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Pushed To The Brink: A Belarusian Suicide

Neanila Palyakova grieves over her daughter's coffin on March 9.

Neanila Palyakova grieves over her daughter's coffin on March 9.

On a cold evening in early March, 69-year-old Neanila Palyakova wrapped herself in a shawl, bent down unsteadily to put on her shoes, and ventured out into the southern Belarusian city of Salihorsk to beg a psychoneurologist for a diagnosis of mental instability.

Palyakova was seeking the diagnosis for her daughter Yana, a 33-year-old lawyer and human rights activist due to stand trial the next day, March 3, on charges of slandering a police officer. Her mother hoped a medical diagnosis could help postpone the trial.

The case for medical diagnosis was also easy to make. Yana, under severe psychological stress in the weeks leading up to the trial, seemed increasingly unable to cope. Neighbors said she seemed shaken and unhappy. She refused offers of help; she didn't want to speak about the case, and seemed closed-off.

Neanila pleaded with the doctor, saying her daughter desperately needed a "rest." Yana couldn't sit still. She was afraid to go outside.

Even worse, she had threatened to hurt herself. Yana had said she "wouldn't want to live" if she was convicted, her mother told the doctor. Attending a trial while she was in such a vulnerable state, Neanila pleaded, "would cause her tremendous stress."

But the psychoneurologist was unmoved. Yana Palyakova was pronounced "healthy," stable enough to stand trial.

Neanila, who had already been similarly rebuffed by local prosecutors, felt there was nothing more she could do.

Yana Palyakova in an undated photo
So mother hurried home to the tiny flat she shared with her daughter and their two pet dogs. It was late; she wanted to be with Yana the night before the trial. For weeks, the police had been taunting her daughter, calling her in for questioning. At 10:00 at night, 2:00 in the morning, sometimes even 4:00 in the morning, the phone would ring with a police summons or threats from unidentified men.

The women tried to joke about it. "See, Mother," Yana told her, "they're toying with me."

The trial the next day proved an open-and-shut case. Within hours, Yana Palyakova had been convicted and sentenced to a $350 fine and 2 1/2 years under house arrest. Friends described her as "shocked."

Four days later, Neanila Palyakova opened the door to Yana's room and found her daughter hanging from a noose tied to a pipe running across the ceiling. She had been dead for hours.

Devastated, the grieving mother told RFE/RL that authorities had hounded her daughter to death.

"There was pressure from the authorities and from the prosecutor's office," she said, her voice breaking. "I told the police, I cannot and will not forgive anybody for anything. You are healthy young men, and she was a poor, weak girl."

A Country Questioned

Life as an activist in Belarus is not easy. While the political "disappearances" that marked the dimmest days under strongman leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka have ended, activists and members of the opposition are still routinely harassed, beaten, and imprisoned on the slightest provocation.

Most recently, dozens of peaceful protesters gathered in central Minsk on Valentine's Day were beaten fiercely by police. Two days later, a Solidarity Day protest -- held on the 16th of every month to commemorate missing opposition leaders -- was broken up violently by riot police.

The wave of crackdowns comes even as the West is attempting to bring Belarus in from the cold. The European Union has suspended a travel ban on top officials, and is preparing to usher it into its Eastern Partnership initiative meant to gently extract six post-Soviet countries from Moscow's sphere of influence.

Within Belarus, Palyakova's suicide has raised angry questions -- is the country really ready for closer ties with the West? And what does the suicide of a 33-year-old activist say about life under Lukashenka, "Europe's last dictator"?

Former political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin says authorities "baited her because of her principles, her convictions, the ideals she believed in."
Opposition leader and former political prisoner Alyaksandr Kazulin says the case shows the lengths to which authorities will go in order to drown out critical voices.

"I think this shows the conditions people are living in. If a young woman cannot find another way out other than to kill herself, it means that she was led to this," says Kazulin, who organized a vigil in Minsk the day after Palyakova's death.

Not Your Average Activist

Yana Palyakova was a bright, young lawyer and part-time political activist well known for her legal work and political projects in Salihorsk, where she worked for Legal Assistance to the Population, a local nongovernmental organization.

The organization's director, Aleh Volchak, says Palyakova "knew many people" and worked on a number of high-profile issues, including Kazulin's bid as an opponent to Lukashenka in the 2006 presidential election.

Kazulin, a one-time member of the political mainstream, became a sworn enemy of the regime during that race and in the public protests that followed Lukashenka's officially declared landslide. In July 2006, he was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in jail. The ruling drew criticism and sanctions from the West, and proved a profound political discomfort for Lukashenka.

Palyakova worked actively on Kazulin's behalf during his time in jail. (He was released after two years.) Volchak says Palyakova's involvement in the Kazulin case was the start of her run-ins with the authorities.

"The pressure on her started to be exerted when she began to work with us on the Kazulin case, after he was arrested," he says. "When she submitted a request to hold a demonstration for Kazulin's release, the cops staked out her apartment for two days."

Such intimidation tactics are not uncommon in Belarus. But they proved unnerving to Palyakova, whose fragile, sensitive nature set her apart from the defiant, bring-it-on activists around her.

Neighbors speak kindly about Palyakova but say she was "hypersensitive," like a "wounded child." One wrong word could bring on a long face, maybe tears.

She was vulnerable. And the authorities knew it.

Palyakova knew it, too. The long road to her defamation trial this month began in October, when she said she was beaten by a police officer who had called her in for questioning about political activities that included collecting signatures for Volha Kazulina, Kazulin's daughter, ahead of her unsuccessful bid in parliamentary elections the month before. She said the attack left her with multiple bruises and a nearly shattered hand.

"I'm in shock, I'm just in shock," she told RFE/RL at the time. It was not the first time she had been detained, but she said she felt the anger against her was mounting. "They've decided to finish me off, not physically but morally. I consider this moral pressure, an effort to destroy me. They're perfectly aware of my state of health."

Still, Palyakova fought back. She collected medical documents and filed a formal request demanding the beating be investigated. When the police denied her request, Palyakova upped the ante, taking her complaint to state officials in Minsk. Local officials filed a counter claim, accusing Palyakova of slander.

A systematic campaign of threats and questioning at police headquarters followed. So did random assaults, including a knife attack by a woman from her neighborhood. Some acquaintances think it was all more than her fragile personality could cope with.

Yana was a "very delicate, vulnerable person," says a coworker and friend, Zinaida Tsimosha. Perhaps she was someone who "should not have engaged in politics, but found some other occupation, like growing flowers, having children, or caring for her pet dogs."

Still, another acquaintance says, the kind of pressure Palyakova was under would get to anyone.

Friends and neighbors accuse authorities of "pushing" the shy 33-year-old to take her own life.
"Telephone calls in the middle of the night. These kinds of things were happening -- from the police," the friend says. "If you get telephone calls at three in the morning, even a mentally sound person might be driven to end things."

There are signs that Palyakova sought to use her fragile mental state as a bulwark against the authorities. Volchak told "Belorusskie Novosti" that Yana spoke publicly about suicide once or twice, hoping it would "make prosecutors, lawyers, and judges think before taking a decision."

'Baited' By Authorities?

Despite her obvious vulnerability, Palyakova often confused her supporters by rejecting their help.

When Helsinki Committee member Leanid Markhotka approached Palyakova and offered to help defend her slander case in court, he says she resisted. "No!" she cried, panicked. "We don't need to do anything!"

Markhotka says her reaction was "difficult to understand."

A trial witness said her decision not to appeal the conviction "left us all surprised."

But many in Salihorsk who had suffered their own run-ins with the authorities say the harassment inflicted with impunity by the police explained much of her behavior leading up to the trial -- and the suicide that followed.

"It's more than likely she was 'helped' along the way," says Maria But-Husajim, who turned to Palyakova for help when her husband was unjustly sentenced to life in prison. "She had probably just had enough and couldn't take it anymore, and they pushed her to do it."

Mikalaj Lebedz, who was helped by Palyakova after his 16-year-old daughter was raped and murdered, was also unfazed by the grim course of events, saying, "It's understandable to me who's behind this."

Helsinki Committee member Valery Shchukin, was who present at the trial, told the Charter 97 information website that the severity of the sentence -- 2 1/2 years under house arrest and a $350 fine -- shocked Palyakova.

"I spent a day with her after the trial, and she kept repeating one thing: 'I am not going to be a prisoner,'" Shchukin said. "It's really a shock for a normal person. I remember the first time I was imprisoned. My wife was embarrassed to go out; my sentence seemed to be very shameful for her. Probably it was the same with Yana."

Minsk human rights activist Valyantsin Stefanovich agrees. The day before Palyakova's suicide, the country's largest newspaper, "Sovietskaya Belorussia," ran an editorial condemning Palyakova. The piece sought to discredit her work and claimed that all Palyakova did was sit around and drink espresso. (The editorial was pulled from the website the day after she died.)

"They baited her," Kazulin agrees. "They baited her because of her principles, for her convictions, for the ideals she believed in."

'Simply Horrible'

Palyakova's death has not gone unnoticed.

Some 100 people -- and one lonely opposition flag -- were present at her funeral on March 9 at a bleak, snow-covered plot in Salihorsk. Funeral wreaths from individual families and the Youth Front activist group were laid on her grave.

On March 13, the Belarus Helsinki Committee demanded that the Salihorsk court reopen Palyakova's case posthumously. In their submitted complaint, the group noted Palyakova's mental state as well as evidence that Palyakova had been systematically threatened and harassed in the days leading up to the trial.

Helsinki members also say the court proceedings were marked by blatant procedural violations, because prosecutors had strengthened the charges against her on the day of the trial. Belarusian law stipulates that defendants are given a five-day period to review new accusations, but "she didn't even have five minutes," Shchukin of the Helsinki Committee says.

After 10 days of deliberation, Salihorsk officials this week rejected the request for a fresh hearing, citing insufficient cause.

Palyakova's claim of being beaten -- now never likely to be proven -- led to her hanging. The pressure points that led the shy, dark-haired activist to a premature end lined up neatly for Yana Palyakova, like in a game of dominoes.

"What happened is simply horrible," says Stefanovich of the Belarus Helsinki Committee. "It reminded me of Soviet times, when the state system could just crush a single, weak, small person with all the force of its weight. We have many times and for many years been witnesses to the destruction of individuals -- not their physical destruction necessarily, but their moral annihilation. Not every person has the coping skills. This is the baiting of people, according to Soviet traditions. They operate in the spirit of a cold civil war."

Aleh Hruzdzilovich of RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Ihar Karnei of RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report

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