Oksana Barovskaya’s 12-year-old daughter was home alone on August 21 when several men rang the doorbell of her apartment in Lahoysk, a town in Belarus.
Barovskaya, who was at work, said that when her daughter called, “I could hear the doorbell ringing non-stop. She was hysterical … It was very scary.”
The men at Barovskaya’s apartment door were police officers who came to talk about her involvement in peaceful protests following the contentious presidential elections. While she was on the phone with her daughter, police arrived at her office and took her to the police station. For five hours, they questioned Barovskaya about her posts on social media and threatened that her “support for the power-grabbers” would ruin her daughter’s budding sports career. When they let her leave, she frantically called her daughter and found out the girl did not open the door and the police eventually left.
On September 14, a local court fined Barovskaya for her participation in an unsanctioned protest. On October 7, the local Commission on Juvenile Affairs met with staff at Barovskaya’s daughter’s school and the local deputy police chief to discuss an anonymous complaint about the mother frequently leaving the girl without supervision. The commission considered putting Barovskaya’s family on the list of families in “a socially dangerous situation,” which could result in her losing custody of the child, but decided against it. However, after the meeting the deputy police chief told Barovskaya that he would make sure the commission stays on her case.
Barovskaya is not the only parent in Belarus threatened with loss of custody in retaliation for speaking out against the government. In September, media reported that some schools forced parents to sign warnings that their participation in peaceful protests – many of which have been led by women – could result in losing custody. The General Prosecutor’s Office warned about sanctions against parents for failing to stop their teenage children from joining the protests.
Barovskaya believes the public outcry over her case helped protect her from having her daughter taken away – at least for now. But no one should have to choose between participating in peaceful protests and keeping family members safe. As Belarus authorities persist in the attempts to silence critics, the world should watch closely and keep the pressure on the authorities.