In the cold, outside the human rights defence body the Council of Europe, this handful of exiles from Belarus shout: “Stop Lukashenko!” (president of what critics call Europe’s last dictatorship).
They are in Strasbourg to try to shake up European decision-makers; they say sanctions have failed to reduce repression in their country.
Demonstrating in Belarus led Pavel Khivuk to prison there twice, and then political refugee asylum in France.
Khivuk said: “There has been no change for 17 years. People today are against the regime. But they are against it at home, because in the street they are obliged to say things aren’t going too badly. If they do say anything, they’ll be out of a job. That means no one says anything. You talk about it in your kitchen, in your house, how things are going badly.”
Although Russia and a few other member states voted against, the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly has approved a resolution calling for the government of Alexander Lukashenko to release political prisoners and end the use of the death penalty and the crackdown against political dissidence, which last surged with a deeply-flawed poll just over a year ago.
Author of the resolution Andres Herkel told euronews: “There are less freedoms, less freedoms comparing with the situation before the presidential elections in December 2010. The are so many political prisoners, human rights defenders are persecuted, death penalty used against the people even if the investigation is far from being convincing. So, my main conclusion is that the situation is deteriorating.”
The resolution also deplores the legal process in Belarus, notably the conviction of two young men held over a terrorist bombing in the Minsk subway last year, which killed 15 people and injured some 200.
The mother of one of them was in Strasbourg this week, to implore the Council’s help. Her son says he is innocent, and she says the entire trial was a sham.
They were sentenced for execution, though no date or place was given. Delivered by a pistol shot in Belarus, relatives are told about the act only after this has been carried out.
Lyubov Kovalyova said: “The fact I can’t find justice in our country made me come here to seek assistance. In Belarus, it is hardly possible to abolish the death penalty at once; a referendum is needed. I would like at least to implement a moratorium, if possible.”
The Council’s assembly has asked Minsk not to apply the sentence against Dmitry Konovalov and Vladislav Kovalyov.