People of Word (32)

Chronicle of human rights violations in the sphere of culture (15-31 July 2023)

As of 31 July 2023, at least 127 cultural figures, including not less than 32 People of the Word, were behind bars.

Ihar Karniej, journalist, essayist, and writer about Belarus’s cultural and historical heritage, was placed in the remand prison. A criminal case was opened against him. 

Poet and musician Mikita Najdzionaŭ was sentenced to three years of home confinement.

The writer and photographer Zmicier Bajarovič was sentenced to three years of home confinement.

The Hrodna Regional Court sentenced cultural manager, journalist and publisher Paval Mažejka to six years in a medium-security penal colony; lawyer Julija Jurhilievič, who was the defence attorney for the artist and political prisoner Aleś Puškin (Ales Pushkin) – to six years in a minimum-security penal colony.

The trial of Belarusian culture and history populariser Larysa Ščyrakova began behind closed doors in Homiel. 

Belarusian authorities included imprisoned children’s writer Dzmitry Jurtajeŭ in the so-called list of persons involved in extremist activities.

I. Politically motivated criminal cases against cultural workers, authors and performers

1. On 17 July 2023, police detained Ihar Karniej and searched his house in Minsk. Initial reports suggest that he was arrested for ten days. Ihar Karniej is a journalist, essayist, travel blogger, and writer about Belarus’s cultural and historical heritage. On 28 July 2023, Ihar Karniej was transferred to the pre-trial detention centre on Valadarskaha Street in Minsk. A criminal case was opened against him, but the charges are unknown. Ihar Karniej was detained on 15 November 2020 during the March of the Brave peaceful protest in Minsk. He was sentenced to ten days of arrest under Article 23.34 of the Code of Administrative Offences (participation in an unauthorised mass event). He served his term in a detention centre in Žodzina. After his release, Ihar wrote a report titled “The next stop is hell. How I spent ten days in the Žodzina detention centre”, in which he exposed the inhumane conditions behind bars.

2. On 19 July 2023, Minsk’s Leninski District Court ruled to sentence poet and musician Mikita Najdzionaŭ to three years in home confinement. Mikita Najdzionaŭ was detained in Minsk on 25 March 2023 and convicted under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organising and preparing actions that grossly violate public order or actively participate in them). Mikita Najdzionaŭ is a poet, author of Farewells: a collection of poetry (2016), musician, translator, former frontman of the Hurma band, and songwriter for various artists. He translated 16 songs of The Beatles into Belarusian.

3. On 20 July 2023, Minsk’s Leninsk District Court issued a verdict in the criminal case of Zmicier Bajarovič and Valeryja Bajarovič: three years of home confinement. Zmicier Bajarovič is a photographer, journalist, writer, and author of poems and prose collection Šali (Libra) (2012). Zmicier Bajarovič and his wife Valeryja Bajarovič were detained on 14 March 2023 in Minsk near the entrance to their house. The trial began on 19 July 2023. Zmicier Bajarovič was charged under Article 342 of the Criminal Code (organising and preparing actions that grossly violate public order) for participating in peaceful protests in 2020.

4. On 26 July, Hrodna Regional Court sentenced cultural manager, journalist and publisher Paval Mažejka to six years in a medium-security penal colony. Lawyer Julija Jurhilevič, who was the defence attorney of the artist and political prisoner, Aleś Puškin, received six years in the low-security penal colony. The trial began on 10 July 2023 and remained open to the public until the closing arguments. The last word was heard behind closed doors. Paval Mažejka and Julija Jurhilevič were tried under Article 361.4(2) of the Criminal Code (assisting in extremist activity committed repeatedly by a group of persons with collusion). They were accused of passing information to the Belsat television channel, designated by Belarusian authorities as an “extremist formation” on 3 November 2021. According to the case materials, Paval Mažejka “colluded with Julija Jurhilevič” between February and March 2022 to provide Belsat with information from Julija Jurhilevič about the revocation of her lawyer’s license, exclusion from the Hrodna Regional Bar Association and the consideration of artist Aleś Puškin’s criminal case by the Minsk City Court.

5. On 27 July, the trial of Belarusian culture and history populariser, Larysa Ščyrakova, began behind closed doors in a Homiel court. She is accused under Article 369.1 (discrediting the Republic of Belarus) and Article 361.4 of the Criminal Code (assisting in extremist activities). According to the investigation, Larysa Ščyrakova “took advantage of the tense situation in the society and tried to destabilise the situation in the country, presented for posting and placed on the Internet, including on destructive websites, information materials with deliberately false data that discredited the Republic of Belarus”, “carried out the collection, creation, processing, storage and transfer of information for “Viasna” and “Belsat”. Larysa Ščyrakova is a documentary film director, populariser of history and ethnography, performer of folk songs, reconstructor of folk rites, coordinator of the project to honour the memory of the repressed “Killed and Forgotten”, performer of the role of the repressed and executed Belarusian political figure Paluta Badunova in Valer Mazinski’s film Paluta Badunova: To Recall and Not Forget. Larysa Ščyrakova was detained on 6 December 2022 in Homiel. Authorities placed her 16-year-old son Sviataslaū in a youth care home in the Homiel district. Her ex-husband was able to take her son from the youth care. When Larysa was in custody, her mother died.


6. On 28 July 2023, imprisoned children’s writer Dzmitry Jurtajeŭ was included in the so-called list of persons involved in extremist activities. On 11 July 2023, the Supreme Court rejected Dzmitry Jurtajeŭ‘s appeal. On 29 April 2023, Dzmitry Jurtajeŭ was sentenced to two years in a minimum-security penal colony. He was accused under Article 368 (1) (insulting the president) and Article 130 (1) of the Criminal Code (inciting social enmity or discord).

II. Politically motivated administrative detentions and arrests of cultural workers, authors and performers

1. On 20 July, the police arrested artist Siarhiej Kuleš in Dziaržynsk. The reasons for the detention remain unknown.

2. On 24 July, Belarusian language teacher, PhD in philology and assistant professor at the Department of Belarusian and Russian languages of the Belarusian State Economic University (BSEU), Nadzieja Staravojtava, and former Russian language teacher of the Belarusian State University of Physical Culture (BSU), Natallia Sivickaja, were detained in Minsk.

3. On 27 July, it became known about the detention in Minsk of Maksim Vasiljeŭ, a student majoring in drama at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts. He was accused of distributing “extremist materials”.

4. On 28 July, a historian, former director of the city’s History Museum, Aliaksiej Baciukoŭ, was detained in Mahilioŭ.

5. On 31 July, in Verchniadzvinsk, police officers detained Valiancina Bolbat, a populariser of Belarusian culture, organiser of cultural events, at her home. They later took her to Viciebsk to serve 30 days of administrative arrest, which she received on 19 June in Navapolack under Article 19.11(2) of the Code of Administrative Offences (distribution of information products included in the list of extremist materials, as well as production, publication, storage or transportation for distribution of such information) and Article 24.23(3) of the Code of Administrative Offences (violation of the procedure for organising or holding mass events). Police officers found a video on Valiancina Bolbat’s page on the Odnoklasniki social network from an Internet source designed by the authorities as extremist. They treated the video as the distribution of extremist information products. The police also found an image of the national white-red-white flag. It fell under the unauthorized picketing offence. Valiancina Bolbat tried to appeal the ruling of the Navapolack court in a higher court, but the Viciebsk Regional Court upheld the initial sentence. In 2023, Valiancina Bolbat was tried six times under Articles 19.11 and 24.23 of the Code of Administrative Offences. Being behind bars took a toll on her health. Valiancina Bolbat suffered a hypertensive crisis during her stay in the Navapolack Centre for the Isolation of Offenders.

III. Trials and arrests for using Belarusian and Ukrainian national symbols

1. On 23 July, Viktar Narejka was detained in Minsk for a tattoo with the Pahonia (Pursuit) coat of arms.

2. On 28 July, an activist and distributor of Belarusian literature, Barys Сhamajda, was detained at the Bihosava railway station in the Vierchniadzvinsk district of the Viciebsk region and arrested for ten days. He was travelling from Viciebsk to join a pilgrimage to the village of Rosica near the Latvian border. Rosica hosted the comamemoration of the martyrs of the Second World War, the Marian priests Jury Kašyra and Antoni Liaščevič. Barys Chamajda was detained after the border guards checked the passports and noticed the Pahonia (Pursuit) coat of arms on the passport’s cover during ID checks. When Barys Chamajda got off the train onto the platform, police officers detained and transported him to Verchniadzvinsk.

IV. Conditions in places of detention, tortures of prisoners

1. On 16 July, it became known that representatives of the Ivacevičy penal colony’s administration seized a book draft that political prisoner Ryhor Kastusioŭ started writing while in prison. They also took addresses for correspondence.

2. Aliaksandr Franckievič, the author of prison prose, had his term in punitive confinement at the penal colony in Ivacevičy extended until 5 August. He has been continuously kept there for fourth months.

3. Zmicier Daškievič, the author of prison prose, has been in the punishment cell since the first day of his arrival at the detention centre in Žodzina.

V. Destruction of memorials

A memorial sign to the participants of the 1863 uprising disappeared from the building of the Hrodna railway station. Instead, a new plaque was dedicated to the Soviet underground anti-Nazi resistance fighters of the Second World War. The disappeared oak-made sign commemorating the 1863 uprising heroes was installed following the 28 June 1993 Resolution No. 284 of the executive committee of the Hrodno City Council of People’s Deputies. Local sculptor Uladzimir Pancialejeŭ had authored the memorial.

VI. Repressions in the book and publishing sector

On 24 July, Belarus’s Information Ministry blocked access to the online library of Belarusian literature The e-library hosts thousands of newspapers, books, magazines, audiobooks, and videos with Belarusian writers. 

VII. Discrimination for language

On 17 July, amendments were introduced to the Law “On Languages,” which has regulated the state’s language policy since 1990. The revised law abolishes the right to receive education in the language of the national minority in schools. The amendments have also removed the requirement for top managers in the education system to speak Belarusian.