Natalia Hershe watched transfixed as protests swept her homeland, triggered by Alyaksandr Lukashenka’s claim of victory in a presidential election that millions of people in Belarus believe was rigged to hand him a sixth term in the face of mounting opposition to his rule.
Hershe, who has lived in Switzerland for 12 years, decided this past summer to return home to join the pro-democracy protest movement despite the risks involved.
Tens of thousands of arrests, hundreds if not thousands of beatings on the street and in detention, some defined as torture, and several deaths have been the result of the state’s persistent crackdown on protesters as Lukashenka clings to power.
And now Hershe, a citizen of Switzerland and Belarus, has joined those grim statistics.
On December 7, a court in Minsk sentenced her to 2 ½ years in prison after finding her guilty of resisting arrest at a rally in September — including stripping a riot police officer of his balaclava, although little if any evidence of that alleged action was presented.
The court’s ruling triggered outrage among fellow protesters in Belarus and from her husband, Robert Staheli. In an interview with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, he called her sentence “just horrible” and said it appeared to be aimed at frightening people and subduing protesters.
“I think this is just a signal to the others: Do not even think to behave this way, to resist,” Staheli said, speaking English in the Skype interview from the couple’s home in Switzerland on December 8.
In her closing statement to the court, Hershe, 51, remained defiant.
“I live in a European democracy where freedom of speech and peaceful assembly is unconditionally respected and defined by the constitution, where police officers do not hide their faces under masks and protect their citizens. I hope it will be in a free, free Belarus as well,” she said.
Besides the prison term, Hershe was ordered to pay 1,000 Belarusian rubles ($390) to the police officer, the plaintiff in the case, for his “suffering.”
Hershe has been in jail since September 19 when she was arrested while attending a women’s march in Minsk.
She is alleged to have ripped the balaclava from the OMON officer as she was being shoved into a police van after being arrested in the center of the capital. Video footage of the incident does not seem to support those claims, however, and Belarusian activists say no photographic proof has emerged confirming that she resisted arrest as charged.
Staheli said his wife managed to notify him of her arrest in a text message from her mobile phone as she was being transported in a police vehicle shortly afterwards. Staheli said he later confirmed her arrest, when her name appeared on a list maintained by Vyasna, a Belarusian NGO that monitors the protests and tries to track the location and fate of arrestees.
After that, Staheli said, information on the fate of his wife essentially dried up.
“Then a terrible time began: a long time when I knew nothing. At the same time, there were lots of horrible stories in the press about violence against protesters, which I just could not imagine,” Staheli recounted.
Hershe was first held at the Akrestsina detention center, synonymous with torture due to the abuse alleged and documented to have been committed by guards on those detained there. She was later held at a facility in the city of Zhodzina, northeast of the capital.
Staheli has been barred from visiting his wife in prison. So has a brother “with whom she is close,” he said. “Only a lawyer and a representative of the Swiss Foreign Ministry are allowed to do this. I think now [that she has been sentenced] this situation will change, but how exactly is still difficult to say. This prison is not one that is service-oriented,” he said.
Swiss Ambassador Claude Altermatt, who attended the trial, said Hershe would continue to receive consular support.
“We regret such a court decision. It doesn’t matter to us that Natalia is a citizen of Belarus, we treat her as our citizen,” Altermatt said.
‘She Just Had To Go There’
In October, Swiss lawmakers sent a letter to Belarus demanding her immediate release, calling her arrest and jailing “an arbitrary and politically motivated decision.”
The UN rights chief said on December 4 that the human rights situation in Belarus continues to deteriorate, particularly with respect to peaceful assembly.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet said more than 27,000 people had been arrested in Belarus since protests since the disputed August 9 presidential election.
“In the last month, hundreds of people continued to be arrested each week during the demonstrations – with reportedly around 1,000 people on November 8 and 700 on November 15, while allegations of injuries during dispersals and of ill-treatment during arrests continued to emerge,” she said at a meeting of the UN Human Rights Council.
Despite the dangers, Staheli said there had been no chance of stopping his wife from traveling to Belarus after the disputed vote.
“When she had this idea, she was filled with lots of enthusiasm and energy. I knew that she just had to go there,” Staheli explained, adding her motivation was clear.
“To protect democracy in her homeland and the values by which we live by here in Switzerland.”
Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Russian Service correspondent Mark Krutov