Opposition leader's son threatened in Belarus

By Shaun Walker

Already the Belarusian authorities have violently crushed demonstrations, rounded up activists, and threatened several opposition presidential candidates with lengthy jail terms. But the country's security services now appear to be taking things a step further, with reports that the three-year-old son of one presidential candidate may be seized by the state.

The situation in the country has been tense since controversial elections three weeks ago returned Alexander Lukashenko - often called the last dictator in Europe - for a fourth term in office.

Thousands of Belarusians took to the streets of Minsk to protest the vote, but riot police broke up the crowds, arresting around 600 people. Many of them were released after a few days, but over 20 people remain in prison and face sentences of up to 15 years for inciting unrest.

Among them are Andrei Sannikov, one of the nine opposition candidates who stood against Mr Lukashenko in the elections, and his wife, Irina Khalip, a well-known investigative journalist.

Irina Khalip's mother has now said the family received implicit threats from the state that the couple's three-year-old son, Danil, may be seized from her care. Even before the elections, threats were made to the boy's safety, his grandmother said.

Lyutsina Khalip, who has been looking after Danil since the arrests, told the New York Times that she was trying to deliver a parcel of food and clothes to the detention centre where the couple are being held when she was called to her grandson's kindergarten. She said she was told by two government child welfare officials waiting for her there: "If you don't have the financial means or the physical means, don't worry. The child won't remain alone."

There have been other cases of the families of opposition candidates being punished. The 22-year-old son of another presidential candidate, Grigory Kostusyov, was sentenced to 15 days in jail for holding a one-man protest the day after the elections, and after his release was called in for further questioning.

For the country's opposition, the threatening of family members evokes the treatment of "enemies of the people" during Stalinist years. Children whose parents had been sent to the Gulag were often dispatched to orphanages.

"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," said Ms Khalip.

Across the country, anyone who is known to have any connection to the country's opposition is being called in for questioning by the security services, which still go by their Soviet-era name - the KGB.

There have been few mentions on state-controlled television of the post-vote riots, but a documentary aired on Sunday tried to quash rumours going round Minsk about the brutal police measures, and painted the opposition as violent mercenaries. The programme claimed that opposition activists had planned a violent coup, and also suggested that opposition candidates were beaten up not by police but by each other.

Mr Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994, received 80 per cent of the vote, according to the country's electoral commission.

European nations have criticised the vote and the events in its aftermath, while Belarus's main ally Russia has congratulated Mr Lukashenko on his victory. In the months leading up to the vote, the EU had made tentative steps to reach out to Minsk, but the brutal post-election crackdown has dashed hopes of a rapprochement.


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