Belarus: The right to health, the right to freedom

Belarus: The right to health, the right to freedom - Civic Space

Today marks the International Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus. Despite the world’s attention being diverted by several grave humanitarian crises, Belarusians continue to endure an unprecedented level of repression, often out of the spotlight and away from media headlines. ARTICLE 19 reaffirms its unwavering support for the Belarusian resistance and their strength in standing up to repression. We call for the release of all political prisoners who are persecuted for their vital work for civil society. 

Viasna, a leading human rights group documenting violations against the people in Belarus, has designated 21 May as the Day of Solidarity with Political Prisoners in Belarus. This year’s theme focuses on the right to health and medical care in detention. The political persecution of people who defy the regime in Minsk is exacerbated by the systemic mistreatment of these individuals while behind bars. Prisoners are subjected to torture, denied hygienic products and critical medications, deprived of doctor’s appointments, and held in penal colonies under inhumane conditions, despite having severe health issues that are blatantly ignored. Prisoners are left alone facing this ordeal as their contact with the outside world, including family, is severely constrained, further contributing to the deterioration of their mental and physical health. Many political prisoners are held incommunicado without any contact with the outside world. In the case of Maria Kalesnikava, this has been the situation for more than a year. ARTICLE 19 again urges Belarus to finally cease targeting its citizens for exercising their basic rights and provide access to necessary healthcare while they are in detention.   

As of 21 May 2024, there are 1,364 political prisoners in Belarus. According to Viasna over 250 prisoners are at particular risk due to their weakening health and the rough conditions in the penitentiary system. Since the 2020 protests, at least six individuals jailed for standing up to the Lukashenko regime have died in prison: Vitold Ashurak, Mikalai Klimovich, Ales Pushkin, Vadzim Khrasko, Ihar Lednik, and Aliaksandr Kulinich. Activists, journalists, and citizens who dare to claim their rights — whether by supporting their peers participating in demonstrations or engaging in civil society activities — are persecuted and put on trial in a travesty of justice, facing trumped-up charges and blatantly biased procedures. The regime’s escalation of repression extends beyond political prisoners themselves, now targeting the families and relatives of those who dare to dissent. According to Viasna, on 23 January 2024, law enforcement raided the homes of many individuals, primarily those close to political prisoners. During the crackdown of January and February 2024, more than 280 people were persecuted as part of this operation, the majority of whom were women.  

Among those still imprisoned is our former colleague and friend Andrei Aliaksandrau. ARTICLE 19 has been advocating for his release since he was first apprehended alongside his wife Irina Zlobina on 11 January 2021. Since then, Andrei has been sentenced to 14 years in prison. Together with Index on Censorship, we launched a solidarity campaign that continues today. We tried to send letters to him but have not received any response, which only deepens our concern about his condition and treatment.  

Reports of significant deterioration in the health conditions of political prisoners are lamentably not isolated incidents but rather fit into a broader context of a massive crackdown on civil society in Belarus that has never really slowed down. 

Nasta Lojka, a prominent rights defender and co-founder of the Human Constanta organisation, was sentenced to 7 years in prison in June 2023. During her prolonged administrative detention, the authorities treated her inhumanely: in one example she cited, she was forced to remain in the prison courtyard without any outerwear for 8 hours in temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius after which she fell ill for several weeks. Additionally, she was denied medication, warm clothes, and proper nutrition. ARTICLE 19 emphasises that the psychological and physical torture endured by Nasta should never occur and must be thoroughly investigated to ensure accountability. 

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Ales Bialiatski is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence. In May 2023, he was transferred to penal colony No. 9 in Horki, one of the harshest prisons in Belarus. Political prisoners there face systematic harassment, including isolation and extended periods in punishment cells. Bialiatski has been denied contact with his lawyer and family, who cannot call or receive letters from him. Similarly, he appears not to receive letters or parcels from outside and his health condition remains unknown. 

ARTICLE 19 expresses its deep admiration for the courage and determination of civil society in Belarus and will always vocally support their cause. We demand the immediate and unconditional release of all political prisoners. We call on the international community to use all available means at its disposal to exert effective pressure on the Belarusian authorities to cease abusing the legal system to persecute opponents and finally free all those imprisoned under politically-motivated charges. 


Read more about ARTICLE 19’s advocacy work to free political prisoners and support freedom of expression in Belarus.