Crackdown on Protesters Upsets Lives in Belarus


MINSK, Belarus — In more than 16 years in power, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko, the authoritarian president of this former Soviet republic, has often deployed the courts to persecute opponents, locking them away after the kind of show trials typical of the Communist era.

Dmitri Medved awaited trial in Minsk last month. Both Mr. Medved and riot officers said they were beaten at a December protest.

Now, with Mr. Lukashenko carrying out a widespread and brutal crackdown after protests over what appeared to be fraud in his re-election, the courts seem to be operating with particular zeal.

And so it was that a 51-year-old construction worker named Dmitri Medved found himself in a court here in the capital on a recent day.

If the charges against Mr. Medved — assaulting 15 armor-clad riot police officers with metal bars, bottles and flammable liquids — had been credible, then perhaps the large cage sequestering him from the courtroom might have seemed necessary. But little about Mr. Medved’s trial appeared to make sense.

He had been arrested after joining tens of thousands of people for the protests here in December, and had been in jail since then.

He says he did nothing wrong, and in the course of his one-day trial, the prosecutor did not seem to offer any evidence to the contrary. Not one of the riot police officers described in court as victims of Mr. Medved could identify him.

Hundreds of people like Mr. Medved have been arrested and charged with taking part in the protests, which were largely peaceful, but which the government described as a coup attempt. About two dozen of them, including several former presidential candidates, are accused of organizing the protests. Many of them face up to 15 years in prison.

Mr. Medved, a broad, barrel-chested man with a handlebar mustache, said he sympathized with opposition leaders, but had no ties to them. In testimony, he said the protest was already under way on Independence Square when he met his 21-year-old son there after the polls closed on Dec. 19.

Shortly after he arrived, he said, the riot police moved in, clubs in hand.

“They began to beat me with their clubs,” Mr. Medved said in testimony. “I tried to protect myself with my arms, but they hit me in the head.”

The prosecutor, Kirill Mazovka, explained things differently: The police officers were forced to defend themselves when Mr. Medved and other protesters attacked them.

Mr. Medved’s supposed victims were officers from the elite police special forces, or Spetsnaz, burly men with buzz cuts who are trained to thwart insurrection.

Human rights workers, independent journalists and international observers have accused them of pummeling unarmed demonstrators with clubs and bare fists at the protest, in some cases breaking limbs and cracking skulls.

In their testimony, however, the police officers portrayed themselves as having been besieged, though no photos or video have yet surfaced that show the police in such a position that night.

“The people pounced on us, punching us,” said Aleksei Sakach, the first officer to speak. He said he lost his shield and his helmet in the fray, and had to seek medical attention for an injured left arm.

Others offered similar, sometimes identical, testimony.

Even so, Mr. Mazovka, the prosecutor, seemed to have trouble keeping them on message, interrupting them frequently because of what he called “contradictions” between their testimony and written statements recorded earlier.

Read out loud by the judge, some written statements described a riotous scene. One officer wrote that enraged protesters threw projectiles at police officers and beat them with wooden poles. In his court testimony he mentioned none of that.

Mr. Medved’s lawyer, Sergei Lepesh, had a simpler line of questioning: “Did you see Mr. Medved on the square?” he asked over and over. In each case, the answer was no. (To establish his presence at the protest, the court called two officers said to have arrested Mr. Medved. Mr. Medved said he did not recognize them.)

As the hours passed, Mr. Medved, wearing the same beige sweater and jeans in which he was arrested three months earlier, gazed often through the bars of the cage at his wife, Tatyana, who in turn stared into a small Bible, occasionally looking up to cross herself.

They were married in 2009 and have a 1-year-old son, in addition to Mr. Medved’s older boy and a daughter from another marriage.

Speaking before the trial, Tatyana Medved said that her husband’s arrest had changed her profoundly. Born and raised in a small town, she had worked at a factory before marrying.

“I had a small salary and lived in a dormitory,” she said. “The government paid me crumbs, which I didn’t like, but I did not scrutinize it.”

In the past year, however, she said she and her husband had become increasingly frustrated. Mr. Medved started his own construction business a year ago. Because of Mr. Lukashenko’s grip on the economy, Mr. Medved’s clients were mostly government agencies, which frequently failed to pay on time, if at all, she said.

Even so, she said her husband’s arrest had been an awakening.

“It turns out that a person is so unprotected,” she said. “If they want to jail you, whether you are guilty or not, they will jail you. And no one can protect your rights.”

In his closing statement, Mr. Mazovka claimed to have proven Mr. Medved’s guilt completely. Though none of the officers claiming victimization had identified him — with or without weapons — his presence at the protest was evidence of “a premeditated conspiracy,” Mr. Mazovka said.

In addition to the testimony of the officers, he had presented a video of Mr. Medved on the square. The clip showed a column of riot police officers swinging clubs at a group of protesters. Mr. Medved appeared among them for about four seconds, his arms raised in what he said was an effort to protect his head.

The judge, Yelena Rudnitskaya, found Mr. Medved guilty and sentenced him to three years’ probation, beyond the time he had already served in jail. (Several others in Mr. Medved’s predicament have been sentenced to up four years in prison.)

As part of the punishment, Mr. Medved has a curfew and must check in with the police daily. He is allowed to work, but it is unclear what will happen to his construction business. Others who have run afoul of the government recently have been fired from jobs or expelled from universities.

But he is not in prison. After the sentence was read, he was released in the courtroom into the arms of his wife.

Speaking after the trial, Mr. Medved declined to go into detail about the case.

“My conscience is clean before all,” he said. “This I consider sacred.”


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