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Situation Will Change Dramatically Soon: They'll Come For Lukashenka

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Situation Will Change Dramatically Soon: They'll Come For Lukashenka

A frank conversation with former political prisoner and human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka.

Leanid Sudalenka is one of the most famous Belarusian human rights activists, laureate of the Charter-97 Prize and the French Liberty-Equality-Brotherhood Prize. In 2017. He was actively advocating for Belarusians who fell under Decree No. 3 [the so-called decree "against social parasites" - Ed.], and they started to call him “the lawyer of parasites”.

The regime threw the human rights activist behind bars in 2020.

How do prisoners feel about Lukashenka? When will there be changes in Belarus? How to go through the dungeons, not break down and continue to become human? The lawyer spoke about this in an interview at the Studio X-97 show by Charter97.org. Host: Yevhen Klimakin.

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– How many years have you been in opposition to Lukashenka?

– Since 1994, I believe.

– What has it been like this for you since the nineties...

– Вoost?

– Yes.

– I initially saw this man's populist position. Remember, he came and said: “I will launch factories.” If you look at it objectively, it was not only in Belarus that nothing was working. The situation in all the countries was approximately the same after the collapse of the USSR, and Lukashenka used this and said “I will give you all happiness.” Now, 30 years later, we see what this “happiness” is about.

– There is a lot of talking going on about the fact that both Putin and Lukashenka should pay in the Hague, at a least.

– There is already an arrest warrant for Putin.

– They've issued it, but I want to ask you as a human rights activist. In your opinion, is it realistic to try these two war criminals and put them behind bars, or are these just nice words and nothing more? Is it real?

– That’s a terrible signal for Putin.

– But what about Lukashenka?

– There is no arrest warrant for Lukashenka yet and it is unknown what will happen next, but being an accomplice of a person against whom an arrest warrant has been issued in The Hague is bad. I just want to say: live and be afraid that they might come for you.

– Leanid, you are one of the most prominent Belarusian human rights activists. You also served two and a half years, as far as we know. Also, you’ve been involved in human rights activism for more than a quarter of a century, and now you are at the age of 54 when it is already more difficult for you to adapt to the new circumstances and to find yourself. How does a person feel in such a “thunderdome"?

– The first days were difficult, when they put me face down in the snow, handcuffed me, took me to a pre-trial detention center, and threw me into this “sweatbox” [a cell room - Ed.]. I refused to eat for several days. I was just in shock for three or four days. I couldn’t understand if that really happened to me. Sometimes it seemed like that was happening in a dream, that couldn’t be true. I was so sure that I had done nothing criminal and even nothing illegal. This happened suddenly.

Therefore, all this was hard for me, especially as regards the Homel pre-trial detention center - it was a whole year of waiting for the trial, until the verdict came into force. I spent a whole year there. It is very difficult to be in a closed space for 24 hours. Yes, there was one hour of walking every day, which means 23 hours in a dark cell without ventilation, in a smoking cell, and I am a non-smoker. It was hard for me, especially at first.

– How many people were in the cell?

– There were 12 people. Of these, I and one other guy did not smoke, but 10 people did. I was passively forced to smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. I emphasize that there was no ventilation. Sometimes you put your finger on your outstretched arm and you don’t see it, because people are smoking so much. Once there was a moment when I handed things over to my wife to wash at home. She says: “Have you started smoking?” Everything was so soaked. Imagine, a jacket came home, some things came home, they smelled of tobacco.

– You are living in Lithuania now. What about your wife and kids?

– They are in Homel. Yes, I am in Lithuania, and my wife and school-aged son are in Belarus. It happened that way. I escaped the new sentence against me because the issue of bringing new claims against me was a matter of time, as I understood. Because I returned from prison to prison. I never planned or thought about emigrating. During those 11 days that I spent in Homel waiting for my passport, people from all sides whispered to me: “Run, otherwise you will be imprisoned again.”

I have always been a public person. Any post on Facebook (and I haven’t cleared it up until now) is a new charge for promoting extremist activities, for example, or any other accusation. And I understood that this would not be three years, but much longer, and it would not be a general regime, but a strict one. I was there and I know what kind of medicine there is - none at all. This could already be a one-way trip for me. My health may not be able to withstand it.

– Please tell us about the most difficult day inside.

– The worst day for me was Tuesday. I was called into the prison club room. I was sitting there for an hour, thinking that a conversation with the investigator awaited me. Then the psychologist called me and gave me a glass of water and a message: my wife’s father had died.

My father had died before the known events, so I understood what the message was about. My wife’s father died and, of course, it was very difficult because of their attitude (he died on Saturday, the message came on Saturday, and I received it only on the third day, when he was buried already). It turned out that they were doing that. Everyone is informed late so that the person does not harm himself on the day of the funeral. As they say, to prevent something bad, some kind of suicide.

I don't know why they are doing this. The Criminal Executive Code provides for the possibility of delivering a prisoner to a funeral under escort to farewell loved ones. But if the legislator has provided for this, why does this rule not work? Why do they take such a one-sided approach? As for the duties of a prisoner, any guard reminds us of our duties 10 times a day, but as soon as it comes to the rights of prisoners, they do not even comply with the requirements of the law.

– During these two and a half years, were you beaten hard?

– No, no one used physical violence against me.

– At all?

– In the Homel pre-trial detention center, when after lights out, for example, conversations continued, or smoking was prohibited at night, and someone lit a cigarette, then all in the “sweatbox” was taken out, it was not directed against me, the all the prisoners from the particular cell was taken to the “prodol” [prison corridor - Ed.] they took me out, put me in a stretched position against the wall with my things and beat me on my legs with sticks. But this was not against me, I emphasize.

They tried many times to persuade me to cooperate without using force: to persuade me to give false testimony against my colleagues at the Viasna HRC. They offered to record this on camera and said that they would let me go home that same evening. Here are five minutes, as they say, of shame, and in the evening you are home. “And you will have a punishment, Leonid Leonidovich, not related to imprisonment. What are you doing among criminals? You are an educated, literate person. Your son is growing,” they said.

There was moral pressure, of course. Investigators from the Vitebsk Regional Investigative Committee came to the prison several times on instructions from the central office of the Investigative Committee and tried to get me to talk too.

I had a clear position: Article 27 of the Constitution - that’s all. They saw that I was not bending, and they left me alone. There was no physical violence against me, although, I emphasize, perhaps they respected my age.

It's all disgusting. There are daily challenges there. How did they turn me into a “worst offender”? I was working in the workshop. I heard: “Sudalenko!” I turn around, and the operational worker, turning on the video recorder, says to me: “Why don’t you introduce yourself?” I say: “So I turned around, saw you and introduced myself. Convict, Leonid Leonidovich Sudalenko, born in 1966. I am on a preventive register and am prone to extremism and other destructive activities.” I also indicated my sentence terms, the beginning and the end. “I have no complaints or statements Mr-Boss.” He tells me: “Report against you. Because you didn't introduce yourself." And that’s how they made me a “worst offender.”

Again, I was deprived of visitors. They found formal clues and deprived me of visitors as soon as I applied for a meeting. My wife was coming from Homel, 500 kilometers by car with 50 kilograms of food, leaving it at the checkpoint - and was going back, because I was deprived of visitors.

– What about your life in Lithuania? What are you doing now?

– It was difficult at first. The shock of the fact that you were released into freedom in general. And then you also feel the shock of being forced to leave for another country, at such a fairly old age and to start everything over again. Hard. The family is there. They have already come to see me once in Lithuania, it’s not far away- three hours from Minsk.

– Was it your birthday? Do you have your birthday at the end of September?

– Right, I had a birthday at the end of September. I turned 55 years in prison, and 56 in prison, and now we were able to get together as a family, sit, dream, discuss, make conclusions and some plans for the future. But, of course, it was an unforgettable meeting for me, when the whole family was able to gather for the first time in three years at one table.

I emphasize that I was serving as a worst offender. I was freed but never met or saw my family when in prison. For me it was, so to speak, very touching when I arrived and saw my youngest schoolchild son. He was 12 years old when I was arrested and now he is already 14 and a half. I want to say that he grew maybe half a meter right away. Noticeably, that’s true. He's the same height as me. My eyes were definitely a little wet.

– Are you continuing to work?

– I’m going to engage in human rights activities similar to my work at the Viasna Human Rights Center. First of all, I am very much concerned about the questions of all political prisoners in Belarus and my colleagues from Viasna in particular, because I was there and I know what conditions they are forced to live in every day, their experience, how the administration treats them, medical treatment.

And, unfortunately, for a person over 60, a ten-year sentence can be a one-way trip. It’s complicated. We must act urgently to get them out of prison.

– About the Nobel Prize for Ales Bialiatski. Did it change anything?

– Ales was awarded the Nobel Prize, and also sentenced to ten years in prison at the same time. But that doesn't mean the Nobel Prize didn't help. The Nobel Prize emphasized the importance of all human rights activities in Belarus as a whole and paid attention to the activities of a specific head of the Viasna Human Rights Center, who throughout this long period of time, despite constant persecution, continued to act. We know that Ales has already been convicted for the second time. The first time he served 3.5 years in prison and was pardoned before serving a year. And now he was thrown behind bars again.

– How long have you known Ales Bialiatski?

– Ales and I have known each other for more than 20 years. We are friends, we were texting each other when he was in Babruisk for the first time. Ales always wrote in his letters: “Leanid, don’t give up, do something.” Like that. When I was arrested, he was free and texted to me the same support messages when I was in the pre-trial detention center, saying: “Leanid, what should we do to get you out?” There was a message: “Leanid, you will be home by autumn.”

– Tell us the situation that best characterizes Ales Bialiatski.

– I remember the incident with the censor. When we went to the zone as a whole detachment from the canteen, which consisted of 100 people, another detachment also went to the canteen. The political ones always walk in the first ranks, one of the political ones shouts to me: “Leonidovich, Byalyatsky was given the Nobel Prize!” But I still didn’t believe it, so I asked my wife. She wrote to me in a letter that everyone on the Internet writes that Byalyatsky was given the Nobel Prize. And the censor read and accepted this information saying: “Nothing special - just the Nobel Prize.” He pretended that it was a letter from the district executive committee on Dazhynki [local official festival - Ed.] matter. This is the main prize in the world! I couldn’t restrain myself, I said: “Could you show me the waiting line for such a prize.” It was such a funny incident.

– We know about seven political prisoners who have died in prison over the past year. Never before have there been such statistics. What happened? Why has the regime gone so crazy that these people are either driven to death or killed there?

– I don’t know why these people died. I'd like to tell you that three people also died in the Vitebsk prison-colony Vitsba during my time there, a year and a half. I know of three deaths. If one death was an oncological disease, then the other two raise serious questions.

For example, a fairly young guy, maybe 35 years old, went to bed in the evening and did not wake up in the morning. How did this happen? This is not a violent death, this is not a sharpening in the side. The person simply did not have a diagnosis, but had some kind of disease. They did not treat him in time, which simply led to the death of the young man. It’s clear that the Investigative Committee has arrived, they wrote something in the medical documents, and after the morning check the doctors announced: minus one. Well, the body, of course, will be given to relatives - and that’s all.

This is how it works in today's prisons. They do no diagnostics there, that is, do not identify diseases, I experienced all this myself. I was also imprisoned with certain health problems and saw the same attitude. I take insulin drugs, and for a year and a half I have not been able to find out the level of glucose in my blood even once. Not once, I emphasize, although in freedom I do this every day.

– How many kilograms did you lose in prison?

– In 2.5 years, I left 16 kilograms in prison. But this is thanks to my active and mobile lifestyle: I was walking, running and moving. Again, if we talk about nutrition, it’s nothing. Watter cooked porridge. I was eating chops or oats in the morning, for example, and an hour later I wanted to eat again. Because it was a nutrient poor meal, this porridge has no calories. It’s clear that you will lose weight if there is no “help” from the large.

Once every 3-4 months, depending on the regime, each prisoner has the right to receive a food parcel of up to 50 kilograms, many take advantage of this option.

I also used it, because if you have only regular prison meals, “polozhniak” as they say there, on what they give you, your health may not be able to withstand it and your immune system will be weakened, there are no vitamins and you can get sick easily. It's all complicated.

– I was familiar with the icon of the human rights movement Natalya Gorbanevskaya, whom you, of course, know well. The Protest of Seven in 1968, when they took to Red Square against the entry of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia.

– The Prague Spring, right.

– They were left to rot in prisons, of course. Prisons and mental hospitals, they were doing everything. Naturally, she was expelled from the country. Natalya Gorbanevskaya told me in an interview that when she was already behind bars, she did not regret either her decisions, or her statements, actions. The only thing, she told me, was a huge feeling of guilt because of her mother, her mother was undeservedly going through it, her life was being shortened because of what was happening. Because you went to jail, because of the arrest, because of the prison, did you have such a feeling of guilt before someone for the fact that you them alone making them worry?

– Certainly. Thank God my mother is healthy and alive. I saw her after I was released from prison. Of course, we decided not to tell her the whole truth; we didn’t say that I was in prison, but said that I had gone to work.

Our family had a tradition of coming to celebrate Radunitsa [the day for commemoration of the departed - Ed.] and visiting the cemetery together. When I didn’t come for one year, she asked where I was. Then I did not come for the second time, she asked again. It’s clear that she already began to suspect, for some reason she thought that I had died and they weren’t hiding it from her. Then, I somehow managed to call her from the prison, it was March 15, I congratulated her on her birthday.

– You cheated, right. You said you were somewhere at work?

– Yes. I said that I would come soon. Like my contract was ending, I would come and see her. Then even her sister, who was caring for her, said that she even felt better and began to walk. She has problems with her legs.

It’s all difficult, but, again, I emphasize that I didn’t have a single day in prison or camp that I regretted. I didn’t do anything, I was not a criminal. This government threw me there, they are responsible for what is happening now not only with me, but with all political prisoners. Therefore, my conscience is clean, I left the camp with my head held high, because I did not consider myself guilty.

– Leanid, did your imprisonment change you?

– You begin to appreciate people. Seeing and appreciating people differently. Because there are different people there. Prison is like an x-ray. All weaknesses of people surface. If a person is weak, it will still manifest itself. Strong ones attract people.

– Do you remember your first night behind bars?

– I probably didn’t sleep the first night behind bars. The first night - what is it? I was in a quarantine cell of the pre-trial detention center in Homel. It will fit movies about Stalinist repressions well. What happened in the 30s of the last century remains the same. No repairs. I think they are doing this on purpose. The Homel pre-trial detention center also has two buildings. If you hear that someone was sitting there with suspended ceilings, with good repairs, with good lighting - this is so, but political prisoners are thrown in the building where I was. It was a kind of semi-basement.

– But still, what about your first night?

– I was in this cell, there was another person there. I saw real horror there: the window was broken, so it was cold. As soon as I came in wearing a sheepskin coat, I slept in this sheepskin coat without taking it off. I just fell like that and tried to fall asleep, but, of course, my psychological condition and cold did not let me fall asleep.

I was thinking about how this happened and what I could do. I was just thinking about why this happened, all the time. I emphasize that if this happened today, I would understand that there are repressions throughout the country, and everyone is being arrested, then it would be more understandable. However, I was one of the first to be arrested then and, of course, I was shocked. I hadn’t eaten for three days, I was kind of nervous, I couldn’t talk to anyone.

A cellmate tried to talk to me about something, I said: “Listen, let’s keep quiet.” And I was silent, although I was over excited but silent. It's hard to even remember something important. I felt great injustice towards me. That's all I felt.

– Let’s talk about Mikalai Statkevich. He’s also behind bars. There has been no information about him for eight months now.

– If there is no information from a person, this can only indicate one thing - the person does not live in a camp, the person lives in a so-called BUR (high security barracks - Ed.), in solitary confinement. They keep him in a high-security barracks or a punishment cell for six months, then they take him out, they throw him in for another six months - or a high-security barracks. They are kept in solitary confinement there, there are no phone calls, no mail and no communication whatsoever. He is in solitary confinement, I believe.

– Why do they do this to Statkevich?

– The more public a person is, the more famous one is, the greater pressure from the administration, especially since it is not the administration that makes the decision. And Babaryka, and Tsikhanouski, and Kalesnikava, and also Znak, who is imprisoned in the same prison I was. He’s in a punishment cell for a year there, all the time. I think the Department of Corrections ordered this. And who ordered the Department of Corrections - one can only guess. These are the people against whom the specific order has been given to hold, to complicate their life in prison. Not to kill them, but to undermine their health as much as possible.

– I was preparing for our interview and watching you at the Zhyzn Malina (“Raspberry Life”) YouTube show. You said there that Lukashenka is close to his end, that he would soon be over. I would like to ask you to develop this topic a bit. Why do you say this?

– I think that not only those people who endure repression are tired of him, but even those people who simply go to work and are silent, whom the authorities have not touched yet. But people, Belarusian society, have such fatigue.

I didn’t see smiles on people’s faces when I came to large. I walked around the city a lot, visited public places. The Belarusians have changed somehow, it seemed to me that some kind of depression was very strong. It was clear. Why are they sad? Why don't they enjoy life? Even in Lithuania, in other countries, people behave completely differently on the street.

The problem with Lukashenka is a problem for the whole society. Lukashenka has been in power for almost 30 years now, and now we are on the eve of a new “election campaign.” He will hold these crazy elections again. He will declare himself president again, but this is still Russia, as long as Putin is there. Today, the eggs are put in one basket, in the Kremlin. As long as Putin and Russia will help, including financial assistance.

My inner voice tells me that the situation will change dramatically in a year or two.

– I would like it to be a year, not two.

– The earlier the better. I would fly to Minsk today by plane if I saw that something has changed and nothing threatens my safety. But, unfortunately, although he is a “lame duck,” but he still stands on two legs.

– By the way, what about prison in general? Do the prisoners treat the tyrant with respect or also consider him a collective farm dictator?

– There are two types of prisoners in modern Belarusian prisons: political prisoners and others, those who committed crimes. Why am I dividing like that? Because political prisoners are imprisoned without committing crimes and, of course, ordinary prisoners are a priori in opposition to any government. For them, the American president is bad, Putin is bad, and Lukashenka is bad. You can get it from their conversations, that’s it. Because they are offended by the whole world. It seems to them that they committed a crime, but the punishment is too strict and it could have been softer.

As for political prisoners, they are the most educated, well-mannered part of Belarusian society. Of course, these are people who are able to think critically, they have their own views on the American president, Putin, and Lukashenka as well. It is clear that Lukashenka is not their president. So Putin, after the events in Ukraine, is also not their idol.

– The beginning of a full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. You were already behind bars. How did you take this news? By the way, were the Ukrainians with you there?

– There were a lot of foreigners, including Ukrainians. There was a guy from Donbas. But I want to say that prisoners do not watch TV much. For example, we had one hour of news, and we could not get much during this hour. They showed RTR, this Russian propaganda TV channel, like “Russia in Ukraine is saving poor Ukrainians from the fascists”, and “it is conducting a special operation”. They didn't call it war. I learned about the start of the war in Ukraine, about the events in Bucha, for example, maybe two months later. I emphasize, they only allow you to watch propaganda channels or the Belarusian STV, which also supports Russian propaganda.

Therefore, information comes there in doses and, for example, all political prisoners call home under the control of a guard who listens and censors your topics for conversation: no politics and the war in Ukraine. Later, when the Wagner Group acted, there was also a ban on talking about the topic of the Wagner Group. As soon as the guard hears these topics, he immediately interrupts the conversation, draws up a report, and sends the person to a punishment cell.

– The UN Human Rights Committee no longer accepts complaints from Belarus. As a person who was involved in this (not a single person has told me about this), how do you perceive this?

– it's very sad really. Because, that’s first of all the image of our country in the international arena, it is already spoiled. Belarus refuses even the simplest thing: the fact that citizens can defend their rights within the UN system. We know that the European Court of Human Rights was already inaccessible to Belarusians. Our people are the only people in Europe that did not have the opportunity to defend their rights in the European Court of Human Rights.

And now the Belarusian government has also taken away this only mechanism from citizens, withdrawing from the First Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Indeed, we were using this instrument a lot. There are more than 100 decisions indicating certain violations of civil and political rights in Belarus. For example, there are about a dozen separate decisions in my case, including the Human Rights Committee, which established the application of discrimination against on clear political grounds. The right to a fair trial was violated in some cases. Of course, freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of expression and several other rights.

– Leanid, are you a believer or not?

– I go to church several times a year. For Easter, for example, for Christmas. I do not observe all fasts, but I have God in my soul, I adhere to certain rules. There are certain boundaries for me that I will not cross under any circumstances.

– Did your faith somehow help you when you were in prison? Did you pray there?

– It’s like I didn’t pray but still I asked my Savior to give me strength so that I could withstand all this. I “moved in”, for example, during the COVID-19 pandemics to prison, I had about 40 celsius fever. I think it was coronavirus.

They recorded 39.8 celsius fever, I lost consciousness, I was delirious, consciousness came to me, went away. I was isolated. I was in solitary confinement for 18 days. They gave food three times a day in the door feeder and antibiotics. Nobody gave me treatment details, and what it was. When consciousness came, I asked my God to give me strength and keep me healthy. I knew that no one would put me in a respiratory care unitI if I needed to at that moment, and they would only give my dead body to my family for a funeral. And during the inspection there would be a “minus one” - and that’s all.

– What prevented you from breaking down in prison?

– Firstly, I “drove in” at a fairly mature age with a clear understanding: I did not commit a crime. When the guards tried to persuade saying: “You are a criminal,” “You are serving a sentence here,” I tried to object and always objected. “I don’t admit my guilt. I didn’t admit it in court, I don’t admit it now and I will never admit it.” And I stood very firmly on this ground. I knew that I was imprisoned without committing a crime, that the man in the robes of a judge who sent me here should be in my place.

– You were 2.5 years behind bars and saw all this from the inside. What would you change first in this system in a free Belarus?

– The system that is called correctional is not not correct. On the contrary, it destroys a person. I “moved in” as a political prisoner, and experienced it all personally.

Therefore, of course, it needs to be completely reformed, starting from the labour of prisoners and ending with issues of medicine, issues of psychological assistance to prisoners. It is clear that there are prisons in all countries, and that there will be prisons in the new Belarus. But they should not exist like that.

If we say that Belarus will be democratic, then torture and treatment degrading human dignity have no place in a democratic country.

For example, people have no mattresses and bed linens when they are placed in punishment cells. They are forced to sleep on boards or on the floor. Why? Isn't this torture? And the cold in cells, you can’t sleep, you wake up because your body is shaking, you can’t hide, they don’t give you warm clothes, they take away your thermal underwear, they don’t give you blankets.

– Anything to deprive human dignity.

– Everything to humiliate you, smash you and damage your health as much as possible.

– The new Belarus, free Belarus, Belarus without Lukashenka. What is it like, your new Belarus?

– Democracy. Equal laws for everyone. The opportunity to criticize and say what you think is necessary is an opportunity for human development. Society must be open. Society should give every person the opportunity to develop, and not limit the rights. And, of course, respect for the rights and freedoms of citizens is also the most important thing in the new Belarus.

– The last question. How to win and see this free Belarus?

– Belarusian society showed that it wants changes in 2020. But to win, it is not enough to bring half a million citizens onto the streets. Even if a million came out, it still wouldn’t change anything under these conditions. The 2020 events showed that the number of people who took to the streets does not change the balance of power in the country.

– What will change it?

– People’s consciousness changes. We must work with people, we must try to attract them to our side and show the advantage of democratic values over a totalitarian regime, that’s all. Only people, only their consciousness can change the situation in the country.

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