Journalist Natalia Radzina, who was beaten and imprisoned following last year’s disputed election, explains why she fled Belarus seeking political asylum
After being forced to escape from Belarus, my journey to freedom in Europe lasted exactly four months.
Those months seemed endless to me, because there’s nothing more tedious than waiting, especially in isolation. It’s easy to explain my long journey: after a month and a half in a KGB prison, I wasn’t given my passport back. This is totally illegal — while released on bail before a trial, the defendant must be given back all their documents. But Belarus’s KGB is known to spit at such laws.
Even before the authorities called me in for questioning in Minsk, they made it clear that they had decided to shut the charter97 website down once and for all. After my release from KGB jail, I was constantly threatened with being sent back to a cell in Americanka [a notorious KGB prison in central Minsk] when it became obvious that my arrest and the subsequent pressure on me was not having the desired effect: the site continued to be independent. My “guilt” was worsened by the fact that I was part of Andrei Sannikov’s election team, when he ran for president. Lukashenko’s regime cracked down hardest on the Sannikov people.
In fact, I was not really scared by the jail itself. Other things were worse: it was clear that officials won’t allow me to work in Belarus, no way. That became obvious in March 2010, after the pogrom on our office and the first criminal case. Then they launched the second criminal case, then the third and finally, the fourth — for the events of 19 December 2010.
A KGB colonel threatened me with five years in prison just for publishing the presidential candidates’ calls to protest peacefully in Independence Square against the falsification of election results. The fact that I refused to cooperate with the so-called “investigative body”, in other words to inform on my colleagues and write petitions to Lukashenko, was another aggravating circumstance. As he said, I was “frostbitten”.
After my release from prison, it became clear the authorities would not leave me alone, even in exile in Kobrin [Radzina’s hometown]. After every critical article Charter 97 published, a police car used to come to my parents’ house and drive me to the local KGB office, where I was threatened with an immediate return to prison.
Hence, when an investigator called and ordered me to come for questioning in Minsk, I saw my chance to leave the territory of Kobrin. I notified the local policeman that I was leaving to go to the capital for questioning, I took the train Brest-Minsk. Early in the morning, around 1 am, I got off at Luninets station, where the train has the longest stop and passengers frequently visit a local buffet. At the station I was greeted by friends, and I went on to Moscow by car. By 1 April I was already beyond the territory of Belarus and I could congratulate Belarus’s KGB on April Fool’s Day for their professionalism.
I could not go public in Russia. Belarus’s authorities would demand my extradition immediately. Besides, there was another, even more unpleasant option. It has been an open secret for a long time that Belarusian secret services quietly work in Russia. The absence of formal borders between our two countries allows them to kidnap people from Moscow’s streets, and then they fill out the papers as if they were detained in Belarus. Human rights advocates claim this was the case with the anarchist Igor Olinevich, who later was sentenced to eight years in prison.
In Moscow, my main problem was obtaining documents, as without them I could not legally leave Russian territory.
I sought help from the Russian Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. I completed all the necessary formal procedures, and since my case was well documented, my relocation to a third country was examined on a priority basis. While these months have been the most difficult of my life, I have nothing to complain about. Usually, the asylum procedure takes up to two years.
Only a small number of human rights activists and politicians knew I was in Russia, and they gave me all possible support. The person who helped me the most in Moscow, Gannushkina Svetlana Aleskeevna, was a member of the President of the Russian Federation’s Human Rights Council, a founding member of Human Rights Centre Memorial and she’s chairwoman of Civic Assistance. This organisation is hugely effective, they really save people. I saw it when I used to go to a small basement on Dolgorukovskaya street to visit the office of Civic Assistance. Huge numbers of refugees from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and other dysfunctional countries come to the office. Even though the refugees outnumber the members of this human rights organisation hundreds of times over, each of them gets support.
I am very grateful to the readers of Charter97, who stayed with us during us all this difficult time. Your comments supported me a lot during this time of isolation. During these months I lived at my friend’s apartment in Moscow, I continued my work as the editor of Charter97.org website and tried not to appear in public places.
Once I was recognised as a refugee by the UN, the first nation that gave me international support was the Netherlands. On 28 July, after I got my travel documents, I flew from Moscow to Amsterdam. I am very grateful to the Netherlands for my salvation, but three days later I went to Lithuania. After the presidential elections the Charter97.org website was registered in this country; it’s where my team is based and I can carry out my work as editor. On 4 August, I claimed political asylum in Lithuania.
During all these months, I experienced the hardship of life as a refugee. And I can say directly — there is nothing to envy. I would never have left Belarus, if, as Vysotsky sang, they had not “surrounded me from all sides”. I reacted as I considered appropriate. I don’t intend to play by the rules defined by the Belarusian KGB. To “rush hunted to the shot” is not in my nature, and therefore I tried “to jump through.” I am sure I’ll be back home soon, and the new democratic government of the country will hand me back my Belarusian passport.
Natalia Radzina was nominated for the Bindmans Law and Campaigning Award at the 2010 Index on Censorship awards. This piece was originally published on Nikolai Khalezin’s blog. This article was translated and edited by Olga Birukova.