Life Under Europe’s Last Dictator

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On the eve of Sunday's presidential elections in Belarus, profiled eight brave members of the political opposition: intellectuals, artists, journalists, and activists who dared to speak out against the policies of President Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko, who has been in office since 1994, is widely considered Europe's last dictator; he has for 16 years brutally cracked down on opposition candidates and sympathizers -- jailing and murdering many potential challengers and shuttering independent media.

As the polls closed on Sunday night at around 8 pm, thousands of supporters of the two main opposition candidates began to walk down the main streets of Belarus's capital, Minsk, to gather in the central square. Between 11 pm and midnight, several hundred people were detained by police and forced into packed police buses, then driven to a KGB prison near Minsk. Many were also beaten.

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Most of the photos that appear in this photo essay were taken in Minsk last Thursday by award-winning photographer Andrei Liankevich. Liankevich was also present in the city's main square on Sunday night, when his camera was confiscated and

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Andrei Sannikov, opposition presidential candidate

"We believe it was one more political murder -- a message to other politicians and journalists right before the elections," Andrei Sannikov, one of the two main candidates running against incumbent Lukashenko, told me last week. We were talking in his office in Belarus's capital, Minsk. In September, Sannikov's campaign manager Oleg Babenin, by all accounts a happily married family man, had been found dead inside his home, his limp body hanging from a handmade noose. Officially the death was ruled a suicide. But Sannikov sees it as only the latest in a long line of chilling abductions and murders over 16 years intended to silence or cripple Lukashenko's political opposition. "We are determined to win this time," Sannikov said.

Update: Andrei Sannikov was beaten in Minsk's central square and taken to a nearby prison. A photograph of Sannikov lying on the ground, with his wife kneeling beside him, was posted on a friend's web site here (second row, right photograph). 

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Irina Khalip, investigative reporter

One evening this March, Sannikov's wife, investigative reporter Irina Khalip, heard a voice outside her apartment. "Open the door, or we break it!" a man barked. "We have a general prosecutor's permit!" Her first thought was, "They are going to scare Dania," her 2-year-old son, who was already asleep. Soon a dozen uniformed security officers -- "KGB," she calls them -- were standing inside her home, carrying garbage bags in their hands. The men confiscated her computer, her DVDs, some old 3-inch diskettes, and even CDs with Italian operas. Today there is not a single independent newspaper in print in Belarus. The government has shuttered the three independent newspapers Khalip had once worked for. Today Khalip, the recipient of 2009's "Courage in Journalism Award" from the International Women's Media Foundation, writes for independent Internet news sites and Russia's Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

Update: After her husband was beaten, Irina Khalip tried to get into a car with Sannikov to go to a hospital. But both passengers were pulled from the car by police. Khalip was also beaten. The two were then loaded into separate cars by police to be taken to a Minsk prison. 

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Nikolay Khalezin, playwright and co-founder of Belarus Free Theater

In 1998, playwright Nikolay Khalezin participated in an anti-Lukashenko protest. Soon after, he was detained inside a tiny cell in a Minsk prison for five hours. "That was nothing else but torture," he remembers. He was not sure he would ever "see the light or my beloved one ever again." Khalezin meant his future wife, Natalya Kolyada, whom he had met at an opposition protest. Four years ago, he and Kolyada founded Belarus Free Theater, one of the country's few forums for free expression. Many of his political plays are based on letters written by his friends in prison. Yet he wonders how much impact he will ever have. "We have been ringing a bell made of cotton for 16 years," he says of Belarus's opposition movement, "watching our friends being murdered and abducted."

Update: At 7 am Monday morning, Nikolay Khalezin sent an SMS to a friend: "They are breaking through my door." That was the last message sent from his cell phone. His friends believe he is now also being held inside a Minsk prison.

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Natalya Kolyada, co-founder of Belarus Free Theater

Natalya Kolyada, Khalezin's wife, was hurrying to board her plane to London along with members of the Belarus Free Theater group one day this fall. But she was detained at customs control and taken to a cell in the basement of Minsk's main airport. "We suspect you are engaged in terrorism," a security officer told her. "Open your luggage!" Inside her suitcase were theater costumes and stage decorations. "See, your theater is a terrorist group, and you are their leader -- we should ban you from leaving the country,"

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Mikhail Marinich, former minister of foreign economic affairs

After waging an unsuccessful presidential campaign to unseat Lukashenko in 2001, Mikhail Marinich, a former minister of foreign economic affairs, was detained and sentenced to five years in prison. One line on his medical records read: "If the patient does not receive his medicine on time, he may be at risk for a stroke." Yet Marinich did not receive prescribed medications while in prison. In May 2003, shortly after being moved to a prison 200 kilometers away from Minsk, he in fact suffered a stroke. For three days, he lay suffering in his cell without any medical help. He survived and continues to support opposition candidates.

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Pavel Marinich, opposition activist

After his father decided to run against Lukashenko in 2001, his son, Pavel, saw his own business opportunities collapse. "Authorities closed all channels for my company," he told me. Today he continues to work alongside his father in the opposition movement.

Update: Pavel Marinich beaten with clubs by riot police in Minsk's main square on Sunday night. He was not taken to prison, but is now recovering in the company of friends. 

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Ales Antsipenka, founder of Belarus's "Underground University"

Ten years ago, writer and philosopher Ales Antsipenka founded the Belarusian Collegium, known in Minsk as the "Underground University." Although the government has never allowed him to formally register the college, it runs MA and BA programs in modern history, journalism, literature, and philosophy. Antsipenka knows he treads on precarious ground, but he remains optimistic about the future. "I believe that change is coming soon," he says. "We will someday come out from underground and even have an American University in Belarus."

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General Valery Fralou, former member of parliament

Valery Fralou remembers the day in 2004 when seven masked men beat him almost to death on the stairs outside his apartment. That was shortly after Fralou, then a member of parliament, had helped to form a coalition supporting measures that Lukashenko opposed. When he left the government, deeply disillusioned, "Lukashenko made me and all of his critics persona non-grata, so we could not be employed by any state company," the former army officer told me. Today he is a leader of the Oficerskoe Sobranie -- Officers' Union -- organizing retired generals like himself in support of the opposition. "You can take my word -- you can be sure, there will be no Lukashenko the president. His days have come to the end," he says, ever hopeful.

Update: Friends have not heard from Valery Fralou since Sunday night and believe he, too, is now in prison in Minsk.

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