On September 7, Stanislava “Stasya” Gusakova heard a knock on the door of her flat in Belarus’s capital Minsk. When she opened it, four men – one in civilian clothing and three dressed in army fatigues and balaclavas – stormed in. They dragged Stasya out of her flat and forced her into a minivan which had been waiting outside. She was then taken to a nearby police station. At no point did the men introduce themselves or show any documents.
Stasya, who was a board member of the Belarusian National Youth Council (RADA), a union of 27 democratic youth organisations, has since gone through several hearings in Belaus’s Kafkaesque court system where even basic standards of fairness are roundly ignored. She is currently serving a sentence of 11 days of administrative detention. Her only “crime” was taking part in the peaceful protests that have gripped Belarus since August 9, when the presidential elections were rigged.
Stasya’s arrest is not an anomaly. Since last month, all of the opposition’s key leaders have been kidnapped or arrested, have fled or been forced to leave the country. Thousands of people have been taken to police stations on bogus charges, and dozens continue to be arrested every day. Protesters have been tortured, humiliated, forcefully disappeared and even killed.
As the international media spotlight is slowly starting to fade, President Alexander Lukashenko shows no signs of backing down. He continues to remain in power despite the demand of his people for a new election.
It is no exaggeration to say that I have spent most of my time over the past month between protests and court hearings. Stasya is a colleague of mine at RADA, where I am now international secretary. We have been at the forefront of the protests and I have seen how many other friends and fellow activists have been arrested.
People often ask me if we are getting tired of protesting and if the fear of detention and abuse will eventually deter people from taking to the streets. My answer is always the same: we will not give up. These protests are a long game, and it is one we must win to ensure a better future for our country.
It is heartening that people continue to protest in their thousands across the country, despite the brutal response by Lukashenko and his security forces. Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets to break up protests. During the first few days of demonstrations in early August, more than 7,000 people were arrested, and hundreds later told human rights organisations they were subjected to vicious beatings, sexual violence and other forms of torture in detention. The UN has already recorded 450 cases of torture in Belarus.
While the worst of the physical abuse has apparently stopped, the reign of terror has not. People continue to be arrested for voicing their opinions peacefully. While most have been released, many have also been charged under laws that violate international standards and face the prospect of long jail sentences.
As Stasya’s case shows, it is no longer just in the streets that people are at risk, but also in their homes. It is terrifying to know that at any point security forces could pay you a visit and arrest you. Many of the people I work with have already moved out of their homes for security reasons, and so have I.
The Belarusian court system is set up to protect the interests of the authorities. My friends who have been arrested have all been denied access to lawyers and family members, and have been sentenced after ridiculously short trials without any substantive evidence. They are charged with participation in an “illegal mass event”, contrary to international law. Amazingly, the authorities have used the COVID-19 pandemic to try to justify some of these restrictions, even though Lukashenko himself has downplayed the threat of the virus and even claimed it could be cured with vodka.
It is also important to note that the protests are not simply a youth movement, but rather have the support of Belarusians of all ages and from all walks of life. Some Belarusians are frustrated with a lack of political freedoms, others with the tanking economy, and others still with the government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic. Workers at several state-owned enterprises have gone on strike to demand fresh elections and an end to police brutality.
The widespread support is linked to how the dictatorship has affected every facet of our lives in Belarus. My own case is just one example of this. I used to be a lecturer in human rights and international law at the International University in Minsk (MITSO), but I lost my job in 2016 after I spoke to my students about Belarus’s continued use of the death penalty, LGBTQ rights and other taboo issues. Officers from the KGB – the national intelligence agency – even came to visit me and my family in order to intimidate me. The administration of the university issued warnings to me about fictional violations.
What we ultimately want for our country is simple: it is freedom from this kind of fear. We want the government to release jailed protesters, provide justice for police abuse and to respect people’s right to voice their opinions peacefully. We want a new election that is free and fair, that can ultimately pave the way for a more open and democratic society, where everyone’s human rights are valued.
We ask the international community, and in particular, the European Union, to support us in this. Speak out loudly against the abuses in Belarus and in favour of the people demonstrating. Most importantly, use what leverage you have – financial or political – to pressure the Lukashenko government into holding a new election.
Until this happens, I will continue to take to the streets, demanding change. There is every chance that I – like Stasya – will soon be paid a menacing visit by police, but it is a risk I am willing to take. Toppling a dictator is a long game, but one I am convinced we will win.