Belarusian presidential candidate relates story of torture

By 
  • November 28, 2011

TORONTO - Ales Michalevic wants people to know that torture still exists in 21st-century Europe. A candidate in the 2010 presidential election in Belarus, he knows from firsthand experience.

"Just one year ago, I was in prison," he told an audience of about 20 people at the University of Toronto Nov. 24. "And we had hot water and showers once a week."

Michalevic is the winner of the 2011 John Humphrey Award given to an individual for exceptional achievement in the promotion of democratic development and respect for human rights. The award is presented by the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, which was created by the Parliament of Canada in 1988. Along with receiving a $30,000 grant, he is currently on a speaking tour of Canadian cities to raise awareness of the situation in his home country, one of the former Soviet republics.

Michalevic ran for his country's presidency on a platform focused on economic growth, an effective state and active society, which stressed human rights, local self-governance, rule of law and real divisions of powers. But on election night, Michalevic was arrested by the secret police and accused of organizing mass riots. He spent two months in jail where he said he was tortured. One month into his imprisonment, Amnesty International recognized him as a prisoner of conscience.

"In the (days following his release), he released statements in which he claimed that he and the other political prisoners had been subject to torture," said Julia Wilton, a member of the Rights and Democracy delegation at the University of Toronto. "After two days of active campaigning on informing society of the tortures and conditions… he secretly left the country for fear of persecution from the Belarussian government and possible new detainment from the KGB."

Michalevic was granted political refugee status in the Czech Republic.

"And I'm still under criminal investigation," he said.

In Belarus, "elections are totally falsified," Michalevic told the audience.

"And we have no self-governance. Our mayors of towns are not elected by us, they're nominated by the president."

To bring democracy to Belarus, Michalevic said the entire political system has to change, starting with the Constitution.

"Our president has the right to sign decrees which are much higher in legal status than legislation adopted by Parliament," he said.

In the past election, he said the President Alexander Lukashenko gave guarantees that people would be earning more money. Lukashenko was first elected in 1994.

"And the majority of people were not caring about human rights and freedom of press because, in many countries, people are more interested in what they earn."

Despite his troubles, Michalevic is optimistic change will come to Belarus.

"I believe in my country," he said. "I believe we will build democracy and we will build sustainable economic growth."

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