Mikalai Statkevich is one of the main opposition leaders in Belarus, and head of the Belarusian Social Democrat party “Narodnaya Gramada” (People’s Assembly). A former presidential candidate in the 2010 elections, he was arrested for taking part in the massive protests against President Alexander Lukashenko’s re-election and served 5 years imprisonment. His release in 2015, with other political prisoners, had triggered the lift of most European sanctions against Belarus in 2016. In an interview with Euronews reporter Valérie Gauriat, he lists the reasons for which he thinks this was a wrong signal from the EU, as human rights and freedom of expression continue to be breached.
Valérie Gauriat: After your release, the European Union considered that Belarus had made progress in terms of human rights and freedom of expression. Do you agree with that?
Mikalai Statkevich: There were no real sanctions against Lukashenko. There were some restrictions regarding his travels outside the country, which he circumvented regularly. He went to Austria and other places. There were no sanctions. And even the restrictions were canceled. I think it’s not right.
There are still political prisoners, and they are tortured. Even if international instances don’t recognize them as political prisoners, the prison administration and detention centers treat them as such, and there is torture. They are kept in disciplinary cells, in unbearable conditions.
As regards the party I’m leading, the social democratic party: “Narodnaya Gramada” (People’s assembly):
A year ago I tried to take part in a demonstration and my colleagues had to organize my evacuation from home, so I wouldn’t be followed, they had to hide me.
The person who hid me, Serguei Kontsevich, was found. He was tortured with a taser, to force him to say where he had taken me.. Then he was imprisoned for two months and beaten up. He had psychological problems when he came out, and still hasn’t recovered.
My deputy in the party, Serguei Kulinich, was punched in the stomach at length. Then he was out in a KGB jail, so he could sue them for beating him. They kept him there until the traces of the beating disappeared.
The head of our office in Brest, a beautiful young 30-year-old woman, Natalia Popkova, was arrested several times for 2 weeks and was taken to a psychiatric hospital. The doctors refused to keep her there, but she stayed there while they were negotiating with the authorities. The word spread, and this affected her private life.
My colleague at the national congress, Vladimir Niekliaev, a presidential candidate, and the most famous living Belarusian poet, he’s 72 years old. Last year, he was arrested by special forces in Brest, to prevent him from taking part in the freedom march. They gagged him and damaged some brain vessels. He nearly died in hospital. He was arrested several times in the same year. He can’t live without medicine now. They took away his medicine in prison. I wrote to him, telling him he should keep the drugs with him at all times. They had no right to take them away from him. He showed his prescription in court. A judge took it away and said he never saw it. And in prison, this great man once nearly fainted, and told the guards he could die if he didn’t take his treatment, all they said was: “Great!”
As for myself, I was kidnapped three times last year, and put under administrative arrest. you just go out in the street, and they pick you up. There’s no investigation, as the law requires, and they can detain you for as long as they like. Even out here, if I walk out 50 meters, suddenly a blue Volkswagen van comes up to you, they are special forces, and they take you. Then my wife looks for me. It can last several days. People just disappear, and relatives don’t know where they are. There are people who disappeared like that and were killed. So relatives worry, like my 92-year-old father. Then they find out you’re under administrative detention. It happened to me 3 times last year. The first time it was at the KGB.
On one occasion, they tried to put someone with open tuberculosis in my cell. It was a special cell, with no ventilation, and they told him not to tell me he was ill. But I found out, I questioned him. He confirmed it and I had him taken out of the cell.
Why do I tell you this? All the examples I have just given, are things which did not happen before, even when there were kidnappings and murder. There is no improvement in the situation. It is a new form of repression. The situation got worse.
So when the European Union cancels those small restrictions, when it becomes friends with someone who used to have people killed, who tortures his opponents and keeps his power illegally, then you just demonstrate that your values and ideals are worth nothing. You talk about freedom, about democracy to people. And Lukashenko keeps saying “it’s all lies”, He’s always saying that “freedom and democracy don’t exist, anywhere”. And that the western countries are also lying. So that means that the European politicians standing by Lukashenko are actually saying: “We lied to you, freedom and democracy don’t exist. It’s all lies. So just go on living with that.”
I’m not saying that someone should come and solve all our problems. But don’t prevent us from acting. Or you will give the signal to the Belarusian people, that all those for whom we are putting our lives at risk are worth nothing, that it’s all lies. We don’t believe that. We will keep on fighting, but it will be more difficult for us now.”