Why are the letters of political prisoners in Belarus so cheerful?

Sometimes the letters from a prisoner of the regime in Belarus are full of encouragement and nice stories. While human rights defenders and activists speak up about severe detention conditions and beatings, psychological pressure and denial of medical assistance, the picture from the prisoners’ letters seems to be rather peaceful. Their imprisonment often looks like a retreat: they write about reading books and enjoying the fresh air during walks. The sharp contrast between the detention and what they write about may be confusing at first glance. 

At this point, it is important to understand what the regime is like in Belarus. To be a political prisoner of the regime does not mean access to any prisoners’ rights or basic human rights, it does not mean respect for any rights in general. This also includes all rights to correspondence. In a country where people are detained for any oppositional political expression, down to  wearing white-red-white socks, it would be naive to expect that the regime would not establish total information control over them in jail.

In Belarusian prisons, letters pass through strict two-way censorship regimes that consist of the combination of prison’s general regulations and specific treatment of those who are there for political reasons. Words, sentences, and even pages can be withdrawn, whole letters can be returned to the sender or simply disappear if the rules are not followed. This is, however, the best case scenario. In the worst-case, a person can be sent to a punishment cell, beaten, and threatened. Sometimes in the letters, you can actually hear a voice behind a prisoner’s back dictating to them, forcing words of praise for the administration of the penal colony or coerced requests aimed at relatives to cancel any legal complaints procedures. Such conditions make it impossible for political prisoners to open up and write about the ill-treatment they receive. What is left is to stay strong.

Political prisoners in Belarus have become experts at finding neutral topics to escape the censor’s ire. What is more, they know that the truth is theirs: they are not criminals, they are heroes of new Belarus who dared to stand face to face with the regime and reclaim their rights. However, one should not be tricked by the cheerful mood. Often, it is meant to support loved ones, ironically cover the pain after the unfair treatment, and thank those who ensure they are not forgotten

Belarusian Association of Journalists: facing closure but not extinction

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117172″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]In the months since the disputed re-election of Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko, the freedom of the press in Belarus has come under increasing attack.

The country’s journalism union, the Belarusian Association of Journalists (Baj.by), has documented more than 500 detentions, hundreds of arrests and fines, and dozens of criminal cases and prison sentences directed against reporters, editors and media managers, including our former colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau.

Almost every independent news and socio-political outlet from the local to the national level has experienced police pressure, searches and confiscations of their professional equipment. Many have been forced to stop publishing or to flee the country in order to work from exile.

In July 2021, the state launched a new wave of repression against independent media outlets and organisations.

Over ten days, security forces carried out more than 70 searches of editorial offices and private homes of employees of national and regional media. As a result, dozens more journalists, editors and media managers joined their colleagues already in custody.

Now BAJ itself is in Lukashenko’s sights.

BAJ is a voluntary, nongovernmental, nonpartisan association that includes more than 1,300 media professionals from across the country. It assists members in realising and developing their professional journalistic activities. Throughout its 25 years of existence, BAJ has also been a leader in promoting freedom of expression and defending media rights.

The organisation has been internationally recognised for its work. In 2004, the European Parliament awarded BAJ with the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, the EU’s highest human rights tribute. In 2011, it received the Atlantic Council’s Freedom Award. In 2020, the organisation was the first recipient of the Canada-UK Media Freedom Award, which recognises individuals and organisations advocating for media freedom.

Over the past year, BAJ has focused on defending and assisting its members whose professional and human rights have been violated by the state’s searches, detentions, beatings, legal and criminal persecution, arrests and prison terms. So it is not surprising that the authorities have launched a repressive campaign targeting BAJ itself.

In June, BAJ was forced to hand over thousands of documents about its activities.

The following month, authorities conducted another search of the office even without the presence of the association’s representatives. It is unknown in respect of which criminal case it was searched nor what was taken from there. They have also sealed the office, meaning employees cannot work there anymore and there is no access to statutory documents.

Now the country’s Supreme Court issued an order for the organisation to be liquidated. This is the same situation which almost 50 other public organisations of Belarus have faced, which have been of benefit for decades to Belarusian society, journalism, the writing community and many other areas.

BAJ’s closure – if the courts agree to the liquidation – will cause serious damage to the Belarusian journalistic community.

Firstly, there will be no legal organisation left in the country that can protect the rights of journalists.

Secondly, the association’s educational hub for journalists will disappear, and many BAJ educational programmes will have to be closed.

Finally, the only legal and recognised institution of journalistic ethical self-government will be destroyed – the BAJ Ethics Commission. In recent years, this was the only body in Belarus that effectively considered issues related to ethics in the media.

Yet even if BAJ is forced to close, it will not disappear.

The support of the international community for BAJ is strong. Journalists and numerous human rights organisations around the world have offered their support to BAJ and its members at this difficult time. BAJ also has outstanding support from the International and European Federation of Journalists, who oppose the liquidation, and have said that if it is closed, the association will remain a member of their organisations.

If the liquidation of the BAJ legal entity is confirmed, the headquarters will make a final decision on how it will work in the future. If it is impossible to continue in Belarus, BAJ will consider working abroad.

BAJ continues the fight. It has already appealed the Ministry of Justice’s liquidation order and the court will consider this on the morning of 11 August.

However, the justice system no longer works properly any more in Belarus. In any other democratic country, the court’s decision would be in favour of the BAJ.

The most important thing, according to BAJ chairman Andrei Bastunec, is that the organisation will continue its work.

“BAJ is not only a legal entity, but an association of like-minded people who see their mission as expanding the space of freedom of speech in Belarus,” he said.

Bastunec says the official registration of the organisation provided, by and large, one advantage: it simplified communication with government agencies. But when the authorities announced its ‘sweep’, advance communication was reduced to zero.

“As strange as it may sound, the deprivation of the BAJ’s legal status by the court will have almost no effect on Belarusian journalism and journalists. Many of them have been forced to go abroad, but continue to work there successfully. The BAJ will continue its work regardless of the court verdict,” he said.

Despite the threat to its existence in Belarus, active members of BAJ are defiant. Many say they will continue working in Belarus as long as possible until the authorities force them to leave the country.

“There is an administrative, bureaucratic reality from which the BAJ can be erased, but there is also a life where the organisation will continue to carry out its mission. The biggest threat to Belarusian journalism is not the deprivation of BAJ registration, but the wave of repression.”

Bastunec says the BAJ team welcomes the solidarity offered by those in the country and abroad.

“It must be understood that the Belarusian authorities today have entered into a fierce confrontation with the ‘collective West’, as they now call the democratic world.”

Yet even if forced to work outside Belarus, BAJ and its members may not be safe. The recent suspicious death of Vitaly Shishov in Ukraine and the attempt to force Belarusian athlete Krystina Timanovskaya to return home after speaking out against her coaches at the Olympics show that Lukahsenko’s tentacles have a very long reach.

Chronology of the repressive campaign against BAJ

9 June The Ministry of Justice launches a major audit of BAJ’s activities.

21 June BAJ receives an official request requiring the organisation to provide thousands of administrative and financial documents on its activities, including lists of its members, covering the last three years. The documents were demanded the same day but the Ministry of Justice later extended the deadline to 1 July. Despite the short time frame, BAJ submitted all the requested documents, with the exception of those seized from the BAJ office during a search by security forces in February 2021.

14 July In the absence of BAJ representatives, security forces raided, searched and sealed BAJ’s office.

15 July BAJ receives an official warning from the Ministry of Justice on the grounds that its regional branches in Brest and Maladzechna had allegedly carried out their activities without having legal addresses. However, this is not true. Nevertheless, the Ministry of Justice considered the failure of BAJ to submit all of the required audit documents, as well as the absence of legal addresses of the regional branches, to be a violation of the country’s legislation and BAJ’s charter. The Ministry demanded that the alleged violations be rectified by the next day.

16 July BAJ informs the Ministry of Justice that the organisation’s office had been sealed by the state and that its representatives had no access to its documents. BAJ therefore requested more time to fulfill the Ministry’s demands after gaining access to its premises.

21 July The Ministry of Justice reports via its social networks that it had already submitted a claim for the liquidation of BAJ to the Supreme Court, allegedly due to the organisation’s failure to rectify the violations and the official warning for repeated violations of the law.

9 August Conversation of the parties in the civil case brought by the Supreme Court on the BAJ appeal against the written warning issued by the Ministry of Justice on 15 July.

11 August Supreme Court will hear the liquidation order against BAJ.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”172″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Joint call condemning the Belarusian regime’s raids on journalists and human rights activists

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117082″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The raids and detentions conducted by Belarusian authorities on independent media outlets, human rights organisations and think tanks are a harsh escalation of attacks against human rights activists and independent journalists in Belarus.

The undersigned organisations condemn the government of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s relentless crackdown on these groups and demand that Belarusian authorities cease their raids on press and rights organisations and release all those detained. The raids, which started on the 8th and culminated on the 14th of July are yet another escalation in an ongoing repression campaign undertaken by the Belarusian authorities to eliminate civil society in Belarus. The day before the raids Lukashenka promised to “deal with” NGOs he claims instigate unrest in the country.

Over a dozen raids were carried out by Belarusian security forces on the morning of 14 July, affecting individuals who are members or leaders of civic organizations including Viasna, Lawtrend, the Association of the World’s Belarusians Batskaushchyna (“Homeland”), the IMENA project, the Territory of Rights group, the Union of Belarusian Writers, the Movement “For Freedom”, the Belarusian Association of Journalists, the Belarusian Helsinki Committee, the Belarusian Schools Association, the Human Constanta in Brest, the Polatsk Human Rights Association, Leu Sapieha Foundation, “Third Sector”, and the offices of the Belarusian People’s Front Party, the BEROC Centre for Economic Research, NOVAK sociological laboratory and the human rights organisation Gender Perspectives, as well as the apartment of the director of SYMPA.

This flagrant action against civil society and independent media in Belarus is a gross violation of the fundamental human rights to freedom of expression and association, and to freedom of the press, and should cease immediately. The international community needs to speak with a unified voice against Lukashenka’s attacks on civil society by condemning these disturbing raids, calling for the release of journalists and activists, and holding accountable the Belarusian politicians and security forces responsible for these abuses. 

As members of civil society across the globe, we, the undersigned, demand the immediate and unconditional release of all detained or imprisoned journalists and activists and an end to raids, detentions, harassment, and attacks on journalists, artists, activists, and all those exercising their right to freedom of expression and association.


PEN America

PEN International


European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited

Human Rights Watch (HRW)


Index on Censorship

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Fourteen organisations call for the immediate and unconditional release of journalist and human rights defender Andrei Aliaksandrau

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117020″ img_size=”full”][vc_column_text]Index on Censorship and 13 other human rights, freedom of expression, media freedom, and journalists’ organisations unreservedly condemn the arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of human rights defender and journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau, who is now facing up to 15 years in prison on baseless charges of “treason to the state”.

Aliaksandrau has long been a defender of freedom of expression in Belarus and beyond, having previously held positions at the Belarusian Association of Journalists, Index on Censorship, and Article 19 among other media and free speech organisations.

Aliaksandrau was detained in January 2021. The Investigative Committee, Belarus’s criminal investigation service, indicted him on public order offences, for which he was facing up to three years in prison. The charges stem from allegations that Aliaksandrau paid the fines of journalists and protesters whom authorities detained during last year’s pro-democracy protests, triggered by the highly disputed August 2020 presidential election. The Belarusian Investigative Committee and other law enforcement agencies wrongly equated this with financing unlawful protests.

On 30 June, Belapan reported that Aliaksandrau has now been charged with “treason to the state” based on the same set of allegations. 

“More than €530,000 worth of fines were imposed on protesters between 9 August and the end of 2020. It is absurd to conflate efforts to help pay those fines with a public order offense, let alone treason,” the organisations said. 

“Belarusian authorities created a new mark of tyranny by laying treason charges against Aliaksandrou. While we urge the release of all 529 political prisoners currently detained in Belarus, which include at least 15 journalists, we are at this point in time expressing special concern for Aliaksandrau. To date, he is the only detainee facing the fabricated charge of treason.”

“Aliaksandrau has already spent 172 days in prison for his alleged ‘crime’. We call for his immediate and unconditional release,” the organisations said.

Signed by:

Article 19

Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ)

East European Democratic Centre (EEDC) 

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Human Rights House Foundation (HRHF)

Human Rights Watch


Index on Censorship

International Media Support (IMS)

PEN America

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]