Sentate. On January 27, Natalia Kaliada, General Director of the Belarus Free Theatre presented her speech to American Senators at the Hearing "CRACKDOWN IN BELARUS: RESPONDING TO THE LUKASHENKO REGIME".
We provide you with a full text of the speech:
Madam Chairperson, distinguished members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to share my experience of the political and social upheaval surrounding the recent fraudulent presidential elections in my country, Belarus. With your permission, I would like to present my story.
My name is Natalia Koliada. I am a Director of the Belarus Free Theatre. The theatre was created by my husband Nikolai Khalezin and me and joint by Vladimir Shcherban and a group of amazing actors. We gathered together in order to make the theatre and say whatever we think whereever and whenever we want and to whom we want by means of arts. We wanted our spectators to think and this is the most scary part for the Belarusian dictator when people start thinking. As a result of our artistic works, the company experienced all possible types of repression: from dismissal from their job to arrest of the whole group together with all spectators.
But I am here today not as theatre maker, there are theatre critics who should give their thoguths on what we do and how, I am here today only as a human being.
Person who was lucky enough because of a judicial mistake to leave Belarus after one-night imprisonment. Now my parents and my husband’s parents are under psychological presssure from a side of the police and KGB who come to our apartments once a week within the last three weeks. But it’s not possible to compare a pain of our parents whose children are free but not with them, to the pain of those whose relatives are in KGB jail. Everythings that happens in Belarus now reminds only Stalin times…
I am here to day to talk on behalves of my friends; people with who I worked and who I even never met in my life but all of them are now in KGB jail and they face from 5 to 15 years of imprisonment.
If I have a voice I would speak for them.
I am here today on behalf of all the relatives who do not have any news about their loved ones because lawyers are not allowed to those who are in custody since December 29. Nobody knows their destinies and health conditions.
Everything what has happened on December 19, 2010 was a big surprise for the World but not for us who live under dictatorship for the last 16 years.
Belarus has now entered the third era in its most difficult stage of life, beginning a decade ago. In 1999-2000, Lukashenko eliminated public and political leaders using a "death squad” under the command of Colonel Dmitri Pavlyuchenko. The following people were kidnapped: Deputy Speaker of the Parliament Viktor Gonchar, former Interior Minister Yuri Zakharenko, Anatoly Krasovski – a businessman who financed the democratic forces, and journalist Dmitriy Zavadskiy. Gennady Karpenko - another Deputy Speaker of the Parliament and Head of the Congress of Democratic Forces also perished under mysterious circumstances.
Then there was 2006 - the year of the previous presidential election, when European politics essentially denied help to the democratic forces of Belarus. On the eve of the election, when was put to the question "Can the European Union put pressure on Lukashenko and start exercise the sanctions?” one of Europe's politicians replied, "Only if they start killing people in the streets."
Five people were not enough to be killed for Europeans…
On September 3, 2010 the journalist Oleg Bebenin, founder of the most influential and independent web-site charter97.org and one of the leaders of the electoral headquarters of Andrei Sannikov was found hanged at his country cottage. Ridiculously staged suicide would be one of the key elements in the upcoming election campaign. The killing lead to a so-called international investigation, but European politicians even then turned a blind eye to that death, limiting their intervention by the arrival of two experts whose names were not even announced officially to examine the documents offered by the Belarusian authorities.
Now Lukashenko wants to repeat what he did in 1999: he wants to remove all leaders of Belarus but using new methods. As he said at his press-conference right after the crackdown on December 20 he “will not make presents to the opposition as disappearancies”.
That should have been the moment when the World stops talking to the Last Dictator of Europe. This is a person who kidnappes, kills people, put innocent people in jail and uses them for blackmail, sells arms to Iran, Venzuela, Syria. World should call such a person as a terrorist and place him on a MOST WANTED list. Generally, such people are hunted down and put on trial, but somehow the World doesn’t apply it to Lukasheko.
Belarus was one of the main five countries that traded arms; Lukashenko’s elder son Victor is in charge of trading arms, national security, and boarder control, and it’s obvious that he was one of those who leaded the crackdown on a peaceful demonstration on Dec 19. His middle son is in charge of gambling… The country is under control of a family gang…
Nevertheless, the West continued to engage this monster. We felt betrayed by those who we thought should be helping us. Human rights and democracy took second place to geopolitical interests, business profits and historical fears of Russia.
It was a stratigic mistake for Europeans to count on Russia and hope that this country that never cared about any human lives such as Khodorkovskiy, Politkovskaya, Estimirova would start to care about human rights in Belarus.
Lukashenko played EU with his fake pre-election libiralization and EU ate it up. Why did the Europeans buy this? Belarus is a country without oil, gas, or sea ports. Belarus just has its people. Who need such thing as “people”?
In the year preceding the 2010 presidential election, Lukashenko’s claims of liberalization were taking seriously by the West. We have not experienced for a single day of this most notorious "liberalization" ourselves. Talks on the liberalization and flirting with the dictator led to a wave of terror that began on December 19, 2010 and continuing until now.
I can not describe a reality of everyday life in Belarus since December 19 because it would take a month to describe all personal tragedies but I could give you just a story of my personnel experience and experience of our theatre managers and those who I met in jail from December 19 to 20.
By 8 p.m. at the October Square in Minsk there were about 50 thousand people. They were people of different ages belonging to different social groups. Many came as entire families – even with young children. For the first time in the last ten years, so many people took to the streets. Of course I was there together with my husband, Nikolai Khalezin and all our friends who are now in jail and those who managed to leave the country…
It was clear that the dictator would not part with his power, even if nobody voted for him.
There were two provocations organized by special division of police and an enormous attack was started.
My husband and I were close, but when a company of riot police struck at the crowd, we became separated on different sides of armed men. I, along with a small group of protesters was shoved aside to a waiting paddy wagon, and we were moved inside of it. We, the first few people, were more fortunate than others - we mostly avoid the beatings. Riot policemen initially only gave orders, interspersing them with foul language: "Lie on the floor!", "Do not move!", "One move and I'll kill you!" The gentlest treatment was the word "animals.” In the van there was absolute darkness. Gradually the paddy wagon was filled with the detained, and eventually 68 people were crammed inside, despite the fact that it is a metal shed measuring about 2 by 5 meters.
The car started to move around the city – the moving lasted about an hour, then we stayed in the car for another three hours. There was not enough air, there was no water and we weren’t allowed to go to the toilet. One person lost his concioness but not medical aid was provided. A few hours later after we arrived at a detention center, which was a jail, where political prisoners sentenced to short prison terms are usually taken; a few groups were convoyed to the toilet. One by one, backhead to back head we were order to leave the van and move into jail. When I got to a building of the jail, I saw both sides of corridors ocuupied by men who stood by their faces to walls and hands back. Women were separated and taken into a second floor. When we got to a second floor, it was the same situation there. Both walls were occupied by women faced the walls hands back. To our question whether it was possible to drink somewhere, the guards replied: "Drink from the toilet." Threats and insults rained incessantly on us. That evening one of the guards told us: "Nazis will look like a fairy tale for you." Knowing that every third Belarusian was killed during the WWII by Nazis, it was not possible to even obsorb such an expression. It was unbearably difficult to stand the insults, beatings and humiliation for the young people, the vast majority of whom were in that situation for the first time in their life.
Throughout the night more than 600 people were arrested, including six presidential candidates. Two of them, Andrey Sannikov and Vladimir Neklyaev are in a horrible health condition. At the detention center they did not even take us to the cells. We were left standing in the hallways waiting for trials that were due to start in the morning. The guards continued psychological pressure, periodically giving the command: "Form up a file," "Face the wall," "Place your feet shoulder-width apart.” It was senseless torture of people throughout the entire night without any chance to sleep. It was just one night. But everytime when I see bottled water here, I want to get it because I am afraid I could loose a chance to drink a water. Just pure water.
In the morning they started to take us to the courts. They had to sentence more than 600 people, so all the courts of the city were overcrowded. Trials that were taking place one after another took just a few minutes. Police officers were the witnesses, and all protocols were written in the same way: "was in the square," shouted the slogans,” “violated the order." Insisting on the presence of a lawyer was futile. Without exception, all the trials were behind closed doors. Lawyers were not allowed in and even the relatives of the arrested could not find out where the trials on their loved ones had been taken place. In the most cases the sentences imposed were of two types - 10 or 15 days of imprisonment. In some cases, mostly for young women with small children younger than 12 years old, they were fined for 30 basic units (about $400).
The manager of our theater Artem Zheleznyak was not as lucky - he was sentenced to 11 days in jail after being arrested in the editorial office of the most influential independent socio-political website, Charter'97. He had accompanied the website editor-in-chief, Natalia Radina, to her office to help her with the translation of articles into English. Natalia was beaten so badly in the square she got a concussion. That night, the entire editorial staff, including Artem, was arrested. As he confessed to me, he had never experienced anything like that during his entire life. For almost three days he was either in a paddy wagon, or in "a glass" - a tiny concrete cell about 80 centimeters square; less than one square meter. And, above all, he was stuffed in with two other detainees in that tiny cell. He was allowed to use a bathroom once within first three days of his arrest.
Many of those who had been sentenced for administrative arrest were immediately arrested by the KGB after their release and taken to a KGB jail. These people were charged under the article of the organization of mass disturbances, the maximum penalty for which is 15 years imprisonment.
My husband, Nikolai Khalezin, now is also charged under this article. When we were separated at the Square, he managed to escape, picked up our youngest daughter, who was with friends, and got home. Early in the morning KGB officers tried to infiltrate into our house, but my husband, parents, and daughter stayed silent and gave no sign that anyone was there. KGB officers returned several times during the morning, but my husband managed to escape from the house.
What began to happen in Belarus on December 20, I would term a true “witch hunt.” Only about two dozens of political activists could escape from the secret service - all others were arrested. From the very morning the all-out searches of the apartments of social activists began, editorial offices of independent newspapers and websites were destroyed, human rights defenders were detained and interrogated. Almost everywhere computer equipment and any information media: flash memory cards, video and photo cameras, CD, DVD, external computer disks was confiscated.
Mobile phone operators provided the authorities with information on all subscribers who were present at the center of town in the evening of December 19. Based on these lists, they started calling in everyone for questioning in the State Security Committee. Queues for questioning by the KGB are still there, and searches and new arrests are continued without interruption. Today we are talking about tens of thousands of people who have been questioned and who will be called for questioning in the nearest future.
The country plunged into a deep depression, not knowing how to resist the total violence and absolute arbitrariness. At the same time, people increasingly began to show their public initiative to help the repressed and their families, disseminating information, creating new professional groups of influence.
We managed to flee the country. On January 3, we were supposed to fly on a tour from Minsk to New York. As it turned out, secret services were waiting for the troupe at the airport, but we managed to escape from the country by other means, but on the very next day our apartments were searched. The main questions they asked our parents were, "Where are they?" and "How could they manage to leave the country?" From the interrogation of our parents, it became clear that my husband and I were incriminated under the same article as everyone else who is still imprisoned in the KGB jail: "organization of mass disturbances.” Already three times KGB officers came to a house of Artem Zheleznyak’s parents. Families of our actors are under pressure as well. They also actively search for the President of the "We Remember Foundation,” Irina Krasovskaya.
Today number of imprisoned in the KGB jail constantly varies. Lawyers are not allowed to see the suspects; they are deprived of medical care, and denied even the slightest access to information. To date, the lawyers cannot get to see their clients for 29 days.
Depriving prisoners of information and health treatment is the secret service tactic for pressuring them to confess to crimes which they did not commit. Not only do prisoners undergo this enormous pressure, but it extends to their relatives. On the day when together with Irina Krasovskaya, President of We Rembmer Foundation and representatives of the Belarusian diaspora in the US we met with the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, intelligence officers in Minsk tried to win over the wife of Dmitry Bondarenko, coordinator of the "European Belarus" movement. She was offered to influence her husband so he would “begin to cooperate with the investigation, and then would receive a prison term much less than Sannikov.” Next day after the meeting apartments of our parents were under a simultanious attack of KGB.
Vladimir Khalip, father of arrested journalist Irina Khalip and father-in-law of Andrei Sannikov, suffered over the past two weeks three operations on his eyes because of the sudden drop in vision. My father, a professor of elocution Andrew Koliada, now cannot practice his profession – because of the nervous system breakdown a spasm of the vocal cords occurred. But who counts such victims: parents, children, wives, and husbands?…
Unfortunately, today the simple desire of Belarusians to get rid of dictatorship is not enough. Lukashenko has created a huge machine of repression, which has no analogues in Europe. We can resist it only by leaning on the help of those who are able to influence the last dictatorship of Europe from the outside.
Here in America we have many friends in theater. When those people heard about our problems, they, without even thinking twice, began to do everything to help Belarus: Steven Spielberg, Michael Douglas, Tony Kushner, Oskar Eustis, Catherine Coray, Kevin Kline, Stephen Spinella, Erik Ehn, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Olympia Dukakis, Kevin Spacey, Mark Russell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jay Sanders, Aaron Landsman, Leigh Jameson, Michael Lawrence…
I can enumerate for a long time names of those tremendous and great people who rushed to our aid and embarked on the protection of political prisoners in Belarus.
I have a dream that we will be able to pronounce with the same pride the names of American and European politicians who decide to help a country of ten million people.
I would like to get all your attention to the names of those who are now in KGB jail and who are part of that Free Belarus that we dream about it. The World should know these people:
Aliaksandr Arastovich, Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, Aliaksandr Arstovich, Dzmitry Bandarenka, Artyom Breus – a citizen of the Russian Federation; Dzmitry Bulanau, Andrei Fedarkevich, Aliaksandr Fiaduta, Ivan Gaponov – a citizen of the Russian Federation, Iryna Khalip, Uladzimir Khamichenka, Aliaksandr Klaskouski, Uladzimir Kobets, Aleh Korban, Aliaksandr Kviatkevich, Mikita Likhavid, Anatol Liabedzka, Uladzimir Loban, Aliaksandr Malchanau, Siarhei Martsaleu, Dzmitry Miadzvedz, Aliaksei Mikhalevich, Dzmitry Novik, Uladzimir Niakliayeu, Nasta Palazhanka,
Vasil Parfiankou, Anatol Paulau, Andrei Pazniak, Natallia Radzina, Andrei Sannikau, Pavel Seviarynets, Mikalai Statkevich, Siarhei Vazniak, Pavel Vinahradau…
No oil, no gaz, just people…
Danik, a son of Andrei Sannikov and Irina Khalip, is only three years old now. He personifies all children and parents who are separated from each other by the regime. His parents are in KGB prison only because they wished well for their fellow compatriots. They may only be released when Danik is 18 years old. It is in your power to make sure that this won’t happen. When each politician in whose hands destiny of Belarus first of all would think as a human being who would his own child only in 15 years decisions will be in favor of people of Belarus. American Senate is a voice of American people if people of America would stay together with people of Belarus in a fight against Dictatorship we will win it over.
Our patron Sir Tom Stoppard when came to Belarus underground and met with many of those who are in KGB and relatives of those whose relatives were kidnapped and killed by the regime said: “Dictatorship is not a political problem, it’s moral problem”. Let’s think about morality in politics towards Belarus as well as to other countries that stay under dictatorships in different parts of the World.
Lukashenko is not recognised as a legitimate leader of the country, and it means that it’s necessary to accept that those Presidential candidates with their headquaters who are now political prisoners of KGB jail is a legitimate government of Belarus. The World leaders need to put an ultimate request to the Belarusian government that all political prisoners should be released immediately without any preliminary negotiations. New Presidentail Elections should be scheduled and take place right after the release of all political prisoners. And please do not think “whether it would get worth to people of Belarus?”. Lives of Belarusians could get worth only because of world community’s indifference and irresponsible politics towards existence of dictatorship in the center of Europe.
But if anyway politicians do their jobs and think only based on their interests, there is is just one political and geopolitical challenge for all of them: If there is no Dictatorship in Belarus, it would be for a first time in the World history when European Continent would be free from Dictators. What a shame for the the EU and the US not to solve it?!