The world watched as Belarusians united peacefully against the Lukashenko regime in the aftermath of the fraudulent presidential elections in 2020. Two years on from an unprecedented nationwide wave of protests, the Belarusian authorities continue a sweeping crackdown on civil society – which has been exacerbated by the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the second anniversary of the rigged vote, ARTICLE 19 stands with the courageous people of Belarus, who remain persistent in their fight for democracy and freedom in spite of unabated repression.
On 9 August 2020, soon after the polls closed in Minsk, thousands of Belarusians took to the streets to defy Lukashenko’s declaration of victory in the election, which had been marred by accusations of vote-rigging. In turn, the state apparatus unleashed a massive crackdown on peaceful protesters that intensified and led to a massive exodus of people seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Today there are over 1250 political prisoners in Belarus. More than 30,000 individuals have been arrested and persecuted, and many have been physically assaulted by the police. Testimony of beatings and torture from freed protesters paints a bleak picture of the violence that those who oppose the Lukashenko regime have to endure.
Scores of journalists, human rights activists and ordinary citizens have been handed down harsh prison sentences following sham trials conducted behind closed doors and based on ludicrous, trumped up charges. In December 2021, activist and blogger Siarhei Tsikhanouski was sentenced to 18 years in prison for ‘organising mass unrest and inciting social hatred’ over his plans to challenge Lukashenka in the presidential election. His arrest before the vote prompted his wife Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya to step in and lead the democratic movement that was emerging at that time. In July 2022, journalist Katsiaryna Andreyeva was convicted of treason and sentenced to an additional eight years of imprisonment, just a few months before the end of her first prison term. Our former colleague Andrei Aliaksandrau has been detained since January 2021 for allegedly paying fines and covering detention costs for those apprehended during one of the protests in Minsk. He is facing charges of ‘treason to the state’,which could put him in prison for up to 15 years. To mark a one-year grim anniversary of his unlawful detention, ARTICLE 19 and Index on Censorship launched a solidarity campaign to demand the release of Andrei and his partner Irina Zlobina.
Crackdown on dissent intensifies
Freedom of expression is the first right autocrats attack to strengthen their power. Jailing journalists and activists illustrates only one of the wide range of shameful tactics that Lukashenko has deployed to stifle dissent. Hindering the flow of accurate information is used to embolden an already well-entrenched culture of impunity. The regime facilitates pervasive censorship through banning or blocking hundreds of news websites that expose state propaganda, including Deutsche Welle, Nastoyascheye Vremya (Current Time) and Novy Chas. Numerous journalists had their houses raided by the police.
In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled to dissolve dozens of rights groups including the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) and PEN Belarus, the country’s most prominent champions of media freedom and freedom of expression. Those people who continue their association with liquidated non-governmental organisations face steep fines and imprisonment.
In the shadow of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and given the strong support Belarusians have been showing for Ukrainians from the very beginning, Lukashenko’s regime has stepped up its crackdown on civil society with even more intensity. On 27 February more than 800 people were arrested while protesting against the war in Ukraine. On 18 May 2022, the authorities introduced the death penalty for ‘attempts to carry out acts of terrorism,’ which may be weaponised to further quash political dissidents. From April to June 2022 alone, at least 22 people were detained on ‘extremism’ charges. As of mid-June 2022, 283 court decisions have been taken to recognise materials as ‘extremist’, such as material on activists’ Telegram channels and independent media resources. In July, a 20-year old student, Danuta Pyarednya, was sentenced to 6,5 years in a penal colony for sharing a text criticising Vladimir Putin and Alexander Lukashenko for the war.
On the second anniversary of the protests, we call on the international community to stand with Belarusian civil society, continue to support a democratic transition in Belarus and defy the ongoing repression.
We recognise the great bravery of Belarusian people who have continued to fight for their fundamental rights to be respected, in spite of the violence, repression and cruelty they face. ARTICLE 19 stands with the people of Belarus in their quest for justice and freedom.
Belarus is ranked 157 out of 161 countries in the 2022 Global Expression Report – ARTICLE 19’s annual review of the state of freedom of expression and the right to information around the world.