Last year Lithuania suffered an international humiliation when it voluntarily handed over information about human rights activist Ales Belyatsky's bank accounts to Belarus. Using the data, a Belarusian court convicted him for tax evasion. Belyatsky was sent to prison for four years and had all his property seized. Money in Belyatsky's bank accounts in Lithuania were intended to fund opposition activities.
And now Lithuania risks losing its face again. Execution by bullet. This is the fate that might be awaiting Stepan Zakharchenko, junior sergeant of the Belarusian army, who fled to Lithuania in summer last year, fearing for his life. The man refused to sign a pledge obliging him to kill fellow Belarusians if the army had to step in to suppress mass protests.
Zakharchenko was punished for his stubbornness – he was severely beaten, after which he decided to desert. He applied for political asylum in Lithuania but was turned down. Lithuanian officials now tell him: “You'll be going home soon.” And Belarusian officials are looking forward to receiving him, ready with charges of desertion, illegal border crossing, cooperation with foreign intelligence, treason, etc.
“Long story short, a bullet into my head,” the junior sergeant thinks. He then adds, reflectively: “If I am tried by a Belarusian court, it will either be a show trial or a closed trial. It won't be an ordinary hearing. They will simply kill me, giving any of the many possible justifications – suicide or something else. These things happen in our country all the time. What am I? We've had a general killed, while reporters disappear without trace.”
Revenge for reluctance to kill
Zakharchenko has been living in Pabradė Alien Registration Centre for over a year. He has agreed to share his story with 15min, especially since he can be deported from Lithuania any day. The former junior sergeant meets us outside the Registration Centre. He is a slender 22-year-old man who looks nothing like what you'd imagine to be an intelligence unit soldier. However, the fact that he crossed the border without much trouble attests to his skill – he was not spotted by either Belarusian or Lithuanian border guards. The man drove all the way to Vilnius and knocked on the police door himself.
“I joined the army voluntarily. All people around me were serving – friends, relatives. Everyone kept asking me if I'd served. I felt uncomfortable saying no,” Stepanas starts his story.
In order to serve in the army he had to suspend his studies at a Ukrainian university in Chernihiv. He even pondered becoming a career soldier. “When I joined the army, I though I'd continue my service as a professional soldier. My native town Gomel is close to the border with Ukraine, so I dreamed of becoming a border guard. But I failed.”
The young man experienced violence for the first time four months into his service. After that he would get beaten regularly. In his division, the weak were not abused by privates but rather by drunk officers.
Stepan says he would have endured the beating, but the last straw was an official document he was given to sign whereby he would have pledged to kill his fellow countrymen in case of mass unrests.
“I cannot recall the exact phrasing, but the bottom line was that we were pledging to open fire against Belarusian citizens, if officers of the internal affairs failed to suppress riots, threatening the independence of the Republic of Belarus, its sovereignty and Constitution. Something along these lines,” Stepan recalls. “Because I refused to put my signature, I was severely beaten and even ended up in hospital.”
Purposeful failure to help
“I ran away from my division, took a taxi that took me to the nearest highway where I caught a small bus with Lithuanian license plates. The driver was very surprised, but agreed to take a deserter to the border,” Zakharchenko recalls events of last year.
At 3 AM the fugitive was on this side of the border. He had no trouble coming to Vilnius and went straight to a police station. He did not beat about the bush: Good morning, my name is so and so, I deserted the Belarusian army. The police told him to file a report, but now Zakharchenko realizes that the procedure was not done by the book. No one explained him his rights nor offered an attorney.
“When they questioned me later, there was no interpreter nor a lawyer. My case inspector, named Asta, I don't even recall her last name, did not speak good Russian, but somehow she wrote down my explanation in Lithuanian. I do not have a clue what's written there,” says Stepan who has just recently found himself an attorney.
“Do I have to do everything? No one gave me any help in the Registration Centre. I suspect that the Migration Service would purposefully fail to assist,” he continues.
Oleg Metelitsa, head of the Belarusian civil and political agency in Lithuania, thinks so too. “We had an impression that some of your people closely cooperate with Belarusian official authorities,” Metelitsa tells 15min.
According to Zakharchenko, he was told almost from the start he would be deported home eventually.
“I am very scared of that. I was also told that in Lithuania, everything is going upside down. The Belarusian services started looking for me. Here, in Lithuania. Who can stop them? The border is less than nine kilometres away. If I could cross it, so can they,” Stepan is concerned about his security.
He feels certain that if he is not granted political asylum in Lithuania, it will be a clear indication that the Republic of Lithuania is openly collaborating with the Lukashenko regime.
“I was refused asylum because deserting an army cannot be a basis for granting asylum. But I did not run away because my girlfriend dumped me or because I went crazy. I simply did not want to shoot at my compatriots. But the Migration Service does not give a damn,” he resents.
Meanwhile Natalia Radina, a known Belarusian opposition reporter and editor of charter97.org, who was recently granted political asylum in Lithuania, says she has full confidence in Lithuanian institutions that handle asylum seekers. “I myself have gone through the entire procedure and I completely trust Lithuanian officers, I think they can objectively decide if a case warrants granting asylum,” Radina says.
Fellow servicemen do not back Zakharchenko. They told the Belarusian media that there were nothing of the sort that he described in the army. The young man, according to them, simply was too weak and succumbed to psychological stress.
“Do you not know the operations of the official Belarusian media? They are simply told what to report. Perhaps they [soldiers] were coerced into saying these things, I don't know. By the way, I was not the only one who refused to sign the document and was beaten. They can bend truth in any way they want. While I was serving, two of our guys were killed. Officially, these were accidents. But who knows what really happened. While I was here, I discovered about one more death in my division," the fugitive speculates.
Zakharchenko claims he was not the only one to run away after refusing to shoot at armless protestors. One other fugitive is now in France. Another, a former officer, is in Sweden. Viachiaslav Dudkin, a former officer of the Belarusian internal affairs structures who fled to France, has written a letter to Lithuania's President Dalia Grybauskaitė to confirm that soldiers indeed had to sign pledges to that effect.
Zakharchenko hopes that by making his story public he will reverse his fortune and will not be deported to Belarus.
"I want to learn the language, stay in Lithuania, get a job. I do not care for Italy or other countries where people go. If there were a change of regime in Belarus tomorrow, universal amnesty, I would go back at once. I want to live in a democratic country where people do not kill, do not beat each other, are not oppressed. Who knows when that will happen," Zakharchenko concludes.
Update, 2 October
On Tuesday, Vilnius District Administrative Court started hearing Stepan Zakharchenko's appeal against the decision to refuse him asylum in Lithuania.
Presiding Judge Henrikas Sadauskas initially offered to have a closed hearing in order to protect Zakharchenko's privacy, but the appellant asked for an open hearing.
The court heard that soon after coming to Lithuania and asking for asylum, Zakharchenko fled to Norway, thus violating a pledge given to the Lithuanian authorities. He was soon returned.
The judge asked why the former soldier did it, even though at the time Lithuania was still considering his asylum plea. Zakharchenko replied that he was not explained the terms of the document he was signing and that he did not know he was not allowed to leave the country. Moreover, he said, Lithuanian officers had already unofficially informed him he was not getting asylum.
"Belarus is only 9.5 kilometres away from Pabradė. Belarusian special services were looking for me here [in Lithuania]," he told the court. He did not, however, give more details.
His lawyer Laura Gumuliauskienė asked the court to take into account her client's agitated psychological state. Zakharchenko's actions, she said, might have been inadequate but were not malicious.
The court is expected to give its ruling on 12 October.