'Have You Seen This Person?': Activists In Belarus Say Dozens Unaccounted For Amid Political Crisis
By Ihar Karney, Michael Scollon August 20, 2020
MINSK -- Kanstantsin Shyshmakou, the head of the local military history museum in the medieval southwestern Belarusian city of Vaukavysk, was one of two members of his local election commission to refuse to sign off on the results of Belarus's contentious August 9 vote.
It didn't make much difference: Shyshmakou called his wife and said that others had signed for the recalcitrant ones.
Afterward, Shyshmakou went on a short vacation -- one that coincided with growing national demonstrations triggered after long-serving strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka was handed a landslide victory.
But on August 15, Shyshmakou was back at the museum for what would be his last day at work. At 5 p.m., he called his wife, telling her, "I cannot work here anymore; I am going home."
He never made it. His phone was unreachable, and his family reported him missing.
It was the last time anyone would see him alive.
Shyshmakou had joined scores of Belarusian citizens who activists say have disappeared since the beginning of the protests and the brutal police crackdown against them.
According to human rights organizations, the fates of many remain unknown more than a week after the election, feeding fears that the authorities are deliberately covering up severe injuries, or worse, carried out by the security forces.
Online search services have been organized to help families locate their missing loved ones. One of them, launched by the popular media outlet Tut.by with the title Have You Seen This Person?, enables people to post images and information about the missing and the circumstances of their disappearance so readers can contribute tips or join in the search. The site estimates that about 80 people are currently missing.
People can also turn to the Angel Search and Rescue Squad, a nonprofit set up in 2012 that describes itself as the first volunteer movement in Belarus. Its Facebook page features a hotline for readers to call with information about missing individuals.
One post directs readers to Tut.by's list of registered detainees. Some entries highlight people found alive, while others tell of those reportedly found dead.
Abducted, Held In Secret
Minsk resident Katsyaryna Savitskaya spoke with RFE/RL's Belarus Service about her experiences trying to determine the whereabouts of her husband, Yury Savitski, a tire-shop manager and supporter of jailed would-be opposition presidential challenger Viktar Babaryka.
On election night, Savitski participated in demonstrations against alleged vote fraud. The next night, on August 10, his wife says he was abducted by six people in civilian clothing, pushed into a minibus, and driven away.
Savitskaya and the couple's 4-year-old child were left at home with no idea what had happened to him for the next four days.
With no mention of her husband's name on any of the official lists of those detained -- she says she was told by authorities in Minsk there "are too many prisoners; we don't have time to register them" -- she took things into her own hands.
Armed with a photograph of her husband and a tip that he was being held at the Zhodzina prison outside the capital, she set out looking for someone who might have seen him.
On the morning of August 13, she joined the crowd of people outside the prison awaiting the release of prisoners, showing those who left the facility the photograph and asking if they had seen Yury. As night fell, she got a hit. A man took a close look at the photo and confirmed that Savitskaya's husband was indeed inside awaiting criminal charges for "organizing mass riots."
"That's how I learned that my husband was a suspect in a criminal case...[and was] facing a prison term of five to 15 years," she told RFE/RL. "From random people, can you imagine? The initial interrogation was conducted without the right to a lawyer or to contact relatives. How many more days it would have taken me to wait idly for official information, we can only guess."
"Yes, he was a member of the initiative group that was collecting signatures for Viktar Babaryka," Savitskaya said. "Yes, he discussed the election campaign with friends and made reposts on social networks. Yes, he attended a rally against election rigging on August 9. But that doesn't make him a criminal!"
Savitskaya says that she finds herself asking questions she cannot answer: "Why is holding an alternative civic position judged even more severely than murder? Why are people abducted from the streets, offices, apartments without [police] showing their IDs or explaining the reasons for the detentions? Why are people kept more than 72 hours without relatives being notified? How is this possible in a country that calls itself 'democratic'?"
Ministry: Information 'Not Fully Accurate'
The Interior Ministry, for its part, has cast doubt on the claims that scores of people have disappeared.
Ministry spokeswoman Volha Chamadanova wrote on Telegram that such information often turns out to be inaccurate, according to the BelTA state news agency on August 18.
"The criminal police of the Interior Ministry have checked the information regarding more than 70 participants of the unsanctioned rallies (held in the country from August 9 to 13) that has been published on the website Tut.by and in various social networks," she wrote. "This information is not fully accurate: many of these citizens have been found at home, while the information about them is not removed in a timely fashion from these Internet resources."
She did not give any specific information about the people who had purportedly been found at home.
Chamadanova claimed that the information relating to only one woman listed as missing by Tut.by at that time was accurate.
She suggested on behalf of the Interior Ministry that citizens verify information and be wary of material posted online. "If you still cannot locate your family members, please apply to the Interior Ministry authorities first, rather than Internet resources," Chamadanova wrote.
In the case of missing museum director Kanstantsin Shyshmakou, however, it was the Internet that was finally able to provide an answer for his family, friends, and colleagues who staged rallies demanding to know what happened to him.
On August 18 post, the Angel group posted on Facebook that the 29-year-old museum director had been found dead by members of its team without providing details of the circumstances.
Written by Michael Scollon based on reporting by Ihar Karney of RFE/RL's Belarus Service. RFE/RL's Belarus Service also contributed to this report
Copyright (c) 2020. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.
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