Belarus: End brutal crackdown on dissent

Last update: 9 August 2023
Belarus: End brutal crackdown on dissent

9 August: Today marks three years since the disputed presidential elections that saw Aliaksandr Lukašenka return to a sixth term in office. PEN International and PEN Belarus condemn the worsening human rights situation in Belarus and call once again for an end to the government’s pervasive crackdown on dissenting voices.

The crisis in Belarus that broke out in August 2020 continues unabated, as the authorities are trampling the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. No human rights organisations are currently operating legally in the country, with anyone found guilty of participating in the activities of unregistered organisations facing up to two years in prison. Alarmingly, the authorities extended the death penalty to attempted acts of terrorism and ‘treason against the State’ – charges previously used against scores of activists – while a July 2022 law allowing investigations and trials in absentia enables the targeting of activists abroad. Over 100,000 people have reportedly left Belarus since May 2020, due to repression.

According to the Human Rights Centre Viasna, 1483 people were being held on politically motivated grounds at the time of writing, including 31 ‘people of the written word’ – writers, translators, academics, and intellectuals. Prison conditions in Belarus amount to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and torture, with prisoners routinely denied access to medical care and adequate legal representation. Artist Aleś Puškin died in prison on 11 July 2023 after being reportedly prevented from accessing urgent medical care. Incommunicado detention is a growing concern; the family of lawyer and writer Maksim Znak – who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence on spurious grounds – has not heard from him since 9 February 2023. On 21 May 2023, to mark the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus, PEN International released a letter signed by 103 Nobel Laureates, expressing solidarity with writer, human rights defender, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and PEN member Ales Bialiatski, and calling for the release of all those held for merely peacefully expressing their views.

‘Today, the PEN community stands with the many writers, journalists, artists, cultural workers, and human rights defenders who are serving lengthy prison terms in Belarus as they dared to fight for their human rights. We stand with PEN Belarus members Ales Bialiatski, Uladzimir Mackievič, Aliaksandr Fiaduta, and Tatsiana Vadalazhskaya. We stand with the 34 journalists and media workers who remain behind bars, including writer and journalist Andrzej Poczobut. We demand to hear from Maksim Znak and call for a thorough investigation into the death of Aleś Puškin. All those held solely for exercising their fundamental freedoms should be released immediately and unconditionally’ said Ma Thida, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

Sustained repression of the Belarusian language and cultural sphere

The stigmatisation and repression of the Belarusian language and literature in Belarus, where the authorities have been seeking to assert the dominance of the Russian language for decades, have worsened since the Russian Federation launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022.  As documented by PEN Belarus, scores of independent publishing houses have been raided for promoting books by Belarusian writers and in Belarusian language, and their activities suspended under far-fetched pretences. Cultural materials are being branded ‘extremists’, and 21 cultural rights organisations have been liquidated since January 2023.

PEN Belarus recorded 1390 cultural and human rights violations against cultural figures in 2022 alone, and noted an increase in the number of cultural figures detained and convicted on politically motivated grounds; 925 human rights violations against cultural figures were documented in the first half of 2023, among them 48 new criminal cases against cultural figures. As of 1 July 2023, at least 133 cultural figures were behind bars; 15 of them had been held for more than 1000 days. Others continue to be dismissed from state cultural and educational institutions. Research by PEN Belarus also documented increased pressure by the authorities on Polish and Lithuanian national minorities. Amendments to the Education Act, which entered into force on 1 September 2022, notably bans instruction in languages other than Russian and Belarusian.

Today, Belarusians have no state that protects and nurtures Belarusian culture. The Lukašenka government not only destroys the Belarusian culture itself, but it also targets those who preserve and develop it. Belarusians are imprisoned merely for using the Belarusian language and displaying national symbols, or for expressing their desire for change. Prisoners are subjected to inhumane conditions that violate their dignity and often lead to critical deterioration of health, even death. Yet despite everything, Belarusians are not giving up. Just like three years ago, we continue to resist against injustice and oppression’ said Taciana Niadbaj, PEN Belarus President.

 For more information about the work of PEN Belarus – including their latest reports and monitoring findings – please click here.

For more information about PEN International’s work on Belarus please see Impunity Reigns – Writers Resist, PEN International’s 2022 Case List, which documents 115 cases of persecuted writers worldwide.

For further details contact Aurélia Dondo, Head of Europe and Central Asia Region at PEN International: [email protected]