An interview with Piotr Markiełaŭ, who went to jail for freedom

Photo by Violetta Savchits

After a stream of authoritarian measures by its ruler Aleksander Lukashenko, Belarusians took to the streets in protest during the last weeks. Moritz Gillmair spoke to Piotr Markiełaŭ, a Students for Liberty activist from Belarus, who was detained during the recent protests against the government’s oppressive policies. The interview has been slightly edited for language and clarity.

What is the current political situation in Belarus?

Belarus is still the most authoritarian state in Europe. During a systemic economic crisis president Lukashenko tries to gain the favour of the West and, at the same time, keeps assuring Russia that Belarus is its eternal partner. This is quite characteristic for him. The Belarusian people always lose in this cynical game of the powers that be. While both, the EU and Russia, are interested in supporting the regime, Lukashenko is tightening the screws on Belarusian society. He made it clear that structural reforms will not happen and he will squeeze as much as he can out of this dying post-Soviet top-down system.

What caused the protests in February 2017? What is the relevance of the protests?

The “fee on parasitism” is a very clear example of his strategy. This “presidential decree” was imposed in a severe crisis and applies to the unemployed. He claims it stimulates them to find official jobs by applying with an employment centre. These centres occasionally give the unemployed a ten Euro allowance a month and offer them jobs with a salary of 100 Euro a month. It is impossible to survive with such an income in Belarus. If you choose to be a freelancer, or you look after your disabled relative, or you have no need to work because your spouse earrns enough for the family, or you just can’t find a job, you are supposed to pay a 200 Euro “fee on parasitism”.

This decree became the last straw, the trigger for the wide social protest to start. For the first time in the last 20 years, people from peripheral regions went out to protest in the streets. Protests started in February and rapidly gained momentum. In early March the government started to suppress the freedom movement by imprisoning and imposing fines — not only on peaceful protesters, but also on journalists and human rights activists. On March 25, the traditional “Freedom Day” rally was planned. I takes place every year and is probably the main annual demonstration of democratic forces in Belarus. Due to the general protest mood, this rally was expected to be especially massive.

How did the government respond to the protests?

A few days before March 25 all the democratic leaders were brutally arrested and sentenced to prison. During the court hearings policemen as witnesses were giving preposterous testimonies. For example, they claimed that Aleś Łahviniec was seen “striking his own head against the police car” by himself. When in fact the smashed his against the car. Freedom Day rally didn’t even start. Police blocked the whole area around the gathering place. A lot of fully equipped special forces and equipment were there, which was not in proportion to the expected number of protesters. Frightened as he was, Lukashenko once again showed where his priorities are, when he spends money from the public budget.

Photo by RFE/RL

For a whole month around 1000 people, including journalists and human rights defenders, were detained. 250 of them were sentenced to administrative detention. Others were given huge fines. Some people that took part in the demonstrations have lost their jobs, some were expelled from universities. More than 20 face criminal prosecution. The protest wave was knocked down, another chance for liberalisation is over.

What happened to you during the protests?

I was arrested on March 15 in Minsk after a legal demonstration when I was streaming to Facebook brutal detention of a group of protesters. The video shows how detentions normally take place: a group of strong guys without any uniform, with no warning, brutally drag activists to minibuses without license plates. On the next day I was sentenced to 12 days of administrative detention for “wearing a mask during the rally” and “resistance to the lawful requirements of police officers”. The videos, showing that I was NOT wearing any mask during the demonstration and did NOT resist any police officers, provided during the trial, were not even considered. A few days before March 25 they moved me to a prison in another city to free space in Minsk for new convicts.

“I think I am that type of person who becomes even more active when suppressed.”

Piotr Markiełaŭ is a Belarusian civic and political activist in the Dzieja initiative, and a local coordinator of Students For Liberty. He was expelled from the university for political reasons and imprisoned for streaming the detention of protesters to Facebook.

Moritz Gillmair studies at the University College Maastricht and is president of Maastricht Students For Liberty.