While European officials are enjoying their summer vacations at high-end resorts, Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko has apparently decided to destroy the few independent media that – surprisingly – remain in his hermit kingdom.
On August 7-9, Belarusian authorities arrested 19 journalists of the Tut.by, BelaPAN and Realt.by news sites and searched a Deutsche Welle journalist. Some of them were charged with unauthorized access to the site of Belarus’ Soviet-style state news agency BelTA.
The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Council of Europe and European Union have criticized this crackdown on free speech.
In July, Belarusian police raided the apartments of two journalists of Belsat, a Warsaw-based independent television station, confiscated their cameras, phones and computers and arrested several Belsat journalists.
On July 17, Belarusian-Ukrainian journalist Dzmitry Halko was sentenced to four years in a labour camp – a Soviet type of punishment that has been abolished elsewhere.
The sentence came three days before the anniversary of the murder of another Belarusian journalist, Pavel Sheremet. Sheremet, who was killed on July 20, 2016, in a car blast in Kyiv, had been jailed by Lukashenko’s regime in 1997 on charges of illegally crossing the border and then deported from Belarus.
In June, Belarus passed a new media law that sets severe penalties for working without accreditation, requires Internet sites to post the names of commenters and creates more tools for blocking sites.
In May, Ukrainian journalist Pavlo Sharoiko was sentenced to eight years in Belarus on espionage charges.
The case of Halko, an outspoken independent journalist, proves that Belarus’ legal system has not moved an inch away from the Soviet totalitarian legal system. He was charged with using force against a police officer during an argument at a birthday party of his son Yan last year
Halko believes this to be a fabricated case in retaliation for his journalism. He is currently waiting for a decision by a court of appeal, after which he may be sent to a labour camp – the Belarusian equivalent of concentration camps known as khimia (chemistry) in Russian because convicts often used to work at chemical factories.
The alleged evidence against Halko is based only on police officers’ testimony, which contains numerous contradictions. The teenagers present at the party did not confirm the accusations.
Halko’s lawyer argued that, under Belarusian law, the police did not have a right to enter his apartment because they had no warrant from a prosecutor and because they had no evidence that a severe crime could be taking place there.
There is no habeas corpus in Belarus – a person can be held in custody for two months until a court even issues an arrest warrant, and the deadline can be extended for up to a year in some cases. Halko’s arrest has not even been considered by any court.
Under Belarusian totalitarian law, all lawyers are effectively controlled by the government through a state association. Two of Halko’s lawyers urged him to admit his guilt and one of them said that she would not antagonize cops because she’d be punished.
Halko also said during the trial that he had been tortured by being repeatedly deprived of food and water, being constantly handcuffed and held in a very small concrete solitary cell for hours.
The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have called for Halko’s immediate release.
Halko’s family also face reprisals. His eldest son Andrey has been in pre-trial detention for four months on hooliganism charges and faces up to three years in prison. The first hearing in his case is scheduled for Aug. 21.
In March through May, his second son, Yan, has been assaulted three times by unknown people that Halko suspects to be hired by cops, receiving injuries. One of them criticized Yan for being against Lukashenko and tried to rape him, but Yan ran away, according to Halko.
Belarus is a bizarre leftover from the Soviet era in that it still has Soviet-style drunk tanks, prisons for alcoholics and drug addicts, collective farms, the KGB, the pioneer movement, punitive psychiatry, powerless sham city councils known as Soviets, and the equivalent of the Komsomol youth league known as BRSM. The country even continued to have exit visas for its own citizens until 2008.
The police is still called “militia” in the Soviet way, and Belarus still celebrates the day of the 1917 October Revolution, while most streets still keep their Soviet names, and all Soviet monuments remain. Moreover – similarly to Communist Party edicts – presidential decrees have more force than laws.
An ongoing murder
Europe is also turning a blind eye to what’s happening in Belarus’ ally – Russia.
Russian authorities are literally in the process of killing Ukrainian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov, who is on the verge of dying after more than three months of a hunger strike. Sentsov has been sentenced to 20 years in prison for an alleged failed plot to blow up a Lenin statue in Russian-annexed Crimea without human casualties, although even the evidence for this pseudo-crime in court was outstandingly weak, and the main witness retracted his testimony, saying he was tortured.
There are 70 more Ukrainian political prisoners in Russia, according to Maria Tomak, coordinator of Ukraine’s Media Initiative for Human Rights. In addition, there are at least 33 Russian political prisoners being held in Russia, according to the Memorial human rights watchdog.
Ukrainian authorities are less authoritarian but they are also routinely violating human rights. They deported ex-Georgian President and former Odessa Governor Mikheil Saakashvili, a vehement critic of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in February and seven of his Georgian associates last year without court warrants, while Ukrainian law explicitly states that the procedure requires court approval.
Ukrainian courts have recognized the deportation of one of the associates, Mikheil Abzianidze, as illegal but Ukrainian authorities just ignored the court decision and did not let him re-enter the country in June, spurning the rule of law.
Meanwhile, Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdogan has launched a campaign to kidnap more than 80 opponents worldwide since an alleged coup attempt in 2016, including in former Soviet countries.
In July, Turkish and Ukrainian authorities kidnapped two alleged adherents of Erdogan’s enemy Fethullah Gülen in Ukraine in violation of due process, while another Erdogan critic was abducted in Azerbaijan. The events followed the kidnapping of an Azeri journalist by the regime of Erdogan’s ally Ilham Aliyev in 2017.
Central Asian despots are getting away with even bigger crimes. In July Tajik journalist Khairullo Mirsaidov was sentenced to 12 years in prison on charges of embezzlement, forgery and giving false testimony as part of a show trial in a Tajik kangaroo court.
He was arrested in 2017 after he wrote an open letter to Tajik dictator Emomali Rahmon about government corruption.
Tolerance for intolerance
It seems that Europe’s tolerance for repression in post-Soviet countries knows no limits.
Every new step by a post-Soviet dictator to limit civic liberties is usually met with meaningless expressions of “concern” that post-Soviet governments ignore and laugh at.
The post-1991 dream of European values triumphing in the former Soviet Union has utterly failed, and the West shares the responsibility for this.
The resurgence of semi-totalitarian dictatorships and semi-authoritarian kleptocracies in this region threatens Europe – it erodes Western values within Europe itself as European politicians compromise with unscrupulous and immoral officials in the former Soviet Union.
Instead of civilising its outer regions and introducing the rule of law and individual rights there, Europe risks being infected with this malaise of illiberality and lawlessness. The ongoing backlash against the European values of the rule of law and free speech in Poland, Romania and Hungary shows that this is quite possible.
The European Union should introduce tight penalties and sanctions for each case of repression and political persecution in post-Soviet countries.
Otherwise, Europe is no longer the bastion of freedom and civilization that it used to be.