Charting the Path to Democracy in Belarus with Veronica Tsepkalo

Exiled Belarusian opposition figure and chair of the Belarus Women’s Foundation, Veronica Tsepkalo, addresses the 16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.

Full Remarks:

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, dear honorable guests!

First, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to talk about Belarus, my home country . I follow every major news channel and newspaper outlets, but Belarus is not in the news for almost two years in regards to the situation with human rights! It hurts as Belarusian people are suffering and very few people from the Western countries are aware of it.

For several decades, Belarusians were asked who they were with – East or West; Russia or European Union. For me personally, as a Belarus citizen, it is not a matter of geopolitical choice, it is a matter of the values you share with a specific country or continent. 

If you share democratic values, such as the rule of law, freedom of speech, freedom of meetings, the right to choose your government, the choice is obvious. You are with these countries. 

In 2020 the so-called Belarus President rigged the election for the 6th time in a row. 3 major opposition leaders who were taking part in the elections, including my husband Valery, were refused the right to be registered. 

This is when me and Maria Kolesnikova, a representative of another opposition headquarters, we gave our support to only registered opposition candidate, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

We continued our fight against Lukashenko – 3 women, 3 wives, leading the fight against a dictator. We got united under 2 simple principals – principle number one, to release all political prisoners and principle number to, organize free and fair elections. 

Lukashenko lost the elections back in 2020. Thousands of people went out on the streets protesting, for peaceful protests. 

I was always amazed how autocrats support each other. Their solidarity is unprecedented. 

President Putin, being aware of the situation in Belarus, that Lukashenko has no support amongst the people, was the first one to recognize Lukashenko as a President-elect and later on he allocated 1.5 billion dollars in cash. 

This money was spent on law enforcement, on the punitive machine: to beat, to torture, to murder Belarusians; to humiliate us, so we give up our fight for the future. 

Today, 4 years later, the overall situation in Belarus has significantly worsened. Against our will, our country was dragged into the war with Ukraine. It is a huge pain for the Belarusian people, as each of us has family members, friends, colleagues, in Ukraine. 

Putin uses his puppet Lukashenko and Belarus soil to bombard Ukraine! There are more than 1500 political prisoners in Belarus now. Out of this number, almost 200 are female political prisoners, more than 500 women are staying under house arrest.

45,000 people went through illegal imprisonment, which is an absolute record for any European country after World War II. 

Nobel Prize Laureate Ales Beliatski, mothers of multiple children, women with cancer and other dangerous diseases, minor children are held in unbearable conditions in Belarusian prisons with no or little medical aid. 

About 300,000 of Belarusians had been forced to leave the country to save their lives and freedom. Ongoing repressions are happening in Belarus as we speak.

We know nothing about the destiny of prominent political prisoners for more than a year! My friend Maria Kolesnikova, part of the “female trio” back in 2020, Victor Babriko, Sergey Tikhanovsky, Maksim Znak, Nikolay Statkevich – we know nothing about their destiny for more than a year. 

We do not even know if these people are still alive or if they shared the destiny of Mr. Navalny. And this is a pure torture not only for the prisoners themselves, but also for their family, for their friends, for their loved ones. 

My husband was sentenced to 17 years in absentia. Two other strong opposition candidates, Victor Babaryko and Sergei Tikhanovsky, they have been sentenced to 14 and 17 years accordingly. Both are still in prison today, and their fate is unknown.

Two months ago, 4 criminal charges were initiated against me, including conspiracy to seize power in an unconstitutional way, creation of an extremist formation, slander against the Belarusian president, and Belarus discreditation. Ridiculous charges for a woman who just wants peace and democracy in her home country.

Lukashenko regime creates new ways to fight democracy and human rights fighters. 

Just to give my family example. First, our apartment was destroyed by law enforcement agencies, all of our kitchenware, beds, furniture, closets, clothing, you name it – everything was destroyed. Many personal things were stolen from our apartment. 

After their so called “visit,” our apartment lay in a ruins. 

They sent me a video directly on WhatsApp from an unknown number. In the video, you see police officers wearing bullet proof vests with the name tag “Ministry of Internal Affairs.” 

Just pause for a second. The people who are supposed to protect their citizens are the biggest criminals.

On the video, they break into my house and show every room before – and then every room destroyed. All with cartoonish, happy, and upbeat music. The title of the video – “Apartment Renovation” in quotes.  

They shared this video with me on purpose! They knew that I spent years of my career working really hard to build this home, so they wanted me to watch them destroy it. 

For the first time in Belarusian history, the regime has begun not only destroying our homes but also selling our apartments of people who fight for the changes in the country. 

My family’s only apartment, with two minor children registered in it, was sold at auction for half of its market price. All our personal belongings, including the remaining furniture, kitchenware, and even the kid’s toys, were sold. 

Needless to say, the money went directly into Lukashenko’s pocket.

I want to emphasize that this is the first time in Belarusian history when the regime starts selling everything we own back home. Under Belarusian law, even murderers or the people who commit very serious crimes are still entitled to keep their property but not us, the people who fight for the future of Belarus.

Recently, Lukashenko – dictator Lukeshenko – made a public statement that not only our apartment but also the apartments of our family members, of our relatives, are going to be sold out. 

This means that people will end up on the streets.

If the United Nations, United States, European Union, do not act accordingly, it means we can forget about democracy fighters in Belarus for decades, as nobody wants to raise their children and families to be thrown on the streets. 

For 6 months, Belarus Women’s Foundation was collecting the testimonies of the women who have suffering from Lukashenko’s regime, who were beaten up, who were tortured, who were illegally imprisoned. As a result of this work, we filed a case with the International Criminal Court in The Hague and guess what?

Silence in return. We have written to ICC over and over again, but as we speak, there has been no response from the ICC. Belarus is not part of the Roman Statute nor is Russia. However, the ICC General Prosecutor initiated a case against Putin but there is no political will to do the same against Lukashenko. What a disappointment for the entire Belarus nation! We see that the Western countries have no political will in regards to Belarus whatsoever. On the contrary, Putin has a political will – that’s why he supports Lukashenko, that’s why he allocates money, that’s why he does everything to keep Lukashenko in power.

The High Commissioner for Human Rights of the United Nations did a great job, absolutely amazing job, by collecting the testimonies of those who suffered from Lukashenko’s crimes!

Do not keep these testimonies for yourself, initiate a criminal case against Lukashenko. Use these testimonies. If you initiate the criminal case, it will put an enormous pressure on Lukashenko! He is a coward. He will be shaken. He will be afraid to fall asleep. This is the person he is. 

You need to do concrete actions! Social media tweets condemning Lukashenko or making appeals do not work and will not work for Belarus. This will not make any difference for a dictator like Lukashenko!

As Lukashenko witnessed a very weak response from Western countries, as he knows that he goes unpunished, he continues to worsen the lives of ordinary Belarusian citizens. 

We firmly believe that if the United Nations, if EU countries, if the United States had helped Belarus back in 2020 or even 2021, there wouldn’t be a bloody war in Ukraine. 

That is why it is so important that the UN takes immediate actions to put an end to Lukashenko’s violent regime and bring Ukraine closer to victory!

Long Live my beautiful Belarus and Glory to Ukraine!

Thank you.

 

16th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Speakers and Participants

Veronica Tsepkalo

Exiled Belarusian opposition figure and chair of the Belarus Women’s Foundation

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