Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, Belarusian opposition presidential candidate and human rights activist who was forced to flee Belarus after rigged elections, addressed the 13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracysee quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

For links to other speakers’ quotes, videos, livestream, and more, click here.

13th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, Monday, June 8, 2021

On imprisonment of husband Sergei:

“When our daughter asks where he is, I say “Papa is on a business trip.” Because I don’t want to scare her. It’s too hard to explain that Sergei is one of hundreds of innocent people imprisoned in Belarus by dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko.”

“In May, Sergei came to me and said, ‘My [YouTube] subscribers have asked me to run for president.’ I wasn’t surprised. But I said, ‘You understand it’s impossible in our country, right?’ Two days later, he was arrested.”

On transformation from housewife to democracy activist:

“Just thirteen months ago, I was a housewife. I woke up in the morning, got the kids ready for school, cleaned the house, and prepared our meals.”

“I never asked to be a leader. I am a housewife, a teacher, and a mother. My story is the story of millions of Belarusians. I am just like you!”

On Lukashenka’s handling of Covid-19:

“While Lukashenka was cracking jokes about curing COVID by drinking vodka & going to the sauna, the people of Belarus started to realize their power. They self-organized. They bought masks, they raised money for hospitals, they purchased ventilators.”

On becoming a presidential candidate:

“While I waited for [Sergei’s] release, I started preparing the documents for his [presidential] candidacy…But we couldn’t submit the papers without his signature.”

“If my husband couldn’t run for president, I would.”

“Lukashenka has said that…a female president would, quote ‘collapse, the poor thing’ under the weight of the job. They didn’t take me seriously.”

On being intimidated by Belarus authorities:

“When they saw the long lines of people turning out for me, I got a call on my cell phone. ‘I’m a friend of your friend,’ the man said, casually. ‘They asked me to tell you that if you continue to participate you will go to jail and your children will be taken to an orphanage.'”

On election fraud:

“On Election Day, we had independent observers at every polling station. And we used an independent verification system to match official voting records from the election commissions with photos of real ballots submitted by voters online.”

“There was no doubt that the majority of Belarusians voted for me.”

On police response to post-election protests:

“Riot police attacked the crowds with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas. They arrested seven thousand peaceful protestors & bystanders. Detainees were stripped naked & repeatedly beaten by police. They were denied food, water, medical assistance, and access to the toilet. They were tortured, electrocuted, sodomized, and raped.”

“Aliaksandr Taraikousky was the first victim. He was shot point-blank by police in Minsk. Henadz Shutau was executed by police in Brest, and then posthumously charged with disobeying police. At least six other protestors died.”

“In the three months following the election, Lukashenko’s regime arrested more than twenty-five thousand people.”

“[Sixteen-year-old] Mikita told his father that guards repeatedly beat him in the back of his head until he lost consciousness.”

“This is what Lukashenko’s regime will do to maintain power – detain a teenage boy, a minor, on exaggerated charges. Torture him, beat him in the head, deny him medical care, electrocute him, and throw him in solitary confinement.”

On fleeing Belarus:

“I escaped to Lithuania with my children & went into hiding. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I paced around my apartment in a semi-conscious nightmare.”

Full Remarks

I met my husband Sergei in a nightclub when I was 22 years old. He was handsome, charismatic, confident. We went on our first date that week, and we’ve been inseparable ever since.

But now, when our daughter asks where he is, I say “Papa is on a business trip.” Because I don’t want to scare her. It’s too hard to explain that Sergei is one of hundreds of innocent people imprisoned in Belarus by dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko.

And that I, her mother, am leading a democratic revolution to overthrow his regime.

Just thirteen months ago, I was a housewife. I woke up in the morning, got the kids ready for school, cleaned the house, and prepared our meals.

Sergei traveled around the country, interviewing Belarusians for his popular YouTube channel. But the more he learned, the more frequently he’d come home and ask me questions like: “Why would anyone want to live here in Belarus?”

Aliaksandr Lukashenka is the only remaining dictator in Europe and he’s been in power for 27 years. Until recently, it seemed like there was no hope for democracy.

But then COVID hit and at first, Lukashenka denied its existence completely. He said, “There are no viruses here. Do you see any of them flying around? I don’t see them either.”

We quickly had one of Europe’s highest per-capita infection rates. Thousands of people died. And while Lukashenka was cracking jokes about curing COVID by drinking vodka & going to the sauna, the people of Belarus started to realize their power. They self-organized. They bought masks, they raised money for hospitals, they purchased ventilators.

In May, Sergei came to me and said, “My subscribers have asked me to run for president.” I wasn’t surprised. But I said, “You understand it’s impossible in our country, right?” Two days later, he was arrested.

While I waited for his release, I started preparing the documents for his candidacy. I wanted to show that what’s important to him is equally important to me. So I collected a list of volunteers and wrote a statement on his behalf. But we couldn’t submit the papers without his signature.

The day of the deadline, he still hadn’t been released. So I went to the Central Election Committee & submitted the papers for me instead. If my husband couldn’t run for president, I would.

Honestly, I’m surprised the authorities let me register. Lukashenka has said that our constitution wasn’t meant for women. That a female president would, quote “collapse, the poor thing” under the weight of the job. They didn’t take me seriously.

But when they saw the long lines of people turning out for me, I got a call on my cell phone. “I’m a friend of your friend,” the man said, casually. “They asked me to tell you that if you continue to participate you will go to jail and your children will be taken to an orphanage.”

I was terrified. I told my team I was thinking about quitting.

But the next month in Minsk, sixty thousand people came out to support me. They gave me the courage to keep going.

On Election Day, we had independent observers at every polling station. And we used an independent verification system to match official voting records from the election commissions with photos of real ballots submitted by voters online. More than five hundred thousand people submitted photos of their ballots.

And there was no doubt that the majority of Belarusians voted for me.

But when they announced the results on live TV it said eighty percent voted for Lukashenka.

In the hours that followed, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in a peaceful protest against the fraudulent elections. The regime responded with violence.

Riot police attacked the crowds with rubber bullets, stun grenades, and tear gas. They arrested seven thousand peaceful protestors & bystanders. Detainees were stripped naked & repeatedly beaten by police. They were denied food, water, medical assistance, and access to the toilet. They were tortured, electrocuted, sodomized, and raped. One journalist described the prison floors as “a sea of blood.”

I’d describe it as “three days of hell.”

Aliaksandr Taraikousky was the first victim. He was shot point-blank by police in Minsk. Henadz Shutau was executed by police in Brest, and then posthumously charged with disobeying police. At least six other protestors died.

I escaped to Lithuania with my children & went into hiding. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I paced around my apartment in a semi-conscious nightmare. I knew things would only get worse, and they did.

In the three months following the election, Lukashenko’s regime arrested more than twenty-five thousand people. They blocked websites and restricted internet access. They detained three hundred & thirty-six journalists who covered the protests, including Darya Chultsova and Katsiaryna Andreyeva who were each sentenced to two years in prison.

And because the protests are largely organized by women, they’re targeting what women care about most: their children.

Sixteen-year-old Mikita Zalatarou was arrested at a rally on August Eleventh. When Mikita refused to give up his cell phone password, the police assaulted him. During the interrogation, he became ill & was transferred to a hospital. The discharge report said that Mikita had an epileptic seizure – but it didn’t mention the fact that his body was covered in bruises.

Later, Mikita told his father that guards repeatedly beat him in the back of his head until he lost consciousness.

He refused to make a false confession and was held for 6 months. In February, he was sentenced to five years in prison in an unfair trial.

This is what Lukashenko’s regime will do to maintain power – detain a teenage boy, a minor, on exaggerated charges. Torture him, beat him in the head, deny him medical care, electrocute him, and throw him in solitary confinement.

If you’re a mother, imagine that Mikita was your child. And then tell me Lukashenko deserves to be in power. This is why the people of Belarus & women especially are fighting back!

I never asked to be a leader. I am a housewife, a teacher, and a mother. My story is the story of millions of Belarusians. I am just like you! It was you, the people, who gave me the right to be in this position, to become a leader. That’s how a democracy should be.

But Belarus is NOT a democracy as long as Lukashenko is in power. He is NOT the president. He is a dictator. The violence hasn’t stopped since the election. This is still happening, right now.

The people of Belarus have not stood down. And they need YOUR help.

International democracies must put pressure on Lukashenko to further isolate him. Demand that Lukashenko release political prisoners. Demand that his police forces stop brutalizing journalists. And most importantly, demand free & fair elections.

Lukashenko’s reign has gone on long enough. The people of Belarus voted for something different, and we need YOU to make it happen.

Thank you.