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Lukashenko’s long arm Russia is arresting and extraditing Belarusian nationals being persecuted for taking part in opposition protests
Since August 2020, Russia has detained at least 20 Belarusian nationals facing persecution in their home country amid Alexander Lukashenko’s opposition crackdown, says a new report from BBC News Russian. What’s more, many of these detainees have been extradited to Belarus — either in response to official requests from Minsk or for allegedly violating Russian immigration laws. In other cases, Russian law enforcement agencies have expelled Belarusian nationals without going through the courts. Meduza summarizes the Russian BBC’s investigation here.
Moscow rarely turns down extradition requests from Minsk. Officially, however, Russia has only deported one person to Belarus who was facing persecution for taking part in anti-Lukashenko protests in August 2020.
In July 2021, Russia sent Belarusian kickboxing champion Alexey Kudin (Aliaksei Kudzin) back to his home country — in spite of the fact that the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) had ruled to suspend his extradition, citing a threat of persecution and torture. Once in Belarus, Kudin was sentenced to two and half years in prison after being found guilty of resisting arrest at a protest rally. Belarusian state television also aired a “confession” video, where Kudin apologized and expressed his support for the current regime.
In Kudin’s case, a Russian court went against the ECHR’s ruling and upheld the Russian Attorney General’s decision on extradition. But Russian law enforcement agencies often deport Belarusians without going through the courts.
In August 2020, police in the Russian city of Pskov arrested former Belarusian investigator Andrey Ostapovich and handed him over to a group of masked men. After covering Ostapovich’s head with a ski mask and slapping handcuffs attached to weight on him, the masked men bundled him into a minibus and drove him across the border, dropping him off in the Vitebsk region of Belarus (Ostapovich managed to hide from Belarusian law enforcement, escaping into the forest and, after two weeks on the run, crossing into the EU).
Political scientist Alyaksandr Fyaduta and lawyer Yuras Zyankovich, who Lukashenko accused of plotting a coup and an attempt on his life, were arrested at a restaurant in Moscow in April 2021. They turned up in a pre-trial detention center in Belarus a few days later. A similar situation occurred in late September, when Gennady Mozheiko — a longtime reporter for the now defunct Belarusian edition of the Russian tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda — went missing in Moscow under unclear circumstances. A few days after his family last heard from him, Mozheiko was located in custody at the notorious Okrestina Street detention center in Minsk.
There have been cases where Russia rejected extradition requests from the Belarusian authorities. In late April 2021, the Russian Attorney General’s Office declined to hand over Nikolai Davidchik, an administrator of opposition Telegram channels who was accused of organizing actions that grossly violated public order in Belarus. The decision came as a surprise, including for Davidchik himself.
However, Russian authorities refusing an official request to extradite a Belarusian national is no guarantee that they won’t end up back in Belarus — often, they are later accused of violating immigration laws, giving Russian authorities grounds to deport them to their home country.
In Davidchik’s case, he spent a month and a half in a Russian pre-trial detention center, only to be arrested immediately upon release and accused of staying in the country without proper registration. A court handed Davidchik a fine rather than ordering his expulsion, due to the fact that he has family in Russia. But the Russian BBC reports that there have been similar cases where Russian courts opted to deport the accused.
According to the Russian BBC, many of the detained Belarusian nationals weren't hiding in Russia — they simply weren’t aware that they had been declared criminal suspects in Belarus.
For example, 24-year-old Yana Pinchuk had been living and working in Russia since 2018; she wasn’t even in Belarus during the wave of opposition protests in 2020. But she was, at one point, the administrator of Vitebsk 97% — a Telegram channel that the Belarusian authorities declared “extremist” after Pinchuk had deleted her account. Belarus brought charges against her for allegedly inciting hatred and creating an “extremist group” — and she was arrested in her Saint Petersburg apartment in early November. A Russian court then remanded Pinchuk in custody, pending an official extradition request from the Belarusian Attorney General’s Office.
Foreign nationals accused of mid-level crimes can be held in pre-trial detention in Russia for a maximum of six months prior to extradition; those accused of grave crimes punishable by up to five years in prison can be held for up to a year. This has allowed some Belarusian nationals to avoid deportation. Detainee Andrey Prilutsky, who was accused of using violence against Belarusian police officers during a demonstration in August 2020, delayed his extradition by applying for political asylum in Russia. The proceedings dragged out for more than six months and, as a result, Prilutsky was released from custody and managed to flee to a third country.
However, there have also been cases when Russian courts didn’t entirely lift measures of restraint placed on Belarusian nationals. Evgeny Shabalyuk (Yauhen Shabaliuk), who was accused of “actively resisting” Belarusian police officers, spent six months in a Russian pre-trial detention center only to be released under a “ban on certain activities.” He fled Russia after cutting off his ankle monitor.
Belarusian oppositionists who flee the country for Russia are generally those who can’t go directly to Europe, lawyer Olga Tseytlina from the rights group Civic Assistance Committee told the Russian BBC. Most of them arrived in Russia in 2020, when extradition cases were not so widely known.
Summary translation by Eilish Hart
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