Local resident encouraged by Irish support for Belarus opposition leader
A man from Belarus who lives with his family in Athlone said he was hopeful the support shown in Ireland for his native country's opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, will help to build international pressure for fresh elections to be held there.
Monksland resident Pavel Mialko worked as an investigator with the police in Belarus before moving to Ireland in 2006.
During the fifteen years since then he has not been able to visit the country, which is led by Alexander Lukashenko and has been labelled 'Europe's last dictatorship'.
Ms Tikhanovskaya, who spent a number of summers with a family in Roscrea during her teenage years, contested the presidential election in Belarus last August and is understood to have received a clear majority of the votes.
However, Mr Lukashenko, who has been in power since 1994, claimed victory in an outcome that was declared rigged by the European Union.
Ms Tikhanovskaya is currently living in exile from Belarus. Last week, she returned to Ireland for her first visit in 18 years, meeting her former host family in Roscrea and holding talks with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, and other Irish politicians.
Pavel, along with his wife Olga and daughters Evialina, Agata and Elizabeth, travelled from Athlone to Dublin early last week for an event in St Stephen's Green where Ms Tikhanovskaya greeted Belarusian people living in Ireland.
"She spent about an hour there, by the statue of Wolfe Tone. We gave some presents, and asked a few questions," said Pavel.
"She was happy because she knows this Irish soil. It's like a second home for her."
He pointed out that a number of Irish politicians were currently sponsoring political prisoners in Belarus.
"Other countries' politicians try to look after the political prisoners we have. We have more than 500 in total, including (Ms Tikhanovskaya's) husband.
"She is the only person left to try to bring international attention to Belarus, because all of the other (opposition) politicians are in prison."
Describing the current situation in his native country, Pavel said things had only gotten worse since the rigged election last year.
"Many people are leaving the country. We have more than 500 political prisoners, and around 700 still facing charges. Just a couple of days ago they arrested 11 civil rights activists. Some have tried to escape the country and some have been detained.
"(Lukashenko) closed all of the NGOs, the non-governmental organisations that fight for civil rights, and put the people in jail. And there are not many journalists left there to show what is going on."
Pavel said he was very fond of Ireland and that the people were "very warm" and supportive when they found out about the political struggle in Belarus.
His own brother and father are still living there, and he said the best outcome to the current crisis would be new elections that were fair and held under the scrutiny of recognised international observers.
"People in Belarus don't want war - they don't want to destroy the country because that doesn't bring results. Our goal is to have new elections with international observation. This should be agreed not just from the west, but from the east as well.
"They should release all of the political prisoners and then bring to justice the people who have committed crimes against humanity and used torture.
"We have more than 400 cases in the UN about the torture of people in jails and in police stations," he explained.
Roscommon-Galway TD Denis Naughten was one of the politicians who met with Ms Tikhanovskaya in Dublin last week.
In a statement, Deputy Naughten said he was joining several parliamentarians from across Europe in calling for the release of political prisoners who were sentenced by the Belarusian regime in May 2021 and were now being held in mostly inhumane conditions.
"The only offence of these prisoners is that they had taken part in peaceful demonstrations and, together with many other citizens, had campaigned for peace, freedom, democracy and fair new elections," said the local TD.
In particular, Deputy Naughten is seeking the release of 30-year-old musician Aliaksei Sanchuk who was reportedly beaten after arrest and reported pressure while speaking in court.
Mr Sanchuk had also been forced to appear in a video confession later shown by a government-owned TV channel.
"Since the beginning of the demonstrations after the rigged election in Belarus in August there have been numerous violent attacks by the police on peaceful demonstrators," said Deputy Naughten.