- Associated Press - Sunday, January 23, 2011

MINSK, Belarus | In the aftermath of Belarus‘ presidential election, a 3-year-old boy is at the heart of a battle with a secret service that still calls itself the KGB.

Lyutsina Khalip is fighting to keep her toddler grandson, Danil, out of an orphanage after the secret police jailed his parents, a journalist and an opposition presidential candidate who had challenged President Alexander Lukashenko.

The repression of this family is part of a broad campaign to punish Mr. Lukashenko’s opponents and crush all dissent. After winning a fourth term last month, Mr. Lukashenko unleashed the KGB against the opposition in a chilling echo of the Soviet era.

Lukashenko is trying to frighten Belarusian society, to plunge it into fear,” said analyst Alexander Klaskovsky. “And for this he is using tried and true methods from the 1930s — repressions, arrests and searches.”

About 700 people, including seven of the nine opposition candidates, were arrested on election night when police brutally dispersed mass protests in central Minsk against what international observers agreed was a rigged election.

Lyutsina Khalip (right) (Associated Press)
Lyutsina Khalip (right) (Associated Press) more >

Most were held for 10 to 15 days and released. But more than 30 people remain in jail, including the little boy’s parents: presidential candidate Andrei Sannikov, who finished a distant second to Mr. Lukashenko, and Irina Khalip, an international award-winning journalist who writes for a Russian opposition paper.

In the weeks since the Dec. 19 protests, KGB officers have searched the homes and offices of journalists and rights activists across the country, seizing computers and files. A popular radio station that had given airtime to Mr. Sannikov was closed down.

Even ordinary people have been ordered to show up for questioning after mobile telephone providers gave police the records of all calls made in the vicinity of the election-night protests, according to police and some of those called in for questioning.

Mr. Lukashenko has never tolerated much dissent during the more than 16 years he has ruled Belarus, a country bordering Russia, Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania that has long been known as the “last dictatorship in Europe.”

But the current crackdown is drawing direct comparisons to the repressions of the Soviet era. The threat to take away little Danil Sannikov has been particularly alarming because it is so reminiscent of the Stalinist practice of putting the children of so-called enemies of the people in orphanages when their parents were sent to the Gulag.

“The terrible Stalinist times are returning to Belarus. I can’t believe that this is really happening,” said Lyutsina Khalip, 74, clutching her grandson to her chest.

She and her husband, film director Vladimir Khalip, believe the government is using the boy to put pressure on their daughter and son-in-law.

“The attempt to take our grandson is a vile way of putting pressure on our daughter, an attempt to force her to do what Lukashenko wants,” Vladimir Khalip said by telephone from the hospital, where he has undergone two eye operations in recent weeks.

Political analyst Valery Karbalevich said such use of children was a standard tactic, pointing to past cases of grown children being jailed to pressure political opponents.

“By using children, they are able to get their opponents to confess, to capitulate politically, to appear on state television and make a repentant speech,” he said.

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