He is back inside, Denis Urbanovich. Nobody knows why he has been taken. Or where. But the activist – leader of a Belarusian pro-democracy youth movement called Malady Front – was arrested again a week ago. 

Earlier this month, Mr Urbanovich – while out – gave an eyewitness account of conditions for his country’s growing population of political prisoners.

Filmed with the help of America’s RFE/RL, he described how guards at Okrestina, the now increasingly notorious jail in Belarus’s capital, Minsk, threw buckets of concentrated bleach over inmates.

“You can’t breathe,” he said. “Your throat closes.” Cells are made for two. They hold 10. There are no mattresses, said Urbanovich, who added he was locked up after a three-minute hearing. Prisoners sit or lie on the floor.

His story was corroborated by another opposition figure, Nikolai Kozlov, who  spent 15 days inside the same jail. It was, he said, “torture”. 

Mr Kozlov, leader of a small pro-democracy party, described a man, an intellectual, stripped bare and forced to go into a cell of 20 people. But it was the bleach he found horrifying, it was far too concentrated, he said. “Within 30 seconds people’s eyes started to water, and noses. People started to cough,” Mr Kozlov said. “There is a vomit reflex. Somebody started to turn red and blue.”

Back in April, Belarusian authorities denied torturing prisoners with bleach. They said the chemical – which in the former Soviet Union is sometimes still sold as a powder and can therefore be added to water at dangerous concentrations – was used properly and designed to protect inmates from coronavirus.

The same ubiquitous powder, called khlorka in Russian, was used to mistreat prisoners under Communism.

Stories of abuse –  beatings, rapes and sleep deprivation torture – continue to come out of the country. 

Yesterday, The Times reported testimony from a doctor, Olga Pavlova, who was beaten in prison and denied medical treatment. 

She shared a cell designed for four with 40 women. The toilet was a hole in the floor.
She said guards were sadists, especially one woman. “She kicked the men, mostly in the groin,” Ms Pavlova said “She also kicked women when they were lined up against the wall to make them stretch their legs as widely as possible. The pain was unbearable.

Dictatorship

A human rights group called Viasna, or Spring, has described the repressions in Belarus as the worst in Europe for 40 years. But there is little free media in the country to report the atrocities or even keep count of prisoners (a free website, Tut.by, was shut down this week). 

Thousands are thought to have been through Okrestina and other jails. Viasna says the country currently has more than 400 political prisoners.

Mr Urbanovich’s latest disappearance was reported by his group last Saturday. But the detention of individual democrats in Belarus, the country long dubbed Europe’s last dictatorship, is so routine it doesn’t usually make international news.

Until, that is, the arrests get too crazy, too brazen to ignore. The day after Malady Front announced Mr Urbanovich had been seized, a regular Ryanair flight from Athens to Vilnius flying over Belarus was forced to the ground by a fake bomb threat – and a MiG-29 fighter.

On board was Raman Pratasevich, a 26-year-old Belarussian blogger and opposition activist, and his Russian girlfriend Sofia Sapega, 23. Both were detained and both were later filmed making clearly scripted statements. Ms Sapega is thought to have spent at least some time in Okrestina.

This was a “gasp” moment. Something so shocking it sparked a chorus of demands for action against Belarus’s hardman president, Alexander  Lukashenka, the 66-year-old former collective farm manager who has run this corner of Europe since 1994. 

His regime has broken an unwritten rule.  Authoritarian rulers can, with relative impunity, abuse their citizens inside their borders. But when they start to impose force elsewhere, such as on an international flight, other states get nervous.

Yesterday, the United States signalled it would impose sanctions against a clutch of state-owned enterprises. The European Union has already effectively barred Belarusian planes from its airspace. So has the UK and Ukraine. 

Thanks to flight-tracking websites, this ban was, unusually, graphically visible. Images grabbed from such sites shared on social media showed the flat square of Belarus with an empty sky while the rest of the continent was covered in little digital planes.

Hijacking

A journalist specialising in the  former USSR spotted one Belarusian aircraft, a Belavia holiday flight to Barcelona, looping back and forth as it waited in vain for permission to cross in to Poland and the EU. 

“The poor passengers of this Belavia plane are a metaphor for the whole country,” tweeted Peter Leonard with a picture of the jet’s spiralling flightpath. “Trapped and endangered by the mad, irresponsible behaviour of their leader and forced to go in circles.”

You can only fly east from Belarus – to Russia, whose own authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, is a rare ally of Mr Lukashenka. 

The Belarus leader made such a trip on Friday, meeting his Kremlin counterpart in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He took with him, official communiques said, a package of documents on the arrest of Mr Pratasevich.

It is not clear if Russia helped the Belarusians carry out what most in the West see as a hijacking. But Kremlin media has certainly provided PR support. 

The editor-in-chief of RT, the main international mouthpiece of Mr Putin, praised Mr Lukashenka’s actions. It was claimed one of her correspondents in Minsk had unleashed a foul-mouthed attack on Mr Pratasevich, ending in calls for his death.

This is the same outlet where Alex Salmond, the former first minister of Scotland, and Scottish ultra-unionist George Galloway, have regular shows.

In the brief public part of their three-hour meeting the Belarussian leader told Mr Putin it was clear what “our Western friends want – what is there here to discuss?” 

He means the West is trying to overthrow his government – and that of Mr Putin. 

The leaders of the two countries – which share air defences and border controls as part of a loose union arrangement – routinely portray their domestic critics as stooges of the EU or the US.

They live in fear of what they call “colour revolutions”, popular uprisings against repressive or corrupt regimes in their region, including their one-time Ukrainian ally, Viktor Yanukovych, overthrown in 2014.

HeraldScotland:

For Mr Lukashenka and Mr Putin, these movements are the product of Western interference, of European or American secret services. Or at least that is what they claim.

Mr Lukashenka is widely thought to have lost presidential elections in the summer of 2020. Official results suggest he got four out of five votes. 

Revolution 

The suspected real winner, human rights campaigner Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, is in exile in Lithuania. Her husband, Siarhei Tsikhanouski, marked a year behind bars yesterday. 

The detentions of Mr Pratasevich, Ms  Sapega, Mr Urbanovich, Ms Pavlova, Mr Kozlov and hundreds of others are all linked to protests against Belarus’s stolen 2020 presidential election.

As Mr Lukashenka and Mr Putin met in Sochi, their supporters were once again smearing these democrats as agents of regime change. 

Belarus, they say, is holding off another “colour revolution”. The colours in this case are the red and white of the old Belarus flag. Those in prison, reports suggest, include somebody locked up for wearing red and white socks.

“The meeting is very important for the West to get a clear message that they might have been able to buy off Ukraine, but not all slavic peoples will sell themselves for three kopecks,” Viktor Vodolatsky, a deputy for Mr Putin’s United Russia party, told Moscow’s Izvestia paper after the Sochi event.

“Western secret services are today trying to ignite flashpoints for civil war around Russia. This presidential summit is designed to show everybody that Russia will not abandon the Belarusian people.”

Is the West – whatever that is – really trying to bring down Mr Lukashenka? Well, certainly not very hard. Until this week sanctions were modest.

And the Belarusian regime has been propped up by £880 million worth of bonds it sold on the UK market last year. 

Democracy campaigners last week called for investors to pull the plug on the dictator. The value of the bonds –essentially IOUs from Mr Lukashenka – dipped after the Ryanair incident. But they are paying high yields, so  Europe’s last dictatorship is bankrolled in the City.

In fact, Mr Lukashenka’s relationship with Western neighbours has not always been terrible. It has had moments of rapprochement. 

World leaders will put up with a lot – even the bleaching of political prisoners – for a bit of stability. 

The Ryanair incident, however, was a Rubicon crossed. “I think the chance of any normalisation with Mr Lukashenka in charge is gone,” one Western diplomat told Saturday’s Financial Times. 

“The main message of this exercise was ‘he can catch you anywhere’. The old KGB message.”

The secret police in Belarus are still called the KGB. The main Minsk thoroughfare out towards Okrestina jail is Prospekt Dzerzhinskogo, named after the Polish aristocrat revolutionary who founded Communist Russia’s first spy service, the Cheka. 

But the US, EU and UK will not be happy with outfits like Mr Lukashenka’s KGB operating inside their borders.

A report earlier this year by Freedom House identified more than 600 cases since 2014 of what it called “transnational repression”, when authoritarian regimes crossed their borders to pursue their critics.

The dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in his own country’s embassy in Istanbul in 2018. There was the attempted assassination with an illegal chemical weapon of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in England the same year. 

It is more common for authoritarian states, including those less brutal than Belarus, to use international bodies like Interpol – or existing extradition arrangements – to try to bring critics home for punishment. 

Nate Schenkkan was one of the authors of the Freedom House report. He thinks a tough line is needed to stop transnational repression. 

“The only way to put a stop to this ugly trend,” he wrote in Foreign Affairs magazine this week, “is to make that gamble far riskier by hitting back hard against perpetrators – including Lukashenka – and demonstrating to autocrats that they will pay a steep price for carrying out such crimes.”
There is only so much even Mr  Lukashenka can bleach.