The Belarusian Joan of Arc continues to fight.
Palina Sharenda-Panasiuk, an activist of the European Belarus civil campaign, has been jailed in harsh conditions for more than two years. Andrei Sharenda, coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign, spoke about what happens to the woman in prison, and what caused the “special” attitude of the authorities towards the political prisoner, in an interview with Charter97.org Studio X97.
After recording the talk-show, it became known that after leaving the punishment cell, where Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk spent 40 days in a row, she was placed in the cell-type premises. By the decision of the colony administration, Palina will spend 6 months in complete solitude.
It also became known that another criminal case was initiated against the European Belarus activist under Part 2 of Article 411 (“Malicious disobedience to the requirements of the administration of the correctional institution”). Under a new criminal case, she faces an additional two years in prison.
— Andrei, if I am not mistaken, you have been in the opposition for more than 20 years, acting as a coordinator of the European Belarus civil campaign in Brest and the Brest region. However, if you don't mind, I would like to start a conversation with you not as an oppositionist, but as the husband, whose wife has been in prison for more than two years.
— Oh sure.
— Andrei, your wife Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk has been behind bars since 2020. In 2021, she was sentenced to two years in prison. I know the situation is quite critical at the moment. Tell us what is known.
— You see, there has been practically no news from Palina for three months. Four months ago, she stood trial, according to which she got another year of imprisonment, and the prison regime was tightened. Now she is in a colony for repeat offenders. This is a notorious women's colony in Zarechcha, about which there are many rumors and a lot of unpleasant information. And for these three months, there has been practically no news from her. Only one thing is known: during these three months she has already spent at least 80 days in a punishment cell, that is, punitive confinement.
What is a punishment cell in a colony? This is a semi-basement, which is not heated, and has one window. A punishment cell measuring one meter by three, in fact, such a stone bag, not designed for any long stay. It is also clear that although this is the south of Belarus, the temperature is already dropping below zero.
— I heard that there is not even warm water there. Is that so?
— In the cell, specifically in the punishment cell, it’s not only warm water that is missing. As far as I know, there is no water at all. There is a toilet, and they take you out to shower. Twice a day, they simply take prisoners out of the cell to wash and do water procedures. These are simply inhuman conditions, and Palina has been kept like this for almost three months.
There is no information about the state of her health, about how she feels, at all.
Three times during this time a lawyer came to see her, but under the pretext that Palina was in a punishment cell, they did not allow seeing her. I cannot find any other word for this but fascism. This is fascism in the center of Europe, which, unfortunately, both the world community and human rights organizations put up with.
— Many people say: “Who would have thought that in the 21st century there will be fascism in Russia, fascism in Belarus?” How do you understand, Andrei, why is the regime behaving so harshly with Palina?
— Palina has always had a tough stance towards this regime. She has a clear line: she does not recognize the legitimacy of these authorities. Moreover, she will not follow their orders, because Palina completely denies their legitimacy even in prison. You could say it's her fight.
Even there, in prison, Palina continues to fight this totalitarian regime in the form of civil disobedience. Palina refuses to call herself a “recidivist” or “prone to escape”. She now has at least 4 tags of different colors: from “prone to escape” to “prone to attack prison employees” and “prone to suicide”. And she is supposed to explain each of the tags whenever there’s a meeting, or she needs to pass somewhere.
Palina, of course, refuses to do so. And for this, one by one they hang these violations on her, plus Palina completely refuses to work, because in this new colony they only sew uniforms for security officers — the border troops, as far as I know. Palina refused point-blank to go to work, she even refused to study. And these are the consequences.
— I think, in addition to everything else, the regime is afraid of her, and therefore ...
— Yes, definitely. For three months some rumors have been circulating. But it is clear that this tough position regarding Palina comes from somewhere “above”. Belarus is not such a big country, there are acquaintances who even work in this structure, who say that yes, putting pressure on Palina is an order “from above”, because their goal is to break a person, in any way.
In general, in the current situation in Belarus, after the events of 2020, our political prisoners are one of the few centers of resistance to the regime. We see that our heroes continue to fight, even while in prison. Their names are known — this is Siarhei Tsikhanouski, Mikalai Statkevich, Pavel Seviarynets, my wife Palina Sharenda-Panasyuk, Mikalai Autukhovich, Stsiapan Latypau. They continue to fight.
— Yauhen Afnahel.
— Yauhen Afnahel, of course, Maksim Viniarski, they are my friends from European Belarus.
— You can continue this list. There are not a thousand of them, as some believe. There are several thousands.
— And this is the only obstacle due to which Lukashenka cannot declare himself a complete winner. As long as his politically imprisoned opponents remain in jails, and they are not broken, he will not be able to say: “I am a winner. Let's hold new elections.”
Well, as you can see from the economy, from the general structure, time is running out, he wants to declare himself the winner, and therefore there is a purposeful struggle against political prisoners. We see that many political prisoners are also now being thrown into punishment cells, they are under tremendous psychological pressure. But they continue to fight, and this is our hope.
— You and Palina last spoke in 2021, right?
— Oh, if you can call it a conversation. Palina had a trial, upon the results of which she got her first prison term: two years. I was already under house arrest. I already had a number of criminal articles hanging on me. Under the terms of the house arrest, I could go out for family reasons for several hours a day.
Meetings in the pre-trial detention center were held in a narrow corridor, behind thick glass, nothing was heard. There were old telephones with disks, but the disk was clogged with something and it was difficult to talk through these receivers. There were four other people sitting nearby. It was practically impossible to hear anything at all.
Well, plus to this: an employee of the law-enforcement agencies stood behind me, and one more stood behind Palina’s back. They even tried to ban some gestures. At some point, Palina wanted to show something with gestures, but an employee of the pre-trial detention center approached and slammed his fist on the table, saying that nothing could even be shown on this topic.
— What were you talking about?
— We talked mainly about the children, about the weather, but at some point Palina realized the situation that I also needed to leave, she wanted to signal me to do this, and she tried to somehow gesticulate. It was at this point that we decided to end our conversation.
— You say there has been no news from her for three months. Knowing your wife, knowing Palina, what do you think, what is her mood now?
— I'm sure that they won't break her psychologically. Palina is a psychologically very strong person, she knows what she is striving for, and it is impossible to break her. But you need to understand that Palina is a woman, and human health is not unlimited.
I have been under administrative arrest many times and I understand what a punishment cell is, what punitive confinement is, that being there even for 10 days is very difficult, 20 is generally somewhere at the limit of human capabilities.
What is 40 or 80 days — I just can not imagine. It is very difficult for the body to endure this. There are serious threats to life and health.
— During one of the last court hearings, Palina held a poster with the text: “Imposter, back off!” It is clear who is the main impostor in Belarus. What did you think when you saw this poster?
— It immediately became clear to everyone what this poster meant. One of the letters was disguised. But this is a well-known slogan that first appeared before the 2020 elections, before the events of August, and it has become one of the symbols of this protest.
Reading between the letters, it is clear what this slogan means, and Palina simply read out her manifesto: that one should not be afraid, but express one's thoughts, express oneself even in those situations in which it would seem impossible to do so. Palina was in prison, she was tried, but still she used her trial as a platform to say what each of us is afraid to say when we are at large.
— In 2021, you decided to leave Belarus. Are you and your children in Lithuania now?
— I was under house arrest. I had to escape from house arrest, I had to illegally cross the border with Lithuania. There was a very complicated process to get the children out of Belarus. The regime interfered. Only after 9 months I was able to see and hug my children.
Yes, now my children are with me, they are in Lithuania. We are starting our lives anew, but I am sure that we will soon be able to return to Belarus.
— How old are the children now?
— Now the elder is 13 years old, the younger is 6.
— What do they ask about mom?
— The children are old enough to understand what happened, where their mother is. Yes, it was difficult at first. The first six months, the first few months. When Palina was taken away, the younger was 4 years old, the elder had just turned 11.
The younger one often ran up to the bed and asked: “Where is mom, I can't find her.” It was very difficult. But, fortunately, time heals and I try my best to replace both the mother and the whole family with myself so that the family is complete. Now, yes, the children feel better, they all understand where their mother is, what the situation is now in Belarus.
— And what do you tell them when they ask when their mother will return?
— The elder understands that mom will return only when Lukashenka leaves, when the situation changes. But I tell the younger one that soon, if not in a month, then soon. Soon we will all get together. Soon we will all go on vacation somewhere. Soon we will return to Belarus together.
— What can ordinary people do for political prisoners now? Because when it started — 2020, arrests, a new, stronger wave of arrests — there was a desire to write letters, to help. But we do understand that over time it all fades away. How to keep this attention? What else can be done now?
— Now, especially in the situation of the war in Ukraine, the topic of Belarusian political prisoners, even Belarus itself, has faded into the background. What kind of support is needed? This is support, first of all, for the families of political prisoners, because it is hard for them now.
Even psychological support is very important. When I was in Belarus, when I was even under house arrest, it was important when a person just comes up to you on the street, recognizes and expresses words of support. This is very important, it is very supportive and this is our solidarity. And solidarity is one of the ways of our victory. And the Lukashenka regime cannot fight this manifestation of simple human solidarity in any way. And that scares him too.
— Many media write that Putin now really wants Belarus, Lukashenka to actively take part in the war, so that the mobilization is official, that Belarusians go there, and participate in hostilities. Do you think he will press Lukashenka in here?
— I think he has already pressed him on the issue so that Russian troops will again be brought into Belarus, military bases will be deployed, and I think (there are acquaintances who directly say this) that the Armed Forces of Belarus will be united with the Western Military District of Russia. It's almost no secret anymore.
And any further escalation of the conflict will simply involve the Belarusian army in this useless war. Yes, such a scenario is quite likely, and Putin will do everything in order to implement it.
— How can this affect the situation and moods in Belarus? When, on the one hand, we see that Russians, bad Russians, are shooting from the territory of Belarus into Ukraine. This is an abstract story. And then a husband, a brother, a son can be drafted.
— It is clear that no one in Belarus needs a war. It is not even needed by our military, who are now serving. They are afraid of this now more than anything in life, that Belarusians will be drawn into the war. It is clear that all the relatives of these military men are afraid of this, ordinary Belarusians are afraid of this.
And I hope that our military will have the willpower to resist these criminal orders. There are many ways out of this — you can simply disobey, disregard these orders, there is an option to simply leave Belarus, there is an option to just resist.
I have friends who say: we will not fight, this is not our war. This, I am sure, is one of the criteria why Belarus did not enter the war in February, in March, when it was necessary for Putin. And there is hope that these trends will continue, and Putin will have nothing left to do. Yes, he can send troops here, he can set up bases here, but he simply cannot force Belarusians to fight on his side.
— In your opinion, how should Lukashenka finish so that everyone can really say that justice has triumphed?
— I believe that the end of Lukashenka should be, as a precedent, something between Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi. I am sure that such a fate awaits him as a result of the events that have been taking place lately.
— Andrei, you have been in the opposition for more than 20 years, in politics. Do you remember the moment when for the first time you felt ashamed that the country was ruled by an uncouth boor, a collective farmer?
— I was not ashamed of him, but the notion that this regime is against Belarus, against the people, against history, has become clear to me since school. I was in the Young Front from the 9th grade, and that’s where I met Palina. It was the end of the 1990s, and it had already become clear that the regime was criminal and had to be resisted. This was the beginning of my active political life and the struggle against the Lukashenka regime.
— How many times have you been arrested in all this period?
— It's hard to say by the number of times, about 15. But in total, I spent only half a year, 160 days in administrative arrests. Only for the end of 2020 — the beginning of 2021, I had 86 days of administrative arrest.
— I remember how in 2020 you said that Belarusians hate Lukashenka. But it’s 2022 on the calendar already, what feelings do they have for the dictator now?
— I am sure that the processes that began in August 2020 actually started much earlier. The fact that there will be protests in 2020 was clear even a year before, when we and our friends from the European Belarus participated in the so-called parliamentary elections. Then a cut of moods was made, it became clear that there would be protests, that the society was ready for protests, the society would no longer accept the fact that Lukashenka would remain in power.
In August 2020, there was a Rubicon, through which a larger number of the population passed, who realized that it is not enough to go out to vote for a single candidate or several candidates, but it is important to defend their right to vote on the streets of cities. Unfortunately, this was not enough. There are objective reasons why it didn't work out.
But those events that began, they continue. The revolution is still going on. Yes, now we can say that it went underground, somehow moved to the kitchen. But the mood of the people has not gone away. Those people who took to the squares and streets of our cities, they also hate Lukashenka and also wish him a speedy change. And as soon as some window of opportunity or some kind of signal appears, people will again defend their rights and do everything to make this regime go away.
— Have you thought about what that spark might be?
— Sparks can be different. Unfortunately, the events of the last year show that the weakness of the Lukashenka regime is not enough, the weakness of the Putin regime is also necessary. Because, in fact, Belarus is now under occupation, and in this scenario, only the victory of Ukraine or the complete weakening of Russia can lead to the creation of this trigger, that it will be possible to go to protests again.
Unfortunately, protests alone are not enough now. Victory can only be achieved by a common path. I think, firstly, these are protest actions, and secondly, these are mass general strikes: both workers and other structures. And in the current situation, unfortunately, this is only an armed struggle.
But, fortunately, now we see that our brothers, our acquaintances and friends are now fighting in Ukraine. The Kalinouski Regiment and other formations that have been created are ready to support our struggle, ready to enter Belarus. Both I and many Belarusians have very high hopes for this.
— You’ve mentioned the year 2020. What conclusions should Belarusians draw from the revolution that began then?
— The problem of Belarusians is that everyone was waiting for some leader to say something. Everyone was waiting for some kind of signal to come either through a Telegram channel, or someone to announce something, some kind of action, strike, gathering place. It was a mistake. We have seen what this led to.
Revolution is not done on weekends. It became clear. We must become leaders ourselves, understand what is needed to overthrow this regime.
— Some people think that Lukashenka will not be there next year. What are your predictions?
— My position is as follows: I'd rather be an optimist and be wrong than be a pessimist and be right. I think there is an objective point of view that Lukashenka's regime is already hanging by a thread.
We see the processes that have started in the economy. I have many acquaintances who work at Belarusian enterprises, at potash and oil refineries. They say that the situation is simply deplorable. Everything works for the warehouse, everything is kept by a thread, and the economy can collapse at any moment.
We saw the recent tantrum of a dictator who wants to regulate the prices of chickens, eggs, milk, and sugar in some way. But they cannot be regulated, this will lead to disastrous consequences. Not just “may lead”, but most likely it has already led, and these decrees only hasten its fall. I'm sure the regime has only a few months left.
— But, in fact, what gives you this confidence that the regime will not last long?
— Well, there are objective reasons, as you can see from the economy, firstly. And secondly, in the mood of people it is clearly visible. And this factor of hatred for the dictator, which is simply impossible to hide, can be contributed by the empty refrigerator factor. And this will most likely happen this autumn or winter.
When the refrigerators are empty, this will probably be the most significant trigger that can spur on the fight, and not only the fight. This will be a signal to the law enforcement officers that they need to run away from this regime as far as possible. And now there are already signals that visas are requested by nomenklatura workers, former policemen who are getting employed as drivers in Lithuania and Poland. In fact, their flight began.
— The rats are fleeing the sinking ship.
— The rats are fleeing the ship. And this mobilization, which was announced in Russia, covert mobilization in Belarus is already taking place. Because we see that military contracts are forcibly extended, the servicemen are not released, security officials are returned from the reserve. The regime is not of its own accord, but is preparing to continue hostilities. This will eventually lead to its downfall.
— How will the situation in Belarus develop in the coming months?
— Any scenarios cannot be ruled out. It is quite possible that we will return to protests again, we may return to strikes again. And we cannot disregard the factor of the war in Ukraine. Our valiant heroes from the Kalinouski regiment are now fighting the enemy — the Russian Federation. But as soon as that enemy is defeated, I am sure, and the events at the front confirm my opinion, they are ready to enter Belarus.
— Yes, the Kalinovites say: we will defeat Putin — Lukashenka is next.
— And our main task, the task of all Belarusians, is to support them. And I'm sure, I hope it will happen in the next, if not months, then in the near future.
— Is there any support among Belarusians for the Kalinouski regiment?
— There is. This is both moral and financial support.
— We see both the victories of Ukraine, and a new wave of aggression, as they said, a new “February 24”, but Ukraine is no longer afraid. As you and I are recording this interview, bombs are falling in the largest Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv. And they fly, including from Belarus. How to stop it?
— It is clear that a wounded beast is the worst thing. In convulsions, he can do anything. How to stop him? We saw what happened in winter, that there was resistance in Belarus. Belarusians reported in every possible way about the movement of Russian troops, they even tried to resist, there were sabotage on the railway.
I am sure that ordinary people who are now in Belarus are actually hostages of the Lukashenka regime, but they will still resist. Information will be sent to Ukraine about the movement of Russian troops, about missile launches, as it was in the winter and spring of this year.
— In free Belarus, in Belarus without Lukashenka, would you like to be involved in politics or do you see yourself in something completely different?
— I don’t know if I will be involved in politics, but a free Belarus will not arise just at the click of a button, they say, Lukashenka will leave, Belarus will become free and everyone will live well. We must understand that we are facing years of restoration, the years of the formation of the nation, the years of the formation of the national state. And I'm ready to participate in it.
I have been fighting this regime for 20 years, not just to grow tomatoes or start my own business. No, the restoration of our nation, our country is a systematic, painstaking work. Both my wife and I are ready to participate in this.