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When Wearing The Wrong Socks Or Dancing Is A Crime In Belarus

Riot police spray tear gas in the faces of protesters in Brest at a peaceful protest against the government on September 20, 2020.
Riot police spray tear gas in the faces of protesters in Brest at a peaceful protest against the government on September 20, 2020.

MINSK -- Belarus was plunged into chaos in August 2020 when a disputed presidential election handed a sixth term to Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled the country since 1994 and has been described as Europe's last dictator.

The election sparked an unprecedented wave of protests that were met with a clampdown that was brutal even for authoritarian Belarus. More than 30,000 Belarusians have gone through the detention process. The number of political prisoners has passed 540 and includes over two dozen journalists.

Any form of protest can lead to a fine and even jail in Belarus. As can any display of red and white, the colors associated with the democratic opposition and the flag of the first short-lived Belarusian democratic republic of 1918. Here are some of the most extreme cases:

Wrong Socks

A woman walking to a driving lesson was stopped by Minsk police in March. Natalia Sivtsova-Syadushkina was told her attire was inappropriate. The problem? Her socks were white with a red stripe, the same pattern as the historic flag that is effectively banned in Belarus. She was also wearing red running shoes that apparently were also incriminating. Police also accused her of flashing the "V for victory" sign to passing drivers, who apparently saluted back.

Lyubou Sarlay (file photo)
Lyubou Sarlay (file photo)

Sivtsova-Syadushkina was prosecuted under laws banning unauthorized protest and ordered to pay 2,320 Belarusian rubles ($900). The judge noted that her offending socks and running shoes were highly visible as she was wearing short jeans at the time.

It was not Sivtsova-Syadushkina's only run-in with the authorities. The day before she was stopped because of her socks, police showed up at her apartment in the capital. They tore down a red-and-white banner draped from her balcony. She was later charged with "illegal picketing" and fined 2,030 Belarusian rubles ($794).

"Now I owe 4,350 rubles," Sivtsova-Syadushkina told RFE/RL's Belarus Service at the time. "I don't have that kind of money to pay the fines, even though I work."

Sivtsova-Syadushkina's was not an isolated case. In the western city of Hrodna, Lyubou Sarlay spent a day behind bars and was fined for wearing red-and-white pants. She was detained by police in January while walking from a café to her car.

"I asked the police why they detained me," she told Current Time. "And they said, 'So, you weren't trying to make a statement with your pants?'"

Other 'Crimes Of Color'

Andrey Drazhin, from the western town of Ivanava, was fined in March for erecting a sign outside his house that was painted white with a red stripe. Police considered this a form of illegal picketing.

"Being at his place of residence, he hung on the facade of his house for public demonstration and unhindered public viewing a white-red-white flag in the form of a stencil plate not registered in the Republic of Belarus," the police report said.

The white-red-white flag -- to say nothing of the mere combination of these colors -- is not officially prohibited in Belarus. But this did not stop the judge from fining Drazhin the equivalent of $450.

Even a bouquet of flowers might be scrutinized by the authorities. Alena Vinokurova from Navapolatsk was fined the equivalent of $350 for the flowers -- with red and white blooms -- she was taking to her daughter's birthday party, reported Current Time, the Russian-language network led by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

Boxes can also raise suspicions in today's Belarus. Andrey Parkhomenka was arrested in April for exhibiting a red and white banner from the balcony of his high-rise apartment in Minsk. Parkhomenka denied that, explaining the banner was in fact a box -- albeit red and white -- from a television that he had not removed as he had just moved into the apartment.

Parkhomenka was jailed for 14 days, spending part of that time at Minsk's Akrestsina detention center, which is synonymous with torture due to the abuses alleged and documented to have been committed by guards there. Parkhomenka told Vyasna, a leading Belarusian NGO that was recently targeted by the Lukashenka government, that he contracted COVID-19 while in prison.

Refusing To House Regime Prosecutor

Other Belarusians have been punished for actions they refused to take.

Volha Sinyalyova owns an apartment in Minsk that she rented out to Alina Kasyanchyk, a prosecutor who was notorious for her role in politically charged cases, including the high-profile trial of Katsyaryna Andreyeva and Darya Chultsova.

Volha Sinyalyova appears in court Minsk on June 18.
Volha Sinyalyova appears in court Minsk on June 18.

The two journalists for Belsat, a Polish-based satellite television station aimed at Belarus, were each sentenced in February to two years in prison for reporting live from a Minsk rally in November, in a case that sparked condemnation in the West.

As the case was progressing last year, Sinyalyova suggested to Kasyanchyk that she move out, a move the prosecutor agreed to. But Belarusian authorities got wind of the case and charged Sinyalyova of violating Kasyanchyk's rights because of her job.

The trial of Sinyalyova, the mother of two small children, was held behind closed doors, and her attorney had his license revoked. On June 30, Judge Anzhela Kastsyukevich sentenced Sinyalyova to two years of restricted freedom.

Dirty Dancing?

One of Belarus's largest criminal trials involves dozens of people who were detained for singing songs and dancing in the streets of Brest in September. Security forces broke up the gathering and detained many. Lukashenka's authorities later charged them with "endangering" the "safety of road traffic."

People "endangering traffic" in Brest in September 2020.
People "endangering traffic" in Brest in September 2020.

In total, more than 70 people are involved in the case. Several dozen of the accused have already been convicted, receiving from one year of restricted freedom to nearly two years in prison.

The rule of law, always weak in authoritarian Belarus, has been smashed, explains Syarhey Ustsinau of Legal Initiative, a Belarusian NGO that helps people file cases with the European Court of Human Rights.

"The law works the same way," Ustsinau told Current Time. "If you are a political prisoner, you will achieve nothing, neither in court nor by complaining to the prosecutor's office. But if you're a police officer, people are given five to six years in prison for any push or scratch [against them]."

Since the presidential election, the Belarusian judicial system has not issued an acquittal in any of the thousands of protest cases. And not one member of the country's security apparatus has faced criminal charges for actions taken during the brutal -- sometimes deadly -- crackdown.