A chilling update from Belarus

As Belarus approaches the 30th anniversary of Aliaksandr Lukashenka’s autocratic rule, repression by the regime against those who stand for democracy and freedom is not getting any less severe.

This summer marks three decades since Lukashenka’s first inauguration and four years since the Belarusian pro-democratic revolution erupted following his controversial 2020 presidential election win over political newbie Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Despite the ongoing democratic movement led by Tsikhanouskaya, which keeps Belarus on the international agenda, the regime relentlessly cracks down on civil society both inside the country and in exile.

As of today, more than 1,400 political prisoners are behind bars in Belarus. During a recent visit to Washington, Tsikhanouskaya highlighted the scale of the repression by comparing these 1,400 prisoners to what would be 45,000 political prisoners in the United States. Many activists argue that support for Belarusians who flee their homeland could be stronger. Maria Rudz, co-chair of Razam, a Belarusian diaspora group in Germany, reported that out of 1,000 asylum applications from Belarusians, only 40 received positive decisions.

It is also crucial to remember that those jailed on politically motivated charges in Belarus endure inhumane treatment in prisons. Many imprisoned leaders of the pro-democratic movement are held incommunicado: Siarhei Tsikhanouski for 471 days, Maryia Kalesnikava for over 493 days, Mikalai Statkevich for 498 days, Maksim Znak for 499 days, and Viktar Babaryka for 502 days. Lukashenka is acutely aware that these leaders have inspired both Belarusians and the democratic world since the summer of 2020. Now, serving unjust sentences ranging from 10 to 18 years, they are deprived of freedom of speech and kept in silence as Lukashenka’s hostages.

Nevertheless, Belarusians inside the country and in exile have loud voices and activists continue their work from abroad. This persistence frustrates the regime, which cannot silence Tsikhanouskaya, her team, leaders of the diaspora and Belarusian NGOs. As a new tactic, the regime has begun conducting trials in absentia since 2023. On 20 June, Franak Viačorka, one of Tsikhanouskaya’s advisors, was sentenced in absentia to 20 years and fined 17,000 euro. Viačorka says that such attempts to disrupt their work are not fruitful: “It was not a trial but a farce. Lukashenka is a fraud, and his terror will not stop us from fighting for a free Belarus.”

Sadly, this has become common practice. Human rights activist Leanid Sudalenka from Viasna, who served an unjust sentence in Belarus and subsequently left the country, received another five-year sentence, in absentia. Several of his colleagues from Viasna remain behind bars, including Valiantsin Stefanovich, Marfa Rabkova and 2022 Nobel Peace Prize winner Ales Bialiatski .

The regime sometimes manages to put pressure on Belarusians even across international borders. The Serbian High Court has ruled that activist Andrei Hniot should be extradited back to Belarus due to charges brought by the regime. Hniot has filed an appeal, citing persecution by the regime. Following the court’s decision in Belgrade, Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya immediately called for support for Hniot through an open letter.

To get an insight into the work that Tsikhanouskaya is doing, readers in London can attend the screening of the British documentary The Accidental President about 17 July at the Bertha DocHouse in The Brunswick in London’s West End. The movie, which follows Tsikhanouskaya as she is thrust onto the world stage as Belarus’s de facto head of state in exile, will be followed by a Q&A session with directors Mike Lerner and Martin Herring.

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