Belarus regime uses video confessions as a tool to silence dissent

The videos are formulaic: Raman Pratasevich and his girlfriend, Sofia Sapega, each sit alone in front of a camera in a police station and deliver their “confessions” as though a loaded gun is pointed at their heads.

“I’m also the editor of the Telegram channel Black Book of Belarus that publishes personal information about employees of the interior ministry,” said Sapega, quickly repeating a memorised statement in a video released late on Tuesday that could lead to years in jail.

The words are barely to be believed. Pratasevich has bruises over his eye and acquaintances said they believed his nose was broken as well. Sapega was not known to be involved in the protest movement, much less to run one of the most effective operations to “name and shame” riot police.

But the use of videotaped confessions has become a regular tool of political pressure in Belarus, forcing opposition figures to embarrass themselves in recordings that are then released to the public and used in criminal investigations.

“It’s become widespread now,” said Valiancin Stefanovich of Viasna human rights centre. “And in a bunch of cases they don’t even hide that people were tortured before giving the confessions.”

Taped confessions and apologies have also been used in Russia and were widespread in Chechnya to punish dissent against the dictatorial Ramzan Kadyrov.

In Belarus, the videos are used to immediately justify arrests and detentions and attempt to turn public opinion against the protest movement. Stefanovich gave the example of a heavily beaten leftist blogger who appeared in a video after his detention saying “our goal is overthrowing the government, fighting the system”.

One of the most famous examples occurred last year when the opposition leader, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, disappeared for hours into a government building and then appeared in a video warning her followers not to join mass protests or “put their lives at risk”.

Hours later, she was in exile in Lithuania, implying she had faced an ultimatum: “God forbid you ever have to face the choice that I faced.” Threats against her included the risk that her children would be taken away or her husband, who is in prison, would be killed.

The videos are just one example of the political playbook used by Alexander Lukashenko’s government to control potential political resistance, including threats against children and spouses, or the release of kompromat about their lives.

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Who is Alexander Lukashenko?

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Born in August 1954 in Kopys, Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has served as president of Belarus since the establishment of the office in July 1994. On his initial election, Lukashenko set about establishing an effective dictatorship, sustained by shamelessly rigged elections. 

Over the years, Lukashenko has offered his people a sort of Soviet-lite system that prizes tractor production and grain harvests over innovation and political freedoms, and the key part of his political offer has always been political and economic stability. 

Lukashenko tried to push this line again into the run-up to 2020’s disputed presidential vote, painting Belarus as an island of stability in a world buffeted by economic crises, political unrest and coronavirus. But the scale of discontent has shown that for many Belarusians, this messaging will no longer work.

The 2020 elections have been described as the deepest crisis he has faced in his career, and in order to secure his supposedly crushing victory, Lukashenko required what appears to be some of the most brazen vote-rigging in recent European history. He appears to have subsequently forced his main opponent, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, into exile.

After the election, in a congratulatory message, Vladimir Putin urged Lukashenko to consider further economic and legal integration with Russia, which the opposition has warned would undermine Belarus’s sovereignty.

Photograph: Sergei Grits/AP

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The videos are later filtered down to pro-government Telegram channels, to state television, and even used in convictions in Belarusian courts, where there “is no presumption of innocence”, said Stefanovich.

“There’s a lot of these videos,” said Stefanovich. “They started filming these during the demonstrations to show that the protests were being instigated from abroad. And they started filming people saying they’d been paid money to demonstrate.”

Similar videos have been used to discredit opposition figures in Russia. In one, a former Alexei Navalny supporter denounced the opposition leader, later telling RFE/RL that he had done so under duress in police custody.

Nonetheless it is Kadyrov who has done the most to popularise public shamings, forcing his critics in Chechnya and far afield to apologise on camera for the simple crime of criticising his rule.

During a live stream on Instagram this month, the Kremlin-backed leader responded to someone calling him a “devil” by saying: “I’ll find you and we’ll see which of us is a devil.” Several days later, a person identified as the 15-year-old’s father was filmed apologising on Chechen state television.

In other cases, Chechen authorities have been accused of kidnapping dissidents and forcing them to humiliate themselves on camera, in one case forcing a teenager accused of managing an opposition Telegram channel to sodomise himself with a bottle. Other embarrassing videos are kept to be used as blackmail against political opponents.



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