One year on from the crackdown on the opposition in Belarus, Irina Bogdanova, sister of political prisoner Andrei Sannikov, calls for international action against Europe’s last dictatorship
This article was first published in The Times, 20 December 2011
In May, my brother Andrei Sannikov was sentenced to five years hard labour for “organizing a mass disturbance” after a show trial in Minsk.
My brother’s real crime was to dare to stand against Europe’s last dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, during Belarus’s rigged presidential election. Now Andrei is being tortured and humiliated in jail by the psychopaths of the KGB. He is one of the few remaining political prisoners on our continent. He stands beyond 1989; he is still waiting for the final call on the Iron Curtain.
I grew up under Communism. When the Berlin Wall fell, and dissidents like rose to become Europe’s new elite, it felt like the tide of democracy would finally sweep into Belarus. 22 years on, and the situation is arguably worse. Many of my closest friends have ‘disappeared’ or committed suicide in mysterious circumstances. My sister-in-law Irina Khalip, an investigative journalist was arrested at the same time as Andrei. The regime used this as an excuse to get to my 4 year old nephew Danil – at his grandmother’s flat the police attempted to snatch him and force him into care. Andrei is a strong man, but the thought of this perverted state taking care of his beloved son nearly broke him.
I know he has been tortured. Not just in the Belarusian KGB’s notorious “Amerikanka” detention centre, but in jail cell too. Continuity with the country’s Soviet past comes not just in the knomenklatura of the secret service which is still known as the KGB, almost as a warning, but in the bricks and mortar of the jails and interrogation rooms unchanged since their use under Communism. These bloodied rooms stain the conscience of Europe.
Much like the Cold War, only a few have spoken up. Index on Censorship founded nearly 40 years ago for writers suppressed by the Soviet Union has worked hard with my organisation Free Belarus Now and the Belarus Free Theatre to fight those willing to aid the regime. But all too many turn a blind eye. Since Andrei’s imprisonment I have spoken at meeting after meeting with politicians to persuade them that only tough economic sanctions on the regime will force it to change. This view is held by Andrei and Belarusian civil society. Yet nothing has been done. Lukashenko is still free to fly his private jet over European airspace and trade with the Netherlands and Germany is rising. Whilst Nick Clegg has taken time to meet with opposition activists, British banks have actively purchased Belarusian government bonds that help fund this police state.
One of the last acts of Václav Havel last week was to sign a manifesto in solidarity with Belarus alongside Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. Prison taught them both of the evils of totalitarianism. This lesson has been ignored by Europe’s leaders who know only the language of condemnation but have forgotten that confronting evil means taking action.
Irina Bogdanova is Director of Free Belarus Now