When Siarhey Panin and Alesia Murashova hung a creased Canadian flag in the window of their apartment in the Belarusian capital of Minsk, they knew they were courting trouble. Now, Mr. Panin is in prison, serving a 15-day sentence for disobeying a police request to take the flag down.
Since December – after months of opposition protests against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko – it has been illegal to display Belarus’s historic white-red-white banner, which has become associated with the country’s pro-democracy movement.
Mr. Panin and Ms. Murashova had hung one of the opposition flags in their window since August, following a presidential election that most Belarusians believe was won by Mr. Lukashenko’s opponent, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Forced to take down that banner, Ms. Murashova said the couple “decided to bypass the system” and hang another red-and-white standard – a Canadian flag that Mr. Panin had received from a friend – in its place.
Ms. Murashova said the couple knew the authorities would see the flag as a problem. And sure enough, the police repeatedly came to the couple’s apartment in the Tsentralny district of Minsk to demand the removal of the rebellious Maple Leaf.
“After we hung up the flag, police officers often came to our house and insisted we take down the flag. However, they did not give any reason why we should remove the flag of Canada from our home. They only intimidated us,” she said in an exchange of messages. The 30-year-old event planner said that neither she nor Mr. Panin, a 44-year-old computer systems engineer, had ever been to Canada. The flag had been a gift from a friend who lives in Ottawa.
The display of defiance lasted from December until March 17, when police seized the flag and arrested Mr. Panin.
“When my husband was arrested, the flag was also arrested,” she said, adding that she has hired a lawyer to argue for her husband’s release. “Having hung the flag of Canada, we understood that there could be such an outcome as prison, and we were ready for this.”
Evgeny Russak, chargé d’affaires at the Belarusian Embassy in Canada, said he didn’t have full details about the case “but we are sure the problem is not the Canadian flag.” He directed further questions to his country’s Ministry of Internal Affairs.
The episode is one of the most bizarre in a seven-month uprising against Mr. Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994. Mr. Lukashenko claimed to have won an improbable 80 per cent of the August vote, and then deployed his security forces to repress the protests that erupted following the vote.
Canada and other countries have refused to recognize Mr. Lukashenko as the winner of the election. Canada has applied sanctions against Mr. Lukashenko and more than 50 other members of his regime over their roles in human-rights abuses that occurred during the crackdown on the pro-democracy protests. Tens of thousands of people have been arrested since the unrest began, and at least four demonstrators were killed by police action.
While the mass protests – once a daily occurrence – have become less frequent since the start of winter, the opposition has continued to call for Mr. Lukashenko’s ouster. Many Belarusians have also taken to staging smaller-scale protests in their neighbourhoods, or simply showing their dissatisfaction through gestures such as hanging flags in their windows.
“The Canadian flag in the window and the arrest … shows the absurdity of the totalitarian regime,” said Franak Viacorka, foreign policy adviser to Ms. Tsikhanouskaya, who is now in exile in neighbouring Lithuania. “The regime is paranoid. they are very afraid of protests. They are very afraid of dissent. They fight symbols, flags and songs. And they hear enemy voices in everything.”
Ms. Murashova, who is now alone in caring for the couple’s 15-month-old son, said she still believed that the opposition could prevail – even as she acknowledged that fear of the regime was growing.
“Everyone is very afraid. People are afraid to go out [into the streets] and speak their mind. The fear is not so much for yourself as for your loved ones,” she said. “I am also afraid. I’m afraid that they will jail me, and then I don’t know who my young son would stay with … This is why I do not go out to the streets to protest, but instead hung the Canadian flag to express our opinion.”
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.