Belarusians who fled crackdown fearful

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — Viachka Krasulin said he was arrested and brutally beaten all over his body by police in Belarus for attending a rally in August 2020 that challenged the results of an election keeping authoritarian President Alexander Lukashenko in power.

Krasulin said security forces threatened to sodomise him with a truncheon for joining the protest. After he complained to authorities about the police actions, they opened a criminal case against him — rather than the security forces — and he decided to flee to neighbouring Lithuania.

Until this week, he and other Lukashenko opponents had thought they were safe from the sweeping government crackdown by moving to nearby European Union countries.

Now they are not so sure. On Sunday, Belarus diverted a jetliner carrying dissident journalist Raman Pratasevich to land in Minsk, where he was arrested. And Lukashenko has vowed to hunt down those who oppose him, even if they move abroad.

“I was a hostage of Lukashenko’s regime, but now the entire European Union is in the same situation,” said Krasulin, a 32-year-old ethnographer and musician. “Torture, brutal repressions and a hunt for journalists have spilled out of Belarusian borders and become a problem for all of Europe.”

The Ryanair jet was travelling from Greece to Lithuania — both members of the European Union — when Belarusian flight controllers ordered it to land in Minsk because of a bomb threat, and Lukashenko scrambled a fighter jet to escort it. Once the plane was on the tarmac, security agents arrested Pratasevich and his Russian girlfriend.

Pratasevich, 26, ran a popular messaging app channel that helped organise protests against Lukashenko, and he had fled abroad in 2019. He was on a Belarusian list of suspected “terrorists” and was charged in absentia with staging mass disturbances.

The rallies against Lukashenko, in power for more than a quarter-century, lasted for months after his August 9 reelection to a sixth term in the vote that the opposition rejected as rigged. The 66-year-old leader responded by arresting more than 35,000 people, with thousands reported beaten.

Now living in Vilnius, Krasulin shuddered as he recalled his own arrest on August 11.

He had tried to help a protester hit by a police rubber bullet when he was dragged into a police van, where he and others were beaten with clubs. Officers singled him out because of his looks, he said.

“They clearly didn’t like my long hair; they were beating me and threatened to rape me with a truncheon, but first they decided to cut my hair,” he said. “They raised me by the hair and cut it with an army knife.”

The beatings continued in jail, where Krasulin and hundreds of others were kept for 24 hours without food or water, packed in a cell that had six beds for 40 people. He was denied access to a lawyer and sentenced to 11 days.

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