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Slavery in the 21st century


Pavel Latushka: Deputy head of the United Transitional Cabinet of Belarus, Head of the Anti-Crisis Management, Ambassador

Political prisoners are not only subjected to torture within Belarusian prisons but also forced into de facto slave labor in numerous enterprises operating within colonies and prisons. 

The Department of Execution of Punishments under the Lukashenko regime exploits the labor of prisoners in nearly 30 penal colonies across the country, manufacturing a wide range of goods. 

These include woodworking products, furniture made from wood and metal, spare parts for factories that are currently under sanctions, such as MAZ, BelAZ, MTZ and Gomselmash, metal products, military uniforms, ammunition boxes, and various items for the military-industrial complex.

The regime offers these goods for export and sells them through online stores, physical shops, and social media platforms. 

The sale of prison products involves numerous dealers and intermediaries from both state-run enterprises and private companies.

The revenue generated from this so-called Belarusian prison-industrial conveyor belt is substantial, as the regime benefits from practically free labor provided by the prisoners. These proceeds are utilized to finance Lukashenko's grip on power and the implementation of repressive measures.

The prison economy operates in utmost secrecy, with the Department of Execution of Punishments’ website remaining outdated since 2020, a decision made by Lukashenko himself. Information regarding the department's foreign economic activities is also carefully concealed. 

However, there is information about preferential conditions for those wishing to cooperate with DEP. Goods can be purchased from correctional institutions using a single-source procurement procedure or, if purchased at their own expense, without a procurement procedure at all.

The foreign economic activities of the Department are now also carefully hidden. In 2019, DEP reported cooperation with companies from over 20 countries.

Recently, a significant number of intermediaries have been involved in the sale of products manufactured by prisoners in colonies. These products are relabeled, obscuring their origin. It has become increasingly difficult to determine whether a table, chair, cabinet, or hockey stick was made by prisoners.

Even before 2020, relatives of prisoners initiated a public campaign calling on European countries to stop buying goods made through captivity and slave labor. However, after 2020, with the escalation of repression in Belarus and the increased number of political prisoners, reaching 1,500 individuals, the situation worsened. All these prisoners were forced to work in production facilities within the prisons. It is evident that calls alone cannot rectify the situation.

It is worth noting that in October 2020 and June 2021, several individuals involved in inhuman and degrading treatment and torture of detainees during protests were included in the EU sanctions list. These individuals include Oleg Matkin, the Head of the Department of Execution of Punishments of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Belarus, as well as Ivan Myslitsky, Vladislav Mandryk, Oleg Belyakov, and Andrey Dalida, who are Deputy Heads of the Department. Evgeniy Shapetko, the head of Akrestsin, his deputy Gleb Dril, and Dmitry Strebkov, the head of the prison in Zhodino, were put on the international wanted list.

However, these measures have not been effective in stopping torture and slave labor in the colonies. The EU imposed sanctions on the trade of timber from Belarus due to its support for the war in Ukraine. Nevertheless, the timber trade continues through alternative routes and with the involvement of new participants in schemes to circumvent sanctions. Additionally, these sanctions have not deterred Lukashenko from supporting Russia's aggressive war against Ukraine. He openly flaunts this fact.

The limited effectiveness of sanctions is not due to their ineffectiveness. Sanctions do work. The need to find various ways and methods to bypass them and the existence of parallel import mechanisms and other tricks demonstrate this. 

However, the impact of sanctions is not decisive because they have not been introduced simultaneously in powerful packages. The purpose of sanctions should not only be to deter Lukashenko but also to punish him for his actions. The punishment should be severe enough to create an insurmountable problem for him.

The problem of political prisoners can be addressed through comprehensive sanctions.

These sanctions should be introduced as a powerful package encompassing all groups of goods for which equivalents are produced by prisoners in the Department of Execution of Punishments. This includes over a thousand items of goods across numerous product groups. Sanctions should be imposed on these product groups to prevent the possibility of replacing product codes and relabeling the manufacturer.

This approach would serve as punishment for human rights violations, unlawful convictions for political reasons, and the wrongful imprisonment of thousands of innocent Belarusians. It would also form the basis for demanding the release and rescue of all political prisoners.

Lukashenko has callously ignored the calls and demands from heads of state and parliamentarians to cease violence and release political prisoners for over three years. Therefore, it is necessary to impose a powerful package of sanctions rather than mere warnings and appeals.

Sanctions are an accessible method of punishment

A  warning can serve as a condition: if new arrests occur, even more powerful sanctions, including an embargo, will be imposed. 

The condition for lifting the comprehensive sanctions package would be the cessation of violence and the release of all political prisoners.


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