“Documents, please?” – a man in a police uniform said, approaching me. As I handed him my passport, he added sarcastically: “Make sure you take all valuables out: dollars..pounds…whatever else you got there”.
The policeman seems to have been influenced by prime minister, Vladimir Putin, who recently referred to human rights defenders as ‘Judases’ who feed off of foreign grants. (In another speech, Mr. Putin quoted Kipling’s Jungle Book to call opposition ‘Bandar-logs’, disorderly monkeys marching to be eaten by a python, but that’s another story...)
The policeman meticulously copied my passport details as well as the exact wording of the placard I was holding, calling for release of the Belarusian political prisoners, into his little black book. He then looked at me, contemplating. Clearly, he decided he was not done with me yet. “If only you were a guy,” he said dreamily. “We would have conscripted you on the spot.”
This exchange took place on December 19 across the street from the Belarusian embassy in central Moscow. A group of colleagues organized a solidarity picket there in commemoration of democracy protests in Independence Square in Minsk a year before. The Minsk protests were much like the ones that spread like wildfire through Moscow and other Russian cities in recent days, yet the Belarusian authorities handled them much differently.
A year ago in Minsk, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest what they saw as another stolen presidential election. The protesters were largely peaceful, slightly disorganized and altogether harmless. But it didn’t take long for the police and security forces to move in with full force, beating unarmed demonstrators with batons, kicking those who fell to the ground, chasing and grabbing people, including bystanders.
According to various estimates, as many as 700 people were arrested that night and many of them were beaten right at the square or at police stations. And it is certainly not going to be easy to find another instance in modern history where no fewer than seven presidential candidates had been jailed by the end of presidential election day.
Dozens of people were charged with criminal offenses such as organizing or participating in mass riots - some remain in prison. Many have been held in the infamous KGB prison practically incommunicado. No lawyers have been allowed to visit and their correspondence to families and friends only very rarely has reached its destination. Those who have been released have in some cases publicly shared consistent allegations of mistreatment in detention. Over 700 others were sentenced to 10 to 15 days of “administrative detention” -- misdemeanor detention -- in speedy proceedings that did not even resemble due process.
In the months that followed the protest, offices of non-governmental organizations were repeatedly raided, their equipment confiscated. More protests took place all over the country – more people were arrested and jailed.
Over the summer, creative Belarusian activists even invented “silent” protests, during which they stand or walk around silently, sometimes clapping their hands in unison. Quite clever, since no “prohibited activity” is going on yet everyone knows what the silence is about. Still, in a widely reported fit of absurdity, the police arrested a one-armed man who was fined by a Belarusian court for “applauding in public.”
The information about such events was circulated through social media. In November, the authorities responded by speedily adopting new regulations that ban any kind of pre-planned public gathering in a place agreed upon in advance without explicit government permission.
Additionally, organizers are required to report “financial sources” for the event, and are not allowed to spread information about the event, including through social networking sites, until official permission is granted to conduct it. Under the regulations, though, permission can be issued no earlier than five days ahead of time. Another change bans actions directed at a ”public call for initiating” a gathering or a rally “in violation of established order.”
Throughout the last year, Human Rights Watch has commented on the rapidly deteriorating situation in Belarus on many occasions. In a report, as well as numerous news releases, statements and letters we called on the Belarusian authorities to release political prisoners and end the unprecedented crackdown on civil society.
The situation has not improved. And as Russia grew closer to its own parliamentary elections in December, its support of the repressive Belarusian government seemed to be only getting stronger.
The massive protests against Russia’s own election results that broke out – unexpectedly both for the authorities and the opposition – in Moscow and other Russian cities were met at first with excessive police force. But then the Kremlin seemed to reconsider and allowed thousands to protest peacefully on December 10, International Human Rights Day.
However, judging by Russia's willingness to back Aliaxander Lukashenka, one might wonder whether the Russian authorities will be all that unwilling to repeat the scenario in Minsk should it start feeling really threatened by the protesters at home. Whether inspired Russian activists have much awareness of that fact is a different question.
The Russian policeman I encountered the other day must have quite a lot of time on his hands. He examined the placard in my hands one more. “Who is Ales Bialiatski?” – he asked.
I explained that Ales is the head of Viasna human rights center and a leading Belarusian human rights defender. At the end of November, he was sentenced to four and a half years in jail on trumped up charges of tax evasion. He is in a Zhodzina prison known for its harsh conditions, awaiting an appellate court hearing, yet to be scheduled.
The policeman does not look impressed. “A young pretty thing like you.. ” – he says, both condescending and fatherly, before finally departing. “Stay away from those Moscow protests, or you might get your skull cracked.”
Under the circumstances, his kind warning, however absurd, does not seem entirely improbable.