by Volha Lisichonak
Young Belarusian activists say they are being forced to do military service because of their political views.
MINSK | As the European Union continues to weigh the advisability of inviting Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to a summit in Prague early next month, activists in Belarus say Brussels should take a closer look at a recent government tactic: using military conscription to get rid of troublesome young oppositionists.
The charge comes amid a warming of relations between Belarus and the EU as both sides pointedly offer compliments to each other amid a new EU strategy of engagement. European officials have praised Minsk's efforts to meet EU recommendations on some human rights issues, while the Belarusian authorities commend their counterparts' intentions to increase dialogue and promote cooperation. Earlier this year, a senior Foreign Ministry official in the Czech Republic, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, cited progress in the democratization of Belarus, including a slackening in state repression of the media and a drop-off in criminal cases launched against the political opposition. On 16 March the EU decided to extend the lifting of a travel ban on high Belarusian officials.
Young Front activists gave moral support to young men who say they were forcibly conscripted into the army as a punishment for political activism. Photo: mfront.net/
Activists, however, complain that a practice begun last year, of quietly shipping off some of the most active young democracy activists to the army, has only intensified. According to the Viasna Human Rights Center, military conscription has been used as a repressive measure against many youth activists from the Belarusian Popular Front (BPF), the Young Front, and other youth initiatives, including several cases where health-related draft deferments reportedly disappeared overnight.
A SPEEDY RECOVERY
One of the most prominent examples concerns Franak Viachorka, a BPF activist and son of Vincuk Viachorka, the first vice-chairman of the BPF, the oldest opposition political party.
Back in June 2008, the military registration and enlistment office of the Saviecki district in Minsk permanently disqualified Viachorka from military service due to health reasons. When a regional medical examination called into doubt Viachorka's unfitness for active service, he was referred to a military hospital. The hospital then confirmed his original medical tests, and he was issued a temporary draft deferment until March 2009, citing the need for a retina operation.
Despite that deferment until March, on 8 January the young activist was detained, taken to the military registration and enlistment office in Minsk, and after that sent to a military hospital. Surprisingly, the diagnoses made at the hospital contradicted those he had earlier received. "It looks like the atmosphere of the place cured me," Viachorka joked to the press.
As Viachorka said later, he was escorted from the hospital in handcuffs on the morning of 16 January. At first, the authorities tried to serve him with a draft notice, but Viachorka persistently demanded the right to review his medical tests and refused to go back to the military registration office without seeing the results. After a conversation among several officers, including the military commissar of the Saviecki district, four unknown people burst into the ward, pinned Viachorka down and handcuffed him.
Viachorka says he was then taken to the registration office in a minibus with black blinds. Once there, things moved rapidly. According to Viachorka, the unidentified men acted as his escorts even inside the registration office, issuing orders to those working there. An induction commission met quickly and found Viachorka to be able-bodied and fit for service. "They were going to send me to the military unit immediately. But I said I was going to sue them in court," Viachorka said. The commission conferred and granted him a 10-day deferment until 26 January.
Calling his conscription politically motivated, Viachorka filed complaints to the courts regarding the violation of his rights by military registration officers and staff of the military hospital, as well as a formal complaint to the prosecutor's office over his violent removal from the hospital. In interviews with the press, he cited his work in the BPF as the reason for everything that has befallen him over the past year - besides his forced conscription, he was kicked out of Belarusian State University despite his high marks. "The authorities use military conscription to neutralize the most active members of the democratic opposition," Viachorka told the Nasa Niva weekly newspaper.
All those moves proved in vain. On 28 January, several individuals, again unidentified, brought Viachorka in handcuffs to the Baranavichy Military Radio Technological Division, where he has been carrying out military duties, according to news reports.
A TROUBLESOME YOUNG RECRUIT
A similar fate met one of the leaders of the Young Front, the largest pro-democracy youth organization. The group is legally registered in the Czech Republic after repeated refusals by the authorities in Belarus to provide legal status in the country. Eighteen-year-old Ivan Shyla, the group's vice chairman, received a draft deferment last summer due to health reasons. His situation then developed under the same scenario that Franak Viachorka experienced, except that at first Shyla didn't publicize his dealings with the military registration office because he did not suspect any political motivation.
"I was detained and escorted to the military registration office while I was on my way there," he wrote on his blog. "Then a Belarusian State TV team and KGB officers came and consulted with the induction commission. I then witnessed as doctors resolved contentious issues within a mere few minutes." According to Shyla, the induction commission met to make a decision on his case before they even received the results of his medical examination. His military service began at the end of January.
"During liberalization, public repression is being replaced by other, quite out-of-the-norm forms of oppression. It doesn't change their repressive nature, but it does hide them and make them appear more legally reasonable. I think it is 'politically-motivated' conscription," Shyla wrote.
Again similar to Viachorka, Shyla had problems in school that he ascribed to his political activity. He was expelled from high school just before his last exam in June 2008. Half a year later, Education Minister Alexandr Radkov told the press, "He had to pass an exam the next day, but he was distributing leaflets around the city." Shyla's case drew a wide response in his native city of Salihorsk and his head teacher resigned in protest against Shyla's expulsion. Eventually, Shyla received invitations from Estonia, Poland, and other countries to complete his studies abroad.
Shyla, however, decided to stay in Belarus, but military service might now derail his hopes of finishing high school in the near future. "It is very important for me to complete my education, to finish school," he said at a press conference. "Definitely, army service will disturb my plans : To pass exams without attending classes is possible only in May and I am supposed to return from the army in June. It'll be purely the will and mood of the commander of the military unit I am sent to whether to let me to go and pass my exams or not."
COUNTERING THE STATE MEDIA
Both Viachorka and Shyla say they would like to be examined by an independent medical commission and will serve in the army if found fit for service. They want this commission to be formed by independent doctors, experts who will not be influenced by the Ministry of Defense and special services. The young activists insist that they are protesting not against conscription itself, but against flagrant violations during its process, knowing they must tread lightly on this delicate issue. Belarusian state television has broadcast several spots on the pair recently. The general impression made by these reports is that these young activists are weaklings trying to evade conscription by using supposed human rights violations as a cover.
But the activists argue that to agree with their conscription is to agree with the unlawful actions of the authorities.
"In a country without rules it is impossible to follow them," Shyla said on his blog. "Being a member of the Young Front for years I have realized that the law can be interpreted differently in accordance with political expedience. Rules can be violated by those who demand that others follow them. This is true for all spheres of public life. There is no place for equality and justice guaranteed by the constitution."
Some in Europe are watching. Members of the European Parliament noted the issue of forced conscription during a 2 April discussion of a resolution on engaging with the Belarusian regime. Vytautas Landsbergis, a parliamentary deputy and former head of state of Lithuania, made one of the strongest statements, citing the Viachorka case and saying conscription in this instance was "tantamount to state-practiced hostage-taking." Landsbergis said the authorities could use the son's situation to threaten his father: "'Look, be calm in your position because your son is in our army and something may happen to him.' "
Vincuk Viachorka recently pledged to appeal a military court decision that ruled his son's conscription was legal, the website Charter 97 reported. "The head of the cardiology department of the military hospital publicly admitted that Franak doesn't quality for military service in accordance with the conclusion of the 10th municipal hospital," he said.
In the meantime, neither Shyla nor Franak Viachorka have been able to meet their families. Shyla has been taken into his division's medical unit because of tonsillitis, but he hasn't received proper medical treatment, Nasa Niva reported. He also was not allowed to meet his parents, because his unit is officially quarantined. Viachorka's parents received the same reason for their inability to meet their son. In addition, the only phone in his unit is broken and hasn't been repaired.
Volha Lisichonak is a freelance journalist based in Minsk.