Enira Bronitskaya: “I can’t just stand by”


“I’m often asked why I, a kid, got caught up in politics. I’ve always answered that politics got caught up in my life. I was always involved in civic activity because a civic society is vital for any democratic country. I can’t just stand by when such things are happening in the country”.  Enira Bronitskaya, activist of the Belarusian civic initiative for monitoring the elections “Partnerstvo”, released yesterday after spending 6 months imprisoned in Belarus talks about her experiences and why she can’t give up..

Enira, you became the first woman political prisoner to spend so long in prison. I’m afraid I can’t imagine what it was like …

It wasn’t so terrible or so unendurable. Perhaps the most terrible thing was the state of not knowing. Because I wasn’t that fussy, I coped fine with the conditions in the SIZO [pre-trial detention centre]. However psychologically it would have been much harder if not for the support I got. It was the solidarity shown that made it possible to endure it all. I knew I wasn’t alone, that I was loved, waited for, understood and supported. I got letters from family, friends, and people I didn’t even know. Once an elderly lady wrote me such a warm letter… Valery Levonevsky rang me from the prison -  he also gave a lot of support…

Let’s return to February 2006. How did the arrest take place?

I’d arranged with Nikolai Astreiko to meet at the “Lido” restaurant at 10 a.m. When I got there, he was already gone. Two men in civilian clothes came up to me, showed me their identification as KGB officers and asked me to go with them to our office. When I refused, they threatened to call for reinforcement, and use physical force. When we got to the office, more of their people in civilian clothes were carrying out a search. All of that was filmed by a cameraman from Belarusian television.

Astreiko wasn’t in the office. The KGB men had opened all the doors with their own keys. They didn’t even ask me to open them. I was shown a search warrant in connection with a criminal case launched under the Article “slander concerning the President”. When I attempted to leave, they wouldn’t let me go, and demanded that I switch off my phone.

During their search I saw things in the office that had never been there – some unfamiliar reference books for observers which had supposedly been published by “Partnerstvo”, some documents. As for the papers with election results that they claimed to have found, they were obviously fakes. They gave the number of people voting in the country during the elections of 2004, but the date 19 March 2006 had been written in. Everything was so crass that as a result even the judge didn’t believe it. The textbooks of Arabic were for some reason confiscated, with them saying, that who knows, maybe they were training terrorists. The so-called “witnesses” who were brought in by the KGB officers pointed out to them where they should look during the search. After the search, I was taken to the KGB where they tried to ask questions in an informal chat. I refused to answer. In the evening they presented a ruling on launching criminal proceedings under Article 193 § 2 “organizing and running a structure encroaching upon the identity, rights and duties of citizens, and not having undergone state registration”.  I was brought to the KGB SIZO at 11 in the evening with only one wish – to lie down and sleep. That was how my “time inside” began.

How did the KGB and Prosecutor’s people treat you during the interrogations?

I can’t say that they were pigs or very rude, it just seemed as though the KGB officers didn’t want to ask any questions. They’d launched criminal proceedings and that was all that they needed. They asked only if I had any relation to “Partnerstvo” and whether I knew the other suspects.  I found it hard to understand what was happening. There was a total information vacuum.  Later reports appeared on Belarusian Television [BT] and it became clear that they might lay completely different charges against us. When they passed the case to the prosecutor, the investigator tried to frighten me, saying: “You saw BT, do you understand what kind of situation you could end up in?” He threatened that the Article could be reclassified as “seizure of power through violent means”.

It felt like they were all basing the criminal case on the report shown on BT. I refused to testify. There were only three interrogations. One was still as a suspect and two when I’d already been charged.

What are the conditions like for women in the SIZO of the KGB and the Central Department of Internal Affairs?

All the SIZOs are subject to general rules, but each has its own rules as well. In the KGB the cells are for three or four people, there are walks for two hours a day in small courtyards – like cells without roofs. At the “Volodarka” SIZO you get one hour at most, sometimes less. There you have 8 people to a cell.

Although the requirement is that women should be guarded by women guards, the KGB SIZO has only male staff. There’s only a female secretary who took us to the shower place.

The men have no toilet in the cells. Women have a toilet and a wash basin. Since the wiring is very old, the television and boiling contraption were used on a timetable basis. In the KGB you could keep scissors, manicure sets in the bedside table that stood by the door of the cell, and they’d be handed to you as soon as you asked for them.  At “Volodarka” you could ask for scissors once a week, and they were used by the whole SIZO.  They took you to the shower room once a week. In the SIZO at “Volodarka”  there wasn’t any hot water in the women’s shower place all summer – you washed in cold water, and only for 10 minutes, which was very little.

In the KGB they give you a knife and an “opener” for eating, at “Volodarka” you’re not allowed these, and many people had cans of food they couldn’t open.

The KGB food was OK because there were only 18 cells and around 50 prisoners, whereas at “Volodarka”  there are around 3 thousand inmates. It’s simply impossible there. They cook on a kind of mixed oil and lots of people end up with stomach problems. The bread is a special make – like black plasticine.  Prisoners throw it out in loaves. And that’s at a time when the country is “fighting for the harvest”!

The most exhausting thing is that the First Channel of Belarusian Radio is on permanently. It’s a typical form of making people into zombies. When I found at that I was supposedly “encroaching on citizens’ rights to receive truthful information” I felt like asking who then was actually encroaching – me or them with their radio.

At “Volodarka” it was harder. There were 8 other people in my cell, and all smoked a lot. With bad ventilation that was intolerable. As well as the fact that sunlight doesn’t get through the latticed window into the cell.

In the KGB SIZO there were more control, they looked through the peephole into the cell every half hour. At “Volodarka” they virtually don’t check.

What was the hardest thing?

To be in what they call a “transit” cell – one that they put you in usually for a day while they’re deciding which cell you’ll be in. It’s a dark, dirty and crowded place. I had 20 people there with me, people arrested from Zhodino. I was most frightened that they’d forget me and leave me there. Simply forget.  Because there was a deaf elderly lady with us, she should have been sent to the psychiatric hospital in Novinki, but because when they were calling her from the cell she didn’t hear her name she was forgotten about. They realized only after 3 weeks and that was when the prisoners themselves reminded them.

Many political prisoners keep diaries while they’re imprisoned, writing down their observations and feelings. …
Everything that I was experiencing and feeling I expressed in my letters home. I shared my emotions with people I’m close to. You’d have to collect an archive of letters.

How did the days pass by? In prison they must seem endless?

I came to the conclusion that it’s not so difficult to be imprisoned if you are able to do nothing, and not burden yourself down with problems. I had prepared myself psychologically when I spent 10 days custodial arrest in the special reception centre for vagrants on Okrestina St.  At the beginning, as a person used to being active, it was hard. But then I said to myself that at that moment I didn’t belong to myself, and that life at that time would be going on without me. The main thing is to accept the fact that you are free inside, and that physically you don’t have control over what’s happening to you.

The days went by quite quickly, I simply didn’t notice time passing. You wake up, have breakfast, go for your “walk”, have lunch, then you read, write letters (as a rule not less than three hours), play chess, draw, talk to people, watch television. Incidentally it was actually in the SIZO that I learned to play chess which I’m very proud of. I did exercise, sit-ups.  I drew a lot, though in fact I can’t really draw. I read “Doctor Zhivago” and for a long time drew only candles. The poem “A candle burned on the table” made a real impact.

I think that it was harder for the guys than for me. They’d left children, wives who were pregnant. I was most worried how my parents’ lives had changed because of me.

How would you qualify the trial?

I prepared myself for some time for that spectacle. For me it was exactly that, a spectacle. And I knew I was to play a main role. I was pleased that I’d see my family, Nikolai, Timofei and Aleksandr. But at the trial I felt like a decoration. Our lawyers worked, some witnesses spoke, and we understood that we couldn’t influence any of it.

When I read the case, I felt sick – there was so much dirt there. And the awful thing was that if you’ve been charged, you’ll definitely be convicted. Last year in our country there was only one (!) acquittal.  We understood that we’d be found guilty.

The state prosecutor was just incredible, his speech for the prosecution began with the lines that “the people of the Republic of Belarus made their choice in 1994, but there are still people who are not frightened of criminal prosecution and they are prepared to plunge the country into chaos”.

How did you feel when they read out the sentence?

I was upset over the sentences for Nikolai and Timofei. I was pleased that they’d changed the article. They couldn’t in the end prove our “encroachment on the rights of citizens”. But when Nikolai got the maximum sentence under that article, when there wasn’t a single aggravating circumstance, it was impossible not to be upset. When Timofei Dranchuk’s wife arrived with the child whom he hadn’t seen yet, when I saw Polina Astreiko who’s expecting a child, it was all really terrible.

Now that you’ve been released, will you continue your civic activities?

I’m often asked why I, a kid, got caught up in politics. I’ve always answered that politics got caught up in my life.  I’ve always been involved in civic activity because a civic society is vital for any democratic country. .  I don’t think I can do anything else. I can’t just stand by when such things are happening in the country..

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