The land where Humpty Dumpty meets Stalin

Belarus, a brutal throwback to Soviet-style oppression

Tom Stoppard

What does this remind you of? "X was charged under Article 339, part 2, with hooliganism, and with the organisation of group activities (Article 342, part 1), and was sentenced to five and a half years imprisonment."

The clue is the combination of the oddly unlegalistic "hooliganism" and the catch-all unmeaning of "group activities" punctiliously proscribed under article-this and article-that.

Remember it now? This was the language of Soviet-style justice in the USSR and wherever ran the Kremlin's writ in Eastern Europe. It was where George Orwell met Lewis Carroll (" 'When I use a word', said Humpty Dumpty in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean.' "), so that "hooliganism" might mean signing a protest or giving a private seminar on Aristotle. (I'm not being satirical: the Oxford philosopher Anthony Kenny was deported from Czechoslovakia for hooliganism, and a seminar on Aristotle was his group activity.)

However, the "X" in the paragraph above received his prison sentence only last year, in a Minsk district court in Belarus. His name is Alexander Kazulin, formerly rector of the Belarusian state university and, more pertinently, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Seventeen years after the dissolution of the Communist Party of the USSR, democracy's travails in the new Russia take a different, modern-day form, but one corner of the former Soviet Union is stuck in a time warp. Here you will find the last KGB of the old empire, the last collective farms and the last dictator in Europe, President Alexander Lukashenko.

Amnesty International called Kazulin's trial "flagrantly unfair" and has adopted him as a prisoner of conscience, among several others including Zmitser Dashkevich, the leader of a youth opposition movement, who is currently serving 18 months.

Tomorrow evening at Amnesty's office in Shoreditch the Belarusian prisoners of conscience will be supported by a public meeting and the screening of a documentary, A Belarusian Lesson, to mark the first anniversary of Lukashenko's re-election, which received widespread international criticism. The EU at the time condemned the state violence against opposition demonstrators, and last May issued visa bans and froze the assets of Lukashenko and more than 30 of his associates.

The 50-minute film is centred on a young man, Franak Vyachorka, who will be on the platform. He was just coming up to his 18th birthday at the time of the election. His father was in prison, his crime being the founding and running of an "unofficial" school which taught in the Belarusian language. Lukashenko, President since 1994, had demoted the language in favour of Russian. The President closed the school in 2003. "The fact that we speak Belarusian is a protest," Vyachorka says in the film. "It is not normal to be a natural-born oppositionist," he adds. "It is normal to be a normal person in your normal free country."

Lukashenko also got rid of the Belarusian flag, or tried to: the white banner with the red stripe can be seen all over the documentary, waved by thousands of mostly young people in the mass protest that followed the rigged election, before phalanxes of police with shields and truncheons cleared October Square in the capital Minsk after four days.

I had received running reports of these events at the time, e-mailed by some friends I had made - members of a banned theatre group - on a visit to Minsk.

On March 17, Natasha and Kolia wrote: "We really want to believe that miracle could happen and our country will become free on March 20."

On March 22: "We stayed already [in the square] for two nights. It is very cold here, but people are really inspired. It was very difficult to stay the first night. The square is surrounded by special forces. They arrested more than 100 ordinary people who were trying to bring tents, blankets and food. They were arresting people in underground and empty streets. They know that journalists are on the square and nobody will see it . . . The main thing that happens these days, people are overcoming their fear."

March 24: "This is absolutely awful. We stayed four nights. We left at two o'clock am to sleep a few hours, and in one hour we received a call that the camp is ruined and all people are arrested. We are absolutely exhausted but there will be an action tomorrow."

March 25: "Just to let you know we are okay. The explosion that you see on BBC is the sound grenade. We were right there. Now all of us cannot hear well but it should be better in a few days. One of our [Free Theatre] people was severely beaten up. Now all of us are at home. Don't worry."

A year later - a week ago on Sunday - 10,000 people turned up for an opposition rally in Minsk. Riot police blocked October Square, letting through only people with tickets for Swan Lake at the Republic Palace. George Orwell, meet Monty Python. They split the march into three columns. One was led by the man who stood against Lukashenko a year ago, Alexander Milinkevich. He was among those who were physically assaulted on Sunday.

Franak's father, who had earlier completed his prison sentence, was there. He had been rearrested 12 days earlier, held overnight, and was due to be tried on Friday last week. Ominously or coincidentally, the case was postponed until Wednesday, the day after the Amnesty evening. (Though it should be emphasised that Amnesty does not take a political position on Belarus - the interest is only in human rights.)

Vyachorka Sr, who was arrested for swearing, told Radio Free Europe: "I link both my arrest and my release to confusion in the heads of current officials. They have no single concept of what to do . . . Some of them believe it is necessary to suppress and whack people as usual. The others think that it is necessary to make at least some gestures towards Europe, otherwise it will be quite bad."

The EU has made Belarus its business, and is offering entry in exchange for Belarus adopting European standards on a slate of freedoms. Lukashenko, the former manager of a collective farm, who has manipulated the constitution to keep himself in office, shows no sign of being tempted. He has his problems with his other powerful neighbour (President Putin recently doubled the price of the gas supply) but Russia in its present mode has no problem with his Humpty Dumpty way with words, or with his "democratic republic", which has more policemen per head than anywhere else in the world.

- A Belarusian Lesson will be screened tomorrow at Amnesty International UK, 17-25 New Inn Yard, London EC2. Tom Stoppard and Franak Vyachorka will be on the platform. Admission free. Limited tickets available at: