Scottish politicians have become ‘godparents’ to Belarusian political prisoners through a scheme organised by Libereco, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to the protection of human rights in Belarus and Ukraine. 

Lord George Foulkes, Christine Jardine MP, Jamie Stone MP, Alexander Burnett MSP, Liam McCarthur MSP and William Rennie MSP have all been representing jailed dissidents in Belarus, writing letters to them in prison and taking up their cases with the UK government.

In August 2020, over a million Belarusians took to the streets to protest the results of what is widely considered a rigged election. What has followed over the last three years has been a brutal attempt on the part of President Alexander Lukashenko, known as ‘Europe’s last dictator’, to silence dissent through torture and imprisonment. 

Ken McBain, UK representative for Libereco, describes the link that has been created with the Scottish politicians: “The help and effort that they have given has been brilliant. I have to recognise that compared to Germany and Poland and Eastern European countries, where Belarus is very close and there's a much more intimate understanding of the situation, Scotland is quite far away, there's not a lot of natural cultural links. So I do hugely appreciate the support that these guys are giving because of their care for human rights, even though there's not a lot of natural links between the two countries.”

The Herald: President Alexander Lukashenko is known as 'Europe's last dictator'. President Alexander Lukashenko is known as 'Europe's last dictator'. (Image: Photo by - / AFP via Getty Images)

Labour peer Lord George Foulkes is one of those involved and has acted as godfather to Stepan Latypau since January 2021. Latypau worked as an arborist and held ‘mildly critical views’ of the regime. He was detained by riot police outside his apartment on 15 September 2020; four days later state-controlled TV channels aired a story alleging he was suspected of organising an illegal supply of dangerous chemicals and intended to use the poisonous substances against police officers.

Since taking over as his godfather, Lord Foulkes has sent letters to Latypau in prison, as well as raising the issues in Parliament and with letters to the UK Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister. He has also gotten to know and work closely with Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who ran for president in 2020 and subsequently alleged the results were fraudulent. Tsikhanouskaya is currently in exile in Lithuania, while at home in Belarus a trial has started charging her of high treason and conspiracy to seize power. 

Over the course of Lord Foulkes’ two and a half years of being godparent, Latypau’s case became one of the most prominent of all the political prisoners when he committed an apparent suicide attempt during his court hearing, stabbing himself in the throat with a pen and having to be carried out of the courtroom unconscious. He claimed he had been pressured to plead guilty or face his family and friends being arrested. 

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Lord Foulkes recalls the incident: “It was terrible. I suspect that a lot of them do it, because it's an awful situation there with no immediate prospects of political change that would let you out. And I think people just despair and maybe think that suicide is an easy way out. That's why we try to keep telling them that we're doing everything we can.”

The outbreak of war in Ukraine last year has led to concern that other international crises are being given less attention than they otherwise would have had. But both Ken and Lord Foulkes are optimistic about the fact there remains significant interest in the plight of Belarus - perhaps given its proximity both geographically and politically to Russia. 

The Herald: Alena Malinouskaya, of whom Willie Rennie is godparent, in the dock during her trial. Alena Malinouskaya, of whom Willie Rennie is godparent, in the dock during her trial. (Image: Credit: Libereco)

I asked Lord Foulkes what sparked his interest in this particular campaign, given all the international issues seeking the involvement of high profile politicians today: “It’s a combination of things. One is the collusion between Belarus and Russia in the invasion, and the way in which Lukashenko has been Putin's right hand man, and also because I'm a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. The way in which Belarus has been party to the invasion is awful. So it’s good to do something on that.”

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Libereco’s campaign has named almost 400 politicians from across Europe as godparents of people detained in Belarus. The purpose of the exercise is twofold - both personal and political. “One, it’s a way of supporting and encouraging the Belarusians. Belarus knows it is not a key critical European country. So for the families of prisoners to know that a parliamentarian in another European country is aware of what’s going on in their country, and is aware of the abuses and is willing to take the time to talk to an individual family and write letters to the prison - at a personal level, I think that can help. But also, as the parliamentarians understand in a personal way what's going on in Belarus, I think it motivates them more to lobby the government, write to Foreign Secretary, speak in Parliament and raise the issue,” explains Ken. 

One of the MSPs involved with Libereco, Liam MacArthur of the Liberal Democrats, has had a success story - the prisoner to whom he was godfather, Alexander Evolin, was released from prison in Belarus earlier this year. Following the release, MacArthur MSP was finally able to talk to the man he had been supporting. Evolin had been a semi-professional football player, so the three MSPs involved in the scheme signed a football top marking his release.

Meanwhile, Alexander Burnett MSP of the Scottish Conservatives has been acting as the godfather of Maksim Imkhavik, who was sentenced to three years in prison while still a minor for “participating in riots”. Liberal Democrat MSP Willie Rennie was assigned to Alena Malinouskaya, a mother sentenced for displaying symbols banned by the Lukashenko regime; namely the Pahonya, a coat of arms which signals reference to a pre-Soviet, independent Belarus. 

The Herald: Political prisoner Stepan Latypau has sent his drawings to Lord Foulkes. Political prisoner Stepan Latypau has sent his drawings to Lord Foulkes. (Image: Credit: Lord George Foulkes)

Part of Lord Foulkes’ communication with Latypau has been from drawings he has created from his cell, which the Scottish peer received from his aunt. The drawings range a building behind a high brick wall, to supposedly Latypau himself looking out the window at the Belarus outside the prison while depicted as a dragon. The last image has a happier tone, showing the prisoner depicted as a smiling hedgehog watering a rose, which could be a nod to hopes to get back to his previous career in nature as an arborist. 

“They show the imagination he has. He's obviously a bright young man. I'm looking forward to the day of actually meeting him. I still hold out hope that things will change - you never know. It's like the way the Berlin Wall came down suddenly, the way that things can happen all of a sudden. And all it needs is for the Ukrainians, who are fighting on behalf of all of us, to do something to make some real success and the Russians to be in trouble, for Lukashenko then to be challenged. You don't want to be too optimistic and raise hopes too high, but I think it'll happen,” says Lord Foulkes. 

To mark the third anniversary of the rigged election, Libereco is running a number of events in Scotland. There will be a display featuring the names of over a thousand Belarusian political prisoners in the courtyard of Summer Hall in Edinburgh on yellow labels - since the Belarusian regime labels prisoners classed as ‘extremists’ wearing yellow labels - as well as drawings and poetry by prisoners. Prominent Scottish artist Richard Demarco CBE will also be supporting the organisation at an event on 7 August.