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Belarus is kidnapping Ukrainian children. This is a war crime

The Belarusian oppositionists are lobbying in Switzerland to toughen the position for the international prosecution of dictator Lukashenka. Responsibility here may also lie with the Swiss Red Cross

Bernhard Odehnal (original article)

“No, the situation has not softened,” says Uladzimir Astapenka. "Every day we hear about new arrests, every day people are tortured. And every month we hear about the death of prisoners who are denied medical care."

This is Astapenka’s description of the situation in his homeland, Belarus. Until 2020, the 60-year-old diplomat served under longtime President Alexander Lukashenka. However, after Lukashenka rigged the elections and violently suppressed civil society protests, Astapenka went into exile and now represents Belarusian democratic forces in Brussels.

Uladzimir Astapenka
U. Astapenka Photo: NAM-media

This week, Astapenka and a small team traveled to Switzerland to highlight the fact that not only Russia, but also Lukashenka, the partner of Vladimir Putin, is disregarding human rights. “If you examine the evidence, it's all there,” says Astapenka. “The only thing lacking is the political will of the West and its determination to take action. For over two years, we have been appealing for help and urging for concrete measures.”

Astapenka and his team team have brought with them a comprehensive study titled "Crimes against Humanity in Belarus." This study provides a legal analysis of the options available to the international community, particularly the International Criminal Court, to hold the Belarusian regime accountable. According to Astapenka, Belarus has become a vast prison, necessitating support for prosecuting Lukashenka at the International Criminal Court.

In Switzerland, the Belarusian opposition meets with representatives of undisclosed international organizations in Zurich and Geneva. The identities of the team members are also kept confidential due to concerns about potential retaliation from the regime, as they have relatives in Belarus.

Belarus is not among the 123 countries that recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. However, Belarusian experts draw attention to the precedent set by Myanmar, where victims of dictatorship sought refuge in neighboring states that recognized the court's jurisdiction. The judges in The Hague ruled that the court could exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed within Myanmar itself. The Belarusian opposition believes that this decision could apply to Belarus as well, given that most of Lukashenka’s victims have sought refuge in Poland or the Baltic countries.

Uladzimir Astapenka cites the case of Natallia Hersche, a citizen of Belarus and Switzerland, who spent nearly a year and a half in a Belarusian prison for participating in a protest, enduring psychological and physical torture. According to Astapenka, Hersche's release enables her to serve as a witness in the International Criminal Court. Astapenka adds, “And there are at least three victims of Lukashenka’s repressions who were able to escape to Switzerland.”

Democratic forces argue that another reason for international intervention in Lukashenka’s actions is the movement of Ukrainian children to Belarus. They have established evidence that children from occupied territories in Ukraine were relocated to special camps with the aim of molding them into “loyal Russian citizens” and subsequently being put up for adoption by Russian parents. There is substantial documentary evidence supporting these claims. Consequently, the International Criminal Court has issued an international arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin and his Commissioner for Children's Rights, Maria Lvova-Belova.

However, the regime of Aliaksandr Lukashenka is also implicated in these abductions of children from Ukraine. Astapenka notes that it began before the war, citing the example of approximately 40 children taken from orphanage No. 1 in Donetsk in August 2021. These children were subjected to Russian indoctrination for several weeks before being sent back to the occupied territory and subsequently to Russia. Evidence suggests that these children may be adopted by Russian parents.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the alleged abductions of Ukrainian children occurred in multiple waves. Astapenka mentions that around 2,100 boys and girls aged 6 to 15 years were subjected to indoctrination in Lukashenka’s Belarus for two or three weeks. The next transportation of children is planned for September. Astapenka emphasizes, “Ukrainian children are being taken from the occupied territories to Belarus. This is a war crime.”

The Lukashenka regime presents the abductions as a “humanitarian action in favor of the victims of war,” while the opposition dismisses this as a lie. Uladzimir Astapenka states, “Instead of medical care, children receive lectures from Russian propagandists and Orthodox priests.” It appears that the Belarusian Red Cross was also involved in these deportations.

This grave accusation has a witness, the head of the Belarusian Red Cross Dzmitry Shautsou, who confirmed in a television interview that his organization was involved in the abductions. He speaks of a “rehabilitation” in which the Belarusian Red Cross has participated and will continue to participate. In response, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, based in Geneva, expressed “deep concern” regarding the position of its member.

Opposition representative Uladzimir Astapenka also believes that the Swiss Red Cross has certain obligations. Historically, it has been one of the largest sponsors of the Belarusian partner organization. Astapenka states, “We want to be sure that this money was not used to finance human rights violations.” A representative from the Swiss Red Cross confirmed that a budget of one million francs had been allocated for Belarus over the past four years, with an additional 130,000 francs provided for 2023. This funding was intended for the joint project with the Belarusian Red Cross called “Care and care services for elderly and vulnerable people at home.” Regardless of the ongoing events, the Swiss Red Cross has already decided to withdraw from Belarus in 2024.

During this visit, the Belarusian opposition did not have direct contact with the Swiss Red Cross. However, Uladzimir Astapenka emphasizes that the work of convincing international organizations is just beginning and expresses hope that “Switzerland will also help us bring Lukashenka to the international court.”


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