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Protest against the persecution of the Freedom Day celebration participants

Last update: 3 July 2024
Protest against the persecution of the Freedom Day celebration participants

PEN Belarus protests and draws the international community’s attention to a new direction of repression against Belarusian civil society: persecution for participating in Freedom Day celebrations.

Freedom Day is a national Belarusian holiday, the anniversary of the declaration of independence of the first national state, the Belarusian People’s Republic (the Third Constituent Charter was adopted on 25 March 1918).

Public celebrations of Freedom Day in Belarus resumed in 1989 with the action in Minsk of the artist Aleś Puškin, who, together with other theatre and art institute students, organised the first performance in defence of the Belarusian language. Aleś Puškin died in July 2023 because he did not receive timely medical care in prison No. 1 in Hrodna. Since 1993, Freedom Day has been celebrated in Belarus unofficially. It is usually accompanied by arrests for participation in an unauthorised mass event (which violates the right to freedom of assembly) or for using an unregistered symbol – the historic national white-red-white flag (which violates the right of Belarusians to cultural self-identification).

The Viasna Human Rights Centre notes that, with rare exceptions, 25 March has always been a day of detentions, arrests, and brutal dispersal of peaceful citizens. As a result of continued repressions that have been ongoing since 2020, an open celebration of Freedom Day in Belarus is impossible. At the same time, Freedom Day has a long tradition of celebration in the Belarusian diaspora, a significant part of which today consists of people who had to flee Belarus in the aftermath of the 2020 post-election crackdown. This day honours Belarusian independence and statehood, as well as the Belarusian language, history, and national symbols (the coat of arms, “The Pursuit”, and the white-red-white flag); it is a symbolic holiday of unity for Belarusians who long for a free and democratic state for their country.

A traditional component of the celebration is performances by Belarusian creators, such as writers, musicians, and artists. In today’s situation of repression against Belarusian culture and the policy of Russification, Freedom Day is also a celebration of Belarusians’ defence of their cultural and national identity.

Events on Freedom Day in 2024 were held outside Belarus. At the same time, the organisers tried to provide Internet broadcasts so that people who remained in Belarus could symbolically participate in the celebration. Independent media widely covered the celebrations.

In May 2024, a criminal case was made known against the participants of the Freedom Day celebrations, which took place in cities and countries with an active Belarusian diaspora and were held in accordance with the legislation of these countries. On 16 May 2024, the Investigative Committee of the Republic of Belarus announced that it had added 104 names to the list of suspects in the “Belarusians Abroad” case. It is known that a criminal case was initiated under Articles 361-1 and 369-1 of the Criminal Code (“Creation of an extremist organisation and participation in it” and “Discrediting the Republic of Belarus”). The Investigative Committee of Belarus claims that as part of the investigation, it has already received information about the real estate objects and other property of the suspects available on the territory of Belarus. Investigative actions are now being carried out: checks, searches, seizure of property and “other procedural measures.” The human rights community is aware of specific cases of politically motivated persecution of actors, musicians, historians, writers, and other participants of the Freedom Day celebration. PEN Belarus continues to record public and non-public messages in this regard.

We emphasise that freedom of speech and thought are fundamental human rights enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 19) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 19). The Republic of Belarus has undertaken to comply with these international agreements, guaranteeing its citizens the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 21). The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 20) also declares the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.

The impossibility and prohibition of participation in the celebration of Freedom Day and persecution for it, especially regarding the cultural and educational nature of the holiday, violate cultural rights. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (Article 15) recognises the right to participate in cultural life (direct participation in cultural life, access to cultural life, opportunity to contribute to cultural life).

The right of every person to participate in cultural life, as well as other rights enshrined in the specified international acts, impose obligations on Belarus as a participating state:

  • to respect: the state cannot interfere (directly or indirectly) in a person’s exercise of the right to participate in cultural life. That is, government bodies cannot carry out actions that violate cultural rights;
  • to protect: the state must do everything possible to prevent the interference of third parties (physical and legal) in the realisation of a person’s right to participate in cultural life;
  • to implement: The state must take all necessary measures at the policy level to ensure the complete realisation of cultural rights.

Persecution for peaceful assemblies and expression of beliefs and for supporting Belarusian cultural traditions, history and language is a gross violation of these rights.

We believe that the seizure of property with the intention of its further confiscation by the state declared in the public space is an arbitrary action and violates the norms of both international (including Article 17 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) and national law (including Article 2 of the Civil Code). According to these provisions, no one can be arbitrarily deprived of his property. PEN Belarus believes that there are no factual grounds for the seizure of property; the actions of the Belarusian authorities are unfounded, illegal, and contradict the international obligations of the Republic of Belarus.

PEN Belarus:
  • condemns violations of these fundamental rights;
  • demands to stop the persecution of the participants of the Freedom Day celebration;
  • urges the international community to pay attention to the situation in Belarus.
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