Under house arrest in Belarus for not playing by the rules

It has been four long months since security forces snatched Irina Khalip, at left, from Minsk’s Independence Square while she was reporting on a protest of the flawed December 19 Belarusian presidential vote.

While Khalip was giving a live account from the square to the Russian radio station Ekho Moskvy, riot police beat her and forcibly drove her away. (Her husband, opposition presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, was repeatedly struck with clubs and also arrested. He remains imprisoned today.) Khalip was one of at least 20 journalists detained that night, but her treatment has been especially harsh.

A prominent Belarusian journalist, Khalip had worked as the Minsk-based correspondent for the independent Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta for the past five years, regularly reporting on the activities of the notorious Belarusian security service, the KGB. It was the KGB who held her for more than a month.

In that time, Irina was kept incommunicado, in isolation. Meanwhile, authorities pressured her parents to stop talking to the press about their daughter, conducted sudden searches of their home, and tried to place the journalist’s 3-year-old son with Sannikov, Daniil, in foster care.

Due to mounting international outcry, the government abandoned its attempts to take Daniil away from his grandparents and placed Irina under house arrest in late January. But being under house arrest in Belarus is a surreal ordeal.

Two KGB agents are stationed in Irina’s home around the clock, monitoring her every move. She is not allowed to make or receive phone calls, answer the door, have visitors other than her parents, or write letters, Khalip’s mother, Lyutsina Yuryevna Khalip, told Novaya Gazeta. In a moving piece from March 31, the paper presented a snippet of Khalip’s life as retold by her mother. It seems the hardest of her daily challenges is having to explain her new, bizarre reality to Daniil.

Danka [a diminutive for Daniil] has a reel of questions. “Why mama never goes outside?” he asks. “I’m not feeling well,” she says. “Why doesn’t she answer the phone?” “I’m busy,” she says. “Why doesn’t grandma come upstairs?” And, finally, why doesn’t papa ever come back from his business trip? “Call the doctor, mama, maybe he will let you go outside for a walk,” Danka is asking. “Call the train driver, tell him to drive papa home faster!”

Belarus is the only country in the former Soviet bloc where the national security service still carries its old name, the KGB. That one choice exemplifies the policies of the Belarusian government, which is stubbornly determined to remain in the past, intimidate any independent voice into silence, and punish those who refuse to play by the rules.

Khalip refused to play by the rules. Living as if Belarus were a democratic country, she made her own rules. Despite harassment, surveillance, and threats, she covered official wrongdoing, investigated corruption in the high echelons, and published searing exposes that made the KGB cringe. She didn’t relent even after receiving death threats. She chose to remain in Belarus in spite of it all.

I cannot call her now and ask her why she did it when she knew the risks. But if she could, I’m sure she’d say she did it because she believed she could make a difference. Because she refused to live in a prison built of fear. Because she wanted her Daniil to grow up in a country where independent-minded citizens are able to pursue truth, ask tough questions, and express their views without fear of reprisal.

In the signature secretive manner of repressive regimes, Belarus has quietly prolonged Khalip’s house arrest until May 13. Initially charged with “organizing mass unrest”–a criminal count that carries up to 15 years in prison–Irina’s indictment was downgraded in early April to “organizing and preparing activities severely disruptive of public order.” She now faces up to three years behind bars if convicted. Her trial will begin on May 11 at the Zavodsky district court in Minsk.