Two steps one way, two steps the other.
That's the size of Syarhey Tsikhanouski's prison cell, where he has spent most of the past two years, according to his lawyer. The Belarusian blogger and critic, who was the first person arrested in Alyaksandr Lukashenka's heavy-handed crackdown leading up to his internationally contested presidential win in August 2020, has nowhere to sit. Instead, there's a ledge on the wall.
There's no rest for the prisoner who could have been president.
Tsikhanouski was detained in May 2020 after announcing he'd decided to make the leap from blogging about life and tribulations in increasingly authoritarian Belarus to being someone who could bring about tangible change for his countrymen. His YouTube channel, Country For Life, had more than 130,000 subscribers.
In Belarus, a presidential hopeful had to garner 100,000 signatures in order to become an official candidate. Tsikhanouski was detained before he was able to get a single one, and the video of his violent detention -- broadcast on state television -- spread like wildfire in a country poised as a tinderbox of political discontent.
People immediately rallied to his cause.
"It was obvious how unfairly he'd been treated," says Natalya Matskevich, one of Belarus's top lawyers in human rights cases. Despite Tsikhanouski's wife, Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya, asking whether she'd be afraid to represent them, Matskevich knew she'd take on the case.
"He was immediately treated as the victim of a grandiose injustice. Everyone could see he'd done nothing wrong," she says.
Tsikhanouskaya went ahead and ran for president herself, using a power of attorney to set up an initiative group in her husband's name. She quickly rallied voters, and all of the main opposition campaigns united behind her bid. After the polls closed, Belarusian authorities said Tsikhanouskaya only secured 10 percent of the August 9 vote, but independent election monitors reported that she had, in fact, won.
When Lukashenka claimed the presidency, the opposition had grown so strong that the country was on the brink of mass revolution. But the strongman's security apparatus came down hard; since the vote, many of Belarus's opposition leaders have been arrested or forced to flee the country. Several protesters have been killed, and some rights organizations say there is credible evidence of torture by security officials against those detained.
After receiving threats against their children, Tsikhanouskaya fled to Lithuania, where she became the leader of the democratic opposition in Belarus.
Tsikhanouski, meanwhile, stood in his cell, waiting for the few hours a day he was allowed out to meet with his lawyers.
"His legs hurt. It was hot. We tried to at least physically help him, to work together longer so that he could spend less time in confinement," Matskevich says.
Being alone all the time in a closed room, and an extremely small one, at that, was a difficult test for a person whose main business was communicating with people. He was given a television -- only showing state channels -- which at least allowed him to glean an understanding of what was going on outside the prison.
Over the course of 2021, before his trial commenced, state television began airing purported exposés about the crimes the blogger had committed. The state channel ONT broadcast a film titled Kill Lukashenka about how the opposition was allegedly preparing to assassinate the president. It contained footage, obtained illegally via hidden camera, of Tsikhanouski consulting with Matskevich.
WATCH: Popular video blogger Syarhey Tsikhanouski, who once intended to run for president against Belarusian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka, was sentenced to 18 years in prison by a court in Homel on December 14, 2021. Tsikhanouski is also the husband of opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
The recording of such footage and its publication violated numerous international principles and the laws of Belarus. The defense was hopeful the court would see that the charges were baseless and that the case against Tsikhanouski was wrong from the start and mishandled ever since.
"Any line of internal logic delegitimizes these accusations," says Matskevich. If he allegedly organized mass riots, she added, then surely the court could show evidence of what he said, what he did, and how he did it. And yet it did not.
The court, however, convicted Tsikhanouski. And Matskevich, who had 27 years of legal experience, was disbarred over another case -- that of Viktor Babariko, another former presidential candidate. Lawyer groups expressed concern that her disbarment would only serve to hinder Babariko's case -- and that of Tsikhanouski. The same fate has befallen many independent lawyers in Belarus under Lukashenka's iron rule.
Tsikhanouski wasn't formally charged until March 2021, when he was accused of organizing mass disorder, inciting social hatred, impeding the activities of the Central Election Commission, and organizing activities that disrupted social order. In December 2021, he was sentenced to 18 years in a high-security prison colony.
Taking into account his pretrial detention, his prison term is slated to end on May 27, 2037. Tsikhanouski is forced to repeat this date twice a day to his prison guards.
Cut Off From Family
For Tsikhanouskaya, his wife, the sentence was unthinkable.
"No one thought a person could be sentenced to 18…years for words, for peaceful deeds, for wanting to join politics. When Syarhey was detained on May 29, , no one thought it would drag on for so long," she says.
From that day until now, she has only talked to her husband once on the telephone, for several minutes. The rest of the time, she can only correspond with him through a lawyer once a week.
"In this way, no one can discuss personal or political issues, or even just chat," says Tsikhanouskaya, adding that this is still her lifeline. "I live from Thursday to Thursday. Before I talk to the lawyer, there is so much anticipation to find out how he is doing."
Not a single letter of hers has reached him for more than two years. But their children, Kornei, 12, and Agnia, 6 -- both of whom live in Vilnius with their mother -- are able to write to him, even if the youngest can only say, "I love you, Daddy."
"Syarhey's letters to the children are very heartfelt," Tsikhanouskaya says. "He asks them whether they are behaving and if they listen to me. He tells our son that he is now my protector, or he sends our daughter a postcard with a cat and asks her to draw the same for him."
Kornei understands where his father is, and he often cries upon receiving his letters. Tsikhanouskaya encourages him to describe everything in his life: a recent fishing trip, a day at school.
"Dad is interested in everything. He wants to be present in your life, to feel that he is next to you, despite the fact that he is far away," she recalls telling her children.
She says she was struck by how well a 12-year-old is able to understand the level of censorship that surrounds them.
"'I went to the country with my mother. I won't write the name, but there is a museum there'," she recounts as an example of her son's carefully chosen words. "He doesn't yet know where the line is, and it's scary that you have to hide facts or try to disguise them in order to convey something to Dad that no one else will guess."
On June 28, the Belarusian KGB added Tsikhanouski, along with 22 others, to its list of terrorists. Last month, he was transferred to Mogilev Correctional Labor Colony No. 15. Previously, his children wrote every two weeks, and he was able to write back. Now, it's not known whether he can have any communication with his family.
Carrying The Torch
On August 9, the second anniversary of Lukashenka's reelection, which has not been recognized by the opposition or the West, Tsikhanouskaya named an interim cabinet of Belarus after a consensus by opposition groups. She has called on the people of Belarus, too, to join them in ensuring a peaceful transition to a democratic country.
On August 11, the Viasna Human Rights Center of Belarus reported that a court in Mogilev had decided to transfer Tsikhanouski from the labor colony where he is currently carrying out his sentence to a prison for three years for alleged "violations" of his regimen.
He will most likely be placed once again in solitary confinement.
Tsikhanouskaya wrote on her Telegram channel on August 11 that she did not know the reasons for the decision or which prison he will be sent to. She also shared a poem that Tsikhanouski had written previously about his imprisonment:
There is no air, no heat, only silence,
Often pierced by a rude cry.
And you can easily get drunk here without wine
In a stinking cage, I'm like a beast, and the door is closed.
My friends won't let me sleep again:
Cold and damp, bright lights and ringing in the ears.
I live on 3 square meters,
But not alone -- with you I'm within four walls.
Now it's time for us to talk.
Look, without undressing, I sleep on the floor.
But that's not what I want to ask you.
You know that I pray for Belarus.
Let the walls fall, let the fear go, let the evil disappear.
Like a dream, let the country of slaves go into the past.
Tsikhanouski never intended to go into politics, his wife says. But once he started talking with entrepreneurs on his blog and began to see what life for many was really like, "he realized that everything rests on politics."
"Syarhey has no regrets," Tsikhanouskaya says. "He believed in what he did. He believed in Belarusians, because he saw their support. He realizes he can do nothing now [from prison], but the people who were with him back then, and who were with other candidates at that time, now have the opportunity to continue.
"For this reason, he reiterates his common phrase: 'I will stay in prison as long as my people allow me to.'"