Three layers of electrified fence. New security cameras. A military guard and a sign saying “Entry forbidden.” Windows with bars and reflective glass, on newly refurbished barrack buildings. All empty, bar the occasional security officer, deep in the forest of authoritarian Belarus.
These are the indications, according to videos seen by CNN and witness statements, of a possible prison camp for political dissidents, recently constructed around an hour’s drive from the Belarusian capital Minsk, near the settlement of Novokolosovo. It sits on the site of a Soviet-era missile storage facility, which spans over 200 acres. It is unclear how much of the site has been refurbished.
Belarus’s opposition activists have voiced fears for some time that the authoritarian regime might resort to crude detention camps, if conventional prisons fill up. Concerns are also rising about another wave of crackdowns and arrests in response to demonstrations marking the August 9 anniversary of the disputed presidential election that sparked last year’s protest movement. Further unrest may surround a constitutional referendum planned for later this year or early 2022.
Franak Viacorka, a senior adviser to Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, viewed the footage and told CNN: “It is not surprising that [President Alexander Lukashenko] is trying to build something like a regular prison camp, because a new wave of protest will come up anyway. It can be triggered by his statements, it can be triggered by the economic situation. But it will come. He understands that, and he also wants to be prepared more than last year in 2020.”
Belarusian dissidents in August 2020 said police held them for several days in a prison camp, temporarily fashioned from an addiction treatment facility.
In October, an activist group of former security officers, ByPol, released a recording they alleged to have been made of the deputy interior minister, Mikalay Karpyankou, in which he said “resettlement” prison camps needed to be built for more “sharp-heeled” protesters to reform them. In the recording, Karpyankou proposed building a camp out of an existing penitentiary in the town of Ivatsevichy.
A US State Department spokesperson said they were aware of the reports, and “we will continue to closely monitor the situation. The United States condemns in the strongest terms the recent and ongoing crackdown on journalists and civil society by the Lukashenka regime. [We] renew our call for an end to the crackdown, the immediate release of all political prisoners … and free-and-fair elections with international observation.”
The Belarusian government decried the recordings at the time of their release as “fake” news. The government did not respond to CNN’s request for comment for this article ahead of publication.
After publication, Belarusian state TV channel ONT on Friday broadcast video and drone footage from what appeared to be the same location. The report said the facility was an armaments depot for the Belarusian military’s air defense department, and featured an officer and another individual on camera detailing its contents, and saying locals were well aware of its purpose. The report also showed the interior of what it said were the same buildings, which contained military equipment.
CNN has not been able to access the interior of the facility near Novokolosovo, and there are no signs the camp has yet housed prisoners. A western intelligence official told CNN the use of the facility as a prison camp was “possible,” although they did not have direct evidence to that effect. Locals in the town of Novokolosovo refer to the facility as “the camp.” One resident, told to leave the area by military guards recently when he approached the site, said: “My friend Sasha, a builder, told me they refurbished this place. There are three levels of barbed wire, and its electrified. I was picking mushrooms here when a military man came up to me and said that I can’t walk there.” Two other witnesses also observed military patrols.
The images of the camp emerge after a weekslong crackdown against the remaining independent media inside Belarus, and after heightened international attention on the crisis inside the authoritarian country.
On Sunday, Olympic athlete Kristina Timanovskaya said she was forced to the airport in Tokyo after criticizing Belarusian Olympic officials on Instagram, and had to seek Japanese police help to prevent her being put on a flight back to Minsk. She landed in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday where she has been offered refuge and a humanitarian visa.
The Belarus National Olympic Committee has said she was taken off the Olympic team because of emotional and had psychological issues, which she denies.
On Tuesday, fears for Belarus’s growing diaspora of dissidents grew when activist Vitaly Shishov was found dead in a park outside the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, apparently hanged, with abrasions on his body. Police are investigating the possibilities of suicide or murder.
In May, the country’s regime brazenly diverted a passenger plane to Minsk and arrested dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, in an incident described by some Western leaders as “state-sanctioned hijacking.”
Belarus’s protest movement has been significantly reduced owing to police brutality, causing many demonstrations now to take the form of a flash mob, filmed and posted online. Yet there are signs activists are adopting new measures of active disruption.
CNN has spoken to activists who say they have taken the step of sabotaging railway lines run by the Belarusian government. They sent CNN a series of videos which show them using an established technique of delaying trains without causing damage. CNN is not revealing the location or nature of the tactic, and has not been able to independently confirm the effectiveness of the protest actions.
One of the organizers, who said their activities have caused trains to slow to about 20 km an hour (12 mph) in some areas, told CNN: “The main goal is to cause economic damage to the regime, because the delays cause them to pay huge fines.”
Many of the railways that pass through Belarus ferry goods from China to the European Union, meaning frequent delays could have wider significance across the continent and for international trade, hitting Lukashenko’s regime hard in the pocket.
Editor’s note: This report has been updated with a government response broadcast by Belarusian state television, and comment from the US State Department.