Arrests, beatings, forced exile, and even death. Belarusians have paid a high price for raising their voices in opposition since authoritarian leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka claimed a landslide victory and a sixth presidential term in an August 2020 election that hundreds of thousands of citizens contend was stolen.
And now a leaked audio recording has emerged of what is said to be a senior Belarusian Interior Ministry official discussing plans to build an internment camp -- complete with barbed wire -- for political prisoners.
That's not all: The person speaking also urges officers to use a more lethal weapon against protesters, assuring them they will face no repercussions if they do, and apparently admitting that a unarmed civilian killed at a demonstration in Minsk in August was in fact shot at close range with a rubber bullet by riot police.
The recording was downloaded to social-media sites including YouTube on January 15 by the By_Pol Initiative, a grouping of former Belarusian security and justice officials and officers who have abandoned Lukashenka and switched over to the opposition.
Belarus has witnessed unprecedented and unflagging protests since the disputed August 9 election, which have been met by brutal government repression. Lukashenka, 66, finds himself facing growing international isolation, as Western governments, including the United States, Canada, and the European Union, refuse to acknowledge him as the legitimate leader of Belarus, slapping him and senior officials with sanctions for their perceived roles in rigging the election and in the continuing crackdown.
The Interior Ministry has dismissed the latest audio recording as a "fake," but opposition leader Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya is one of many who say they are convinced of its authenticity, and have expressed shock and anger at its contents.
"[The] Deputy Minister of Internal Affairs of Belarus said he plans to build a camp for people [who are pursuing] their constitutional right to protest peacefully against lawlessness. Can you imagine this in your country?" Tsikhanouskaya wrote on Twitter on January 15.
It's not an isolated case. Recently, the news outlet EU Observer published details of another leaked recording, this one of KGB officials talking in 2012 of plans to kill foes of Lukashenka in Germany.
In the latest recording, the voice heard is alleged by By_Pol and confirmed by sources it cites to be that of Mikalay Karpyankou, a deputy interior minister in charge of the ministry's troops. He is no stranger to calling for the use of force or employing it himself, being caught on camera using a truncheon to smash his way into a Minsk café where protesters were hiding.
Lukashenka promoted Karpyankou to the post of deputy interior minister in November in what analysts said was part of a series of moves to bolster the ranks of the so-called "siloviki," the country's security apparatus, now more than ever a key pillar of his government's support.
According to By_Pol, the recording is from an unspecified date in late October, when Karpyankou was head of the Interior Ministry department for combating corruption and organized crime. By_Pol said he was addressing a meeting of department ministers.
In the recording, the voice alleged to be that of Karpyankou is heard discussing what he says are plans to build a long-term internment facility in Ivatsevichy, in southwestern Belarus, that is already home to a penitentiary.
"We are also talking about the possibly of building a camp for protesters. And a database is being created," the voice says, adding that "hard-core" protesters would be "resettled" at the facility, which would be enclosed with "barbed-wire fencing." It is unclear how far such plans have advanced, if at all.
On the recording, the voice is also heard urging those in attendance not to shy away from using a Russian-made pistol at their disposal, the "Russian Yargin gun," known formally as the MP-443 Grach. "We've been equipped, I'll tell you, with a very powerful weapon," he says on the tape, adding that they have Lukashenka's backing.
"We are covered by the head of state from all angles in terms of the use of weapons," the man identified on the tape says, before adding that Lukashenka has ordered them to deal harshly with "all those moments on the streets."
"As the president said, if one [protester] rushes at you, use weapons, even nonlethal ones [should be fired] at point blank, aiming at the legs, stomach, balls, so that [the protester] realizes what he has done once he regains consciousness," the man says. "Well, you have the following options: injure, maim, or kill. Shoot at the forehead, right in the forehead, right in the face. After that, he will never recover."
Also raised in the recording is the case of Alyaksandr Taraykouski, who became the first fatality in the postelection crackdown in August, and a rallying cry for the protest movement: "Yes, Taraykouski, yes, he was a drunk and a moron. He was snuffed out by a rubber bullet that hit him in the chest."
Belarusian officials had said Taraykouski's death on August 10 occurred after an explosive device blew up in his hand as he was trying to throw it at police. However, the AP later published video showing Taraykouski wobbling with a blood-stained shirt, before collapsing to the ground, meters from a line of riot police. There is no sign of any explosion as described by the authorities.
Asked about the alleged recording of Karpyankou, Interior Ministry spokeswoman Volha Chamadanava said, "We have not and will not comment on fakes," and claimed that ministry personnel "are guided by the law" in carrying out their duties.
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.
The authorities have opened several preliminary inquiries into suspected abuses against protesters but not one criminal case, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2021, adding that there were "hundreds of politically motivated criminal cases" targeting "political opposition figures, protesters, and their supporters, civic activists, and human rights defenders."
By mid-November, HRW said in the report, Belarusian police had detained more than 25,000 people. The month also witnessed the death of Raman Bandarenka, who died from injuries sustained in a vicious beating in Minsk by a group of masked assailants whom the Belarusian rights group Vyasna alleged to have been affiliated with the Interior Ministry.
Tsikhanouskaya was not alone in reacting to the recorded revelations.
Andrey Sannikau, who was jailed after running for president in 2010, said on Twitter that the recording was further "proof that power in Belarus is held by extremely dangerous psychopaths headed by Lukashenko."
Government critics say Karpyankou is known for backing and taking violent action against anti-Lukashenka protesters. He was filmed in September wielding a truncheon to smash the window of a Minsk café where protesters were seeking refuge from security forces.
He also backed Deputy Interior Minister Henadz Kazakevich when he expressed his willingness to shoot civilians in a video on October 12. Karpyankou is reported to have said: "If they resist, we'll use weapons. We humanely use weapons against them, including firearms."
Katsiaryna Shmatsina, a research fellow at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, said that Karpyankou's background and the government's record seem to support the case for the recording's authenticity.
"Whether the tape is fake, the tech experts should decide. However, this is not the first leakage from the inside of the Lukashenka system. Take for example the publication on EU Observer about plotting to murder political dissidents abroad. Also, there are consistent leakages of videos/audio materials by the By_Pol Initiative, including evidence of inhumane treatment of the detained protesters," she told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
If it is authentic, the recording highlights how Lukashenka has unchained the country's security apparatus in his bid to cling to power, Shmatsina suggested.
"One thing is clear: the regime is ready to suppress the protest at any cost, and that siloviki/police have carte blanche from the top officials to treat political opponents of the regime as they wish, with impunity."