|On Friday, 14 March 1997, proponents of democratic
and open government in Belarus staged a demonstration in the center of
Minsk, the Belarusian capital. The demonstration was planned in advance
and had been announced several days before. My friends and I, like many
other residents and guests to the capital, were curious as to how well
the demonstration would be attended, and moreover as to how events there
would develop. In previous demonstrations the Belarusian authorities had
used force to disperse demonstrations, and it was expected that they might
resort to the same this time. However, little did we expect that we would
become the victims of such illegitimate use of force as we were.
The demonstration was scheduled to begin at 17.00 at Liberty Square. We arrived to the vicinity at about 17.30, and watched as police instructed through loudspeakers that demonstrators clear the area, for the peaceful gathering had been declared verboten. There were seven of us in our group, five Americans, including myself, and two Belarusian citizens. We were not intent on taking part in the demonstration whatsoever for a number of considerations. First and foremost, as visitors to this country, our view is that the country's internal affairs should be decided by its citizens. Secondly, and perhaps of equal importance in this context, there was the likelihood, as we learned all to vividly first-hand, that the police would be compelled to use force to disperse the demonstrators.
Given these considerations, our group found a vantage point about 150 yards away from the demonstrators and outside the first line of police cordons. There were a number of by-standers going about their business as we were, not taking part in any demonstrations but rather observing the spectacle that many thought was about to ensue. Little did we know that we were to become the center of it.
Approximately fifteen minutes after we arrived to the vicinity, and after standing for about five minutes at our last place of vantage, suddenly and without warning about eight policemen swarmed four of us and dragged us to the paddy-wagon which they had parked a minute before about ten yards away. We were caught totally off guard, for we were certainly not breaking any laws with our behavior, and before we found ourselves inside the paddy-wagon with other political detainees we did not recognize the vehicle for what it was. In hindsight, we did comment after our release about one peculiar middle-aged man who had approached us a minute before in plain clothes and who said nothing. He did certainly look as though he was interested in what we were discussing amongst ourselves. Our discussion when he approached us was centered on the numbers of the crowd and police. Perhaps if we had been speaking about the ballet or even in English (I was speaking with my local Belarusian friend in Russian), we may not have fallen victim to the arbitrary use of force and intimidation as we were.
The police jostled four of us forcibly towards the paddy-wagon, searched us and piled us in. I protested and declared that I was an American citizen, but this seemed to have no reaction. I, another American, my Belarusian friend, and a female Belarusian employee of the organization for which I work in Minsk were held in the paddy-wagon for about one hour while the police made more arbitrary arrests, presumably of other people from the periphery of the area where the demonstrators were gathered. The vehicle travelled in circles while these further arrests were made. When I and my Belarusian were forced into the vehicle, discovered that we were not the only foreigners to experience the illegal use of force against law-abiding citizens that day. Two German students from Berlin had already been picked up about fifteen minutes prior to our arrest some three hundred yards further away from the demnostration on a side street out of site from the demonstration altogether. A number of independent Belarusian journalists also greeted us as we piled on board.
Amongst the arrests to take place after our initial detention were a local female representative of the Helsinki-based Human Rights Watch, other youths, and a bag-lady who, by all indications, was unfortunate enough to have been collecting bottles for their deposit value in the wrong place at the wrong time - she was roughed up slightly in front of me as she was loaded into the vehicle, and her day's reward for her efforts - eggs and other shopping, were broken by the heavy-handed policemen who seemed to enjoy their work just a bit more than the needed to show.
After an hour or so in the paddy-wagon - by now on board there were sixteen men in a compartment of about four square meters and four women in separate compartments - we arrived at the police station. As we were unloaded from the vehicle, ladies first of course, a line of police either side of us shoved us hurrely along into the police waiting room, where we were forced to stand with our hands against the wall and threatened with Kalshnikov (AK-47) machine guns. While I was not personally subjected to it, many of the men who stood beside me were kicked and abused by policemen, apparently without cause. The females with whom we were arrested were treated with a bit more consideration and did not suffer any physical abuse. They were not forced to stand against the wall as we were, but were taken away for questioning ahead of us. Each of the men were invited individually to accompany plain-clothes investigator to their offices for questioning. When my turn came, I was brought to a small office adorned with a poster of a smiling President Lukasheko on the wall with the slogan "President Lukashenko - with the people." Finally I had the opportunity to produce my passport, which seemed to disappoint the investigator who was unlucky enough to have invited me to his office. He didn't know what to do exactly other than call and report that he had a foreigner sitting with him. He began to question me, but I declined to answer any questions and insisted that he contact my embassy.
He disappeared for a time after his phone call only to return to request my assistance in dealing with the two German students, who knew no Russian, during their questioning. I graciously agreed, and together we went to the office where the two of them were sitting in bewilderment. After assisting briefly with the questioning and assuring the Germans to the best of my ability that all would be well, I again requested that my embassy be contacted. At this point I was told that there was little need, as I was about to be released in any case.
Meanwhile, the two females with whom I was arrested were being processed in a slightly different order - before they were interrogated they had their finger prints and photographs taken. The American girl, who speaks no Russian, relied on the assistance of my female colleague to make whatever sense could be made of this senseless situation. They too, as I had managed to warn them while we were in the paddy wagon on the way to the police station, declined to answer questions and insisted on contact with the embassy.
Our insistance that our embassy be contacted may have been the logical and appropriate action on our part, but in the end turned out to be unnecessary. For while we were enjoying our ride in the back of the paddy-wagon, the three other Americans with whom we had gone to observe the demonstration were busy raising the alarm at the U.S. Embassy. The embassy immediately lodged a protest with the Belarusian Ministries of Foreign and Internal Affairs demanding the immediate release of its citizens who had been illegally arrested.
I was somewhat surprized but greatly releived to be joined in the room where I had been sitting with the two German youths by the my colleague and the American with whom I had been arbitrarily arrested. The five of us sat for 45 minutes without a clue as to what was holding us up and why none of the investigators to whom we had been assigned were anywhere in sight.
At last, the regional security officer of the American embassy appeared in the door accompannied by two officials from the Ministry of Internal Affairs, one of whom spoke fairly good English. After some basic questions and a final examination of my passport, the English-speaking Ministry representative proclaimed that there had been a profound misunderstanding, that the incident was over and appologized for the inconvenience. He also added that it was the Ministry's hope that our stay and our impressions of Belarus, the Belarusian people, and (of all things) the Belarusian president remain positive. We were free: the two Germans, I, my female compatriot, and my Belarusian colleague could all go home as if the incident had never happened.
The fate of the fourth in our group to be arrested, however, was not as fortunate as ours. My Belarusian friend, who had been arrested together with me, became the subject of arbitrary and outrageous persecution on the part of the police. After his initial interrogation, he, like I, was scheduled for release without charge. Unfortunately, he was unlucky enough to have been spotted by an over-zealous and malicious policeman who, according to his own words, was not pleased with the way my friend looks. His shoulder-length hair and semetic facial features made him the object of persecution. On his way to being released, this senior officer insisted that he be re-assigned to a different investigator who falsified a report claiming that 1) he had been arrested about 300 yards away from the place where we were actually arreste, 2) had been chanting anti-Lukashenko slogans and demanding the forcible deposition of the ruling regime, and 3) had resisted arrest. My friend, as I had instructed him, refused to sign the confession that had been prepared for him. The policeman who was guarding him at the time prodded him violently with his night-stick in the abdomen where my friend had recently had an operation. While he did not sign the confession, he did sign an acknowledgement of the accusations against him for fear of being more violently treated. Such treatment is notoriously common and remains a legacy of Soviet-era police practice. The repeated inquiries as to my friend's nationality (he is Jewish) is also a typical remnant of the anti-semetic Soviet state practice.
When I, my female compatriot, and my Belarusian colleague were being released, I informed the investigator in charge of us that there was a fourth person with us when we were arrested, and gave him my friend's name. He told me that he would see to it that he would be let go as well. This did not happen, and my friend was only released thanks to the police's unfortunate habit of using unjustifiable force - he had received a blow to the area where he had recently undergone an operation, and was collected by ambulance to receive medical treatment at the hospital. Some 35 other victims of the same political persecution, including the female representative of the Helsinki-based Human Rights Watch, were kept in custody awaiting trial, presumably with similar false accusations made against them.
Among the absurdities I and my friends witnessed was the accusation lodged against a mute man who was accused of shouting slogans of abuse against the government. Another man suffering from physical disabilities was kicked and dragged along the floor by sadistic policeman, and abused further when he exercized his right to answer the police's questions in the Belarusian language, an official state language in Belarus. What is most absurd and infuriating for me is the fact that, while the Ministry of Internal Affairs' official appologized to me and my two female companions with whom we were arrested, the fourth detainee in our entourage now faces up to three months imprisonment on totally fabricated charges. If and when his case does come to court, there is little guarantee that we will even be given the opportunity to testify in his defence and counter the accusations made by the lackeys of the authotarian regime in this country.
The arbitrary nature of our arrest and the manner in which my friend in particular has been treated leave me with great concern as to the direction in which this country is headed. The machine of fear and repression is beginning to function in a manner all-too-similar and reminiscent of the Stalinist repressions this country faced at the end of the thirties. Together with repression on the streets, the propoganda machine of the regime is also being put to use. Notwithstanding the fact that at least the three of us received official appologies from representatives of the Belarusian authorities, the nine o'clock news the next evening reported on our arrests for "active participation" in the demonstrations the day before and announced our names on national television.
Two days after the fiasco which took place with us on 14 March, the executive director of the Belarusian Soros foundtion, a philantorpic organization funded by the Hungarian-born billionaire George Soros, was denied entry into Belarus. He had been returning to Belarus afer a visit to Budapest to consult with the foundation's benefactor. The authorities accused Mr. Peter Byrne, a U.S. citizen, of "acitivies not concurrent with the state aims of the foundation" which he had headed in Belarus for the past two years. He was detained at the airport for approximately 24 hours and deported. No embassy officials were even allowed to see Mr. Byrne while he awaited his flight.
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