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.

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