able to remain in the custody of his grandmother, but said the government had a responsibility to determine whether she was fit to care for him.

"God forbid that all is not well with the health of the grandmother," she said.

Mr. Sannikov's lawyer, Pavel Sapelko, said that the K.G.B. notified child welfare services on Dec. 23, six days before his client and Ms. Khalip were officially charged with a crime. He questioned whether it was even legally necessary for Danil's grandmother to assume legal custody.


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