Love in the time of dissent

This week marked another Valentine’s Day and the world was abuzz with expressions of love and affection. Yet, amidst the sea of roses and chocolates, there lies a stark reality for many: the agony of separation from loved ones. For dissidents around the globe, this pain is not merely a matter of distance; it is the consequence of standing against tyranny - for speaking truth to power.

As CEO of Index on Censorship, I have witnessed the bravery of individuals who dare to challenge oppression, knowing full well the risks they face. We need to remember this every day - but this week, Valentine's week, there is a responsibility on all of us to recognise their sacrifice and the profound commitment that drives them to advocate for change and to continue their struggle against tyrants - in spite of the personal cost for them and their loved ones.

One example is Russian activist and thorn-in-Putin's-side Alexei Navalny, whose death in a penal colony has been reported today. In 2020, Navalny fell into a coma after suspected poisoning with the nerve agent novichok and was taken to Germany for treatment. The poisoning was widely believed to have been ordered by Putin and suspicion about his death has immediately turned to the Russian president.

To the surprise of many, in 2021 Navalny returned to Russia with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya. He was immediately arrested on a variety of trumped-up charges. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year sentence. Navalny and his wife have been apart ever since their return to Russia, with her husband sent to a series of penal colonies, each more hideous than the last. Appearing at the 2023 Oscars when the Navalny documentary about her husband won the best documentary award, Navalnaya said in an emotional speech "Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love."

Love was what sustained them during their enforced separation. In what turned out to be his last post on Instagram, Navalny wrote: "Babe, we have everything like in a song: cities between us, airport runway lights, blue blizzards and thousands of kilometres. But I feel you are near me every second, and I love you more and more ❤️".

Another example is Andrei Aliaksandrau and his partner Irina Zlobina. Andrei, a former member of the Index team and a Belarusian journalist and human rights defender, has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and holding those in power accountable. However, his commitment to freedom of expression has come at a personal great cost. In November 2020, Andrei was arrested by Belarusian authorities in a crackdown on dissent following the disputed presidential election. Since then, he has been detained, facing trumped-up charges and enduring harsh conditions behind bars.

Irina too was arrested and sentenced on similar charges. Now they find themselves separated by Lukashenka in different prisons in Belarus.

For Andrei and Irina, Valentine's Day serves as a painful reminder of their separation. While the world celebrates love, they are forced to endure the anguish of being torn apart by injustice.

These are just two examples among thousands of others. A reminder that there are many different manifestations of love is Tamara Davila, whose heartbreaking ordeal underscores the intersection of love and dissent in the face of authoritarian oppression. Deported from Nicaragua to the United States for daring to speak out against the government, Tamara's enforced separation from her daughter and wider family serves as a chilling example of how the Nicaraguan authorities wield love as a weapon against dissenters. Despite the government's attempts to silence her, Tamara's enduring love for her family fuels her resolve to continue fighting for justice and freedom, demonstrating the profound power of love in the face of adversity. Her story serves as a stark reminder that even in the darkest of times, love remains an unyielding force that empowers individuals to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.

These stories encapsulate the intersection of love and dissent—a powerful force that transcends borders and inspires change. Despite the physical distance separating dissidents and their partners and families, their love fuels their resilience, reminding us all of the inherent connection between personal relationships and the broader struggle for human rights.

This Valentine's week, let us honour the courage of individuals like Alexei and Yulia, Andrei and Irina, and Tamara and her daughter by amplifying their voices and demanding justice. Let us stand in solidarity with all those who sacrifice their freedom for the sake of truth and justice. And let us never forget that love, in all its forms, has the power to overcome even the most formidable obstacles.

In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to love and dissent, recognising that they are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined in the fight for a more just and free world.

Punishment cells and limited legal recourse

It is important the international community pays close attention to the scale of politically motivated persecutions in Belarus, a panel discussion organised by the media organisation Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty recently said.

It was after Zmitser Dashkevich, a well-known Belarusian activist originally charged with extremism, had his sentence extended by a year after being charged with "blatantly disobeying penitentiary guards". His sentenced was due to end in July. Journalist Andrei Aliaksandrau, a former employee of Index, recently spent his 1000th night behind bars after being imprisoned for 14 years in October 2022 for “extremist activities” against the state.

Anastasiia Kruope, assistant researcher for the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said there has been a large increase in human rights abuses and politically motivated persecutions in Belarus following Aleksandr Lukashenka's heavily contested presidential election win in 2020.

“An atmosphere of fear and intimidation for journalists and human rights defenders was created,” she added.

“The way these people are treated in prisons and labelled extremist, along with the silencing of family members outside, means some of these cases may amount to crimes against humanity according to the UN.”

Aleh Hruzdzilovich was one such prisoner. A journalist for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, he spent nine months in prison and was released in September 2022. After covering the protests following Lukaskenka’s re-election for his job, he was arrested and charged with actively taking part in them.

“From the very first day, people like me recorded as extremists are punished more and have a stigma in prison,” Hruzdzilovich explained.

“It means we’re put in punishment cells and solitary confinement more often. When I was tortured, I was told to sleep on the wooden floor. If I simply sat down or stopped walking around the cell in the daytime, I was reported and given more time in the punishment cell.”

Hruzdzilovich described seeing a prisoner wet himself through fear of being sent to a punishment cell.

Pavel Sapelko is a lawyer based at the Viasna Human Rights Centre in Minsk, Belarus. He said there is an absolute power of prison authorities over prisoners in Belarus, which is affecting their human rights, and seemingly makes people “disappear”.

“The prisoners are simply incommunicado. The authorities can shut down visits and calls from families, and even then can only get help from a lawyer after their sentences are passed by law.”

Speaking of the legal system in Belarus, Sapelko described the debilitating change that has occurred over the past three years.

“We’ve lost more than 300 defence lawyers, with 100 of them being disbarred. Licences have been revoked, and six defence lawyers are actually behind bars, now prison inmates themselves,” he explained.

“This massively affects a lawyer willing to take on your case, especially for those charged with being extremists.”

Ending with another reason why the international community should support those journalists and human rights defenders still in Belarus with things such as legal help and visas, Kruope had one eye on the future.

“They have the connections to document these abuses. The powerful tool we have is accountability, and it may take many years for abusers to face justice. We can focus on preserving the evidence against these abuses and document them for the future.”

Please read about Letters from Lukashenka’s Prisoners here, which is a collaborative project by Index on Censorship in partnership with Belarus Free Theatre, Human Rights House Foundation and

1,000 days behind bars: In solidarity with Andrei Aliaksandrau

On 9 October 2023, former Index colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau will have spent 1,000 days behind bars - imprisoned by Lukashenka’s regime for protecting free expression. 

Journalist, media manager, and former employee at Index on Censorship, Andrei and his partner, Irina Zlobina were detained by officers of the Ministry of Internal Affairs on 12 January 2021 and were accused of financing the protests in Minsk by paying fines and reimbursing the costs for detention for those detained during the protests. 

After being held in pre-trial detention for nearly two years, in October 2022, the Minsk Regional Court sentenced Andrei to 14 years' imprisonment and a fine of 32,000 rubles ($12,600), and Irina to nine years in prison. On 20 January 2023 it was confirmed that both of them were included on the list of citizens of the Republic of Belarus, foreign citizens or stateless persons involved in extremist activities, which, as of 31 May 2023 included 2,868 people, many of whom are political prisoners. 

On 21 July 2021, three weeks after high treason was added to his charges, Andrei wrote a poem while in pre-trial detention. To stand alongside Andrei and to ensure his words can reach as many people as possible, some of his friends and former colleagues have come together to read his work in the two videos above. 

By reading his work we are sending a message to Lukashenka’s regime: You may imprison those who stand up for democracy in Belarus but you can never silence them. 


Translated from the original Belarusian by Hanna Komar and John Farndon


When you look out through the bars at the sky,

It’s not bars you see but the sky overhead.

Yesterday’s bread smells of mould and loss,

but tomorrow’s smells like genuine bread.


You say: the sky is a trick of the light.

But the bars are the trick of the light, I say!

Because bars are a hashtag, 

just a habit, right?

And this is the hashtag trending today.


Yet the sky cares nothing for hashtags at all,

the sky has no thought for trends up ahead,

it does not feel the ground where our feet fall,

nor count the centuries and slices of bread.


The sky just draws clouds of cotton wool 

over time — this is all that goes on really.

And the sky does not see any bars at all

when it peers deep into the sky in me.


In the original Belarusian


Калі на неба глядзіш праз краты,

не бачыш кратаў, а бачыш неба.

Учорашні хлеб пахне цвіллю і стратай,

а заўтрашні пахне сапраўдным хлебам.


Ты кажаш: неба — падман аптычны.

Але падман —гэта краты, вер мне!

Бо краты — толькі хэштэг, 

як звычка,

А гэты хэштэг зараз проста ў трэндах.


Ды справы няма да хэштэгаў небу,

пра трэнды неба зусім не ў курсе,

яно пад нагамі не чуе глебы,

не лічыць стагоддзяў і хлебных лустаў.


І неба цягне аблокаў вату

над часам — адзінае, што жыве.

І неба таксама не бачыць кратаў,

калі ўглядаецца ў неба ўва мне.

Those who refuse to despair

Today marks the 45th birthday of our former Index colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau. Sadly, he will not be spending it with his family, opening presents and eating cake. Instead he is in prison, serving a 14-year prison sentence handed down by the Minsk Regional Court for “grossly violating public order”, “creation of an extremist formation” and, most severely of all, “high treason”. Of course, when you are in an authoritarian regime, such charges mean nothing.

Andrei has been in the SIZO-2 pre-detention centre in Vitsebsk for just over two years now. Vitsebsk, in north-eastern Belarus is the birthplace of artist Marc Chagall. Now it is becoming better known for holding political prisoners.

A British detainee who was held in the same centre said conditions were “disastrous”. Travel agent Alan Smith was held in a cell measuring four metres by two with five other prisoners: his alleged crime - helping Iraqis illegally enter Belarus.

“Windows were closed, [there was] no ventilation, people smoke there [and] the toilet is open,” he told the independent media channel Charter 97. He added that there were informants in every cell and they were monitored with cameras and microphones and warned not to talk about “business matters” i.e. why they were in detention.

Andrei’s father visited him in Vitsebsk just over two weeks ago. He told friends, "I was met by a gaunt-looking Andrei, with very short hair, but full of energy.” Despite everything, his father said he was in “a good moral and psychological condition”.

Andrei's wife, Irina Zlobina, was previously a florist

Andrei was not even allowed to leave the detention centre to marry his fiancee Irina Zlobina last September. 

Irina is a graduate of the faculty of philosophy and social sciences of the Belarusian State University and in recent years had been running her own small business of selling flowers and souvenirs. She was arrested and tried at the same time as Andrei and was sentenced to nine years in prison, again for “grossly violating public order” and “high treason”.

The only time the couple have seen each other since they were arrested is at their trial, in the so-called BelaPAN case, alongside the former news agency’s editor-in-chief and director Irina Levshina, who got four years in prison, and former director of the agency Dmitry Novozhilov, who got six years. 

Before the trial, Irina was at a pre-detention centre in Homel in south-eastern Belarus; she has now been moved to a penal colony in the city.

Now Andrei is also on the move and he has been taken on a 115-kilometre journey to penal colony no.1 in Navapolack where he will serve out the rest of his sentence.

 We asked some of Andrei’s friends for their birthday wishes for him, even though he may never see their thoughts and comments.

 Joanna Szymanska, senior programme officer at ARTICLE 19, where Andrei also worked while he was in the UK, says wistfully,It's another birthday that Andrei will spend behind bars.”

 “I have lots of good memories related to Andrei, he's always been the life of the party. I especially miss our long discussions about Depeche Mode, we're both huge fans and Andrei has a great voice, I can still hear him singing his favourite songs,” she says.

 “I sometimes wonder, does he still sing them? I haven't received a letter from him in a long time, many letters are not delivered to political prisoners, especially if they are sent from abroad. But I'm sure Andrei stays strong and he knows the world hasn't forgotten. Andrei, your friends are with you.” 

 Andrei Bastunets, chair of the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ), says he met Andrei in the early 2000s: “We were united by many things: football, poetry and, of course, journalism. No, not ‘were united’, but ‘are united’. Even though he's in prison and I'm abroad. We are united despite the fact that, it seems, my letters to Andrei do not reach him. Prison censors don't let them through to political prisoners. I don't think he'll get my birthday greetings now. And not only mine, but a lot of birthday greetings. He has a lot of friends and he has been and remains a good friend - witty, charismatic, courageous.”

He says, “Once, back in the days when letters to political prisoners and their responses were still reaching their recipients, he wrote to me: ‘I now 'listen' to my friends' letters, guessing vibes and intonations - a personal 'radio'. My own Radio Liberty. My personal 'free speech'. Thanks for that to everyone who writes to me. We all are one big independent media outlet now. A blog of those who refuse to despair."

“In another letter - this time about football (although we follow different teams) – he wrote: ‘Somehow there was a reason to mumble the Liverpool’s anthem, You'll Never Walk Alone. Supportive words from the letters made me ‘sing it’, playing it on my internal radio, drowning out the external Russkoye Radio. It got to the point where I caught myself thrumming the club anthem in Belarusian. It came out a bit pathetic - but it's an anthem, just my translation (don't shoot the pianist). But somehow it seemed somehow in tune with, I don't know, with the moment, the feeling, the mood.”

Even if you may not get to read this Andrei, you'll never walk alone. 

What can Index readers do? Please join our joint campaign with ARTICLE19, share the message and sign the petition. You can also befriend Andrei and Irina via our partners at Politzek.