Belarus: How Political Persecution Extends to Families

The authorities routinely harass and arrest relatives of activists as a tactic of intimidation.

Belarus: How Political Persecution Extends to Families

The authorities routinely harass and arrest relatives of activists as a tactic of intimidation.

Thursday, 13 April, 2023

In July 2021, historian Andrei Mastyka and his wife Tacciana were detained by the State Security Committee of Belarus (KGB) during a wave of arrests in Minsk. 

“We were caught on the street at around 3pm when we were heading to the Belarusian-German educational centre for an event dedicated to the establishment of the Minsk ghetto,” said Andrei, 40, a fellow of the European Humanities University in Lithuania and a coordinator of the Belarusian Oral History Archive project. “Men ran out of the car in the parking lot, they said that they were from the KGB.”

The couple spent ten days in detention as suspects in a case involving an explosion at a Russian naval military unit in north-western Belarus. First reported in September 2021, dozens were arrested in connection with the incident and a court decision later found the Civil Self-Defence Detachments of Belarus, an opposition organisation, responsible.

According to Andrei and Tacciana, they have no connections with this group.  However, the Oral History Archive was involved in studies of the interwar period in Belarus, as well as Soviet repression – activities perceived by the authorities as akin to extremism.

“It looks like detaining husband and wife together is a common practice that allows law enforcement to easily manipulate [their targets],” Andrei said. 

The persecution of relatives of activists and opposition figures has become a routine part of the security services’ tactics of intimidation in Belarus.

State-controlled media outlets often report that the police “give close attention” to the friends and relatives of citizens with supposedly anti-government attitudes. The official telegram channel of the ministry of internal affairs confirmed this.

The harassment of relatives of supposedly undesirable people was a typical feature of authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, explained Larisa Kunovich, a specialist in Soviet history. She asked to use a pseudonym as she regularly visits Belarus.

“Such things happened during the Stalin era,” Kunovich continued. “The wife had to testify against her husband or she herself could be punished. For the wives of leaders, there was even a special camp called ALZHIR - Akmola camp for the wives of ‘traitors’ to the motherland.”

She said that what had happened to Andrei Mastyka was typical of such tactics.

“By detaining his wife, they put him in a difficult situation; he was in a situation where he was responsible not only for his own, but also for someone else’s fate.”

Indeed, during his detention, KGB officers not only warned Andrei that he might face execution but also told him that his wife could be sentenced to decades in prison.  Then they said that everything could be settled if Andrei agreed to become an informant and signed a confession that he had implemented illegal projects with tens of thousands of euros received from foreign funds.

After numerous interrogations, Andrei was allowed to meet his lawyer only on the day of his release.

Tatyana, 34 - a head of the Historyka Youth Public Association - was kept in a separate cell but not subjected to the same pressure as her husband. 

“On the fifth or sixth day, they tried to take me to an informal interrogation,” she said. “Several people came to me. I asked for my lawyer. Finally, one of them came in and said ‘you do not want to come, ok, as you wish,’ which left me very confused.”

The Mastykas were released from detention on the same day Andrei signed an agreement  on cooperation. He immediately sought advice from human rights activists.

“They told me that half of the people detained by the KGB sign such papers and that it is a common practice in Belarus. But they warned that I could be summoned every few months,” Andrei said. Indeed, the KGB officers contacted Andrei several times and eventually, in June 2022 the family decided to leave the country. 

They do not intend to return home, fearing that they could be prosecuted for treason and sentenced to between seven and 15 years in prison.


Alexander Azarov, the head of Bypol, a union of former security officials, said that the persecution of families and relatives was used to pressurise activists to force them to stop their activities.

This most often involved searching relatives’ homes, detaining them or summoning them to the police station “where they are threatened and subjected to psychological pressure,” Azarov explained. 

Threats of dismissal from their work are also used as a means of pressure. There have been cases when Belarus citizens fighting in Ukraine were sent videos of their parents imprisoned in a tiny cell. 

“Some are even forced to call their relatives abroad and tell them that they have been detained because of them,” Azarov continued.

Karina, 20, (not her real name) was targeted by the security services after a criminal case was opened against her father for organising protests following the contested presidential elections of 2020. In 2021, when Karina was a first year university student, police took her in for questioning.  

“There was nowhere to go: they would have found me everywhere, in the dorm and at the university,” she recalled. “I was summoned to the dean’s office and taken for interrogation from there. They wanted to know where my dad was. I said that we did not communicate, which was true.”

After this, Karina was afraid to go back to university, fearing that next time she might be detained. 

“I had a feeling of anxiety for a long time. I could not go to take my exam, and they didn’t let me retake it,” she recalled. She could not understand whether this was related to her or her father’s activism. “No one told me directly,” she continued. 

After being expelled, she left for the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The regime’s tactics worked; later, without returning home, she decided to move to Lithuania.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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