Meet the activists keeping the spirit of resistance alive in Belarus

·5-min read

Being a defence lawyer for high-profile Belarusian political prisoners is as challenging as it gets. 

Some, like the lawyer representing Roman Protasevich, the blogger who President Alexander Lukashenko forced the landing of a Ryanair flight to have arrested, have been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Others have been arbitrarily de-barred and stripped of their ability to practice. Many others have fled the country.

Under new legislation the Ministry of Justice will appoint the heads of legal offices, approve trainees and put law enforcement officers on assignment to work as lawyers.

Any remaining notion of independence for the defence teams representing the 500-plus political prisoners in Belarusian jails will be well and truly crushed.

Nevertheless, Natalia Matskevich fights on. She is representing two of last year's presidential hopefuls - Sergei Tikhanovsky and Victor Babariko.

Both men were jailed on spurious grounds after they announced they were running.

Mr Tikhanovsky's wife, Svetlana Tikhanosvkaya, and Mr Babariko's campaign manager, Maria Kolesnikova, stepped in instead.

Ms Tikhanovskaya now tours European capitals in a tireless campaign to bring attention to the Belarusian cause and Ms Kolesnikova is in jail herself.

Mr Babariko's trial on supposed embezzlement charges is wrapping up, with the prosecution demanding a 15-year jail term.

Sergei Tikhanovsky's has just begun, a closed process alongside five other political prisoners in what passes for a courtroom in a prison in Belarus's second city of Gomel.

Ms Matskevich does not expect leniency.

She told Sky News: "Our relations with the state have nothing romantic in them and we can't evaluate anything in terms of hope, so we measure things in terms of our actions.

"All we can do is do our best. What happens next depends on those making decisions."

From the relative luxury of not being in Belarus, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya put it to Sky News more bluntly.

"We forgot what a fair trial is. Judges have to be ruled by law, not by the regime.

"And I understand that they are also slaves of this regime but they betray their profession at this moment. It's a difficult decision for every person and they chose their side, the black side."

The European Union this week imposed its toughest sanctions yet on Belarus in response to the forced landing of the Ryanair flight last month - targeting its key exports: potash fertiliser, banking and petroleum products.

Unlike the sanctioning of individuals who are unlikely to leave the country anytime soon, these sectoral sanctions are intended to hit Mr Lukashenko in the pocket.

But he is defiant, describing the sanctions as a sign of the EU's own '"powerlessness".

That is partly the problem - the inability of anyone, even Russian President Vladimir Putin, to hold full sway over this errant man. But the EU does have leverage.

"Lukashenko doesn't want political integration with Russia because this will mean he loses his power.

"But if his economy stagnates and doesn't survive without Russia, then Russia will have to spend more and more money without gaining the control it wants," Pavel Slunkin, a Belarusian analyst with the European Council on foreign relations, said.

"So this is where the EU has potential - to turn Lukashenko into what the Russians call a 'suitcase without a handle' for Putin, a white elephant."

With the sanctions threat rumbling, there were rumours that the prosecutor's office was preparing an amnesty list ahead of Belarusian Independence Day on 3 July. If that was an attempt to sway the EU, it didn't work.

"A lot of things now look very chaotic. They don't have one vision with this talk of an amnesty on the one hand and on the other they continue the repressions," said Valentin Stephanovich from the human rights group Viesna.

"It was the same with the Ryanair jet. It looks like the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is doing one thing and the KGB (domestic intelligence) is doing another."

Mr Stephanovich is one of the few Viesna members left in Minsk. Four of his colleagues are in prison. Others have left the country.

The authorities have launched a criminal case against Viesna for allegedly supporting and financing mass protest though it will take time for the trial to begin.

In 2015 Mr Lukashenko released six political prisoners under presidential pardon in what the EU then heralded as a step forward in repairing relations.

One of them was Nikolai Statkevich whose crime had been to run against Mr Lukashenko in 2010.

Now he is on trial again, alongside Mr Tikhanovsky, after throwing his support behind him last year.

His wife Marina Adamovich believes that petitions for pardon are a disgrace, signed under duress, with prisoners forced to beg for pardon for crimes they did not commit.

"It will be a lot harder to force these petitions out of them now because there are so many imprisoned people and they are more sure of their right cause and feel the support of society behind them," she said.

She is proud of her husband's resilience.

"Despite all the trials that he had to go through he always looks very good. He's got his own system of self-preservation and survival in prison and he is incredibly positive."

The spirit of resistance still burns in Belarus.

It speaks in arguments we won't hear in closed court procedures; keeps prisoners awake at night in their cells; spurs on journalists and human rights activists and gives relatives the courage to speak out against the regime.

And if the majority are silenced by the regime's repressions, they see it for what it is. A cruel and vindictive dictatorship, endeavouring to snuff out every last gasp of resistance rather than lose its grip on power.

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