German Authorities Defend Belarus Police Training
A political storm in Berlin over why German police were training Belarusian security forces as late as last year is increasingly turning into a spat between Germany and the EU.
Brussels imposed tough sanctions on Belarus in January 2011 to punish Minsk’s crackdown on opposition parties. But a German police training program that began in 2008 continued for as long as eight months after the sanctions began.
Marcin Grajewski, a spokesman for European Parliament President Martin Schulz, said that it is "very surprising news."
"It should be explained, it should be clarified. We need to establish facts and those in charge should state what really happened, " Grajewski said.
The training, which included introducing Belarusian police to German riot control techniques, has particularly stirred controversy because it went on despite the Minsk police brutally charging protesters the day after President Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s December 2010 reelection. Belarusian police used batons and stun grenades, injuring dozens of people and arresting some 600.
The Belarusian Interior Ministry says the training involved actions such as combating auto theft and illegal immigration and carrying out crowd control at sporting events and did not include "any practical lessons" in how to suppress demonstrations.
German Interior Ministry spokesman Philipp Spauschus told RFE/RL that the training program is something the EU itself approved some five years ago when relations between Europe and Belarus were improving.
"The so-called ’outer borders’ of the EU had migrated eastward [in 2007-2008] and that’s when a plan was made to cooperate with Belarus [in the fields of border police and illegal immigration], " Spauschus said.
"It was ultimately a joint decision by European [Union] security officials but also a large part from the German government, the Federal Criminal Police Office, and federal police to provide educational training [for Belarusian police officials] in Germany and also in Belarus."
Spauschus also said other European countries were involved in the training. He could not, however, recall which countries they were or what areas of training they conducted.
It also remains unclear just who in Brussels approved the training program.
The European Council -- the collective presidency of the EU -- said it did not know about it. And the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, said it will have to do some research before giving a definitive answer.
Commission officials tell RFE/RL that they are going through their documents to see if the police training program was among the measures it approved "at the working group level" when the EU’s relationship with Belarus seemed to be improving back in 2008.
The scandal over the program began earlier this month as a political controversy in Germany when Matthias Seegar, chief of the federal police, denied allegations that the police had questionable ties with Minsk.
Seegar said German police contacts with Minsk had ended two years ago and that the only contacts had been with the Belarusian border patrol.
But then, in response to an inquiry into police operations abroad by the opposition Left Party, the government revealed that the training of Belarusian police officers was still going on as late as last year.
Seegar was subsequently relieved of his duties for reasons that remain unclear.
In recent days, German media have sought to piece together a full picture of the training program.
The daily "Tagesspeigel" has reported that at least 100 members of the Belarusian security forces participated in training sessions in Germany between 2008 and 2011. It says the German Interior Ministry confirmed that number.
Water Cannon And Tear Gas
The paper also reported German agents travelled to Belarus to train about 400 border police, forensic scientists, and other security officers. And in November 2010, Belarusian security forces accompanied German police as observers at an anti-nuclear-waste demonstration where water cannon, batons, and tear gas were used.
Then, just three weeks after European-Belarus relations plummeted with Lukashenka’s crackdown on the opposition and tough new EU sanctions, new training was conducted in Belarus from February 21-25. According to German state broadcaster Deutsche Welle, the last seminar under the program took place in October 2011.
Germany’s Interior Ministry issued a statement late last week saying that any activities conducted in 2011 would have been "remainders of earlier assignments that had to be completed."
German police say the program was intended to promote awareness among the Belarusian security forces about democracy and the rule of law.
And, as Interior Ministry spokesman Spauschus explains, they reject some newspaper reports that the German government provided not only training and equipment but also crowd-control equipment including batons.
"It is true that computer and camera equipment in a so-called ’equipment-aid program’ for the [Belarusian Interior Ministry] forces were delivered to Belarus. This took place between 2008 and 2010 and focused on laptops, video projectors, computers, printers, and fax machines, " Spauschus said.
"But the charges that [Germany] also delivered police batons or other such equipment [to Belarus] have been made. We have reviewed [our records] and have found no instances of batons or other similar equipment ever being delivered by the German national government to Belarus."
RFE/RL correspondents Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels and Pete Baumgartner in Prague contributed to this report. RFE/RL’s Belarus Service also contributed.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty