A man in outer space

What was happening to jailed Belarusian politician Viktar Babaryka in prison before he was admitted to hospital

A man in outer space

Viktar Babaryka. Photo: EPA 

It was first reported that Belarusian politician Viktar Babaryka, who is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence, had been admitted to the hospital on 27 April. By the evening of 28 April, Babaryka disappeared completely.

A Telegram channel run by his former election campaign team reported that the politician was still at the surgical department of the Navapolatsk hospital (Babaryka is serving a sentence in a penal colony located in the same town), in a moderately severe condition as of the evening of 27 April. Twenty-four hours later, neither the hospital nor the prison could confirm his presence. It is also unknown what exactly had happened to the most popular Belarusian presidential candidate and the former head of Belgazprombank.

Rumours that Babaryka had been beaten up and was in the Navapolatsk hospital appeared on 26 April in the evening. The Rabochy Ruch Telegram channel was the first one to report this: “We have received information from several sources that Viktar Babaryka was brought to the Navapolatsk central hospital from the local prison with numerous body injuries on the night between 24 and 25 April.”

Representatives of Babaryka’s team stated that they had managed to confirm the politician was in hospital the next day at eight in the morning: he was at the surgery department where doctors were draining fluid from his lungs. This is all they managed to find out. Nobody knows up to this moment whether it was a beating or a disease that caused Babaryka’s hydrothorax. It all comes down to the fact that Viktar Babaryka is going through the same thing that the Belarusian regime uses against other political prisoners: being completely isolated in the prison and deprived of any contact with the outer world.

Babaryka’s sister remains his only close relative on the outside. The politician’s wife tragically died a few years back on a vacation, and his son Eduard was detained alongside his father on 18 June 2020 while the two were bringing papers with signatures of people supporting Babaryka’s bid for the presidential election to the electoral office. Edward has been in a KGB pre-trial jail ever since, for almost three years now. The former banker was sentenced to 14 years in prison in July 2021. He was not charged with conspiracy or treason, let alone mass riots: bankers always have tax evasion and bribery charges prepared for them. Babaryka was soon transported to the Navapolatsk prison where he worked at the local bakery and then spent his days burning charcoal.

He was visited by his lawyers and was allowed to give his sister a call every now and then at first. But this only lasted for a few months.

Babaryka’s lawyers had their licences revoked in late October 2021, and in March 2022 Viktar had his status changed to “an individual with a great propensity for taking hostages, attacking the prison administration, and hooliganism”. He is now obliged to wear a yellow label on his prison robe. By the way, all political prisoners have this status — perhaps to make it easier for prison guards to tell regular convicts from yellow-labelled, political ones from a distance.

Babaryka was later forced to serve time in solitary confinement several times, and has been held in even stricter conditions lately: a punishment cell, according to unconfirmed reports. Nobody knows the details really, since his sister received no calls or letters from him in recent months. The last lawyer who replaced the ones who had their licences revoked was detained on 20 March. So, there has been zero news about Babaryka on the outside for several months. It is also unknown what is happening inside the penitentiary. The reason is that the Belarusian regime introduced a unique policy several years ago which prohibits other prisoners from communicating with cellmates that have a well-known political background.

Alyaksandar Kabanov, a blogger, was released in December 2022 as he finished his three-year sentence. He left Belarus and spoke of how the prison administration was putting pressure on Babaryka: “It’s always an issue when Babaryka is in question. You get blacklisted immediately. <…> They start sending you to solitary confinement. When convicts were trying to speak to him, they were put on a preventive register [this means there is increased surveillance of a convict — translator’s note] right away. He is in maximum isolation.” Other prisoners are simply not allowed to communicate with Babaryka. One may be sent to solitary confinement for simply greeting him, or be deprived of either a visit or a parcel from the outside (there are enough prison rats out there, and the administration is aware of any word or gesture said or shown inside the prison walls). This way [of putting pressure upon prisoners] has been used for years.”

“You may even sleep next bed to a person you are not allowed to communicate with,” a prisoner who was recently released from the penitentiary in question told me. “You may stand next to him during the check-ups every day, but you may not share a single word with him. Even if he approaches you with a question, you must remain silent. Otherwise, you may certainly wave goodbye to a parcel or visit from the outside, or a phone call. They create a vacuum around the person, and they do it quite easily. If a person is deprived of any communication with the outside, such as calls to family or letters, he is virtually in outer space. And no one dares violate this ban imposed by the administration.”

A man in outer space is an accurate definition of the situation Viktar Babaryka is in. Inside this space, the prison administration can treat him any way they like: he won’t be able to share this with anyone since he is deprived of any contact with other humans. The fluid in his lungs is a syndrome rather than a sickness. And nobody knows what caused it, same as Viktar Babaryka’s current whereabouts and his current condition.

An indirect, yet a clear sign that his health issue was far worse than a runny nose was that he was brought to a “civilian” hospital at all. Prisons dislike doing so and avoid this by any means possible as admitting a prisoner to hospital requires escort and round-the-clock watchmen shifts. Generally, if there is any possibility to give a prisoner some aspirin and keep him inside the prison walls, they do just this. If someone is brought to a city hospital, that means the prisoner is in real danger.

When another Belarusian political prisoner Maria Kalesnikava was brought to the Homel hospital from the female prison last November, it was only revealed the next day after her surgery: the information was confirmed to her lawyer. Moreover, on the same day, 29 November, the lawyer visited the prison and was not told that Maria was in the hospital: the prison administration simply refused the lawyer to see his client, claiming that she had not submitted a necessary application. So, the information both about Kalesnikava and Babaryka leaked out in the outside world in small drops: someone of the personnel told their friend, who shared it with his friend, and only the third or sixth person in the line was able to make it public.

By the way, Maria Kalesnikava is also not allowed to be spoken to in her prison as well. Darya Chultsova, a reporter with Belsat, said as she was released from prison that she never spoke to Kalesnikava because “any sort of interaction with her was strictly prohibited. Nobody goes near her, and she does just the same. Everyone knows this would be punished.”

Could Viktar Babaryka have been beaten up? Yes, he could have. The Navapolatsk penitentiary is known for its warden who beats up prisoners.

Vadim Khizhniakov, a former political prisoner, was released in February and told human rights defenders that prisoners are being beaten up there and hidden in solitary confinement: “Injuries (suffered through violence) are being concealed, and the injured are being isolated. In most cases, people receive new injuries in solitary confinement as well, as there are no witnesses. If that happens, a person might spend 30 or more days, even 120 days in solitary confinement before the injuries are healed up. Sometimes they provide some medication and treatment to keep a person from dying. However, they often say it out there: it is easier to write off a prisoner than a guard hound. Usually, they transfer such people into punishment cells to prevent them from telling this to someone as very rarely do people return from the punishment cell into the colony: they are either released or sent into full lock-up.”

The prison warden Andey Palchik used to beat up prisoners by himself. “David Lippertariani, 20 years of age, was beaten up by Palchik himself with a truncheon until his rectum started bleeding,” Khizhniakov told human rights defenders. “Lippertariani slit his own abdomen after this. They had to admit him to hospital, but put it in a way as if force was used against him in response to an assault. Then they opened an investigation against him, but soon closed it after he promised to remain silent. He is now on a secure lock-up mode. Palchik is a sadist and a tyrant. Several prison guards are allowed to torture people, and everyone knows that. There are also scum among the others, but they dare not cross the line without an order.” Some reports said in late March that Andrey Palchik had been laid off from his position. It looks as if his methods are still out there, though.

Editor in chief — Kirill Martynov. Terms of use. Privacy policy.