3 years old and caught in the crossfire

"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother of a rosy-cheeked, 3-year-old boy who may soon become a pawn in Belarusian politics, told the New York Times yesterday. The boy, Danil Sannikov, is the son of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ran against incumbent Aleksandr ...

Andrei Liankevich
Andrei Liankevich
Andrei Liankevich

"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother of a rosy-cheeked, 3-year-old boy who may soon become a pawn in Belarusian politics, told the New York Times yesterday.

The boy, Danil Sannikov, is the son of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ran against incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus's Dec. 12 presidential election. His mother is investigative journalist Irina Khalip. Both parents have been in prison since election day. Lukashenko -- who has been in power for 16 years and is often called Europe's last dictator -- that evening watched as his police forces descended on Minsk's central square, where they detained hundreds of members of the opposition who had  gathered to protest the presumed sham election results. Many were also beaten. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, several hundred people were forced into packed police buses and then driven to a KGB prison near Minsk.

The next day, Danil's grandmother received a letter from her daughter Irina instructing her to look after the boy. "She wanted me to tell Danil she really loved him," Irina said. She has not heard from Irina or her son-in-law, Andrei, since then.

"Even in my worst nightmares I could not have conceived that this could happen," Lyutsina Khalip, the grandmother of a rosy-cheeked, 3-year-old boy who may soon become a pawn in Belarusian politics, told the New York Times yesterday.

The boy, Danil Sannikov, is the son of opposition candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ran against incumbent Aleksandr Lukashenko in Belarus’s Dec. 12 presidential election. His mother is investigative journalist Irina Khalip. Both parents have been in prison since election day. Lukashenko — who has been in power for 16 years and is often called Europe’s last dictator — that evening watched as his police forces descended on Minsk’s central square, where they detained hundreds of members of the opposition who had  gathered to protest the presumed sham election results. Many were also beaten. Between 11 p.m. and midnight, several hundred people were forced into packed police buses and then driven to a KGB prison near Minsk.

The next day, Danil’s grandmother received a letter from her daughter Irina instructing her to look after the boy. "She wanted me to tell Danil she really loved him," Irina said. She has not heard from Irina or her son-in-law, Andrei, since then.

Now, as the Times reports, the boy’s fate also hangs in the balance:

The government warned recently that it might seize custody of the 3-year-old son of an opposition presidential candidate who was jailed along with his wife, a journalist. The authorities said that they were investigating the status of the child, who is now living with his grandmother, and that they expected to make a decision by the end of the month.

In 16 years as ruler of Belarus, President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko has often been called Europe’s last dictator. But the plight of the child, Danil Sannikov, may represent a new tactic in the government’s persecution of the opposition, one that harks back to the Stalin era, when the children of so-called enemies of the people were sent to orphanages after their parents went to the gulag.

The above photo of Danil was sent to Foreign Policy by Belarus-based photographer Andrei Liankevich, who took profile portraits  of several members of the country’s long-suffering opposition on the heels of the election. (For more, see FP‘s photo essay, "Life Under Europe’s Last Dictator.")

Christina Larson is an award-winning foreign correspondent and science journalist based in Beijing, and a former Foreign Policy editor. She has reported from nearly a dozen countries in Asia. Her features have appeared in the New York Times, Wired, Science, Scientific American, the Atlantic, and other publications. In 2016, she won the Overseas Press Club of America’s Morton Frank Award for international magazine writing. Twitter: @larsonchristina

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