In the days after the dramatic forced landing of a Ryanair flight by the dictatorial regime of Alexander Lukashenko to seize an opponent who was on board, a name appeared scrawled on the side of the Belarusian embassy in Brussels. The hastily-sprayed capital letters read "For the murder of Vitold Ashurak". Who was he?
"There are lots of words that could be used to describe Vitold, and all of them are the best words," says Andrej. He shares the same narrow face and eyes as his brother, and speaks through an interpreter on a video call from his kitchen in the family's hometown of Byarozawka, an hour from Belarus's border with Lithuania.
“He was an honest person, he fought for truth, he was kind, very kind. You could always count on him – you could trust him. If he said he’ll do something, you can be sure he’d do it.”
Ashurak once swore he would stay out of politics. “I remember the conversation clearly. It was in this very kitchen,” recalls childhood friend Sergej Pantus, who sits shoulder to shoulder with Andrej in front of wallpaper patterned with coffee cups.
“Vitold said that he would never be involved in politics, and would never be involved in any party,” Pantus remembers. “At the same time he was always interested in politics, he knew everything that was going on all around the world.”
Everything changed on December 19th, 2010. That was the day of the presidential elections, in which strongman Alexander Lukashenko claimed an overwhelming victory with 80 per cent of the vote, as he has in ballot after ballot since taking power in 1994.
Defeated rival candidates accused him of crushing the opposition and inflating his vote count, a claim backed by independent election observers.
The reason he staged protests on his own was because it was dangerous, you can be imprisoned or be punished by the government
"Vitold called me and said: I'm going to Minsk, " Pantus says. Ashurak joined tens of thousands of protesters who converged on Independence Square in the capital to challenge the result. He was arrested, along with hundreds of other protesters and most of the defeated presidential candidates. He emerged after 12 days in prison changed, Pantus says. "He said he wanted to join a political party."
From that time on the glassblower by profession threw himself into activism. He helped organise commemorations of a 19th century uprising against imperial Russian rule, and staged one-man demonstrations against pollution from inadequate filtration systems at a local glass wool factory, and against the discharge of untreated waste into the river Dzitva. He rose in the ranks of the Christian Democrat BPF party and was a regional organiser of the movement for freedom, becoming a well-known figure in the centre-right opposition to the regime.
“The reason he staged protests on his own was because it was dangerous, you can be imprisoned or be punished by the government. He wanted to campaign but protect other people – he took the whole responsibility on himself,” says Olga Bykovskaja, a friend who was close to his political work.
And indeed he was imprisoned, spending several spells in jail over the years, during which, as an opposition figure, he was identified with a yellow patch on his clothing and singled out for ill treatment, his friends and family recall.
Last summer as presidential elections approached, demonstrations against the regime began to gather pace. The main opposition figures were arrested and accused of being foreign agents or instigating coups. Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the wife of a prominent activist, registered as a presidential candidate following the arrest of her husband and became a figurehead for mass protests against the regime that were met with brutal force. The result of the August election was familiar: 80 per cent for Lukashenko. The European Union imposed a round of sanctions in response to "violence, repression and election fraud".
In the wake of the election,Ashurak was scooped up again and put on trial, charged with organising or participating in protests and the use of or threat of violence against police. He was sentenced to five years in jail, something he took “as a compliment” to his work from the regime, his friend Sergej Pantus says.
“He wrote in a letter: ‘I didn’t kill anyone, I didn’t steal anything’. He didn’t feel any shame. He felt his actions were right,” Pantus says.
In January, Fianna Fáil foreign affairs spokesman Seán Haughey became the "sponsor" of Ashurak as a political prisoner, at the request of a human rights campaign group, Libereco. "His 'crime', in inverted commas... it was a political charge," Haughey tells The Irish Times.
Speaking in the Dáil this week as the Government proposed a motion of solidarity with the Belarusian people, Haughey called for the release of all political prisoners, estimated to number in the hundreds. “Their only crime was standing up for democracy and fundamental human rights in their country,” Haughey said.
Belarus grabbed the world's attention a fortnight ago, when the Lukashenko regime forced a Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania to divert and land in Minsk, escorted by a fighter jet, with the claim there was a bomb on board. Once grounded, two passengers were seized and remain in custody: dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, who had been granted asylum in Poland, and his girlfriend Sofia Sapega, a Russian student.
The incident propelled the situation in Belarus to the top of the international agenda and sent a message to opposition figures across the world: that the regime would stop at nothing to lay its hands on them, wherever they were.
Back in Byarozawka, Ashurak’s friends and family were dealing with their own bombshell. The 50-year-old Ashurak, who had no health problems, had died in prison – of heart disease, they were informed – on Friday, May 21st.
Andrej was told he could come to collect his brother’s body the following Tuesday. But when he arrived, there was a scene of confusion: he was told he could not have the body after all, and needed special permission from police.
Andrej persisted, explaining he had been told to come that day to collect his brother. In the midst of this scene, an unknown man appeared who was not dressed in uniform. The man apologised, Andrej recalls, and said that as Ashurak’s body was being removed from the freezer, it had fallen and there was damage to the head.
When the body was given to the family, Ashurak’s entire head was covered in bandages. “You could only see the lips, not even the eyes,” Andrej says.
In court we could see a smiling, strong person. In this video of the last moments of his life, we can see a very weak person
Within hours a disturbing video emerged appearing to show some of the last moments of Ashurak’s life. Taken from a video camera inside the prison, it shows a stooped Ashurak, his clothes hanging off him, repeatedly collapsing in his cell and hitting his head.
Pantus stayed awake a whole night scrutinising the video, taking screenshots, zooming in and out. The video is a composite of four short clips. Differences in shadow and light suggest they are from different times, perhaps spanning a day, a night, and a morning.
“What is worrying is that when you watch this video, you can see a totally different person compared to the last time we saw Vitold, when he was in court,” Pantus says. “In court we could see a smiling, strong person. In this video of the last moments of his life, we can see a very weak person, very thin, very tired, falling down, he can’t stay on his feet.”
What disturbs Pantus the most is an apparent time difference between the two final clips. The earlier one shows Ashurak collapsing in his cell, seemingly at night as he is lit by an overhead electric light. In the final scene, in which daylight is apparent from a window, a group of guards lay out an unresponsive Ashurak, his face visibly discoloured, possibly already dead.
“How long was he alone without any help, or without treatment?” an anguished Pantus asks.
Ashurak’s friends and family speculate about what might have happened to him. Perhaps he wasn’t fed, perhaps he was tortured, perhaps he was denied medical help. One way or another, he was killed, Andrej believes. He is sure that the truth will come out; that it is impossible that no one, whether a fellow prisoner or a guard, knows what happened.
To stay quiet and say nothing, we can't do that. Someone must, and Vitold did
“Political prisoners are watched at all times,” Bykovskaja explains. Authorities say an investigation is ongoing. The Irish Government has supported calls for an “independent and transparent” investigation into the deaths in custody of Ashurak and another opposition figure, Raman Bandarenka.
As the funeral approached, police let Andrej know that he needed to be careful. He accepted their presence throughout the occasion on the condition that they show respect. They stopped cars on the roads all around and were checking people for symbols and flags, Bykovskaja recalls. But importantly for the mourners, they did not interfere as the prohibited opposition white-red-white flag was placed over Ashurak as he was buried. “That was his last wish,” Bykovskaja recalls. “That was most important for him.”
Andrej Ashurak, Olga Bykovskaja, and Sergej Pantus spoke to The Irish Times as they felt they have the right to remember Vitold and share their opinions. Asked about whether doing the interview posed a risk to their safety, they said it was a proper tribute to Ashurak to speak out regardless.
“If we’re talking about safety, we should explain the level of the absurd reasons for which Belarusian police can arrest people. It can be for example if you dress in white and red,” Sergej explains. “When it was Christmas time, and we decorated our windows with snow and red and white colours, the police could come and arrest you. So you can’t talk about safety in this country.”
A favourite phrase that Ashurak used to say, Pantus recalls, was “it’s easy to tell the truth”.
“To stay quiet and say nothing, we can’t do that. Someone must, and Vitold did, because if we all stay quiet, history tells of many situations, including in this century, in which dictators have started wars on their population, and how far it can go.”
The Irish Times asked the Belarusian government about the circumstances of Vitold Ashurak’s death and whether it would agree to the Irish Government’s call for an independent investigation. A response was awaited.