Belarus minister wants ex-prisoners to work on farms

Belarusian Interior Minister Ihar Shunievich at the Khutor-Agro farm, August 2017 Image copyright Interior Ministry of the Republic of Belarus
Image caption Minister Shunievich wants ex-cons to work the land

The interior minister of Belarus has caused a stir by suggesting that convicts could be sent to work the land on their release from prison.

Ihar Shunievich told Belarusian state TV that his ministry is working on a bill to set up its own farms to help rehabilitate former jailbirds.

"Having a job will reduce rates of reoffending and help them reintegrate into society, earn their keep, set up families, raise children, and pay any outstanding court costs," he said on a visit to the Khutor-Agro cooperative farm in the country's southern Homiel Region this week.

The experiment will first be tried out at Khutor-Agro itself. "If it proves successful, we will set up similar schemes in all regions," Mr Shunievich promised, excluding the capital Minsk. The produce of the farms will go to feed the staff and inmates of the prison system, he added.

There has been fierce criticism of the plan online, with leading journalist Andrzej Poczobut sees it as a sly attempt to stop the population drift from failing farms.

"In Soviet times farmers were tied to the land. Now we seem to be heading back to this wonderful practice, but this time using former convicts," he wrote on Facebook, adding that the government could expand the list to include alcoholics and debtors as a handy way of "establishing order".

'Forced labour'

Like many critics, he alludes to Mr Shunievich's alleged "spiritual bond" to the repressive methods of the Stalin-era NKVD secret police with its Gulag system of forced labour camps - an accusation that the minister did little to counter by turning up at a World War Two commemorative parade to years ago in a distinctive NKVD blue tunic.

Mikhail Pastukhou, a former Constitutional Court judge, says the proposal amounts to "forced labour by stealth" in the interests of the struggling state-run farming industry. He told the Bielaruskaya Prauda news portal that it would be difficult in practice for many ex-cons to have any choice but to be drafted into this low-paid farm work.

Social media users largely treat the proposal with suspicion or derision, although some take it at face value as an attempt to give a fresh start to former prisoners. One commentator suspects the government will use farms full of hardened ex-cons as "muscle" to break up opposition protests, but a more common response is mockery.

"Put a load of thieves and murderers at liberty in one place… and you'd better lock up your daughters," writes one cynic, while others expect moonshine sales to soar and tractor parts to start turning up at local flea markets in short order.

Image copyright Belarus TV channel 1
Image caption Khutor-Agro farm managers consider the minister's plan

Reporting by Martin Morgan

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