A unique look at Belarusian prison reality from the inside, thanks to an interview with Leanid Sudalenka. This human rights defender and trade union lawyer was able to tell us in detail about what happens to political prisoners in Belarusian colonies and remand prisons.
- What was your first impression after being released from jail?
- Being in the colony, I was not sure until the last moment whether I would be released on the “bell,” as they say in the places where I was. In other words, at the end of my sentence. The colony administration made me a persistent offender, and the next step was the infamous 411th article of the Criminal Code, with the addition of a new term for maliciously failing to fulfil the conditions for serving my sentence. I did not tell my relatives about it, but I worried about it myself until the last day. Especially when 10 days before my release an official (officer - author) took me out of the prison with my belongings. I thought they were going to take me to the judge to get a new sentence! They took me to the control station, left me with my belongings and put me in a penalty isolator for 10 days on a flimsy pretext. From there, by the way, early in the morning, when the “zone” was still asleep, I was brought to the control station by the senior officer on “call”, he gave me my personal belongings and showed me the direction to the bus stop.
Of course, I was in shock, like a fish thrown to shore. Normally one is released at 10-11 a.m., and by that time I was expecting my family to come and pick me up. And here I was, sitting at the bus stop in a prison robe, not shaved, not washed, having slept on the floor for 10 days without any mattress or bedding. I tell you, my appearance and condition were so bad. “Normal” convicts receive civilian clothes from their personal belongings the day before the release, they are showered, clean, changed, without unpleasant odours and go out to those who meet them. I faced a different attitude! I wanted to call to find out when my family would arrive, but people shied away from me, refusing three times to give me a cell phone. The fifth time I was lucky, the girl, who was obviously used to people like me, was not afraid, she said, do not be shy, use my phone while my minibus is still on the way, talk to your family...
About four hours later, the family showed up. The video of our meeting is available on the Internet, I will not say much. I tried to wash at a gas station, but there was no shower there. I changed in the toilet, got behind the wheel of the car and drove all the way to Gomel while talking to my son and wife. My youngest son, a schoolboy, was waiting for me at home, we hugged, he was almost as tall as me, he had changed a lot. When I was in prison, my younger son was not allowed to visit me because he was a minor, and in the camp I was denied a visit because I “had not taken the road to recovery.” So I served the entire period of imprisonment without visits. When I was arrested, my youngest son was told that I was on a business trip. One day he came home from school and said, “Our father is in prison.” In a word, my eyes became moist at the sight of the younger man...
Violent arrest and lawlessness
- What were the circumstances of your arrest in January 2021?
- I published an open letter on the Internet on the eve of the arrest, in which I reported on the lawless searches in my office and at my residence. After the searches and before the arrest, 13 days passed and during that time I could have left the country, but I did not, I repeatedly said - they should run, not me. At that time, I stood firmly on my feet!
I was arrested like a particularly dangerous criminal by OMON officers in balaclavas face down in the snow as I left home on my way to work. They took me first to a temporary detention center, then two days later to a pre-trial detention center, where they forgot about me for two months. After that, I was offered various options on how the situation could develop. They offered me “reasonable cooperation” in exchange for freedom, an agreement to video record my colleagues in the human rights field, etc., etc. I prevailed, did not trade my conscience and freedom, and I am proud of it!
The Belarusian human rights community recognized me as a political prisoner immediately after my imprisonment!
After I was imprisoned, the prosecutors started looking for accusations. First it was funding protests, which ruled out detention before trial. Then came organizing protests, which gave the “outlaws” in uniform the right to keep me in custody until the trial. I initially refused to cooperate with the investigators because I considered them biased, and I maintained my position in court and testified only after all the witnesses had been questioned. I did not admit it then, I did not admit it in prison and in the camp, and I will never admit my guilt in the charges brought against me, because helping other people cannot be a criminal act!
The trial of me and my two assistants took place behind closed doors. That means that the people in the robes of judges and prosecutors were ashamed to look people in the eye. And at least 100 people came to the court to support me on the first day. Thank you again to all of you! The city prosecutor asked for the court to be closed, citing bank secrecy and the movement of funds in the accounts. It has become absurd. My youngest son's card was tied to my account. He bought a snack in the school cafeteria. And when it was his turn in court to announce the transactions on the account, the judge read out the expenses – “School 62 of Gomel, hotdog, Fanta! Cake, Pepsi-Cola, ice cream, crisps”...
I have often heard that the sentence has come into force, so you are a criminal. But how could it come into force when I was not brought out of my cell to appeal and the appeal was even considered without my lawyer? As a result of a closed and unfair process, I was deprived of three years of my life without having committed a crime! Hotdogs of that kind, as I often say.
- Was there any reaction from the international community after your arrest?
- On the day of my arrest, the U.S. and French embassies in Minsk called on the Belarusian authorities to release me and my two assistants immediately and to stop the repression against us. France supported me as a laureate of the French Republic's “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” award, which I received in 2018 as a lawyer for the so called “social parasites.”
A number of international and national human rights organizations have spoken out in our defense. For example, Amnesty International stated that we have not committed internationally recognized crimes and our conviction is a punishment for legitimate human rights activities that are part of the campaign unleashed by the Belarusian authorities to destroy civil society and suppress fundamental human rights in the country.
- What were the conditions of your detention?
- The detention consisted of two stages. After the arrest and before the trial, I spent more than a year in the Gomel pre-trial detention center or the central prison, as it is called, and then in the camp or colony. If we compare, the colony is definitely better.
The special attitude towards political prisoners starts already in the pre-trial detention center, although there everyone still has the status of a suspect and the guilt of a crime has not been proven yet. In violation of the presumption of innocence, the administration immediately entered me in the preventive register as “prone to extremism and other destructive activities.”
Political prisoners are subjected to additional checks and reports compared to ordinary prisoners, with the assigned category of the preventive register repeated several times a day. Often political prisoners are assigned an extraordinary and additional task in the cell, with the obligation to clean it completely. Those who have done something wrong are immediately sent to the punishment cell, where they have to sleep without mattresses and bedding. Political prisoners, as particularly dangerous criminals, are escorted to and from the courts (and I had 26 court hearings) in a half-bent, face-down position. In the process, one of the guards additionally attached himself to the handcuffs.
When brought to the colony in obsolete wagons, the handcuffs are not even removed at night. During the transfer, I was forced to sleep in handcuffs attached to my back. This lasted for about 12 hours.
In the colony, life is different. The sky, fresh air, you see the sun, birds, leaves on the trees. But here the problem is different - political.
- What was the most difficult thing during your time in the colony and in the detention center?
- In the pre-trial detention center, the most difficult thing was being in a semi-dark cell all the time. Living in the conditions of a public toilet for a year is not the best thing in life, so to speak. I was also forced to passively smoke up to 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Being a non-smoker myself, I felt sick and dizzy at first. I even went to the boss, and he replied, “No, Leanid, we have no VIP prison cells for non-smokers”! Moreover, the ventilation did not work. A daily walk of one hour helped, I went out for fresh air both in heat and frost. I spent the rest 23 hours a day during the year in a smoky, semi-dark cell with artificial light. I wrote and read a lot, I reread Solzhenitsyn’s The GULAG Archipelago. In prison my eyesight was severely impaired.
Perhaps the most difficult thing in the colony was the vacuum of information that the colony administration creates around the political prisoners. Again I went to the head of the colony, argued that my sentence did not include the entry “without the right to correspondence,” yet I sat all the time without letters, only my wife sent me letters. I should call four times a month for 10 minutes, but the political ideological officer always listens to the calls and warns the prisoner what is not allowed to talk about (politics, war in Ukraine, etc.). So you live on the “internal prisoners' radio”, as they say there, you live on rumors, who said what. Such information had to be double checked.
- There are union activists and leaders behind bars who need medical care. Is it sufficient in the prisons and colonies?
- I was admitted to the colony at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, my temperature was 40 degrees and I kept losing consciousness. I knew that if I needed a ventilator - it would mean the end; it just wasn’t there! In this case the body should have been handed over to the relatives, and record made - minus one detainee! I spent 18 days in isolation and did not know why I was given an antibiotic once a day.
I came to the colony with diabetes and had to measure my blood sugar level regularly. During the entire time I spent there, I was not tested for it even once. Necessary medications and vitamins that my family sent in a medical package were returned with the note “acceptance refused by receiver.” I kept one such package for history.
The only thing that works in prisons and colonies is chest fluoroscopy to diagnose tuberculosis. Moreover, the equipment there is modern, apparently obtained before the events of 2020 through grants from the European Union. Everything else there is “good for nothing” as the prisoners call medical care among themselves.
For example, when I had chills with a temperature of 37.4 degrees and my body was shivering, the doctor sent me to a cold shop to work. “Lepila”, as they call doctors there, gave me a pill and said it would go away by the evening!
Due to poor nutrition and long-term vitamin deficiency, prisoners' organism is weakened, their immunity decreases and they are unable to resist diseases and infections. And for older prisoners this is a big problem. Where a young organism is still resistant, the sentence for people after 60 years can be equivalent to a life sentence or even a one-way trip!
The situation is made worse by the fact that it is impossible to get necessary medicines and even vitamins without them being prescribed by the prison doctor. Without them, teeth fall out, and there are no dentures in the colony. Thus, prisoners, especially those with long sentences, chew their food with their gums for years.
And God forbid they get seriously sick in the zone. Even if they find a convoy to take them to civilian doctors, it is often too late. In a year and a half in the colony, I know of three deaths. And if the first was an elderly man suffering from cancer, the other two raise big questions. One man, a middle-aged political prisoner, went to bed and did not get up in the morning. It was not a violent death!
There are a number of union leaders over the age of 60 who are in prison today. They all have their own illnesses. God grant them all good health so that they can withstand the challenges. I have said, and I repeat, that: for many, especially those with illnesses and long prison sentences, we may not be able to meet them from jail!
Yellow labels for political prisoners
- What is the colony administration's attitude toward political prisoners?
- All those who come to the colony for political reasons are obliged to wear a yellow label, unlike other prisoners whose label is white. The entire staff of the colony shows a special interest in the political prisoners. For the political prisoners there are three additional controls with obligatory assembly in certain departments. This means that the convicts with white labels go about their business, watch TV, while the political prisoners stand outside in all weathers and seasons waiting for the inspector. Whenever reports are made, there is an obligatory note “Prone to extremism and other destructive activities.” And so it goes on throughout the term.
Political prisoners are often artificially accused of offences (in the colony where I was, all political prisoners were offenders and consequently convicted without correction). Often the head of the squad calls a political prisoner and says - take your pick, if you smoked in the wrong place or were late for sports.
The most well-known and high-profile political prisoners are placed on persistent offender status (three or more offences per year), which, as I said, can result in additional term of imprisonment. I, for example, was placed on persistent offender status, which meant that until the end of my prison term, I was not sure if I would be released at the end of my prison term.
For me there was a de facto ban on long visits of with my family. Unlike other prisoners, I did not receive a single visit with my wife and children or a single video call to my family during my entire time in the colony. Even when my wife's father died, I received neither a visit nor a phone call, although the law even allows a convict to leave the colony under escort to say goodbye to his relatives.
Political prisoners in the colony are prohibited from moving around the camp alone. When moving with a commando, political prisoners are obliged to walk only in the front rows of the column. We are not subject to the legal guarantees of parole and early release or replacement with a milder type of punishment, amnesty or presidential pardon, as we all have the status of convicts who have not taken the path of correction.
Sleeping places in the camp for the political prisoners, regardless of age, are also located exclusively on the second floor, even if there are vacancies on the first tier. Political prisoners are even forbidden to study in the camp in the existing vocational school. And the main thing here is not studying, but the opportunity to go to class for a whole year in a warm classroom and not freeze in a cold workshop in the industrial zone. During the whole time I was in the colony, not a single political prisoner was allowed to study in a warm classroom.
After spending a year and a half in the colony, working 8 hours a day in the workshop, I did not receive labour leave (others were given 14 days' holiday after 11 months' work), I was not credited with a single penny for the work I did each day, nor for meeting performance standards. When I was released from the labour camp, I received a salary certificate in which the largest monthly charge was 2 rubles 40 kopecks (less than 1 US dollar). However, even these kopecks were not credited to my account.
It is appropriate to recall an amusing incident. In the colony I went to the club to play chess, and when I came 2nd in the chess tournament at the camp, unlike those who came 3rd, 4th and 5th, I did not receive a diploma signed by the head of the colony and an additional call home as encouragement. I was treated like an enemy of the state...
- Why do you think political prisoners are treated in a "special" way?
- I think this attitude exists everywhere in the country, in all colonies. And it is not an invention of the local administration, everything comes from above, from the Department for the Execution of Punishments (auth.), but who gives orders to the general there, we can only guess!
In the places where I have been, they told me that 10 years ago the drug addicts who were in prison under the well-known People's Article 328 were treated similarly, they wore green colored tags and the administration "processed" them in the same way. Now they were replaced by political prisoners sitting under the so-called extremist articles. Lukashenko cannot forgive us for the lessons of 2020!
- Were you able to consult people in the colony?
I must say that when you enter the camp, everyone knows everything about you, who you are and what you are. And although I was warned from the beginning not to help others, and even intimidated with punishments and other difficulties, I helped people. I secretly wrote supervisory complaints, petitions for pardon and other procedural documents for prisoners, I helped them deal with bailiffs, for example. I never denied it to political prisoners, but once I turned away a man after reading his sentence. He had brutally murdered two elderly pensioners and I replied that I could not overstep my bounds. Despite his threats, including tossing a “shiv” on me, I withstood the pressure. There is only one step between legal knowledge and the lawlessness of the prisoners in the zones.
Destruction of the democratic trade unions
- Why did Lukashenka destroy independent trade unions?
- He understands more than anyone the power of the independent trade union movement in defending the social and economic rights of working people. As a result, trade unions have been smashed and their leaders persecuted and sentenced to long prison terms.
These are the representatives of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions Aliaksandr Yarashuk, Siarhei Antusevich, Iryna But-Husaim, who were charged with actions grossly violating public order (Part 1 of Article 342 of the Criminal Code), and Yarashuk was also accused of calling for restrictive measures and other actions aimed at harming national security (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code).
Leaders of the Radioelectronics Industry Workers Union Hennadz Fiadynich and Vasil Berasneu were sentenced to 9 years in prison, and Vatslau Areshka to 8 years in an aggravated form. All were accused of calling for the use of restrictive measures aimed at harming national security (Part 3 of Article 361 of the Criminal Code), inciting other social hatred (Part 3 of Article 130 of the Criminal Code), creating or participating in extremist formations (Parts 1 and 3 of Article 361-1 of the Criminal Code).
- Does the Belarusian workers' movement have a future after these steps by the regime?
- I am sure that the trade union movement will have excellent prospects with the arrival of a democratic government in the country. We see the strength of trade unions in European countries, what prevents us from doing the same?
There is no alternative to a strong trade union movement, everyone will benefit from it, including the Belarusian economy. As soon as constitutional legality returns to the country, trade unions will immediately revive!
- In your opinion, is it important that international organisations and trade union associations pay attention to the situation in Belarus?
- Of course, it is important that the Belarusian issue and the situation around independent trade unions in the country do not disappear from the attention of international organisations.
- What do you think about the decision to apply Article 33 of the ILO Constitution to Belarus?
- For our country, the road to the application of the article 33 of the ILO Constitution was almost two decades long. At certain stages, we came closer and closer to Myanmar, to which this measure was applied for the first time. Its application is an exceptional measure that has been applied only once in the more than 100-year history of the ILO. Belarus is the second case.
After the rigged elections in 2020 and the blatant violation of workers' rights, the liquidation of trade unions and the arrest of leaders of independent trade union organisations, the issue came up again. When we talk about the immediate measures that can be taken now, they can be both minimal and maximal, up to an economic embargo, as was the case with Myanmar. It should be remembered that many measures have already been taken in the conditions of the war in which Belarus is subject to sanctions for complicity in the aggression against Ukraine. Whether these sanctions will be tightened further will be seen in the near future.
"We are obliged not to be afraid!"
- What did you do immediately after the liberation?
- I stayed in Gomel for only 11 days. During that time I had time to visit my old mother and say goodbye to her. I visited my wife's father at the cemetery, talked to him and laid flowers. He wrote to me in prison, "Stay as you are, I am proud of you". He was like a father to me, we often went mushroom picking with him, he knew all the places in the forest, it is a pity that I couldn't say good bye to him.
I have seen no joy in people's eyes, no smiles, everyone around me was gloomy and scared. Is it worth it to live like that?
- Why did you decide to leave Belarus?
- I didn't plan to emigrate until the last day. Only when I realized that I had gone from one prison to another, I had to make this difficult decision for myself. You know, my personal data, as well as all the political ones, are included in the republican list of extremists and we are under special control after release.
When I became registered with the police, I was given a number of requirements - the obligation to attend their preventive events weekly on Sundays, to give explanations about my lifestyle. I went there once, and a movie about drug addicts was shown in the auditorium. Every day the officers came to my house and signed my whereabouts under the video recorder. Moreover, even to leave the city I had to get permission from the police, justifying the purpose of my trip. And so during the whole period of repayment of the criminal record! And for the slightest violation of these conditions, a fine of up to 100 basic units or arrest for 15 days.
Isn't that a prison? This is practically home confinement! I understand that it is only a matter of time before new charges are brought against me. Any independent information on the Internet is practically blocked in the country, and every day people are criminally convicted for visiting “ideologically wrong” websites or social networks. In addition, the human rights organizations with which I have worked have been liquidated and banned. Like my union REP, where I worked as a legal inspector for about 14 years. For me, this is tantamount to a ban on my profession. I could not imagine living in such an aggressive environment, so I made a decision to leave the country.
- Have the authorities already reacted to your departure?
- The police have been looking for me since my departure, asking my relatives when I would return. I had to send them a notification: “Since I was sentenced as a law-abiding citizen by an unfair and closed court to three years of imprisonment for a crime I did not commit, I was registered at the District Penal Inspectorate after my release from “IK -3” after serving my sentence. Due to the ongoing repressions against me, I was soon forced to leave the country and go to Lithuania, where I intend to stay until constitutional legality returns to Belarus. For this reason, I am not able to appear and participate in the preventive actions organized by the District Inspectorate. If you have any further questions for me, including questions about my behavior and lifestyle, please contact me directly at my cell phone number.” I have left them my Lithuanian number; they have not called so far.
- Have you already decided what you will do outside Belarus?
- It's hard to make long-term plans, I do not look far ahead. I will gladly return to my favorite occupation, to defend the rights of other people, having solved all personal and organizational issues. Particularly close to my heart is the issue of political prisoners, whose number is increasing day by day. Now I meet with people, talk to them and try to understand what needs to be done to free political prisoners. I have experienced all this first hand and I have realized that we have to fight for it every day, we should not only talk about this issue, we should shout it out!
A few days I participated in the annual OSCE conference on the human dimension, which was held in Warsaw. They talked about torture and inhumane treatment in Belarusian prisons. I spoke about the humanitarian problem of elderly political prisoners, their state of health and the impossibility to get the necessary treatment. God grant that we have to wait for the union leaders who are already over 60 years old. There are so many problems in Belarus now that there will be enough human rights work for 100 years!
- In your opinion, what steps could contribute to dialog and the resolution of the crisis in the country?
Today, the whole of Belarus is in prison. Trade union leaders, human rights activists, journalists, political scientists and simply Belarusians who are not indifferent to their fate are in prison. Closed and unjust courts work like an assembly line, convicts are taken to colonies, and new waves of political prisoners take their place.
I agree with the head of the Human Rights Center “Viasna”, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Ales Bialiatski, that Belarus needs a broad public dialog aimed at national reconciliation. I am sure that sooner or later we will get to it, the dialog will initiate changes in the country!
- What would you like to say to the people who follow your story and the struggle for human rights in Belarus?
Again, I would not be original if I said: do not be afraid! We are driven to fear, and we should not and must not be afraid. We did not come to this world to live in fear. I do not regret a single day of my life. Protecting the rights of others has become a meaningful and rich purpose in my life. I will not go down this path.