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Belarus in Focus
Online guide for journalists writing about Belarus. Find out who's who in business, society or politics, get practical tips and contacts, and read about other journalists' experiences. Got some more questions? Get in touch with us.
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28 Jan

Sara Bicchierini, Io donna, November 19, 2011 (Italy)

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“That’s why we fled Belarus, the last dictatorship in Europe”

The journalist Natalya experienced jail. Vera, the lawyer, had to leave her son. Now they live in exile, but they keep on fighting for their country. Without freedom.

“Taking to the streets against the regime means jail. I spent one and a half months in the Minsk KGB prison. I was sleeping on the floor, under the bunks. In the cells there were no toilets either. They questioned me until late night. Torture still exists over there. But losing the power of writing what I think or see is an idea that scares me more than a prison. That’s why I go on”.

Thirty-two-year-old Natalya Radina is the news editor of the main Belarusian independent news portal, Charter 97 ( She was a guest speaker, together with the lawyer Vera Stremkovskaya, at the conference “Belarus, open air prison”, arranged in Milan by the not-for-profit organisation AnnaViva (created in remembrance of Anna Politkovskaya). Natalya tells Io donna what it means to live in a black hole where human rights are neglected and people who dare to take a position against the authorities are hushed up by force.

Belarus is the last dictatorship in Europe. Since 1994 the country has been led by Alexander Lukashenko, whose presidential mandate has also been confirmed by the last contested election. Detained and charged with organising the protests against alleged gerrymandering on 19 December 2010, last April Natalya succeeded in escaping house arrest and now she lives in Lithuania, where she has requested political asylum. “Due to those demonstrations, almost a thousand people ended up in prison, including opposition candidates. The next day they came to catch me too, at four in the morning. There were six people, in riot gear, with gas masks and big batons to break the doors of my house down. Such ferocity just to stop one girl? They are the ones who are actually scared”. She faced up to 15 years of jail. They released her whilst awaiting trial, thanks to the veiled threats of economic sanctions made by the European Union. “That’s the only language a dictator like ours can understand”, she says.

 With her passport seized, she was obliged to work at her parents’ home, in Kobrin, far away from the capital city, and constantly under threat. She ran away during the night, by train, hiding for four months at some friends’ place in Russia. Charter 97 has been sentenced five times for her articles and police repeatedly searched its newsroom. “They took away twenty of our computers. Also my 14-year-old nephew’s one. I don’t know what they thought they could discover there”, she says. In September 2010, the founder of the website, Oleg Bebenin, was found hanged in his dacha. He had just come back from his holidays. “The authorities said it was a suicide. I knew him for a long time, and I’m sure he would never have done such a thing. On his body there were signs of violence. They killed him”. After the election Charter 97 moved to Vilnius, where it can report about what is happening in Belarus without being at risk of closure. The eight staff members live and work together, in the same flat. “There are a few colleagues still writing from Minsk, under cover. To be a journalist in Belarus is impossible”.

Also lawyers dealing with human rights risk their lives. Vera Stremkovskaya used to defend political dissidents. Disbarred from the register of lawyers for her activities, she has lived as a refugee in Gothenburg, Sweden, for three years. “I am a single mother. I brought up my son, who is now 26 years old, on my own, facing continuous threats. The KGB detained me and the government opened three cases against me. The last one was because I sued some policemen who had blocked the road using their cars and caused a lot of accidents just to stop some criminals. After several adventures, I managed to run away. I still cannot reveal many details. Now I help people in a different way, working in family counselling services. My qualification as a lawyer is not valid in Sweden and I’m studying in order to make it assessed there. It’s hard, especially ‘cause I can’t stay close to my son, who is living in Moscow. They would detain me. But I’m content with looking at him on Skype: I open the piano and play for him”.             



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