Marina Adamovich, wife of Nikolay Statkevich
Olga Bondarenko, wife of Dmitry Bondarenko
Irina Khalip, wife of Andrei Sannikov
On 30 September, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that the European Union was prepared to extend Belarus up to $9 billion in aid. For this to happen, the authorities must liberate political prisoners and guarantee the holding of free elections. The first of these conditions is already being met: just recently over 20 political prisoners received their freedom. Those sentenced in relation to the mass unrest following the December 19 election have become hostages for the sake of whom the West has now begun to negotiate.
Dozens of printed portraits hang on a wall of the Minsk office of Solidarnost, a committee for the defence of the victims of political repression. Dmitry Dashkevich, Andrei Sannikov, Nikolai Statkevich, and Dmitry Bondarenko, convicted in relation to the December 19 mass unrest (in Minsk they are called Decembrists), remain in prison; Pavel Severinets has been sent out on “tricks” (correctional work); Ales Belyatsky (the head of the human rights organization Vesna) is still awaiting trial. Dmitry Uss was recently released.
Those Decembrists who have already been released from prison solemnly remove their portraits themselves. The first to stop by were nine young people who signed a petition seeking pardon from Lukashenko himself. After that there were another eleven freed by order of the president with the following words: guided by humanitarian principles. Rumours making their way through Belarus have it that one of them has also sought pardon, though it is not known who. It is not appropriate in Minsk to ask who, indeed it would appear even to be indecent.
It is believed in Belarus that the true results of the December 19 election can be inferred by looking at which of the candidates is still in prison.
“I’ll push you around in a wheelchair”
“Perhaps you could stop by tomorrow? Today is my wedding anniversary, and I thought I might celebrate it with some of my friends…”
Olga Bondarenko’s voice sounds colourless. Her husband, Dmitry Bondarenko (43 years old, campaign manager for European Belarus, a member of Andrei Sannikov’s team, sentenced to two years in a minimum security prison) is celebrating his 27th wedding anniversary in the Mogilev prison hospital.
While still in the KGB pre-trial detention centre, Bondarenko experienced the aggravation of a herniated spinal disk. Dmitry lost all feeling in his right leg, began to limp with his left as well, and began to experience constant pain. In spite of this, he was forced to spend hours standing in extension (stretching his legs out as widely as possible), use the prison close-stool, sleep on the top bunk, as well as being kept chained and locked up in a punishment cell. Six months later an MRT was carried out along with blood work, and he was urgently taken to hospital. In July, a choice had to be made: either to be sent off to a penal colony, or to have an operation performed at once on his spine in the prison hospital. Olga now speaks of this time as the most frightening since her husband’s arrest.
“Perhaps there are other options on the outside, but to be here and leave for the prison camp with a bum leg won’t work. Everything is in God’s hands,” Dmitry wrote his wife, agreeing to have the operation.
Further on, Olga took the role of God’s hands upon herself. She got in touch with the Red Cross, made journalists around the world write about him, found the best neurosurgeon in the country, and managed to get through to him for an appointment.
Miraculously, she was able to have her husband transferred to a regular hospital for the operation. Three guards kept watch around the clock in the hospital ward and tried to force their way into the operating room. The Belarusian Minister of Health himself came to take the patient to the hospital.
“From his time in the army, Dmitry would say: once you’re in the system, there’s no use resisting; you must adapt,” Olga recalls. According to her, her husband had prepared beforehand for prison, even warning the workers at headquarters, “If anything happens, blame it all on me”. Just what was meant by “anything” was not discussed, though everyone understood what could follow the election.
Olga also knows that the lawyer and her husband discussed different strategies for behaviour in the pre-trial detention centre, though during his first interrogation, Bondarenko spoke for three hours about what he thought of the election results and where he saw the KGB. “The lawyer says that it was impossible to stop Dmitry; he was like an armoured vehicle on the charge,” she says with pride.
On 15 September, Olga was granted her first meeting with her husband in the penal colony. “I’m walking across the yard to meet you, and the whole space is surrounded by light,” he said rejoicing. It turns out that in the prison hospital no one was taken out for walks.
At their meeting, Bondarenko casually mentioned how he was being forced to sign the petition for pardon. The first time, they tried to convince him calmly. The second time, they told him to think about his family and his health; they hinted that the time had come for him to stop lounging around in his bed and to join his work brigade.
“No doubt, in THERE, they have their own approach for each person…” Olga says thoughtfully. “For some, it is their children; for others, it is their business; for my husband, it is his health. More than anything, he was threatened with a disability. And I said, ‘you know what? If we have to, I’ll push you around in a wheelchair.’ Dmitry more or less calmed down after that.”
…We are sitting in the kitchen and Olga is making coffee.
“You know, sometimes it seems to me that everything will change soon,” she says sadly. “We don’t need credit; we don’t need these negotiations. Dmitry told me he’d rather die in there than give them the chance to use him to negotiate.”
“Is that what you want too?” I ask her carefully.
“That’s what I want too,” Olga says.
“…A person comes to me in the prison hospital dressed in civvies and with orders: you have been pardoned by the president, guided by humanitarian principles, signed: 01.10.2011. Even the time was written there: 19.00. So I signed. I was given my passport, and at exactly seven o’clock I went out into the street. I have no phone, no money, so I have to walk. I get home, and there’s no one there. I called my wife from the neighbour’s…”
In the Mogilev prison, Dmitry Uss (40 years old, former presidential candidate, sentenced to five and a half years in a medium security prison) was making hammocks. For each hammock, you receive 1,300 Belarusian roubles (seven Russian roubles). In a month you can make 60,000 roubles (335 Russian roubles). The guards called Uss “their president” or “Article 58”. “Where’s 58?” they would say in the prison.
Uss speaks as if he is surprised by his own words. A few years ago, he underwent a serious operation and was in a coma for a long time. In the Mogilev prison, his neurological condition became aggravated, and his blood pressure began to rise. He was granted disability status of the second degree.
On his first day in the KGB pre-trial detention centre, according to Uss, he was promised that his business would be destroyed (Uss is the head of an atlas and map publisher). Then they began to call him to interrogation during the night, taking him from his cell every two hours. They suggested that he denounce former candidate Nikolai Statkevich for organising the mass unrest. When he refused, they promised to close him down for good.
Dmitry was released suddenly, as if they were in a rush. According to him, he was not even offered a chance to sign the petition for pardon. It is true, however, that in the summer time, he was ordered to sign a regular paper saying he vowed to walk the line and follow the administration’s orders. The convicted Uss politely refused to walk the line.
As everyone else released suddenly and before the time had come, Uss was suspected of collaborating with the KGB. President Lukashenko himself dispelled suspicions.
During a press conference, among other things, he declared: “One [prisoner] wrote a declaration stating that he was psychologically burned-out. Well, they moved him to the hospital and did some tests. Turns out he’s a schizophrenic. He was granted disability status of the second degree. You can’t keep a sick man in prison”.
Everyone in Minsk exhaled: he’s not an informer. Dmitry, meanwhile, was upset.
The slippers of life
“Things got really scary when I was taken naked from the hospital…”
On 19 December, on the way to a rally, a column of those supporting Vladimir Neklyaev (65 years old, a famous Belarusian poet and writer, presidential candidate, sentenced to two years with a two year deferment of punishment) was attacked by unknown men, and Neklyaev was beaten on the head with truncheons. He was taken by ambulance to the hospital, where doctors diagnosed him with head trauma and a concussion.
“…And so I’m lying there with intravenous, and some thugs come crashing in and drag me outside. You don’t have to be a writer to imagine: perhaps those who are dragging you outside naked when it’s thirty below simply happen to know that you no longer need clothing? I was taken somewhere, dragged somewhere underground. I was carried out on a blanket, in which I wrapped myself, sitting there, shaking. Suddenly a man in a military uniform came in, looked at me, left, and then came back with some slippers. I was so happy! Slippers mean life. I don’t know if I have ever experienced such joy at another time.”
It turns out that was the KGB pre-trial detention centre.
The worst, Neklyaev recalls, were the first few days after arrest.
First, they tried to pin espionage on Vladimir. Then they tried to recruit him. After that they showed him some false denunciations from other candidates, offering him to denounce in return. On the very first day, he was asked, “you know that you are responsible for a pile of dead bodies?” No information was making its way into the detention centre from outside, nothing about what had happened in the square, and so Neklyaev just didn’t know.
Further on, there was house arrest, which turned out to be nothing at all like freedom. On the very first night, one of the two escorts put a chair in the bedroom with Neklyaev and his wife.
“I said to him: how are we supposed to sleep while you are sitting here? To which he replied: I’ve been put here by the government so that criminals like you can’t sleep in peace.”
None of the political prisoners or their family members regret having come out into the square. I ask Neklyaev if he considers himself a victor.
“We have undoubtedly changed the situation in the country, irreversibly. It may not be victory, but it is success.”
…Neklyaev’s phone rings. He apologizes to his interlocutor for some time and turns to me:
“There, you see what politics has done? For three months I’ve been promising this composer words for a song!”
Thursday evening, Minsk Central Telegraph. Marina Adamovich places a small package on the scales and throws on a piece of packaging paper. She carefully places a piece of paper with a stamp and address: exactly two kilograms. The first parcel for her husband in prison in five months.
Almost nothing is known about what exactly is happening in Shklov prison with Nikolai Statkevich (55 years old, former presidential candidate, sentenced to six years in a maximum security prison). While others are being pressured by threats to children, business or health, the Statkevich family is being pressured by the unknown.
Statkevich is not allowed to call home and is not allowed visits. And not because he and Marina are not officially married (and they cannot register in prison: Statkevich’s passport was allegedly lost at court), but because he is not allowed visits as a matter of principle.
The last letter Marina received from her husband came on 4 August, after which, according to her, a dead, unbroken silence began.
When news of the threats to Sannikov and Dashkevich started to come in from the transit prisons, Marina didn’t even know if her husband was alive. All news came from prisoners in the same prison or their families. They said that Statkevich was living in a general one-hundred prisoner barrack; that the letter Statkevich had written to his wife was read aloud to the whole unit, and the horizontal bar he was using for exercise in the prison yard (after a twenty-four day hunger strike in the KGB pre-trial detention centre, Statkevich was trying to restore some muscle) was demonstratively sawed off; that he badly injured his hand during work in the lumber mill; that, in spite of the injury, he was given a place on that top bunk and sent out to work in the lumber mill on 19 September. “I never even suspected that such thick pine trees grew in Belarus,” he said.
It is also known that searches are conducted every day. As it was explained to Marina, they are searching for food: Statkevich was denied the right to receive packages from outside, and his cellmates began to feed him.
The first meeting with a lawyer to take place over this entire period happened last Wednesday. The conversation was carried out by phone, through glass, and the connection was cut off by guards several times. For all this, though, at least Marina now knows that her husband is alive.
They began to exert pressure on him on 7 July. On that day, the president of the country was visiting the Shklov paper factory, which was located directly beyond the wall. There he announced that there were no political prisoners in the country, that 28–30 people had been convicted in relation to the mass unrest, and that they had no intention of using them to negotiate. “If the EU wants them, we’ll give them tickets tomorrow and send them off, not a problem,” the president added.
Since Nikolai’s arrest, his home has twice been searched, Marina has been fired from two jobs, and after picketing in defence of her husband by herself, she was arrested for twenty four hours. She continues to be followed, and the silent ones (that’s what they call KGB agents in Minsk) sometimes even sit right down beside her on benches without the least embarrassment.
On Wednesday, Nikolai asked his lawyer to tell Marina that she should not expect him to be released any time soon. The negotiations taking place fill Marina with anger.
“This is defeat,” she says. “Our goal for coming out into the square, the reason people are in prison, has not been achieved. They will let everyone out, and the country will go back to the way it was on 18 December. In his final word in court, my husband said: ‘do not offer the regime money for our freedom; hostages must not be bought back from thugs. I am prepared to sacrifice my own freedom in order to bring my country closer to freedom’. He is prepared to remain in prison for six years, that he might at least not be released back into a country where nothing has changed”.
(to be continued)