In a move reminiscent of Russia’s 2019 election protests, Belarus’ Prosecutor-General’s Office has warned that Belarusian protesters’ parental rights can be terminated if they bring their underage children with them to public demonstrations.
The warnings, echoed by state-run media, follow more than a month of large-scale protests in Minsk and other Belarusian cities against suspected fraud in Belarus’ August 9 presidential election and the use of police violence against protesters.
Ahead of a September 16 march in Minsk that attracted thousands of participants, a senior official from the Prosecutor-General’s Office emphasized that “violations of children’s rights” occur at “unsanctioned protests.”
“The state’s task is to defend a child, and, yes, also families, and, in general, any parent,” Alyaksey Podvoiski, who supervises the implementation of laws affecting minors, said in an interview with the Belarusian capital’s state-run STV channel.
“Can we provide security at such an unauthorized event? Of course, not. It’s obvious that this is not the place for a child.”
Article 9.4 of Belarus’ Administrative Code punishes inadequate care for underage children with a warning or a fine of up to 270 Belarusian rubles ($104.40); repeat offenses lead to repeat fines.
Separate fines exist for attending unsanctioned demonstrations, and can be applied to children older than 16.
If parents do not heed these measures, said Podvoiski, officials who work with child guardianship “also understand” how to identify “inappropriate parenting” and “can consider” whether or not the child is in a “dangerous situation (for his or her social welfare).”
The Belarusian government will respond to “those parents who do not understand” how the law stands, Podvoiski said.
Such cases could involve taking away the child "for a certain period" to "mitigate, correct the situation in the family," commented Deputy Education Minister Alyaksandr Kadlybai to Minsk's state-run STV channel on September 15.
As of September 11, prosecutors had identified over 200 cases of children participating in protests, according to Deputy Prosecutor General Alyaksey Stuk.
Aside from the capital, Minsk, parents have been warned in the western city of Brest and the southeastern city of Homel, both protest hotspots. Zhodzina, home to the state-owned Belarusian Automobile Plant, whose workers have demonstrated against Lukashenka, was also cited.
Details about such cases could not be found on the sites of the relevant city prosecutors’ offices.
But the warnings to protesters about their children are familiar.
In August 2019, Moscow city prosecutors attempted to deny the parental rights of two couples -- Pyotr and Yelena Khomsky and Dmitry and Olga Prokazov -- who brought their underage children to unsanctioned protests in the Russian capital against the non-registration of independent and opposition candidates for city council elections.
The government claimed that the parents had neglected the children's safety.
The Khomskys and Prokazovs countered that the suits, heavily promoted on Russia’s pro-government mainstream television channels, were intended to discourage protesters from joining the demonstrations.
Judges in Moscow later warned the couples about bringing their children to demonstrations but rejected prosecutors’ claims that they had “knowingly” endangered their offspring.
Since Belarus’ August 9 presidential election, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has emphasized close cooperation with the Russian government as a way to restore order amidst the protests. But whether the Khomsky-Prokazov cases influenced Belarusian prosecutors’ thinking is unclear.
Prosecutors, though, claim they have no interest in scrapping parental rights. They say they first talk with parents who have brought their children to a protest, and then issue an official warning.
“In most cases, they heed the prosecutor’s word,” Podvoiski said.
“Taking away children, in itself, is not the goal of state organs,” he emphasized.
Belarusian opposition figures long have alleged that the government tries to use children to silence activists critical of Lukashenka.
Most recently, after Belarus’ August 9 presidential election, candidate Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, considered by many Belarusians to be the vote’s true winner, stated that she had moved to Lithuania, Belarus’ western neighbor, for her children’s sake. Fearing for their safety, Tsikhanouskaya, whose husband, vlogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski is in jail on criminal charges, earlier had arranged for her underage children to move to the European Union member-state.
Not long after Tsikhanouski was detained in late May on charges of allegedly organizing mass disturbances, questions were raised about the welfare of the five-year-old daughter of a fellow detainee and associate, Uladzimir Naumik. In June, the girl’s kindergarten launched an official inquiry into her living conditions.
Naumik’s wife, Vitalia, claimed the kindergarten’s representatives told her she could lose custody of her daughter, but this did not occur. Since Naumik’s release later this summer, the matter appears closed.
Similarly, Tsikhanouskaya ally Veranika Tsapkala, alleged in July that Belarusian prosecutors had intended to take away her parental rights and had sent employees to the children’s school “to collect data” about her family. That month, her husband, tech entrepreneur Valer Tsapkala, took the couple’s children to live in Russia.
The Prosecutor-General’s Office categorically denied that it was considering putting the Tsapkala children under state care.
Such details do not appear to feature in Belarusian television coverage of prosecutors’ warnings to parent-protesters, however.
With the government eager to end the protests over Lukashenka’s official re-election, these state-controlled channels, as in Russia, simply echo prosecutors’ message that parents who protest with their children are negligent.
In a September 12 report about the protests, Belarus 1 noted that children “more and more frequently are becoming the unwilling participants of these political games.”
“Hiding behind the backs of your own little ones in a mass of protesters is the limit,” commented Panorama host Syarhey Lugovski as he introduced the report.
At “any moment,” ONT informed viewers on September 13, a “high probability” exists for “a provocation” at these protests.
The station targeted grandmothers, in particular, with this message. Elderly Belarusians are believed to make up much of state television’s audience.
“The first [imaginable] scenario for grandmothers is that the crowd will run, the child can be pushed, hit, stepped on,” the channel theorized on September 9. “He can fly over a railing.”
Minsk’s STV reminded viewers that police can detain juveniles, such as a 12-year-old boy who was drawing “various slogans” on the pavement at a September 6 protest. The boy’s mother later collected her son from police, Belsat reported.
“This story shows very well what can happen if you don’t keep track of your child,” Belarus 1 reminded viewers.
An unclear number of juvenile detentions has occurred since the protests began. In an August 14 statement, UNICEF focused on the government, rather than parents, however.
Welcoming the release of juveniles from prison, the United Nations children’s-rights organization underlined that detentions should follow the law and occur “only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.”
“Children have witnessed, and in far too many cases, directly suffered, from the political violence in the country,” UNICEF wrote.
With that in mind, some parents have found one way to protest with their young children and stay safe.
Minsk photographer Dina Ermolenko has begun photographing mothers and their babies or toddlers dressed in the red and white of the 1918 Belarusian flag, a symbol of the anti-Lukashenka protests.
One photographed mother, identified only as Irina, commented on Ermolenko’s Facebook page that she wants to support the protests, but now senses “a risk” in attending the demonstrations with her child from a distance.
State media, though, do not identify any risks for those attending the pro-Lukashenka rallies that also have occurred throughout the country.
On September 13, ОNТ described one such event on the outskirts of Minsk as “a good rally for a united Belarus” that families attended.
Taking aim at such discrepancies, the satirical Telegram channel Chai Z Malinavym Varrenem (Tea With Raspberry Jam) recently posted a photo that showed President Lukashenka’s three sons – one of whom, Nikola, is in his mid-teens – standing behind their father at an undated public event.
"In the Prosecutor-General's Office, they've declared that parents need to be more severely punished for their children participating in massive events," the caption reads.
These jabs do not deter government supporters, however. For them, it appears, only anti-Lukashenka protests can threaten children’s safety.
Advised Olga Nenartovich, a member of the National Commission on Children’s Rights, in remarks to readers of one Hrodna news outlet: “When declaring your rights, you shouldn’t forget your responsibilities.”
-With additional reporting from BelTA, Grozdenskaya Prauda, TUT.by, and the human-rights organization Viasna