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Belarusian students forced to flee as activists tortured, imprisoned

After students led the anti-Lukashenko protests of summer 2020, a wave of repression has since followed.

The entirety of the Belarusian Students’ Association’s executive has been forced to flee, after raids by the Belarusian KGB on their office saw 12 student unionists arrested and imprisoned for organising mass demonstrations against the dictatorial presidency of Alexander Lukashenko. 

After students led the anti-Lukashenko protests of summer 2020, a wave of repression has since followed. Protestors have been faced with intimidation and expulsions from university management, and silenced through outright violence and torture from state security forces.

Rigged elections spark protests; students strike

Alexander Lukashenko

The exclusion of opposition candidates and rigged results in the August 2020 Presidential election — Lukashenko purportedly won with 80.3% of the vote — sparked widespread protests at a level unseen before in post-communist Belarus. Inevitably, the protests were met with a brutal police response, with protestors beaten, tortured and disappeared.

As the academic year began in September, students organised strike committees within their universities. Already a prominent part of the protest movement, students began to plan their own marches in coordination with other universities. With arrests increasing, students switched tactics — striking from class to hold sit-ins, which were often violently dispersed as universities collaborated with the regime. 

Students have reported activists being abducted by security forces on campus. In one case, activist Zmitser Mazura was taken from his university and held in administrative detention for 38 days, after giving a speech to striking students. In another instance, Associate Professor Natalia Dulina was taken from outside a campus building at the Minsk State Linguistic University, three days after she was asked to leave her job by management. At the same university, paramilitary police (known as OMON) wearing balaclavas, some in plain clothes, violently disrupted a sit-in, carrying students off campus and into waiting unmarked vans. Students described management “standing idle and doing nothing.”

OMON officers outside the Belarus State Linguistic University

Maksim Zafranski, BSA member and student at the Belarusian State Economic University during the protests, told Honi that university administration actively conspired against him and fellow unionists: “University administration began to play information about students to police. They gave documents; they gave my phone number to [the KGB] so they could spy on me.” 

“I think that students who were arrested in university were arrested because of the administration.” 

Zafranski was arrested, interrogated and kept in administrative detention by the KGB for organising protests. Administrative detention — whereby individuals can be detained without charge for extended periods — has been used as a regular tool of repression since protests began. The UN’s Special Rapporteur on Belarus reports that since July 2020, “more than 35,000 people had been arbitrarily detained for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly or expressing solidarity with victims of abuse.”

Zafranski describes his experiences: “[the KGB] tried to intimidate me and put psychological pressure on me through their dialogue, through my parents, saying that they could have problems at work because of me.” After his interrogation, Zafranski was taken to prison, where he was held for 15 days without charge and put in solitary confinement for 36 hours. “The situation was really tough — in solitary confinement I slept on the floor because we couldn’t sleep on the bed. And when I was moved to an ordinary cell, we couldn’t sit on the bed during the day or else we would be beaten. We didn’t have walks outside, and they didn’t turn the lights off during the night — so we had 24 hours of light on.”

Since the beginning of the 2020 academic year in September, the BSA has recorded evidence of 492 detained students. 139 of those were placed in administrative detention, and a further 51 have had criminal proceedings brought against them.

Students hold a sit-in at the Belarusian State University of Informatics and Radioelectronics after their classmate was abducted from outside the university.

Hostile universities

Zafranksi’s allegations of university collaboration with security forces demonstrate the close relationship between administration and the government. Curriculum in Belarusian universities is directly set by the Department of Education and “professors are to follow all official requirements, even if they do not agree with course materials.” Failure to comply with the curriculum often results in disciplinary measures or sackings. 

After coming to power in 1994, Lukashenko altered the procedure for appointing Rectors (the equivalent of Vice-Chancellors). Whereas previously Rectors were appointed by a vote of university academic councils, since 1994 Rectors have been appointed — and can be dismissed — by Presidential decree. Such a system fosters obsequiousness and loyalty to state dictates in university administration. For example, amid the student protests, Lukashenko replaced three Rectors at politically active universities less than two weeks after saying “Rectors are not doing enough. In the near future, we must solve the staff problem of such universities.” 

Government control of appointments filters down through the hierarchy — there is little autonomy within university departments, and faculty heads are appointed directly by Rectors. Oraz Myradov — the BSA’s International Secretary — told Honi of the pressure exerted by universities on dissenting students: “If they know about your position, they will use your weakness as a student against you. They manipulate with their places and dormitories, with scholarships and with exam results.” 

“In some cases, we’ve heard of people from the administration tracking [students’] social media, searching for things they post on there, or repost, or even like.” 

Since the beginning of the 2020 protests, student groups have reported 915 cases of reprimands issued by universities against students, 246 expulsions, and 114 instances of students being deprived of scholarships. 103 teachers, including 12 Rectors, have been removed in the same period. At the Belarusian National Technical University, 55 students were expelled. The day before expulsions began en masse at BNTU in October last year, Lukashenko said “Whoever went out in violation of the law for unauthorised actions must be deprived of the right to be a student.” 

Suppression of independent student unions

Unsurprisingly, independent student unionism is not encouraged by the Belarusian authorities. The only authorised ‘student union’ is the Belarus Republican Youth Union, a successor of the Soviet-era Komsomol. The BRYU is government-controlled, and its members are expected to perform ‘patriotic duties.’ Membership is organised through schools, and, according to Kristiina Silvan, “it is the responsibility of eighth-grade teachers to ensure that most pupils join the organisation.” During last year’s protests, students, often passive members of the BRYU, returned their membership en masse.

By contrast, the BSA — founded in 1989 on anti-communist ideals — has been operating illegally since it was stripped of its registration in 2002. Myradov says the union made a conscious decision not to be publicly involved in last year’s protests:  “We knew that each time after protests a big wave of repression usually awaits each NGO that shows disagreement.” Instead, the union “worked in secret,” acting as a bridge between strike committees at different universities and coordinating protest organising groups on Telegram. “We were doing everything in secret. That’s why we survived until November.”

Black Thursday

The increasing pressure on students came to a head on November 12, which the union has termed ‘Black Thursday.’ After the removal of Rectors, abductions on university grounds, and mass expulsions, the KGB raided the BSA’s offices and searched the dormitory rooms of activists, seizing documents, phones and arresting 11 students. The students were charged with “organisation or participation in group actions that grossly violate the public order.” At a trial in May, the students were found guilty and sentenced to prison terms of between two and two and a half years, in addition to six months of pre-trial detention. 

Among those imprisoned are the BSA’s Press Secretary, Ksenia Syramalot, and BSA Secretary of External Affairs, Alana Gebremariamm. 

Myradov says “we knew that after the protests were over [the police] would come after us. But we couldn’t have guessed that the intelligence forces themselves would work on the case. That requires a different level of security measures we needed to implement in our organisation and work, which we failed to implement.”

On the morning of November 12, Maksim Zafranski was called into his Dean’s office and told that he was being expelled for “skipping a lot of classes.” Understandably, Zafranski was unable to attend class during the two weeks he was imprisoned by the KGB. That afternoon he received news of the raids on BSA activists and was warned that “there was a risk of being arrested.” “I spoke for 20 minutes with my girlfriend, and we decided to leave because the KGB could also come for us.” Packing frantically, Zafranski and his girlfriend made their way to the Ukrainian border, where he was stopped and searched for five hours. Eventually, border guards let him through.

Union in exile 

The raids and arrests of November 12 forced the BSA out of Belarus and required a re-evaluation of the union’s aims and activity. Myradov says that it became “impossible to work safely within Belarus — the board members, the council members and the secretariat members are all outside the country now.”

Even outside the country, safety from the Belarusian security forces is not guaranteed. Earlier this month, exiled activist Vitaly Shishov was found hanged in a Kiev park in suspicious circumstances. In June, in an incident which made international headlines, a Ryanair flight was intercepted by Belarusian fighter jets and diverted to Minsk to allow the arrest of opposition journalist Roman Protasevich and his girlfriend. 

After reorganising itself following November’s chaos, the BSA relaunched in February as an international representative of Belarusian students — aligning itself with the European Students’ Union to advance the primary goal of “returning to Belarus the principles of democracy, legality and respect for human rights and freedoms.”

The union has been forced to shift its focus from direct representation and protest organising, to providing emergency accommodation for activists at risk of arrest and helping students flee across Belarus’ closed borders. Myradov puts it mildly: “We’re just adapting to the new needs of student activists. We aren’t like a normal students’ union.”