When Sergiy Melyanets’ children answered the door at their home in Minsk one recent morning, he was surprised to find what he said were plain-clothed KGB officers stood at his doorstep.
Mr Melyanets, an active member of his local Baptist church, is known to Belarusian authorities – he was arrested by riot police in Minsk during a brutal crackdown on protests in August 2020 after President Alexander Lukashenko’s election win.
After he was bundled into a van, Mr Melyanets was beaten and prodded with an electroshock weapon, even after he pleaded with officers that he was only there to pray for Belarus.
Since then, he said authorities have regularly targeted him and his friends and threatened reprisals against his family for showing any sign of dissent against the Belarusian regime. In 2021, he was arrested and fined 957 rubles (about £310) for the colour of the window blinds in his bedroom. They were white-red-white – colours that have come to symbolise protest against the Belarusian government, but Mr Melyanets tried to argue in court that it reflected his Christian beliefs.
While the crackdown on dissent has become less violent since 2020, repressive measures have become more frequent and “less visible”, said Human Rights Watch (HRW). People are being arrested and, in some cases, jailed for trivial and arbitrary acts, such as following a Telegram channel or liking a post, HRW said. This has become worse since the war in Ukraine began more than a year ago, said Belarusian human rights organisation Viasna.
Mr Melyanets said the KGB security officers who visited him last week wanted him to attend an interview to identify someone as part of a criminal case, but they did not give further details.
“I explained to them that I was alone at home with my children, two of whom were sick. They conferred (with someone) over the phone for a long time,” he said.
“Then they ordered me to show my phone and videotaped all the chats on Telegram, Facebook, photos and numbers with the Polish and Ukrainian area codes.
“They said to wait for the call. They left.”
The strange and unexpected encounter left Mr Melyanets on edge and sick with worry, saying he has friends and peers who have been imprisoned or are under investigation.
“My friend Pavel was given a year and a half for some comments in a Telegram chatroom,” he said, adding that he also knows of a married couple, Andrei and Vera, who are “under investigation for several months in jail for a photo with a white-red-white flag in the street of Minsk”.
“There are a lot of such stories,” he said. “I am scared. I have a big family – seven children to take care of. I’m afraid that they will torture me, like they did in 2020.
“There are almost no lawyers left. All of them were disbarred. And those who are left have no influence on anything.”
Mr Melyanets does not know why he is being targeted again by authorities, but suspects it is connected to last month’s drone attack on a Russian spy plane at an air base in Machulishchy, a town south of Minsk. Belarusian anti-government group BYPOL claimed responsibility for the strike against the A-50 aircraft, and rejected allegations that Ukraine was involved.
Mr Melyanets also believes Belarusian authorities are going after people who are helping Ukrainian refugees or show any signs of being anti-war in relation to the conflict in Ukraine.
Mr Lukashenko, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, has come out in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine, and while he has continually denied claims his troops could join the conflict, he has allowed Russia to use the Belarus border with Ukraine as a launchpad for the invasion, and has provided warplanes, missiles and other weapons to Moscow.
It has led to a number of attacks by guerilla fighters within the country to thwart Russia’s military efforts, including explosions at railway tracks used by Russian forces to get troops and weapons into Ukraine.
Belarus’s government has unleashed a crackdown against saboteurs and anybody who express anti-Russian or pro-Ukraine sentiment.
On Friday, Mr Melyanets said he met with officers and was subjected to an interrogation, where a lie detector was used on him as he was asked questions for several hours, including whether he participated in unauthorised mass events, had made bombs and explosive devices or possessed a firearm. He said he was also asked whether he recognised people in a photo.
He was eventually released, saying officers found no reason to arrest him.
According to Viasna, at least 1,575 Belarusians have been detained for their anti-war stance in the past year, and 56 have been convicted on various charges and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 12 months to 23 years.
They include Ruslan Yurtsevich, a father of three who was convicted and fined 640 rubles (£200) for a white-red-white flag on his Facebook profile picture, and Valeriy Ivonchik, who was detained for 12 days over a Ukrainian flag in his car.
When asked whether the clampdown against resistance movements was getting worse, Viasna member Natallia Satsunkevich said: “Yes, definitely.”
“The beginning of the war (in Ukraine) was the biggest trigger for public protest in Belarus,” she added. “We saw that there were no limitations to police repression.
“The official policy of the regime is to support Russia and Putin, so for authorities, it looks like that those who are against the war are (also) against Putin and Lukashenko.
“Authorities are trying to find everyone who are not supporting the regime, and are still looking for people who took part in protests in August 2020. They use special recognition techniques and equipment and they continue to do this.”
Anastasiia Kruope, a researcher at HRW, has also been investigating cases of repression in the country, with her most recent report on a woman who was sentenced to two years in prison over a media interview she gave about her husband, who himself was jailed for 15 years over a Telegram channel. Belarusian authorities labelled the interview as “extremist”.
“Even though it might seem that after 2020 the repression in Belarus has become less horrible, that is not the case, it has become less visible,” Ms Kruope said.
“People are being prosecuted for something they did two years ago, and targeted for random things at times. It’s really common and widespread.
“People get prison terms for a message on Telegram or liking something (on social media), it’s an ongoing wave of repression.
“It’s important to keep in mind that while it seems the crackdown is winding down, it isn’t. It is still very much ongoing.”
Her warnings came as the UN human rights chief, Volker Türk, called on Belarus to end its “systematic repression” of critics and immediately release people held on political grounds, saying some violations may amount to crimes against humanity.
His remarks followed a report on Friday that found violations of international law including unlawful killings, torture, sexual violence and deprivation of the right to freedom of expression in the last two years. It was based on interviews with more than 200 victims and witnesses and an analysis of over 2,500 items of evidence, including photographs, videos and medical and court records.
“Our report paints an unacceptable picture of impunity and the near-total destruction of civic space and fundamental freedoms in Belarus,” Mr Türk said, as he urged the Minsk government to end “this mass repression” and to carry out impartial investigations to ensure accountability.