On 21 May, marking the Day of the Political Prisoner in Belarus, the undersigned organisations reiterate our condemnation of the Lukashenko regime’s ruthless crackdown on civil society and independent media. We continue to stand in solidarity with courageous Belarusians who persist in their fight for freedom. The international community will keep demanding the unconditional release of all political prisoners.
In the shadow of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, the Belarusian authorities have doubled down on the repression of dissenting voices. The judicial harassment of journalists, artists, activists and anyone who dares to claim their fundamental rights has become one of the most notorious weapons in a vast arsenal deployed by the Lukashenko regime to strengthen his autocratic rule.
The profoundly compromised judiciary continues to hold closed-door show trials and hand down harsh jail sentences to quell any remaining opposition. According to Viasna, one of the oldest and most prominent rights groups in the country, as of the end of April, there were 1,495 political prisoners in Belarus and more than 3,200 people convicted in politically-motivated criminal trials. From the moment of its creation almost three decades ago, Viasna has been at the forefront of the rights movement in Belarus, strengthening civil society and promoting democratic transition. This unwavering commitment has led to it being targeted by a series of baseless and abusive criminal investigations. Six of Viasna’s members are currently in jail, including its chairperson and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March 2023.
‘Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists’
The regime prosecutes Belarusians based on trumped-up charges such as ‘grossly violating public order’, ‘inciting hatred’, ‘tax evasion’ or ‘terrorism’. Those who share publications from independent media outlets are accused of disseminating extremist materials, effectively making the activities of these outlets illegal. At the beginning of March, law enforcement detained over 100 people in what they claimed to be an investigation into terrorist and extremist groups.
The process of dismantling civil society in Belarus has been exacerbated by heavily restricted access to information, manifested in the ruthless hunt for journalists. Belarus has been dubbed ‘Europe’s most dangerous country for journalists’, with 33 media workers currently behind bars, according to the Belarusian Association of Journalists (BAJ) – the leading journalistic organisation in the country. BAJ has been labelled an ‘extremist organisation’, and has been forced to operate in exile since the Supreme Court ruled to liquidate the group in August 2021. The courts have also been used to ban or block hundreds of news websites that expose state propaganda. The overwhelming majority of independent media outlets were forced to either flee or cease their operations. Those who have stayed are exposed to house raids and incessant intimidation, including malicious criminal prosecution. In one of the latest show trials, Maryna Zolatava and Lyudmila Chekina, senior staff at independent outlet Tut.by, Belarus’ most popular online news portal before its forced closure by authorities in 2021, were each sentenced to 12 years in prison.
Cultural figures – including writers, poets, musicians, and playwrights – are also held as political prisoners for their expression, commonly for criticising the Lukashenko regime or even for publishing books in Belarusian. The writers’ organisation PEN Belarus found that over 100 cultural workers were among the more than 1,400 political prisoners in the country in 2022.
Denied medical care and appalling conditions
Political prisoners are held in degrading and inhumane conditions with very limited contact with the outside world, their families or their lawyers. They are kept in overcrowded, cold cells and are deprived of food, water, and medical care. Blogger Mikalay Klimovich, who was jailed for posting an online caricature of Lukashenko, died in prison on 10 May. Human rights defender Nasta Lojka has reported on the degrading treatment and torture she has experienced during prolonged pre-trial detention. Belarusian authorities disbarred her lawyer, rejected her request for dental treatment, and denied her access to medication and warm clothes. Journalist Ksenia Lutskina, who is serving a 8-year prison sentence on charges of conspiring to seize state power, has a pre-existing brain tumour that has grown in detention and is not receiving appropriate medical care.
Physical threats are accompanied by mental distress. Each prison sentence severely disrupts and cruelly separates families. Due to the regime’s clampdown on fundamental rights, as well as arbitrary rules restricting how loved ones can communicate with and visit their detained relatives, the persecution extends throughout families across the country. When Victor was detained, his wife first told their children he was on a business trip but the story fell short as the separation prolonged. Children tried to call their dad recording touching voice messages, and did not want to eat without Victor coming home. Victor’s little daughter started to fear police cars.
On 15 March, the European Parliament adopted a new resolution condemning the regime’s continued systematic repression of the Belarusian people. However, the Lukashenko regime has failed to address any of the legitimate concerns or calls repeatedly made by the international community over the past two years. While it seems Lukashenko has no intention of stopping the crackdown on civil society and media freedom, we, the undersigned rights organisations, will continue to show unwavering support to the brave people of Belarus repressed for exercising their vital human rights and for journalistic work, and demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners.
The Belarusian Association of Journalists
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
Human Rights House Foundation
International Press Institute (IPI)
Index on Censorship
Justice for Journalists Foundation