Belarusian authorities should immediately and unconditionally free Nasta Lojka, a woman human rights defender held behind bars since 28 October 2022 and who is being prosecuted on politically-motivated incitement and other charges that carry a maximum of 12 years in prison.
The authorities have subjected her to torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, disbarred her lawyer, whose successor they refused to attest, initiated a smear campaign against her, and failed to respond to inquiries about her situation put forth by United Nations human rights monitors.
The undersigned organisations strongly condemn this treatment and urge Belarusian authorities to free Nasta Lojka, drop the criminal charges against her, and meanwhile ensure her access to independent lawyers, and end her subjection to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
Nasta Lojka is a political prisoner whom Belarusian authorities are persecuting in reprisal for her longstanding work as a human rights defender. She has been actively engaged in human rights work for almost 15 years, focusing on anti-discrimination and equality issues, fair trials, rights of non-nationals and stateless people, and informal human rights education. She is an expert on freedom of assembly, legal mechanisms of human rights protection, trial monitoring, volunteer management, and combating hate speech and hate crimes.
She is the recipient of the Human Rights Defender of the Year 2022 award in recognition of her outstanding work from the Belarus human rights community.
This is not the first time Belarusian authorities have persecuted Nasta Lojka in retaliation for her work, but the actions they have taken against her since September are unmatched in their severity.
Since 6 September 2022, Lojka has served a total of six 15-day administrative sentences on bogus ‘petty hooliganism’ charges under Article 19.1 of the Code of Administrative Offences of the Republic of Belarus. On 24 December, while still in administrative detention, she was charged with criminal offences under Article 342, part 1 (‘organising group actions grossly violating public order’) and Article 130, part 3 (‘incitement of racial, national, religious or other social enmity or discord’) of the Criminal Code of the Republic of Belarus.
Torture and Ill-treatment in Okrestina Detention Center
During Nasta Lojka’s administrative detention in Okrestina Detention Center, notorious for severe ill-treatment of detainees, the authorities denied her access to legal assistance, as well as medication and warm clothes. She also alleged torture and inhuman treatment in detention. In one example she cited, she was forced to remain in the courtyard without any outerwear for 8 hours in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius after which she fell ill for several weeks.
In November 2022, law enforcement raided Nasta Lojka’s mother’s home in an apparent attempt to put additional pressure on the human rights defender.
Continuing ill-treatment in pre-trial detention
After criminal charges were brought against her, Nasta Lojka was transferred from Okrestina to Volodarskogo Pre-trial Detention Center, where she continues to experience degrading conditions.
In February, she requested dental treatment. The facility’s administration and the Investigative Committee handling her case turned down her request. When a dentist was found independently after a month of persistent efforts by Lojka’s colleagues and relatives, the Investigative Committee prohibited the dentist from visiting or treating her.
Because she adheres to a strict vegan diet, she cannot eat properly in the facility because it does not provide balanced vegan options, and she depends on outside food parcels. This is a serious health concern for her, and a risk for her long-term physical and mental well-being.
The woman human rights defender is not allowed to receive letters from anyone but her mother, which severely limits her communication with the outside world. The investigative and prison authorities provide no justification for limiting Lojka’s ability to correspond with others freely, and to receive letters and postcards. It also prevents the public from learning more about her detention conditions.
In these circumstances, Nasta Lojka’s lawyers serve as one of few channels of communications from her. But such communications are increasingly limited because of the continued persecution of her attorneys.
Access to legal defence
In November, the authorities detained Lojka’s lawyer, who was then disbarred. In March, her subsequent lawyer did not pass the attestation by the Qualification Commission under the Ministry of Justice, which will lead to the lawyer’s eventual disbarment. Such government actions threaten Lojka’s right to a legal defence and severely undermine her right to a fair trial. These are also just a few examples of a larger pattern of persecution of independent lawyers in Belarus documented by the Right to Defense (Defenders.by) initiative.
Throughout Nasta Lojka’s prolonged detention, a smear campaign against her and Human Constanta, the rights group she worked with before its formal shutdown by the authorities, has intensified. On 20 December 2022, the Belarusian state media outlet Belarus Today published an article labelling Human Constanta a ‘spy network’ and calling human rights defenders ‘rats,’ ‘foreign agents,’ and ‘regime fighters’. The article is littered with propaganda and hate speech. It illustrates the biased stance of the authorities, who control state media and are portraying Lojka as a criminal before the case is even heard on the merits.
During Nasta Lojka’s administrative detention, the Telegram channel of the Main Directorate for Combating Organized Crime and Corruption of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Belarus (GUBOPiK) published ‘confession’ videos that were recorded under duress. These were later used in the smear campaign. During the period when communication with Lojka was still possible, she said that GUBOPiK employees beat her, threatened to use electroshocks against her, and told her that her dog would be killed if she did not cooperate.
Reaction of international actors
On 17 November 2022, six United Nations experts requested information from the Belarusian government about the alleged violations of Nasta Lojka’s rights and explanations for the government’s actions.
On 16 December 2022, the UN Human Rights Committee registered a communication from her, alleging violations of her right to liberty and security and a fair trial. The Committee adopted interim measures in her case under rule 94 of the Committee’s rules of procedure, asking Belarusian authorities to provide her with immediate access to independent medical care, including transfer to a relevant medical facility to receive adequate medical treatment, if necessary, and to ensure that her life and physical and mental integrity were safeguarded, including by providing her with seasonally appropriate clothes while her case remains under consideration.
Nasta Lojka remains in detention awaiting her criminal trial. The Belarusian authorities took no meaningful action in response to the UN experts’ letter and the Human Rights Committee’s decision on interim measures. The activist is repeatedly subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment in detention. Her hygiene, dietary, and medical needs are not being met.
Front Line Defenders
Human Rights Watch
International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders
World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), within the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders