A British businessman imprisoned in Belarus has staged a hunger strike in protest at the conditions in which he and others are being held.
Alan Smith stopped eating for eight days in June, three months before he was scheduled to be released, because he was angry about the treatment of a fellow prisoner.
The Ferret reported on 17 May that Smith had been incarcerated for 20 months in penal colony IK3 in Vitebsk. He was convicted in a Belarusian court of assisting the illegal immigration of six Iraqi citizens, but – backed by human rights campaigners – maintained he had committed no crime and was being held in “terrible” conditions.
Smith, 45, from Bromley in London, began his hunger strike after his best friend in jail, Ruslan Urmanov, was punished. Urmanov was put in an isolation cell for speaking to Smith and helping him with translations.
Smith described the isolation cell as “a small, hot room with no bed, no personal belongings and no food or drink.”
In a letter, he said: “They want to torture me because I discovered what they do here. They will do anything to try and kill me and make it look like I committed suicide.”
When his wife, Magdalena Wolinska, heard of his hunger strike she “nearly had a heart attack”, she said. “I am very stressed and worried about him. I didn’t know what happened to push him to such a desperate point.”
Daichi Yoshida, another friend of Smith and former IK3 detainee, was “very worried” about Smith’s situation. But he said that a hunger strike was “very effective, and I would do the same.”
Smith was given various punishments – including being denied essential food parcels, glasses, and visits – because he refused to stop his hunger strike, according to Wolinska. He was reprimanded for wearing a t-shirt with a British flag on it, she said.
When prisoners weren’t wearing their own clothes, they were given a “special suit made out of plastic bottles which is very hot in summer,” she told The Ferret.
Smith said he had been told by prison officials that “if I get one more punishment they can put me in red house.” Red house was “where prisoners are put in isolation and tortured with a tonfa, which is a stick that military police use to hit prisoners with,” according to Yoshida.
Smith’s Belarusian lawyer, Natallia Krot, said: “Alan is mostly being treated like other prisoners, the only difference is he doesn’t want to accept it. This is because he is not guilty, and he lives in Europe, where human rights are more respected.”
Smith started his hunger strike on the 20 June and ended it on 28 June, after the British embassy raised his complaints with prison authorities. He was also allowed to call his wife for the first time in five months.
A UK embassy spokesperson said: “Staff from our embassy in Minsk have visited a British man detained in Belarus to check on his welfare, and remain in contact with him, his family and the Belarusian authorities.”
Michael Polak, a British barrister who is assisting Smith and his family, thought it was “great news” that the embassy had visited, spoken to the prison and the hunger strike had ended. “We hope that Alan is returned to United Kingdom immediately on his release so that he can be reunited with his partner and begin to rebuild his life,” he said.
According to Pavel Levinov, a board member of the human rights group, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, a food parcel for Smith was rejected by the prison authorities on 27 June. Imposing such a deprivation was “nothing short of cruel and inhuman treatment bordering on torture,” he said.
Wolinska promised that the fight to clear Smith’s name would continue. “When Alan is released we plan to take his case to the international court because justice wasn’t done in Belarus, and we will prove his innocence,” she said.
Belarusian authorities have not responded to requests to comment. They previously disputed some of the claims made by Smith, telling The Ferret that he had lost two kilos in weight because he was a vegetarian and rejected prison food.
A spokesperson for the Belarus embassy in London said in May: “Alan did have problems with his health for which he was treated in the prison hospital and as of now has no health problems. The British embassy has never been refused a visit with Alan and the embassy has in fact visited him eight times. They also plan to visit Alan again in the near future.”
Photos thanks to Magdalena Wolinska.