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Lukashenka's 'Hostage': Son Of Former Belarusian Presidential Hopeful Stays Stoical As He Faces Decades In Prison


“A cell is no different from the wider world,” Eduard Babaryka wrote in 2022. “It is always about choosing whether to lie down or stand up. To succumb to weakness or to overcome yourself.”
“A cell is no different from the wider world,” Eduard Babaryka wrote in 2022. “It is always about choosing whether to lie down or stand up. To succumb to weakness or to overcome yourself.”

In what seems like a previous life, Eduard Babaryka co-created a Belarusian crowd-funding website called Uley that, among other humanitarian projects, funded the publication of a five-volume collection in Belarusian of the works of Nobel Prize-winning writer Svetlana Alexievich.

“It is absolutely normal not to be afraid,” Babaryka said at the presentation of the collection in 2018 in Minsk. “And, no matter what, to do what you think is right and important. It is absolutely normal not to wait for someone from above to tell you what to do, but to take the initiative into your own hands.”

Now such sentiments are being put to the test, as the 33-year-old Babaryka faces a Minsk court on charges of tax evasion, money laundering, organizing mass disorder, and inciting hatred. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison. Arrested in June 2020, he has already spent three years in custody without trial.

“Edik is smart, kind, and incredibly curious,” said Alyaksandra Zverava, Eduard’s girlfriend. “Very decent and responsible. He sets high standards for himself, and he knows how to admit his mistakes.”

Would-be presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka holds a press conference in Minsk on June 11, 2020. He and his son were arrested a few days later.
Would-be presidential candidate Viktar Babaryka holds a press conference in Minsk on June 11, 2020. He and his son were arrested a few days later.

Eduard Babaryka’s story is a moving footnote to the national tragedy of the 2020 presidential election, in which authoritarian ruler Alyaksandr Lukashenka declared victory despite compelling evidence of massive fraud. The declared results prompted a huge, national wave of protests that was met by an often brutal crackdown. Thousands of protesters were detained amidst allegations of abuse and torture. Independent media were closed down. Opposition leaders were forced to flee the country. Western countries refused to acknowledge Lukashenka as legitimate.

90 Days

Born in Minsk and a graduate of the Belarus State Economic University, Babaryka’s road to a Minsk courtroom really began in the spring of 2020, when he agreed to help his father, Viktar Babaryka, mount a presidential election campaign aimed at unseating Lukashenka.

Viktar Babaryka, 59, is a banker and philanthropist who formerly served as CEO of Belgazprombank. In May 2020, he registered his campaign for the August election in which Lukashenka, who has held onto power since 1994 through a series of votes dismissed as undemocratic by international organizations and Western governments, would be seeking a sixth term. His campaign immediately attracted high-profile support, and the democratic opposition began to coalesce around him. An opinion poll in late May 2020 showed him with 50 percent support.

The Crisis In Belarus

Read our coverage as Belarusian strongman Alyaksandr Lukashenka continues his brutal crackdown on NGOs, activists, and independent media following the August 2020 presidential election.

To be registered, would-be presidential candidates must submit 100,000 signatures. By the middle of June, Babaryka’s team had gathered more than 425,000.

On June 18, 2020, both Viktar and Eduard were arrested. Belarusian election authorities rejected Babaryka’s candidacy on July 14. Amnesty International and other rights groups designated both men as political prisoners.

In July 2021, Viktar was convicted of bribery and tax evasion and sentenced to 14 years in prison. He rejects the charges as politically motivated retribution.

In a video released by his campaign shortly after his arrest, Viktar recalls asking Eduard to join him to help him unseat Lukashenka.

“Eduard said, ‘OK, I’ll give you 90 days of my life,’” Viktar said. “But it’s not 90 days of his life. It’s actually clear that he is on a par with me. He put his life in jeopardy for me. That is a hard thing for any father to say.”

“Edik was arrested because he is Viktar’s son,” Zverava said.

Eduard was held in a pretrial detention jail run by the Belarusian state security agency -- still called the KGB -- for 18 months following his arrest, which is the maximum period a suspect can be held without trial. However, when the time expired, his case was transferred to the Investigative Committee and, apparently, the clock was reset to zero.

“There is nothing resembling a legal process here,” said Uladzimer Pylchanka, Eduard’s former lawyer whose legal credentials were canceled in apparent retaliation for his work on the case. “This man is simply being held in isolation as a hostage. Obviously to put pressure on his father.”

'The Fabric Of Reality'

In 2021, Zverava told RFE/RL about the conditions in which Eduard was being held.

Prison can be a place that steals your life, or it can be a unique opportunity for self-improvement."
-- Eduard Babaryka

“They take you to the toilet twice a day,” she said. “There are four people in a cell. Some of them smoke. There is almost no ventilation. You literally cannot see any daylight.”

She said Eduard’s clothes were covered in mold from the damp. His correspondence was strictly limited.

Nonetheless, he tried to make the most of his circumstances and kept his spirits high.

“A cell is no different from the wider world,” he wrote stoically in 2022. “It is always about choosing whether to lie down or stand up. To succumb to weakness or to overcome yourself.”

He occupied himself with yoga, chess, reading, meditation, and drawing.

“I’m reading Stephen King’s 11/22/63 in English,” he wrote in 2021, referring to a novel about a time traveler who tries to stop U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s assassination. “And I’m rereading [physicist] David Deutsch’s The Fabric Of Reality.”

Eduard Babarzka with his girlfriend, Alyaksandra Zverava, in happier times. “Edik is smart, kind, and incredibly curious,” she says. “Very decent and responsible."
Eduard Babarzka with his girlfriend, Alyaksandra Zverava, in happier times. “Edik is smart, kind, and incredibly curious,” she says. “Very decent and responsible."

After nearly two years behind bars, Eduard wrote that forgiveness was the key to personal relationships. He adopted an attitude similar to that expressed by psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, who wrote: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Prison can be a place that steals your life, or it can be a unique opportunity for self-improvement,” Eduard wrote from prison in 2022. “In either case, the prison cell itself remains the same --- a small, empty room cut off from the outside world.”

Eduard Babaryka’s trial opened in Minsk on May 22.

His long period in pretrial custody and the vagaries surrounding the charges against him indicate that his detention was intended by the authorities to extract concessions from his father, associates said.

“At first, their plan was that if Viktar made concessions, Eduard would be freed,” said Ivan Kravtsov, a former member of Viktar Babaryka’s campaign staff. “But now it is obvious that he is facing a very long sentence.”

Written by RFE/RL’s Robert Coalson based on reporting by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service
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