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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

People Behind Bars: What has Been Happening in Belarus?

Article by: Ms Eagles

This article was published as part of a collaboration with the School of Social Sciences of the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

Three Years on

Apart from Belarus’s role as a staging ground for Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the country has recently received little international media attention. What have been the developments in the country since it last made global headlines in 2020 during mass pro-democracy protests? One little noticed observation is the imprisonment of dissenting voices up and down the country. In total, over 6,000 people were imprisoned in the first three nights after the 2020 elections. In 2021, a shocking 35,000 people were arrested for peaceful and unarmed protests. The US State Department estimates the total number of current political prisoners to be 1,500.

The High Profile Cases

In 2020, Sergei Tichanovsky, who ran against Lukashenko, was detained before the elections and sentenced to 18 years in prison. His wife, Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya, fled Belarus to the EU member state Lithuania. Should she ever return to Belarus, she will be faced with a 15-year prison term. A further former presidential candidate, Victor Babariko, was sentenced to 14 years in prison. As opposition leader Maria Kolesnikova was being deported, she tore up her passport before crossing the Ukrainian border and has since been sentenced to 11 years.

The U.S. State Department Report

Belarusian prisons are notoriously inhumane. According to a 2022 US State Department report, the use of electric shock is widespread as a means of torture. Further interviews conducted by Human Rights Watch found that prison cells are systematically overcrowded, kept cold during the winter, and that there is a distinct lack of hygiene products, including menstruation pads and tampons. There is frequently no access to adequate bedding, required medicine, or even enough food and water. The case of Dzmitry Uskhopau is particularly chilling, with the report stating: ‘In the evening of December 31, 2021, Dzmitry Uskhopau was brought to the hospital by authorities in a life-threatening state after his 11 p.m. arrest at a bus stop earlier that night. By 1:20 a.m. on January 1, Uskhopau was certified dead.’ Notably, the report highlights that although the Investigative Committee contested claims that Uskhopau’s injuries were inflicted by authorities during detention and resulted in his death, the committee did admit to the police using force against Uskhopau after he resisted them during detention.

The Cases of Nikolai Klimovich and Vitold Ashurak

In early 2023, Nikolai Klimovich, who was arrested for reacting and therefore inadvertently sharing a caricature of Lukashenko on social media, died after only four months of imprisonment. His death took place in the Vitebsk Penal Colony No. 3, where his complex heart conditions and his need to be closely observed by doctors was not being addressed. Another death that struck Belarusian society was that of political activist Vitold Ashurak. People who attended his funeral reported noticing severe wounds on his head, neck, and hands, suggesting that his death was a result of torture. However, no official investigation was launched into this fatal incident.

Mental Health and the Case of Nasta Loika

The extent to which these horrifying conditions can impact a political prisoner’s state of mind is unimaginable. However, Nasta Loika, a detained human-rights activist, wrote a rather revealing, heart-breaking letter to her dog. Unable to express her anguish to anyone but her pet, she apologises that they will never see each other again and confesses that she has given up on life: “I am very sorry that you and I will not see each other again (you will be 7 years old in July, and I will be in captivity for 7-8 years). I feel guilty that I didn’t save myself for you, that I was able to devote less than 5 years to you […] I hope that your life will be calm and joyful. After all, I have already put a martyr’s cross on my life.”

The Suicide Attempt of Stepan Latypov

In 2020, Stepan Latypov became famous in Belarus after he handed out flowers to protesting women in Minsk. For this act, he was sentenced to 8.5 years in prison. Belarusian human rights observers reported that during his initial arrest by the riot police OMON, as well as during his 7 months of pre-trial detention, Latypov faced regular and severe beatings. Eventually, at his court hearing, he stood up and stabbed himself in the throat with a pen to end his life. His suicide attempt failed, and he was brought to trial again months later. Moments before this action, he tried to warn his father that persecutors threatened to prosecute his family.

Not Only People Disappear

The crackdowns target not only people, but entire organisations. In the attempt to eradicate civil society, nearly all not-for-profit organisations were liquidated, at least 46 of them overnight. In total, around 186 organisations were labelled as “destructive” and “possessing national threat”. Many of them had limited relevance to political spheres.  For example, among the liquidated were an NGO looking after birds as well as NGOs helping people with disabilities and mental health illnesses. These liquidations have a massive social impact on Belarusian society, as many NGOs were providing services that the government were failing to adequately deliver. For example Radislava provided shelter for women who were escaping domestic violence. There are no domestic violence laws in Belarus, so this NGO was the only way these women could access the services they needed.

Are People Leaving Country?

Belarus recently had the highest number of emigrants in its history. While there are substantial difficulties in calculating precisely how many people have fled the country, it is estimated that the number lies between 100,000 to 200,000. The decline in the Belarusian population accelerated from 2020 onwards, but it remains unclear whether this decline is due to higher rates of emigration or could be linked to increased deaths back during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Belarusian people have endured many challenges in history, not least world wars on their territory, revolutions, the carving up of the country, and Soviet rule. Their suffering does not appear to be over yet.

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