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 Politzek.me.

The fates of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined

The people in Belarus are not willing to fight against Ukraine. It won’t be easy to convince them,” Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky told the Munich Security Conference last week amid threats from Belarus that it could join the Russian offensive. The Belarusian regime has supported Russia since the invasion, but their armed forces have not (yet) been directly involved in the conflict.

Like in Russia, anti-war rhetoric has been heavily repressed in Belarus. Last March mothers of Belarusian soldiers were arrested after they gathered in the church to pray for peace. And only last week a 65-year-old garage owner was fined, and his business closed for having called Russian military personnel “occupiers” and refusing to sell them goods.

Nonetheless, some political prisoners have managed to communicate their feelings about the war. “We are one, we used to be at peace […] Hide your pride and shake hands,” Siarhei Sakavets wrote in his poem “22.02.2022” on the eve of the invasion. “There are so many rumours about everything that is happening, and the news on TV. God help me. I am very worried about you,” Larysa Kuzmenka wrote to her daughter and grandson last November.

Reading these letters from Belarusian political prisoners published by Index on Censorship, Pasha Bystrova – a Ukrainian woman who now lives in the Netherlands – says she felt a sense of “extreme injustice”. In different ways, Ukrainians and Belarusians are being deprived of their fundamental rights. They are suffering the consequences of tyranny.

Bystrova, who now works with refugees – including Ukrainian refugees – told Index that she feels that political prisoners and refugees are alike in that they are often perceived as being ‘the other’ by wider society. They are misunderstood because many people have preconceived ideas of who a ‘political prisoner’ or ‘refugee’ is. Having read political prisoners’ letters, Bystrova said: “I felt this could be me, any of us or our loved ones.”

Bystrova feels that the fates of Ukraine and Belarus are intertwined. “I believe the result of this war will greatly influence the situation in Belarus,” Bystrova told Index. “The collapse of the Lukashenka regime is inevitable.” That’s why defending Ukraine is “for our freedom and yours”.

Index on Censorship has so far published letters from 29 of the 1450 political prisoners in Belarus. Read their letters here

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

Letters from Belarus: Maria Kolesnikova

Reader’s Note: In September 2020, the prominent Belarusian opposition figure Maria Kolesnikova was abducted from Minsk and taken to the border where security forces tried to expel her from the country; she ripped up her passport in defiance. In the days that followed she was charged with incitement to undermine national security and placed in pre-trial detention.

The letter that follows was written by Maria Kalesnkikova to her father on 16 July 2021, the day the Supreme Court rejected her complaint regarding the extension of her detention until 1 August. Her father, Aliaksandr Kalesnikov, had gone to the hearing to support his daughter wearing a T-shirt with Maria’s image on it. He initially refused access to the hearing so he took off the T-shirt, turned it inside out, and put it back on. He was then allowed to enter.

Aliaksandr has repeatedly been refused the right to visit Maria in detention. According to Maria’s sister, Tatsiana Khomich – referred to as “Tania” in the letter, Alexander has been denied permission to see his daughter on every occasion (more than fifteen times) with no explanation. On 4 August, Maria went on trial facing up to 12 years in prison on charges of extremism. The trial was closed to the public, including family members. Maria’s family said it was a relief to see her healthy and cheerful at the trail, albeit on television screens.

Tatsiana said that although Maria is writing a lot, her letters have become increasingly infrequent. Suppression of letters from political prisoners in Belarus is commonplace, denying family members and loved ones the chance to hear vital news. This is done to put pressure on individuals and their families. The letter below is the last communication Maria’s family have received from her. One year since the fraudulent elections in Belarus, Maria’s sister agreed to publicly share this personal letter between Maria and her father.

Letter from Maria Kolesnikova to her father Aliaksandr Kalesnikov:

16 July 2021:

Hi my dearly beloved world’s best dad!

How are you doing in this trying time?

I’m constantly thinking of you, grandpa and all our nearest and dearest – sending my hello’s and lots of hugs to all!

The court hearing took place today so I already know how you had to ‘get changed’ – I bet everybody in the detention centre could hear me laugh! You really think fast on your feet. You see, now nobody can doubt that I’m my father’s daughter – and I’m so proud to be one!

I’m so glad that you are keeping your spirits high and are managing to get through these crazy days with a good sense of humour :)

Keep it up!

Today I received two! Letters from you and two from A.

You wrote that you’re in awe with Tania – I’m also writing this in every letter to her. What she’s doing for me and our whole team is unbelievable and incredible.

Please ask her, as do I, to make sure that she takes good care of herself and makes every effort to find time to rest.

And of course, the joke that your Berlingo [car] is crumbling and ageing faster than you are has also put a smile on my face. And so it should be, Dad, you’ve got no need to crumble!

I’m well, healthy and cheerful!

Sending you and everybody a big-big hug!

Your Masha

May goodness persevere!

Love and hugs