The Belarus government is threatening to take Danil, the 3-year-old son of an opposition presidential candidate, into custody. The candidate, Andrei Sannikov, and his wife, Irina Khalip, a journalist, have been jailed since December, following a protest against fraud in the presidential elections.
Danil is currently living with his grandmother, 74-year-old Lyutsina Khalip, and does not yet know that both of his parents are in prison: Sannikov and his wife are among two dozen people facing up to 15 years in prison, on charges of organizing and participating in a protest in central Minsk on December 19th, after Lukashenko’s ‘claim of a sweeping victory in elections that independent observers deemed a farce.’ The rally was broken up by police and some 600 people arrested. Sannikov–who was seized from his car while speaking to a Moscow radio station and beaten—his wife, and the organizers are being held at Minsk’s K.G.B. detention center, where they have been denied access to lawyers and contact with family.
Danil does not know what has happened to his parents, or that representatives from the government’s child welfare service are inquiring as to whether his grandmother is ‘fit’ to take care of him. His grandmother has undergone required medical and psychological testing, and Danil himself has been tested for H.I.V. and syphilis. Danil’s ‘plight may represent a new tactic in the government’s persecution of the opposition, one that harks back to the Stalin era, when the children of so-called enemies of the people were sent to orphanages after their parents went to the gulag,’ said the New York Times.
Here in the West, the actions of the Belarus government are hard to imagine. Nonetheless, I can say that I have some sense of what Lyutsina Khalip fears about her grandson.
A few years ago, the school district that we used to live in strongly urged us to consider a ‘temporary residential placement‘ for our autistic son Charlie, at a facility in the southern part of New Jersey. Charlie was having a number of really challenging behavioral issues, due most of all to his having entered adolescence, his being in a public middle school with 1,800 students, and the tight rigidity of the behavioral program he was in. Charlie’s teacher mentioned such a ‘placement’ during a visit to our house and the behaviorist who oversaw the autism program in our school district assured us that it was just the sort of program she would place her own son in, had she needed to. But it was not the sort of program we knew was appropriate for Charlie: he has many challenges but we, as his parents, know that he needs to face them with us, in his own home.
Obviously being strong-armed to place an autistic child in a residential facility by a New Jersey behaviorist is different from what Khalip faces regarding Danil, but to feel someone swooping in to take away one’s own child, is to feel that one lives in an authoritarian regime.
The opposition in Belarus is seeking a new strategy, calling on the European Union to cut contact with the country’s leadership and strengthen non-governmental organizations. And a decision about Danil’s fate is expected at the end of this month.
Photo of the protest rally taken on December 19, 2010, in Minsk, by mb7art.