“If we had known it would take this long, we would have considered a different option, though you don’t know if that would have been an improvement,” says Vladislav Kusnetshik. For the past year, he and his father Vitalij have been hiding out in Sweden’s Minsk embassy to avoid persecution by Belarus authorities.
The two men arrived at the embassy on September 11, 2020, to request political asylum. After being told though the intercom to turn elsewhere, the two scaled the embassy wall and have since refused to leave the compound.
Images of Belarusian security officers violently dispersing anti-Lukashenko protests were omnipresent in the media last year. The Belarusian president is thought to have rigged the August 2020 election to stay in power.
At the time, anti-Lukashenko protesters were regularly being arrested and abused in Vitebsk and other Belarusian cities. Vitalij, who was among the protesters, was apprehended by police officers, after they had sprayed pepper spray in his eyes.
Vladislav recalls how, with the help of fellow demonstrators, he was able to pull his father away and escape, and adds many witnesses can confirm the events.
Belarusian authorities later charged the two men with threatening and using violence against police officers.
But there is some doubt about this. “We have no information on how investigators determined officers had been injured, beaten and sustained physical pain, as authorities never named the officers in question,” says Vadim Drosdov, the lawyer representing Vladislav and Vitalij Kusnetshik.
Drosdov says his clients have remained in the Swedish embassy for the past year out of fear Belarusian authorities will arrest and torture them.
Swedish media has cited foreign ministry statements saying that foreigners cannot claim asylum at Swedish embassies, but the foreign ministry has made clear it is in talks with the Kusnetshiks.
Calling on UN assistance
Drosdov says Vladislav and Vitalij Kusnetshik filed a complaint against Sweden with the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) in September 2020, warning the body that they face torture by the Lukashenko regime if Swedish action or inaction leads to their arrest.
On October 1, the UN body agreed to preliminary measures mandating Sweden refrain from any actions that could lead to the men’s arrest. It also called on Sweden to grant the Kusnetshiks immunity.
“The preliminary measures do not mandate the Swedish government to recognize the Kusnetshiks as refugees, or grant them a residency permit, even though they could do this,” says Drosdov. He says the UN body will assess whether or not to accept the men’s complaint in November. They intend to stay at the embassy until then.
Well taken care of
Sweden has provided the men with a room to stay, with beds, a shower, toilet, washing machine, kitchen, fridge and crockery. They have been given weights to stay in shape. They used to receive ready-made meals; today, they prefer cooking themselves. “That is a big plus, it makes the time pass quicker,” says Vladislav. “They buy the necessary groceries for us.”
They can also step outside to catch some fresh air when ever they want. “We have everything we need, and we have a good relationship with the embassy staff.” He says they do not have a television or computer but thankfully have their phones to fall back on. He says the possibility of a medical checkup is being considered, though previously media reports had said the two men needed medical support.
The Kusnetshiks have not seen their family in a year. The embassy will not allow visits, and the men have had to rely on talking to their loved ones by videocalls. “I am not too worried about us anymore,” says Vladislav. Instead, he says, he is more concerned about his family, which is struggling financially now that he cannot earn any money. “My mother and my wife fell sick with the coronavirus last year, but they are pulling through,” he says. “The children miss us and are asking when we will return home.”
“The ideal solution for us would be to keep living in our home country, without fear of the future — but that will be possible only once we have new, fair elections and when our laws are fully respected,” says Vladislav.
Main Image: The Swedish embassy in Minsk