“We must have patience”
50,000 arrests, thousands of cases of torture and ill-treatment, minimum 5 dead. The record of protests against the Lukashenko regime since the rigged elections in August 2020 is bitter. Yet the people of Belarus remain unyielding. IJAB spoke to Lavon Marozau, human rights lawyer and International Secretary of RADA, the umbrella organisation of independent youth organisations in Belarus, about the situation.
ijab.de: Lavon, Belarus has largely disappeared from the international headlines. Can you give us an overview of the situation in the country?
Lavon Marozau: About 50,000 people have been arrested, there are thousands of cases of torture and ill-treatment, minimum 5 people have been killed. Since the winter, the state strategy has changed: Before, those arrested were mostly sentenced to short terms of no more than two weeks, now the criminal law is applied and that allows for much longer prison sentences. Just today, one of our RADA board members was arrested, two persons were searched by the police. We are not being given any information about the reasons. There are no fair courts and justice in Belarus.
But people have also changed their tactics. Belarusians protest in smaller groups in the early morning and late evening in the neighbourhoods. This makes the police nervous because they can’t be everywhere at once and we don’t show them our faces. What hasn’t changed is the peaceful nature of our protest.
In the meantime, several tens of thousands have left the country – mainly to Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. Part of my team from RADA is also in Vilnius by now, and another board member is in Kyiv. It has simply become too dangerous here. Our General Secretary has already been seached by the KGB, her mother was arrested twice. This is a new mechanism of repression – repression against our families.
At the same time, the country’s economic performance is plummeting. Since the beginning of the protests, it has dropped by 20%.
ijab.de: How can people help? There have been several fundraising campaigns to support the detainees and also the strikers.
Lavon Marozau: Yes, a lot of money has actually been collected abroad, but the accounts at home are blocked. The volunteers who called for the fundraising campaigns risk arrest and being charged as sponsors of the protest. They face two to four years in prison.
We will not be intimidated by this. I am convinced that we will win, peaceful protest will win. All my friends see it that way. We are experiencing a big wave of solidarity. Recently, the Ice Hockey World Championship was cancelled – not least because the sponsors backed out. They could no longer see any image gain for themselves in the World Cup. They may even see parallels to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
My job is, among other things, to report on youth rights to the UN and the EU. I explain what is going on and they listen to me. I also report to the Council of Europe, although Belarus is not a member because we still have the death penalty here.
ijab.de: These days, the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly has met with hundreds of delegates. It is not provided for in the constitution, exists only by presidential decree and can at best make recommendations. It is also supposed to discuss a limitation of the president’s power and more powers for the parliament – in other words, a constitutional amendment. Do you have hope that this will bring something?
Lavon Marozau: Of course not. The body is completely illegal, is not supported by the constitution and the opposition is not represented there. If a critical word is uttered, the live television broadcast is immediately interrupted. This is not a dialogue that is offered there. Thousands are in prison or in exile. So to whom the government wants to talk to? We are experiencing a situation like in George Orwell’s 1984. This is the situation in my country, this is our reality.
Those who are in government today have to ask themselves how they want to continue. Will they go down with Lukashenko, will they continue to stand by him? After all the crimes they have committed, they must actually realise that they will be the next ones to be tried if the regime falls.
ijab.de: What is your prediction of when that will happen?
Lavon Marozau: I expect it to happen, but I cannot say whether it will be in a month or a year. Our peaceful protest is different from the one in Ukraine or Armenia. It is absolutely non-violent. Every day, more people from business or public life join us. We need these people for democratic change and for a constitution that guarantees the rule of law, for a country where the police protect the citizens and not protect an illegitimate government from them.
I have sometimes wondered whether I shouldn’t leave too. I have no problem finding a job abroad. I have worked as a lawyer in Ukraine, Poland and Vietnam. As a child, I lived in Germany for a while and could probably find a job there, too. Only here in Belarus I can’t even work at the primary school since I was visited by the KGB a few years ago. Actually, all free Belarusians already have one foot in prison.
If you are reading this interview ask yourself: have you heard much about Rwanda in 1990? About Yugoslavia in 1991? About Chechnya in 1994? All of these horrors took place in relatively peaceful times in Europe, and the newspapers did not write much about what was going on either. After all this, the world community sort of drew conclusions and decided not to repeat this, to stop the dictatorship and the killing of civilians. But what now? We, Belarusians, are sitting in jail because of the flag on our balcony, because of wearing a T-shirt with symbols, because of a comment on Facebook. Our phones are tapped by the KGB, we are forbidden to leave our country and slowly being destroyed.
People are tired of another EU statement and another condemnation of the situation in Belarus. We have to be patient and do our best, but we need help.
But I won’t work for the government, I don’t want a normal job and I don’t want to go abroad, I work exclusively for NGOs. The regime will fall. We have to be patient and do our best.