This week has laid bare the terrifying situation faced by Belarusians in their home country and abroad. From Tokyo’s Olympic village to the streets of Kiev and the courts of Minsk, the iron grip of president Alexander Lukashenko only seems to be tightening. With athletes joining political opponents and exiled activists in being targeted by the regime, many are now asking the question: where can Belarusians be safe?
Certainly not at home. On Wednesday, a behind-closed-doors trial began in Minsk for two opposition figures involved in organising the huge protests which swept Belarus last year following elections widely held to have been fraudulent. Maria Kolesnikova and Maxim Znak have been charged with incitement to undermine national security. Both face over a decade in prison if found guilty.
Earlier this year, Viktor Babariko – a contender for the 2020 presidential election, until he was arrested on charges of corruption which he says were fabricated by the regime – was sentenced to 14 years in prison. And while the opposition leader in exile, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, is welcomed by politicians the world over, her husband is the subject of a ‘sham trial‘ at home, on charges of disorder and inciting hatred against officials.
Facing similar persecution, many opposition activists are being forced to flee Belarus for neighbouring countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. But even here, they aren’t safe.
On Tuesday, Vitaly Shishov, head of a Kiev-based NGO helping Belarusians flee their home country, was found hanged in a park near his home in the Ukrainian capital. The suspicious nature of his death, including cuts and grazes found on Shishov’s face, has led many to assume that the Belarusian KGB – which still goes under its Soviet-era name – was responsible.