Andrew Osborn








Our family ripped apart by Europe's last dictator says Iryna Khalip, wife of jailed Andrei Sannikov in Belarus

The Sunday Telegraph, 12th June 2011 14:53

By Andrew Osborn, in Minsk

Drawing nervously on a cigarette in a café in Minsk, the capital of a country often dubbed Europe's last dictatorship, Iryna Khalip dreams of the day when her life no longer reads like something out of George Orwell's novel 1984.

Wife of the country's leading opposition figure, a courageous journalist, and mother to a young son, she always knew that Belarus's neo-Soviet regime was vicious. But she had not expected it to target her family for destruction in even her worst nightmares.

Belarus was after all part of Europe, a mere two-and-a-half hour flight from London, and this was the second decade of the 21st century not the dark days of Stalin's Soviet Union.

It was true that she had written her fair share of hard-hitting articles for a newspaper in neighbouring Russia pouring scorn on Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus's dictatorial president.

It was true too that her husband, Andrei Sannikov, had resigned from his plum post as deputy foreign minister to help found a pro-democracy rights group, then had the nerve to challenge Mr Lukashenko in last December's presidential election.

But in a country that resembles a Soviet version of The Stepford Wives circa 1950 such defiance was usually punished by briefly jailing or beating the guilty party, but not by going after an entire family.

Yet as she stood in a grim courtroom several weeks ago, Miss Khalip realised that the regime had decided to make a terrifying exception in her own case.

Two days earlier, her husband had been jailed for five years after being forced to falsely say that he had organised a violent protest against the regime.

She says he was assaulted and then jailed as he took part in a peaceful protest. "The riot police beat my husband around the head and on his legs so hard that he fell to the ground. When he fell, a riot policeman lifted his metal riot shield above him and with all his might brought it down on his knees,'' she said. "After that, he could not walk."

The KGB secret police, which has kept its Soviet-era name, told her husband that she and their young son, Daniil, four, would be killed if he did not confess to his alleged crimes.

As she stood in the dock, and heard the judge give her a two-year suspended jail sentence banning her from leaving Minsk, she said she felt like the family unit she had been carefully building for a decade was being dismantled piece by piece.

"It was terrifying," she said in her first interview with a Western newspaper since her ordeal. "I knew they were preparing a crackdown but I never imagined it would be so harsh."

The nature of her own sentence, ostensibly for disrupting public order by taking part in an opposition protest, means she remains at the regime's mercy. "I will be tried again in two years' time and there is a 50-50 chance that they will send me to jail. They have set things up so that this will always be hanging over me, so that I cannot forget."

Her husband is due to stay in jail for the next five years, and though she said his spirits were high, she said he had been tortured. "They forced him to run up and down metal stairs clutching his mattress and all his bedding to his chest, and they forced him and others to stand naked for long periods until they dropped. My husband is 57 years old."

Although Belarus, a small country of 10 million people that borders Poland, has been ruled increasingly harshly by the tyrannical Mr Lukashenko since 1994, her family's ordeal began last December.

Mr Lukashenko, the former manager of a Soviet collective farm who has been quoted praising Adolf Hitler, was up for re-election for a fourth term.

Never mind that the self-styled father, or ''Batka'', of the nation was supposed to have stepped down long ago. The balding autocrat had changed the constitution in a rigged referendum to get around that one. Nobody doubted that he would fix this election too, and so it was that Western observers duly declared that his "victory", with almost 80 per cent of the vote, was "flawed."

When Miss Khalip and her husband took to the streets with thousands of others to protest, trouble flared. Unidentified men she believes were regime provocateurs attacked the main government building in Minsk, giving the riot police the perfect pretext to pounce and Mr Lukashenko the ammunition he needed to claim the opposition was mounting a coup. It was, she said, a set-up. The building was barricaded from the inside and was filled with riot police wearing body armour. "It was all planned in advance," she said. As she watched in horror, her husband was brutally assaulted. With the help of friends, she got him into a car and set off for the hospital. On route, she began giving an interview to a Russian radio station, but did not get very far. A phalanx of police cars boxed them in like something out of a Hollywood film and dragged the couple out.

"The radio station told me to stay on the line for as long as I could and I did, but a policemen punched me in the face when I refused to give up my phone."

Doctors on the scene insisted that her husband needed urgent medical care and he was bundled into an ambulance. But the ambulance took him straight to a KGB cell instead. Miss Khalip was not allowed any contact with him for the next five months, and she herself spent the next month and a half in jail. At one point, she was in a cell next to her husband but never knew it.

While she was in jail the authorities tried to put her son in a home. Her mother, Lutsina, 74, who was looking after Daniil, suffered a heart attack at the time but somehow found the strength to collect the necessary documents needed to win legal guardianship.

Blonde and articulate, Miss Khalip, 43, shudders as she remembers how close she came to losing her son. "I still have a dream that I am in a prison behind a see-through soundproof wall and that I watch as they take away my son but cannot do anything about it."

Worst of all though, she added, was the effect on her son. "Everyone thinks that kids don't understand adult conversations but that's not right. He asked my mum what she would do if the bad guys asked her to hand him over to them and she said she would say no."

When Miss Khalip got out of jail she faced another ordeal: house arrest. For three and a half months, she was not allowed to leave her flat or even approach the windows and had two KGB agents living with her around the clock. The KGB replaced the agents every eight hours.

"I joked that they'd have to shoot me because I knew all their faces, but worst of all was that my son also became a prisoner. I'd be sleeping with my son and they'd be watching TV in the next room, and every time I wanted to use the bathroom in my own home I'd have to get dressed. Psychologically, it was worse than prison." She struggled to explain the situation to her son. "He did not understand why his mum couldn't go out for a walk with him. I had to lie and say that I was ill and that the doctor had forbade me from going out. He didn't understand who all the men in our apartment were either. Again, I had to lie and say that some bad men had attacked me and these good men were there to protect me."

What was harder though, she said, was to explain where his father was. "I told him he was away on a trip and would be back very soon."

A court has allowed her to see her husband twice in the last month and they are now able to exchange letters. As she ate lunch in a restaurant that on the surface could be anywhere in Europe, she seemed, understandably, deeply disturbed. "I am not my old self and have been operating on autopilot," she conceded.

But amid signs that the regime was beginning to unravel, she said she was optimistic. The national currency has been devalued by almost 50 per cent, there has been a run on certain goods. Popular discontent was growing, she said.

"The balance of power has shifted. The authorities are more afraid of the people than the other way round."

If the West boycotted Belarusian exports, she said, the regime would fall in a single day. "I don't know when or how but I am convinced that my husband will be released before his jail term is up. I don't believe the regime will last another five years."