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Saturday 22 January 2011

Police 'threatened to rape' Belarus Free Theatre director after election protest

The artistic director of the Belarus Free Theatre Company says she was threatened with being beaten and raped after being arrested during protests over last week's disputed election.

Vladimir Neklyayev - Police 'threatened to rape' Belarus Free Theatre director after election protest
 
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Vladimir Neklyayev, an opposition presidential candidate, lies in the street after being beaten by riot police Photo: REUTERS
Natalia Koliada, Jude Law, Tom Stoppard and Sienna Miller - Police 'threatened to rape' Belarus Free Theatre director after election protest
 
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Natalia Koliada, second from left, at an event to promote democracy in Belarus earlier this month with Jude Law, left, Tom Stoppard and Sienna Miller Photo: DAN WOOLLER

Natalia Koliada is the artistic director of an world-renowned theatre company, rubbing shoulders with such luminaries of the dramatic world as Tom Stoppard, Sienna Miller, Jude Law and Ian McKellen.

Earlier this month she joined a star-studded gathering at London's Old Vic to raise awareness of the Belarus Free Theatre, the independent performing arts group which she co-founded five years ago.

But Ms Koliada, 37, is also one of the most outspoken critics of the repressive regime which has led to her country being branded Europe's last dictatorship. Although the Free Theatre performs in a small house on the outskirts of Minsk, it has risen to international prominence for the quality of its performances and its fearless challenging of Mr Lukashenko's rule.

Now she has described how she was arrested, threatened with rape and tried without access to her lawyer after riot police broke up a 10,000-strong demonstration protesting at apparently rigged elections.

President Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country with a rod of iron for 16 years, was reported to have won with 80 per cent of the vote, while according to official figures his nearest rival received just 2.4 per cent.

Thousands of demonstrators were beaten by riot police and hundreds were arrested after a protest which left the central square in Minsk, the capital of the former Soviet republic, spattered with blood.

Miss Koliada told The Sunday Telegraph how she was singled out by police and directed to a prison van – "a kind of mobile jail" – where she was made to lie, face down, and was threatened with murder and rape if she moved or spoke.

"It was dark inside, and I couldn't see a thing. The guard said 'My only dream is to kill you; if you so much as move you'll feel my baton all over your body, you animal,'" she recalled. "Then he threatened to rape me."

As the truck filled up it the guards ordered the prisoners to stand until, with 70 on board, it was driven to a prison where they were made to wait for two and a half hours in a yard surrounded by barbed wire.

They were eventually escorted into a five-storey concrete building, she said. "On every corridor on every floor there were rows of men standing facing the walls with their hands behind their backs. It was like a scene out of films about Fascism."

The women were separated and moved to another floor, where they were forced to spend the night standing, faces to the wall, hands splayed open behind them.

"The prison guards would let us move a bit when the riot officers weren't there. But once they came back, we had to stay silent and absolutely still," she said.

Towards morning they were taken one at a time to be identified. They were videoed in their outdoor clothes, apparently to be checked against footage from the square, and forced to sign statements confessing to taking part in an unsanctioned rally. Miss Koliada signed, but only after also writing a denial on the reverse side of the paper. That afternoon they were trucked en masse to court.

Miss Koliada told her story to The Sunday Telegraph in Moscow, after being released by a judge with just a fine because a paperwork mix-up meant she was accused in court under someone else's name.

"The judge asked me to confirm my name and address, then she read out a different name from a different town," she said. "I'd had no sleep and was barely aware of what was going on, but hearing that focused me."

Few of the protesters were so lucky, however, and 639 received immediate prison sentences of up to 15 days. There was not enough space in Minsk's prisons and the overflow had to be sent 40 miles to a prison in Zhodzina.

On Friday at least 500 were still in detention – including Vladimir Neklyayev, a 64-year-old poet who was one of five opposition candidates in the poll to be arrested last week. He was beaten unconscious on his way to join the demonstration, then dragged out of hospital bed by agents of the Belarusian KGB, the security police.

There has been widespread condemnation of the crackdown by governments across Europe, including Britain. On Friday the Dutch Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal urged Baroness Ashton, the EU's top diplomat, to reimpose a travel ban on Mr Lukashenko and consider "new measures" against the regime.

International observers have accused Mr Lukashenko of using fraudulent counting and of violence against opposition protesters to keep himself in power. "A monstrous system of falsification has been created in this country, and you are all accomplices of that," Ales Lagvinets, representing another opposition candidate, Grigory Kostusev, told the country's election commission.

But Russia has provided Belarus with cheap oil and gas, helping to keep former Soviet republic of 10 million within its sphere of influence. Yesterday Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, sent a letter to Mr Lukashenko formally congratulating him on his election to a fourth term of office.

On Friday the country's defence ministry announced that the head of the air force, Major General Igor Azarenok, had been arrested for allegedly breaching the criminal code on abuse and negligence of authority. It did not indicate whether the arrest was connected to the post-election crackdown. It boasted that Belarus had an "uncompromising approach to those guilty of violations, irrespective of their position and record."

Speaking from Minsk, where she returned on Christmas Eve, Miss Koliada urged European leaders not to back away from imposing serious sanctions. "Words are simply not enough. Only outside pressure can force Lukashenko to change," she said.

Other sources described to The Sunday Telegraph the atmosphere of fear that has now seized the country. Rumours are widespread that mobile telephone networks have provided the KGB with the numbers of anyone whose phones revealed they were in the vicinity of the protests, making those who evaded arrest afraid to speak by phone in case they are being monitored.

"They know everyone's number and can arrest who they want to," said one who had been present.

The Viasna human rights centre in Minsk revealed that the authorities had attempted to seize the three-year-old son of Andrei Sannikov, 56, the runner-up in the election who has also been imprisoned along with his wife, Irina Khalip. The boy has been looked after by his three grandparents but when they tried to take food to his parents at KGB headquarters, social services arrived at the kindergarten where they left him. Friends alerted a family lawyer who intervened to prevent his removal.

Late on Friday the KGB raided and searched Mr Sannikov's flat, where the family has been staying.

Mr Sannikov himself has not been seen since he was visited by his lawyer in a KGB isolation unit on Monday, when he was barely able to walk from his beatings. He is one of 19 prisoners who face up to 15 years in prison if found guilty of leading the protests.

His sister, Irina Bogdanova, who is in Britain, told The Sunday Telegraph: "All we know is that he is in a very bad way, and medical staff have not been allowed to see him. We don't know whether his leg is broken or dislocated or what. He can barely move."

Mr Sannikov's wife, a correspondent for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was arrested while she gave a telephone interview to Russian radio.

On Friday, a dozen protesters who were singing carols in front of the prison in central Minsk where most of the jailed candidates and activists are being held were also arrested by riot police.

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