'I Sewed My Mouth Shut for Democracy, But the Acid Attack Was the Final Straw'

In his first English-language interview since fleeing Belarus, dissident Kastus Zhukouski tells VICE World News about the cost of opposing Europe's last dictator.
January 15, 2021, 4:14pm
Belarus: 'I Sewed My Mouth Shut for Democracy, But the Acid Attack Was the Final Straw'
Opposition supporters protest the results of the election, in Minsk in September. Photo: -/TUT.BY/AFP via Getty Images)

Kastus Zhukouski has spent his life putting his body on the line for democracy. He’s endured severe beatings, poisoning, being throttled, death threats, house raids, and more than 40 arrests.

Some of the damage has even been self-inflicted in the name of political activism: in 2016 he sewed his mouth shut to draw attention to censorship and repression by the government in Belarus; the last in Europe to use capital punishment. His protest gained international attention, and Zhukouski is one of the most high profile Belarusian dissidents on the world stage. 

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But then one violent incident in 2019 threw him over the edge. “I was in the car with my friend, our engine started overheating so we pulled over, but so did a Jeep with four large men,” he said. “They knocked me to the ground, sprayed burning liquid in my face and tore up my passport,” said Zhukouski, a journalist, lawyer and activist.

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It was, in his words, “the last drop.” Fearing that one day his daughter may not return from school, Zhukouski, 50, applied for political asylum. “My family and I lived in a state of constant terror and knew we could be detained at any point in time. We were scared of being beaten and of our daughter, and property being taken away from us. We were scared of losing our lives.” In 2018 he was granted asylum in the West.

The series of interviews he conducted with VICE World News over Zoom are the first time he has spoken about his experiences in Belarus to an English-language publication since he fled the country. Despite fearing retaliation by authorities there, he said he was determined to tell his story, to raise awareness about the situation in Belarus. The country has witnessed ongoing mass protests – and a brutal crackdown – since a bitterly disputed presidential election last August. Longtime leader Aleksandr Lukashenko claimed victory but opposition leaders – backed by the EU and US – accused him of massive fraud to illegally cling on to power. Most opposition leaders are now in exile.

Even after fleeing the country, the Belarusian government under Lukashenko – dubbed the last dictator in Europe – has continued to use intimidation tactics on Zhukouski and his family. On the night before August’s election, his house was raided and the windows were broken even though Zhukouski no longer lived there. “The family that was renting that house had a small child, they were scared for their life,” Zhukouski said. VICE World News has seen photos of the aftermath of the raid on the house, and copies of written threats sent to Zhukouski. The attacks against him in Belarus have been documented by independent news media in the country at the time the incidents took place, while our interviews with other Belarusian exiles fleshed out the extent of the government’s campaign against him.

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Opposition supporters protest against the presidential elections results at Independence Square in Minsk last August. Photo: Sergei GAPON / AFP

“I was trialled and received many fines. My family and friends were constantly threatened even a year and a half after I had left. They are still looking for me.”

As a journalist working for independent TV channel Belsat.eu, Zhukouuski frequently exposed the shortcomings of the regime in Belarus, such as investigating the governments' efforts to hide cases of the African Swine Flu virus between 2013-2018 or the increasing air pollution in his home region of Gomel. “There is no such thing as a private sector in our country, everything is government led so the state has immense power to hide what happens within each sector,” he said.

Zhukouski also received fines equating to thousands of pounds between 2011-2019 for his work published on Belsat.eu. “The Interior Ministry drew up four administrative protocols per week based on completely false charges entirely paralysing my ability to perform my professional duties,” he said. “The official charge was ‘the illegal production of mass media products’, which was complete nonsense.”

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A woman kneels in front of riot police in Minsk during a protest last September. Photo: - / TUT.BY / AFP

Besides his work for Belsat TV, he also published via his own blog, where he covered topics such as the government’s mismanagement of immigration. But in 2014, the Ministry of Interior carried out several DDOS attacks and blocked content, eventually wearing down his efforts to publish further. 

It was then, in order to draw attention to the censorship and repression that he and other journalists experienced on a daily basis, that Zkukovski sewed his mouth shut: “I did it so people could hear me,” he said. Zhukouski wanted to draw global attention to how Lukashensko keeps suppressing freedom of speech and silencing journalists: “I wanted people to see that the regime was strangling me, other journalists and fellow citizens,” said Zhukouski, who believes this symbolic move had an impact. “I was left alone for about a year, I think the authorities got scared of international human rights NGOs, as I became globally visible.”

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The repression Zhukouski faced is not unique. Last year, 477 Belarusian journalists were detained in connection to their journalistic work, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists. In 2018, Belarusian authorities also opened criminal inquiries against independent publications, notably TUT.BY, which is read by 42.9 per cent of Belarusians. The police also searched their editorial offices, confiscating computers and data storage devices, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Often it went far past intimidation, to full blown, brutal physical attacks. Zhukouski described one such incident when he was filming a news report for Belsat TV. Four armed men, including the chief of police, came into the room and attacked him and his colleagues. “The officers pushed me to the ground and one of them put his knee on my head pressing me to the ground,” he said. “Then they took our camera and threw it inside the police van. We never saw it again.”

Zhukouski and his colleagues were taken to the hospital for treatment. They received a detailed record of their injuries, but despite presenting the wealth of evidence before the public prosecutor, no charges were ever levelled. “I can still feel my arm aching from this day, but incidents like this happen all the time,” said Zhukouski.

Zhukouski got used to the constant harassment. “I was followed wherever I went, beaten, put in prison so many times I cannot even recall the individual incidents”, he said. “They don’t need a reason, they just need targets.” And, with the upcoming election and the regime tightening its claws, he worried that he may face much harsher penalties. “Belarus is Europe’s last country still issuing death sentences, and you never know how far they will go.”

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In 2016, Zhukouski filed an appeal to the United Nations claiming that the state of Belarus had violated his rights and freedom of speech: “The State party is obligated, to reimburse any expenses incurred by the author and to provide him with adequate compensation,” the UN Human Rights Committee said. Even though Zhukouski received an official apology, he did not receive any compensation from the state.

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Aleksandr Lukashenko, pictured last month. Photo: Nikolai Petrov\TASS via Getty Images

According to the human rights NGO Viasna, 30,000 people have been detained since the election for speaking up against Belarus’s oppressive regime, which Lukashenko, a former political officer in the Red Army, has led as president since 1994. 

In the August 2020 election, Lukashenko claimed 80.1 per cent of votes and declared victory against the main opposition candidate Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Lukashenko’s supposed victory was rejected by the EU, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, as well as many countries around the world. Despite this, he was sworn into office in September, commencing his sixth term.

Following the election, over 100,000 people took to the streets of the capital Minsk and other major cities showing support for Tikhanovskaya, who was forced to flee the country shortly afterwards.

It was a massive show of opposition to Lukashenko’s rule, but it was not the first time Belarusians had protested against rigged voting results. In 2010, Lukashenko’s disputed victory provoked mass protests and police violence. Alan Flowers, Oxford professor and founder of European Youth Parliament in Belarus remembers spending election night with the sister of presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who ran against Lukashenko: “We were convinced there would be a breakthrough, but Lukashenko ended up claiming over 79 percent of the votes, which got thousands people into the streets. The special purpose police detachment – known as OMON – were brutal beating up those who disobeyed. 

“The use of social media was not as advanced as it is today, people did not document what was happening the way they do now, so the authorities managed to successfully suppress the uprising without too much of a backlash,” said Flowers. Sannikov was imprisoned for 16 months following the election, and like Zhukouski, now lives as a political refugee in the West.

Besides social media and the ever-so-familiar intimidation of the opposition, Flowers believes that Lukashenko’s COVID response played a key role in the 2020 protests “Belarusians have internet and friends abroad, they know what is happening in the rest of the world, Lukashenko can no longer hide his mismanagement of the crisis.”

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“As the pandemic progressed, many Belarusians started worrying about their economic security, which wasn’t stable to begin with,” Flowers said, “everybody knew it was going to be another stolen election, that Lukashenko would completely falsify his votes as he had always done, but the Belarusian people had had enough.”

The protests that followed the election on the 9th of August were fuelled by mass-discontent. “People reached the magic number over 100,000, and even though Lukashenko started arresting key members of the civil society like journalists and lawyers, the opposition still had strength in numbers,” said Flowers.

Despite the demonstrations and EU imposed sanctions on individuals tied to the regime, Lukashenko still clings to power propped up by an increasingly unwilling Russia. “The UK is the third biggest trading partner with Belarus after Russia and Ukraine,” said Flowers. “As long as we keep pouring money into Lukashenko’s economy, he will stay in power. The minute he can no longer pay his security force, he will be gone.”

“This is not a East-West tug of war as is often presented, but a struggle of the Belarussian people that nobody else can win,” said Flowers, explaining that international help stands on three pillars: solidarity, humanitarian aid and political pressure.

“It may seem trivial standing on the street and waving a Belarusian flag, but the symbolism of these actions boosts morale for those who have been out in the streets for nearly six months,” said Flowers. “Humanitarian help is needed as many are losing work due to the country’s declining economy.”

As for political support, he believes it is up to not only journalists, politicians but also citizens across the world to go to their politicians and push for countries to cut economic ties with Belarus “as long as we keep pumping oil money into the country, nothing will ever change.”

Zhukouski meanwhile never stops thinking about the day he can safely return home.

“Everyday, I think about returning and stopping Lukashenko's criminals from torturing the Belarusian people,” he said. “But I've grown to understand that as soon as I step foot in Belarus, I will be immediately imprisoned or killed.”●