Belarus activists tell of life in exile

Belarusian youth activists sentenced to 'restricted freedom' for attending a peaceful protest have told Amnesty International how they were targeted by the authorities, with police seeking to control almost every aspect of their daily lives.

Seven activists were effectively placed under house arrest when they received sentences of up to two years for taking part in a peaceful rally supporting small businesses in Minsk in January 2008.

Five of the activists - Tatyana Tishkevich, Alyaksei Bondar, Mikhail Kryvau, Ales Straltsou and Ales Charnyshou - have spoken to Amnesty International, describing how they were forbidden from socialising, visiting family and taking part in cultural or leisure activities.

The terms of 'restricted freedom' were so severe that three of the activists escaped Belarus, fleeing to Russia, Poland and Ireland respectively.

"I would have to stay in my apartment at all times, except the eight hours when I was at work," Mikhail Kryvau wrote in a blog for Amnesty International. "If the police called my home landline and I was one minute late, I'd get an official warning. If I got three such warnings, I'd be [sent to jail]."

The activists were arrested after protesting against a presidential decree on tax and employment regulations for small businesses. In his blog, Mikhail Kryvau tells how he was beaten before being sentenced to 15 days' detention.

"We were lying on the floor with our faces down as the police were fiercely hitting us with their iron-covered boots and gloves. We asked the officers to stop but they wouldn't. It was a shattering experience," he describes.

Tatyana Tishkevich fled to Poland after being expelled from university for her political activities.

"[Leaving Belarus] was a difficult choice," she says. "For a long time I suffered from depression, knowing I wouldn't be seeing my family and friends. One of the teachers [in Poland] asked me how things were in Belarus : to which I could say nothing. And I couldn't hold back my tears."

Alyaksei Bondar fled to Moscow more than a year ago to escape persecution. He told Amnesty International: "Since I am on a wanted list, I have to live and work illegally.

"It is not very pleasant to live, knowing that any day my life can change dramatically and I will find myself behind bars for a 'crime' such as the peaceful expression of my opinion."

If the activists return to Belarus, they will face up to three years in prison for evading their sentence. Ales Charnyshou remained in the country and endured the restrictions set by police.

"I was forced to be at home every day after 8pm and on all weekends and public holidays; the officers had the right to check my presence at home or work at any time," he says. "For the slightest infringement, such as meeting with friends over a beer, a formal warning was issued."

Ales Straltsou, who also stayed in Belarus until he was amnestied in November 2009, told Amnesty International: "It's like prison, it's the same feeling. You cannot go out at all. Instead of sitting in a cell, you sit in your flat."

Thousands of people took to the streets in Minsk on 10 January 2008 to protest against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's constraints on entrepreneurial activities.

Initially, 14 people were convicted for "taking part in or organizing actions that gravely disturb public order". Seven were subsequently pardoned under amnesties but the sentences for the remaining seven remain in force.

Although a 'restricted freedom' sentence is imposed by a judge, specific terms can be set by the police officer in charge of the case. This often results in details being changed arbitrarily, making it difficult for the convicted person to comply.

In June 2009, one of the seven activists, Maxim Dashuk - who was 16 years old when he was convicted - had his sentence increased by 15 months after a police officer was unable to find him at home on several occasions.

The following month, fellow activist Artsyom Dubski was sentenced to one year in prison after the police officer in charge of his case told the prosecutor he had violated the conditions of his sentence.

"'Restricted freedom' is a form of imprisonment and the convictions against these seven activists violate their rights to freedom of assembly and expression," says Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Director Nicola Duckworth.

"The Belarusian authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Artsyom Dubski, lift all the restrictions placed on the other six activists, and the three who have fled must be allowed to return without risk of any further charges being brought against them."


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