Those who refuse to despair

Today, 27 January, is the birthday of our former colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau, another one spent in jail thanks to his opposition to the regime of dictator Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus

27 Jan 2023

Today marks the 45th birthday of our former Index colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau. Sadly, he will not be spending it with his family, opening presents and eating cake. Instead he is in prison, serving a 14-year prison sentence handed down by the Minsk Regional Court for “grossly violating public order”, “creation of an extremist formation” and, most severely of all, “high treason”. Of course, when you are in an authoritarian regime, such charges mean nothing.

Andrei has been in the SIZO-2 pre-detention centre in Vitsebsk for just over two years now. Vitsebsk, in north-eastern Belarus is the birthplace of artist Marc Chagall. Now it is becoming better known for holding political prisoners.

A British detainee who was held in the same centre said conditions were “disastrous”. Travel agent Alan Smith was held in a cell measuring four metres by two with five other prisoners: his alleged crime – helping Iraqis illegally enter Belarus.

“Windows were closed, [there was] no ventilation, people smoke there [and] the toilet is open,” he told the independent media channel Charter 97. He added that there were informants in every cell and they were monitored with cameras and microphones and warned not to talk about “business matters” i.e. why they were in detention.

Andrei’s father visited him in Vitsebsk just over two weeks ago. He told friends, “I was met by a gaunt-looking Andrei, with very short hair, but full of energy.” Despite everything, his father said he was in “a good moral and psychological condition”.

Andrei’s wife, Irina Zlobina, was previously a florist

Andrei was not even allowed to leave the detention centre to marry his fiancee Irina Zlobina last September. 

Irina is a graduate of the faculty of philosophy and social sciences of the Belarusian State University and in recent years had been running her own small business of selling flowers and souvenirs. She was arrested and tried at the same time as Andrei and was sentenced to nine years in prison, again for “grossly violating public order” and “high treason”.

The only time the couple have seen each other since they were arrested is at their trial, in the so-called BelaPAN case, alongside the former news agency’s editor-in-chief and director Irina Levshina, who got four years in prison, and former director of the agency Dmitry Novozhilov, who got six years. 

Before the trial, Irina was at a pre-detention centre in Homel in south-eastern Belarus; she has now been moved to a penal colony in the city.

Now Andrei is also on the move and he has been taken on a 115-kilometre journey to penal colony no.1 in Navapolack where he will serve out the rest of his sentence.

 We asked some of Andrei’s friends for their birthday wishes for him, even though he may never see their thoughts and comments.

 Joanna Szymanska, senior programme officer at ARTICLE 19, where Andrei also worked while he was in the UK, says wistfully,It’s another birthday that Andrei will spend behind bars.”

 “I have lots of good memories related to Andrei, he’s always been the life of the party. I especially miss our long discussions about Depeche Mode, we’re both huge fans and Andrei has a great voice, I can still hear him singing his favourite songs,” she says.

 “I sometimes wonder, does he still sing them? I haven’t received a letter from him in a long time, many letters are not delivered to political prisoners, especially if they are sent from abroad. But I’m sure Andrei stays strong and he knows the world hasn’t forgotten. Andrei, your friends are with you.” 

 Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), says he met Andrei in the early 2000s: “We were united by many things: football, poetry and, of course, journalism. No, not ‘were united’, but ‘are united’. Even though he’s in prison and I’m abroad. We are united despite the fact that, it seems, my letters to Andrei do not reach him. Prison censors don’t let them through to political prisoners. I don’t think he’ll get my birthday greetings now. And not only mine, but a lot of birthday greetings. He has a lot of friends and he has been and remains a good friend – witty, charismatic, courageous.”

He says, “Once, back in the days when letters to political prisoners and their responses were still reaching their recipients, he wrote to me: ‘I now ‘listen’ to my friends’ letters, guessing vibes and intonations – a personal ‘radio’. My own Radio Liberty. My personal ‘free speech’. Thanks for that to everyone who writes to me. We all are one big independent media outlet now. A blog of those who refuse to despair.”

“In another letter – this time about football (although we follow different teams) – he wrote: ‘Somehow there was a reason to mumble the Liverpool’s anthem, You’ll Never Walk Alone. Supportive words from the letters made me ‘sing it’, playing it on my internal radio, drowning out the external Russkoye Radio. It got to the point where I caught myself thrumming the club anthem in Belarusian. It came out a bit pathetic – but it’s an anthem, just my translation (don’t shoot the pianist). But somehow it seemed somehow in tune with, I don’t know, with the moment, the feeling, the mood.”

Even if you may not get to read this Andrei, you’ll never walk alone. 

What can Index readers do? Please join our joint campaign with ARTICLE19, share the message and sign the petition. You can also befriend Andrei and Irina via our partners at Politzek.

Mark Frary

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