- Speaking to Earthsight, exiled Belarusian dissident Andrei Sannikov urged tougher sanctions on President Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in response to the invasion of Ukraine
- His statements come after our November report revealed that Europe’s biggest furniture brands continued to buy products linked to forced prison labour in Belarus, despite EU timber sanctions
- Loopholes in the EU’s sanctions allow companies to continue importing wooden furniture products from Belarus, meaning furniture purchased by European consumers could help fund one of Putin’s biggest allies
- Earthsight’s investigation into the issue gained global coverage, featuring in Politico, Der Spiegel, the i newspaper, Le Parisien and more
Andrei Sannikov is a familiar name to Europe’s so-called “last dictator”.
Jailed and tortured after running against Belarus’s leader Alexander Lukashenko in 2010, the now exiled opposition figure remains an outspoken critic of the Putin ally and his regime.
In an interview with Earthsight, Sannikov shared his reaction to our November investigation Rubber-stamping Repression which revealed how Europe’s biggest furniture brands continue to buy products from Belarus despite sanctions imposed on the country following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including goods made with forced prison labour.
We traced some of the goods to the notorious Penal Colony No.2 in eastern Belarus – where Sannikov was tortured and which now holds his friend Ales Bialiatski, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October alongside human rights activists in Russia and Ukraine.
Logging within Belarus’s national parks, which are controlled by the country’s Presidential Property Management Directorate (PPMD), in part feeds this international trade. The Directorate has been called Lukashenko’s personal slush fund and until recently was led by his right-hand man, Viktor Sheiman, a controversial figure under EU and United States sanctions over the disappearance of the regime’s critics.
Prisoners preparing logs for sawing at IK-22 in Belarus, 2017.
Q. Is the use of forced labour common in prisons in Belarus?
A. It is. Every inmate has to work and if somebody refuses they’re punished.
Q. How are prisoners who refuse to take part punished?
A. They were taken to solitary confinement cells, deprived of decent food, deprived of decent clothes, held in very cold cells – as I was once held. I had only a prison robe and had to be very inventive not to freeze to death.
Q. Do you know anything about forced labour using prisoners in woodworking facilities near Penal Colony No.2?
A. I’m sure that most of the penal colonies’ administration have apartments equipped with furniture produced by inmates.
Q. Penal Colony No.2 was certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) sustainability body. This meant that products made using forced labour there could be sold in the EU as ethical. What’s your reaction to this?
A. That’s a horrendous decision.
I would bet that what’s going on in Belarus now with the destruction of forests is simply horrible. I’m getting news from the press and from friends that they [Belarusian authorities] are now cutting down virgin forests. And they’re cutting it like they live in the last days.
FSC certificate for Bobruisk Penal Colony #2, as shown on the FSC database in October 2021.
Q. We’ve been looking into the Presidential Property Management Directorate, which owns Belarus’s national parks. How would you describe the PPMD?
A. It’s a mafia organisation. They think they own the country.
Q. We also looked into former PPMD chief Viktor Sheiman. He’s Lukashenko’s right-hand man and has been sanctioned by both the EU and United States. What’s his reputation in Belarus?
A. Evil. Pure evil.
Q. FSC certified PPMD forests when Sheiman ran the authority and was under sanctions. That’s a big oversight, isn’t it?
A. Absolutely. He is suspected of murdering political opponents, and is known to be involved in very shady deals with arms.
Q. What’s your message to lawmakers in Europe and the United States?
A. Because Lukashenko is a co-aggressor [in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine], it is very moral and morally justified to impose more and more sanctions on Belarus until all political prisoners are released.
I’m sure some of them are producing goods that are being exported to Europe to get money for Lukashenko. This absurdity should be stopped immediately.
Q. Is there a danger more sanctions would hurt ordinary people in Belarus?
A. No. People are already hurt so badly because of 28 years of Lukashenko in power. Life is getting worse and worse in Belarus, and who is being paid? The only group that lives quite comfortably and well-off are those who are torturing people.
By sanctioning, you’re not sanctioning the people. You’re depriving torturers of the resources to continue as torturers, murdering people, humiliating people.
It is really a horrible situation with the repression. And it has to be addressed in a more resolute way, not by speculating whether it will hurt somebody. Do something to hurt the dictator.
Q&A edited for clarity and length.