According to information from Belarusian human rights defenders, more than 560 Belarusian women are being persecuted in politically motivated criminal cases. Among them, 129 women have been sentenced to imprisonment, while 290 have received house arrest. Additionally, other women have been penalized with restricted freedom in open-type prisons..
Volha Mayorava, 56 years old, is a Belarusian female political prisoner who was given the longest restricted freedom term; she was sentenced to 20 years in a colony. Anita Bakunovich, 18 years old, is the youngest female political prisoner.
The cases are not rare when a mother with a daughter, a father with a son, are locked in prison; sometimes even the whole family is taken to prison. Sviatlana Baranouskaya was taken to prison with her daughter Anastasiya. The women were held in a pre-trial detention center before the trial process, and they were sentenced to 3 years of house arrest.
“House arrest”, also known as “khatniaja chimia” in Belarusian and “domashnia chimia” in Russian, is a type of punishment in which the convicted person remains free but faces strict restrictions in their personal life, including limitations on work and personal activities such as going to shops or even taking out the trash. Sviatlana left Belarus after the trial process, while her daughter Nasta remained in Belarus.
Sviatlana says that there are two fears in their family now – Fridays and December. Sviatlana and her daughter Anastasiya were detained on a Friday in December 2021. Military forces first came for Sviatlana, and later she called her daughter Anastasiya to inform her. The girl went to her mom’s place and was also detained by the military forces. That’s how a mother and daughter were locked up for four months in prison on Valadaskaha Street in Minsk. They were held in different prison cells before the trial process
In Valadarka prison (as the pre-trial detention center on Valadarskaha Street is named), Sviatlana saw her daughter only once – when they were both brought to prison. The mother and her daughter stood next to each other in the prison yard, facing the wall.
“My daughter Nasta helped me carry the mattress, as I was completely powerless at that moment. The mattress was in really bad condition, and I was crying, saying that I couldn’t reach my cell. The entrance halls of Valadarka are painted green, and there are smells of mud, soil, and mephitis,” Sviatlana told us.
The women were in adjacent cells.
“To be honest, I felt warmth in my chest knowing she was close to me,” said Sviatlana with fondness in her voice
“The Belarusian recalls that the Valadarka cell greeted her with stale air. “It was really clean in the prison cell, and my cellmates were neat, but the smell there was awful. It was a mix of everything. The bunk beds were at the end of the room, and under them were a large number of bags. My place was on the second tier. I sat on the bench and said, ‘I will sit here until morning and then decide what to do.’ I remembered Scarlett O’Hara. It was four a.m. Everyone in the prison cell woke up, and I was told to unroll my mattress. They could understand the emotional state when you are locked in that kind of place. I spent four months with those girls, and I had no misunderstandings with them” – Sviatlana recounts.
“People who are locked in Valadarka have a concept known as ‘Valadarka Radio.’ This means that you shout at the window and communicate with prisoners in other cells. “On my daughter’s birthday, I expressed words of love and affection through the window. I had the distinct feeling that everyone listened to only me,” the woman shared her memories.
Sviatlana left Belarus after the trial process. The woman crossed the border by walking waist-deep in water through wetlands, despite below-zero temperatures. Sviatlana says that she feels morally challenged now.
“It’s hard because of my daughter, my grandson, and my husband. My dog is 13.5 years old, so it was difficult for him to bear the separation from me. He traveled a distance of two thousand kilometers to see me. However, the fears of Fridays and December have appeared in our family,” says Sviatlana.
Belarusian women are now facing a situation where criticism of the Women Rallies has emerged within the democratic movement, while the authorities continue to prosecute women for their protest activity. Lukashenka has repeatedly claimed his ‘respectful’ attitude towards women and stated that he doesn’t have a conflict with women. At that time, the female political prisoners downplayed their sufferings, stating that men are more frequently targeted by military forces. However, women are also subjected to beatings. Furthermore, Belarusian women face intense psychological pressure, such as threats to their children’s well-being
Ina Shyrokaya, a Belarusian, is a mother of five children. In August 2020, her 18-year-old son was beaten by AMAP for participating in a peaceful protest, and her daughter volunteered near Akrestsina prison. Following these events, she started participating in protests and actively expressing her civic position at her job as a managing director in a cafe in Hrodna. On the evening before Lukashenka’s visit to Hrodna, she placed white and red candles on the porch of the cafe. As a result, she was dismissed.
Once after her detention, her three underage children were left home. She was held in a pre-trial detention center for over three months, and later sentenced to three years of ‘house arrest’. Eventually, she managed to leave Belarus and is currently in Poland.
Ina withstood threats of having her children taken away, inspired by the military forces. She was promised that her older children would be sent to prison, while the youngest ones would be taken to an orphanage.
“I experienced feelings of numbness and torpor when I was blackmailed regarding my children. Probably, it appeared that I was imperturbable and composure. I ignored the pressure and didn’t show a sign that I understood the nature of that conversation. I changed the topic, refrained from asking questions or making comments. I was emphatically polite and at the same time I was expressing that I felt off the rails, stressed and depressed and bad in general. I didn’t argue with them, but rather downplayed the ‘severity’ of my actions using common sense (that I was registered in the “Pieramoha plan”, perhaps, took part in protests and shouted “Lukashenka to paddywagon” – that I didn’t consider my acts as crimes. Yes, I have photos from the protest rallies, and yes, that was a significant period for the country’s life which obviously concerns everyone and so on). I acted as if I got the opportunity to stand up and leave the room, as if I had visited that place to solve my problems despite being there against my will. There were no thoughts. I was in such a state that I needed to be patient a bit longer, and soon everything would end and I could breathe freely. And if it didn’t end, I would do everything I could to keep my children safe in that situation,” said Ina.
Ina managed to take her children out of the country. However, not all families have that possibility. For instance, the female political prisoner Alena Maushuk was sentenced to six years in prison, and she was also deprived of parental rights. She received notification of this decision through a letter while in the colony. Her youngest children were temporarily placed in an orphanage, until Alena’s eldest daughter was able to bring them home.