Political prisoners in Belarus: stories of imprisoned mothers with many children
Political prisoners with many children in Belarus
In Belarus, the authorities are still continuing to identify and sentence participants of peaceful 2020 demonstrations to long prison terms. Including mothers of many children. Novaya Gazeta Europe tells the stories of three such women.
When the verdict was announced – six years in prison – Elena Movshuk wrote in her prison cell on a notebook sheet “I will hang myself!” and showed the sheet to those present in the hall. Elena has five children. Husband Sergei was taken into custody in the courtroom on the day of the verdict. He was given six months more than his wife. Under the same article – participation in riots.
“I’ll hang myself”
Elena Movshuk worked in the catering unit of the city hospital in Pinsk. She was arrested on the day of the presidential election.
On August 9, 2020, residents of Pinsk, like other cities of Belarus, gathered at the end of voting near their polling stations. The heads of the commissions unanimously sent them to the building of the city executive committee: they said that all the ballots, together with the numbers, had already been sent to the city, “go and wait for the results there”.
When people gathered in the city square, the head of the local police even came out to them and offered to choose five delegates who would be able to enter the executive committee, talk with the city leadership and the rest would wait outside.
The people of Pinsk were childishly happy: finally, the situation was seemingly changing before their eyes, they are making history, their voices were finally heard, officials were ready to communicate with the people, today a new free country was being born. Meanwhile, reinforcements from internal troops were coming to the city.
Those who had gathered on the square were simply surrounded and “cleansed”. Including Movshuks. Together they came to the square, together they ended up in a paddy wagon. And then they were separated.
After 17 hours, Sergei Movshuk was released – beaten, but with only an administrative fine brought up against him. He was waiting for his wife at home in full confidence that she would come any minute because women with minor children are not imprisoned under the “administrative” rules, they are only fined.
Elena did not return home. For several days he did not know where she was – in the Pinsk detention center, they said that she was not among the detainees. As it turned out, they were not lying: Elena was taken to a detention center in Baranovichi. Sergei found out about this on August 14 after a call from an unknown woman. She said that she saw Elena in the cell – “beaten, naked, barefoot”.
Then Sergey found out that Elena was accused of a criminal article. After that, they started searching for a lawyer, sening transfers and parcels to prison and preparing younger children for school.
And on September 17, 11-year-old Angelina did not return from school. She was taken to the shelter right from the lesson.
Almost a month and a half after Elena’s arrest, the guardianship authorities suddenly realized that Sergey was her second husband, and four older children were from the first, including fifth-grader Angelina.
So it would be better for a girl to be in an orphanage than at home with her stepfather, sisters and brother – this is how the Belarusian civil servants decided. Angelina’s sisters Yulia and Olga, and brother Denis were adults at the time of their mother’s arrest.
Only the smallest, six-year-old Karina, was not touched – and then for the time being.
In October, a letter came from Elena: “… I have been here for 2 months, and the investigator does not call. … You know that I want justice, and I will be responsible for what I did, and not for some people who are attributed to me by 12 people. I do not know them, and I have no collusion with them. I don’t know any people”.
And in December 2020, Sergei was charged under the same article and placed under house arrest. In April last year, a trial was held in Pinsk.
In addition to the Movshukovs, 12 more Pinsk residents ended up in the dock. It turns out that they gathered in the city square not for a peaceful rally, but with the aim of seizing the building of the city executive committee.
And when during the cleansing they ran away from the special forces, they damaged arborvitae and petunias on the lawn near the executive committee. As a result, everyone was given terms ranging from 5.5 to 6.5 years in prison.
Sergei was handcuffed in the courtroom. And, it seems, I understand why at that moment Elena wrote “I will hang myself” on a notebook sheet. At that moment, she realized that now Karina would also be taken to the shelter because now both of her parents are in prison. Correspondence between the zones is also prohibited, not to mention the fact that there can be no visits from a husband and wife who are serving time.
Karina was also taken away – right from the kindergarten immediately after the verdict. But Elena did not hang herself. Guardianship of Karina was issued to the eldest daughter Olga. Guardians of Angelina were her godparents and friends Movshukovs. On the last call home from the colony, Elena complained to her daughter that she had been deprived of packages and dates. But she will survive.
Organizer of unauthorized tea parties
Olga Zolotar has five children. The eldest is 17, the youngest is 4. The family lives in the village of Zhdanovichi near Minsk. On March 18 last year, Olga was detained when she was taking her 10-year-old daughter to a music school. In the evening of the same day, they came for Olga’s husband Sergei Gankevich.
The next day, Gankevich was sentenced to 10 days in jail for holding a white-red-white flag in a window. And Olga was transferred to a detention center and charged under two articles of the criminal code of Belarus – “creation of an extremist formation” and “organization of actions grossly violating public order”.
On the same day, the official telegram channel of the Internal Affairs Directorate of the Minsk Oblast Executive Committee reported on the arrest of Olga Zolotar, who “was the administrator of the local yard chat and the organizer of unauthorized mass events, the so-called “tea parties ”,“ walks ”,“ concerts ”. The woman has been organizing these events since the summer of last year and has been an active participant in them.”
Olga really administered the courtyard chat “Tsoi’s Song Lovers Club”. In August 2020, when, after the presidential elections, hundreds of thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to protest against fraud and violence, they seemed to be surprised at themselves: how many of us, it turns out!
That summer, not only “We are waiting for changes” Tsoi turned out to be the most popular song in Belarus. Also – “We did not know each other until this summer” by the Russian group “Splin”. And the truth is, they didn’t know. And all over the country, local chats began to appear – in the yards, quarters and microdistricts.
People got acquainted, gathered in the evenings with thermoses for tea parties, organized assistance to arrested neighbors, and collected money to pay the fines for those who were convicted administratively. Belarusian musicians went to these tea parties in the evenings and gave concerts.
From there, from these yard chats, a wave of Belarusian solidarity arose, which was then praised by the whole world. By mid-autumn, the authorities decided that horizontal ties and backyard tea parties were dangerous. And the hunt for administrators of local chats began.
After the arrest, Olga Zolotar was beaten – they forced her to give them the password of the phone. At the very first interrogation, she announced torture and demanded a forensic medical examination. An examination was appointed only seven weeks later – after the hematomas and abrasions had already disappeared.
The Zhdanovichi chat of lovers of Tsoi’s songs was recognized as an extremist formation.
At the trial, prosecutor Zhanna Baranova read out the accusation: “Zolotar took measures to rally the members of the community, namely: she morally supported them, organized joint leisure activities”.
The prosecution presented evidence of guilt: Zolotar organized meetings in the local library, where they signed Christmas cards for political prisoners; invited chat participants to Belarusian language courses; taught people to “protect themselves against and evade persecution and detention”; organized joint leisure activities; participated in an unauthorized procession, carried a poster “Peace, love, freedom”.
During a search in her house, they found red and white balloons and a white and red umbrella. The prosecutor suggested destroying these items as extremist symbols.
In the last word, Olga Zolotar quoted the South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu: “The Lord God created us and said: “Go, my children. Now you are free. And he respects our freedom so much that he is willing to let us go to hell of our own free will, instead of being forced to lead us to heaven”.
She was sentenced to four years in prison. Since her husband remained at large, the state has not yet tried to take away her five children again.
From a letter from Olga Zolotar to her relatives: “Love burns in me. Love for my family, as well as for all people, including my abusers.
“What was the goal?” – “Truth”
Olga Tomina has 560,000 followers on Instagram, a make-up studio, and three children – 13-year-old twin daughters and an 11-year-old son. In professional circles, she was called the “goddess of colored makeup”. She was arrested on March 9, just before her son’s birthday.
Then the pro-government telegram channels discussed this with great pleasure: instead of spending her birthday with the child, she went to prison, but there was a choice.
The fact of the matter is that many Belarusians – yes, there are many, the absolute majority – in August 2020 believed that there was a choice. That you can finally change the situation in the country.
And the Belarusian regime is still persecuting those who took to the streets in August 2020. Olga Tomina was arrested for participating in the marches a year and a half later – according to photographs from the actions. The security forces are still studying them, identifying people and arresting them.
Olga was arrested by the most odious division of the Belarusian Ministry of Internal Affairs – GUBOPiK. In fact, initially, its task was to fight organized crime and corruption. But the Gubopovites themselves have recently called themselves the center of the fight against extremism.
They go on the Internet, studying old posts and photos of August 2020, choosing who to come for the next day, and compose liners for future videos.
Eyeliners, let’s face it, without imagination. In the case of Olga Tomina, it sounded like this: “A story about this lady can begin with the words “once there was Olya.” And then – about a successful business, three children, big earnings, a good apartment in the city center. In general, “she exchanged all this for prison bunk beds, she will now do make-up for cellmates”. (By the way, they were not mistaken in this – in the pre-trial detention center Olga Tomina really “brought beauty” to all the cellmates and gave master classes.)
Olga was not taken to prison right away – first to GUBOPiK, an office with a door. The altered voice in the video asks if she participated in the protests. Olga does not mind admitting: yes, she participated. The voice asks: for what purpose did you participate? Olga answers: for the truth. Then the security forces published this video on her page with half a million followers on Instagram, after hacking into her account.
In the SIZO cell, Olga Tomina did an eyeliner arrows and lips for everyone, and every day she did 200 sit-ups and 200 “twists”. In one of her letters home, she wrote: “I perceive everything that happens to me as a kind of quest, well, it doesn’t work out otherwise. The first day in the temporary detention center, of course, was shaking, it was difficult to collect my thoughts, and everything seemed to be a strange dream. But then, when it turned out that I was not the only one, I began to quickly recover, as far as it was possible in those super-Spartan conditions.
Then the girls and I got used to it: we ate bread, played mafia, crocodile. Yes, and just talked about all sorts of interesting topics. In prison, everything is much simpler, no matter how strange it may sound. I have my own “bed” on the second floor, books, combs and even cream.”
On May 26, Olga was sentenced to two years in prison under the “people’s” article 342 – organizing actions that grossly violate public order. The accusation was based on several photographs from the August 2020 marches, in which a beautiful woman with perfect makeup simply smiles.
Going out to the square, walking around the city, organizing a tea party for the neighbors – that’s what these women are imprisoned for. Three women are in prison and 13 children are suffering. There are several thousand political prisoners in Belarus (even human rights activists cannot name the exact number). And most of them have children. Thousands of children are now left without mothers or fathers, or without both – and do not understand why.