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Belarus Weekly: Imprisoned opposition leader hospitalized; Top activist jailed

by The Kyiv Independent May 5, 2023 6:37 PM 7 min read
A protestor holds a banner “Free All Political Prisoners” during a demonstrate of solidarity with Belarusian political prisoners and against Alexander Lukashenko's dictatorship in Krakow, Poland on Jan. 16, 2022. (Photo by Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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Viktar Babaryka, who ran against dictator Alexander Lukashenko in the 2020 presidential election and is now a political prisoner, was hospitalized with a punctured lung and signs of physical abuse.

Belarusian authorities continue to crack down on political activists, as a Minsk court sentences activist Raman Pratasevich to eight years in prison.

Belarus’ neighbors continue to strengthen their borders with Belarus amid continued fear of another Minsk-engineered migrant crisis.

Pressure on ethnic minorities in Belarus continues as a Lithuanian association is dismantled in court.

Belarus makes plans to build a radioactive waste storage facility by 2030.

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Belarus Weekly

Former presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka hospitalized

Viktar Babaryka, who ran against Lukashenko in the 2020 Belarusian presidential election and is currently serving a 14-year sentence for politically motivated charges, was reportedly hospitalized on April 27.

Babaryka’s relatives confirmed that he was admitted to a surgical ward with a collapsed lung. He also allegedly has traces of severe beating. A spokesperson from the penal colony said on April 29 that Babaryka is “alive and well.”

His former campaign members said he is unable to be transferred from the hospital as it could pose a real health risk, noting that they are unaware of his whereabouts and are not permitted to visit him. They noted that, before his hospitalization, Babaryka was sent to a closed prison-type facility for prisoners who commit violations.

“We ask all international organizations and diplomatic missions in Minsk for assistance in obtaining information about Viktar Babaryka’s condition,” his former team said.

Babaryka was considered one of Lukashenko’s main political opponents during the presidential election campaign in 2020.

He was arrested in 2020 and sentenced to jail on alleged corruption charges, which he and human rights watchdogs call politically motivated. The move is widely considered an attempt to take Babaryka out of the presidential race, and the ongoing crackdown on those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime.

Until his recent hospitalization, Babaryka served his prison sentence in one of Belarus’ harshest prisons, rumored in numerous testimonies to witness beatings and torture of inmates. In a letter sent months ago, he said that he barely had time for reading “as the system was fighting him as it was fighting Ukraine.”

The European Union, the Czech and French Foreign Ministries, and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Affairs expressed their concerns over the situation and called on Minsk to provide further information.

On Nov. 28, 2022, Maria Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka’s staff coordinator, was admitted to intensive care after suffering severe health issues. She has since been returned to serve her sentence in a penal colony.

Belarus hands activist Raman Pratasevich 8-year prison sentence

The Minsk regional court sentenced Raman Pratasevich, a former editor for Belarusian Telegram channel Nexta, to eight years in prison on May 8. His co-defendants, Yan Rudzik and Stsiapan Putsila, who were tried in absentia, were sentenced to 19 and 20 years in prison, respectively.

Nexta’s founder and editors are accused of allegedly participating in a so-called “extremist group,” undermining national security, and other politically motivated charges.

Belarusian prosecutors have also accused Pratasevich and Rudzik of “repetitively forming and leading an extremist group” for heading another Telegram channel – Belarus Golovnogo Mozga (Belarus of the Brain) which is critical of Lukashenko’s regime.

Pratasevich fled Belarus but was detained when his commercial flight from Athens to Vilnius was forced to land in Minsk while flying over the country.

On July 19, 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) found Belarus guilty of orchestrating the forced landing of Ryanair Flight FR4978. According to the ICAO, forced landings constitute an offense under the Montreal and Chicago conventions.

Pratasevich has been called the regime’s “hostage,” appearing in official press conferences and on state-owned TV as an alleged “remorseful opposition activist” that is now loyal to Lukashenko.

The Nexta Telegram channel published videos that criticized Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s regime on topics like the country’s elections, the death penalty, and protests over various government policies.

It extensively covered the protests that followed the fraudulent Belarusian presidential election in 2020.

From Aug. 9 to 16 that year, Nexta’s Telegram channel audience grew from 427,000 to over 2 million subscribers, becoming the mouthpiece and coordinator for protests across the country.

Army of hired guns: How Russia’s ‘PMCs’ are becoming the main invasion force
Private armies are illegal in Russia, so naturally, Moscow has been using them for decades. Now, it’s making them the main invasion force. The rate at which Russia creates new private military company-like units sped up after 2014 but it really took off during the full-scale invasion of Ukraine,

Lithuania, Poland continue to strengthen border with Belarus

Lithuania lifted the state of emergency on its borders with Belarus and Russia, its Interior Ministry announced. It will end at midnight on May 3.

Lithuanian authorities introduced the state of emergency in November 2021 in response to the migration crisis engineered by Minsk, which saw thousands of refugees forced into the EU by Belarus.

Lithuania lifted the state of emergency in response to its parliament adopting a law that allows border guards to send illegal migrants back to Belarus.

Latvia extended the state of emergency at its border with Belarus until Aug. 10, 2023.

Meanwhile, Poland completed the construction of an electronic barrier at a 206-kilometer section of its border with Belarus, which complements a previously built fence. In April alone, Polish Border Guard officers registered 2,400 attempts by migrants to cross the Polish border with Belarus illegally.

The migrant crisis engineered by Minsk reached its peak in November 2021 when Belarus forced thousands of asylum-seekers to cross the border into the EU. Dozens of crossing attempts by migrants are registered daily, which prompted Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania to build walls along their borders with Belarus.

Reuters: Putin, Lukashenko not invited to King Charles’ coronation

Putin and Lukashenko did not receive invitations to King Charles’ coronation ceremony on May 6, a British source told Reuters.

According to the source, the heads of Iran, Myanmar, Syria, Afghanistan, and Venezuela also did not receive invitations, although senior diplomats from North Korea and Nicaragua did.

On March 30, King Charles III called Russia’s war against Ukraine a threat to Europe’s democratic values in a historic speech at the German parliament, the first ever by a British monarch.

He said the “scourge of war is back in Europe; the war of aggression against Ukraine has brought unimaginable suffering on so many innocent people.”

Pressure on Lithuanian minorities mounts in Belarus

On April 28, the Hrodna regional court ruled to dismantle Gimtine, a Lithuanian association in Belarus.

Gimtine, which translates to “homeland” in Lithuanian, was active in Belarus for over 20 years, becoming a local cultural hub for Belarusian-Lithuanians. In Pelesa, the Belarusian village where the organization is based, 80% of residents are ethnic Lithuanians.

To justify its decision, Belarusian authorities claimed that the association had violated the law, although they did not specify further.

Earlier this week, Lithuania’s Foreign Ministry handed a diplomatic note to a Belarusian representative expressing disapproval of Belarus’ decision. It noted that Lithuania will raise the issue with international institutions.

Lukashenko’s regime considers Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania “unfriendly” nations.

Since 2020, the Belarusian regime has routinely persecuted ethnic minorities, destroyed their mass burial sites, and shut down minority schools.

Belarus plans to build radioactive waste storage facility

As the world marks the 37th anniversary of the Chornobyl nuclear disaster that contaminated 23% of Belarus’ territory, Belarusian authorities announced plans to build a radioactive waste storage facility by 2030.

While Belarus sends some used nuclear fuel to Russia for reprocessing, some of it that does not have strategic value will be returned to Belarus for long-term storage.

“It is believed that Russia will return only the cesium and strontium fractions, which have to be stored for 300 years for the substances to decay into imperceptible concentrates,” a Russian radioactive waste safety expert said.

The potential sites for the facility include the regions surrounding Astravets, where the Astravets Nuclear Power Plant is located, or the contaminated territories near Chornobyl in Ukraine. The decision will reportedly be finalized by 2025.

Since the Chornobyl disaster in 1986, contaminated areas in Belarus have halved, although Belarus will not be completely rid of radioactive contamination for many years to come.

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Destruction of opposition: Case of Viktar Babaryka

The Spotlight segment provides readers with the historical context of contemporary events in Belarus.

Viktar Babaryka, one of Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko’s main opponents in the 2020 presidential election, was hospitalized mid-prison term on April 27.

The former head of Belgazprombank and a philanthropist, Babaryka, is currently serving a 14-year sentence for politically-motivated charges, accused of alleged corruption.

Babaryka is known for having headed Belgazprombank during its transition into becoming one of Belarus’ largest banks, as well as for having helped to finance the publication of books by Belarusian Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich. He also helped return original paintings by Belarusian artists to Belarus, such as by Marc Chagall, Chaïm Soutine, and Léon Bakst.

In May 2020, he began a short-lived presidential campaign, running against Lukashenko – some polls even indicate that his presidential bid received more support than Lukashenko’s did.

Babaryka’s campaign appealed to young, progressive city-dwellers, Belarus’ middle class, and creatives. He is known for having said that Lukashenko had forgotten that Belarusians are Lukashenko’s employers, not his employees.

A month later, authorities raided Belgazprombank and arrested Babaryka for allegedly conducting a decade-long money laundering operation and dishing out bribes worth over $12 million.

In July 2021, Babaryka was sentenced to 14 years in prison. He claims the charges were fabricated by Lukashenko’s regime to prevent him from participating in the presidential election.

His sham trial is an example of the ongoing crackdown against those who oppose Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.

Until his recent hospitalization, Babaryka served his prison sentence in one of Belarus’ harshest prisons, rumored in numerous testimonies to beat and torture inmates.

International human rights groups have condemned his arrest, calling him a political prisoner.

Amnesty International has called Babaryka a “prisoner of conscience, prosecuted solely for the peaceful exercise of his human rights, including freely expressing his political opinions.”

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