Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president known as ‘Europe’s last dictator’, is once again making headlines for the extraordinary lengths he is going to in order to silence dissent. On 23 May, exiled blogger Roman Protasevich, an outspoken critic of Lukashenko and former editor of the popular opposition Telegram channel NEXTA, and his partner, Sofia Sapega, were detained by Belarusian police after their Lithuania-bound flight was diverted to Minsk. There were false claims of a bomb on board. Protasevich was returning to Vilnius, where he now lives, from Greece, where he had been covering an economic conference attended by the Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. According to BelTA, Belarus’s official news agency, Lukashenko personally gave the order to force the passenger plane to land. It was ‘accompanied’ by a Belarusian fighter jet as it landed at Minsk National Airport.
In a video released on 24 May, Protasevich denied reports that he had suffered health problems since his arrest and ‘confessed’ to organising mass protests in Minsk, for which he faces up to fifteen years in prison if convicted. The KGB, Belarus’s security agency, has placed his name on a list of ‘individuals involved in terrorist activity’, which means he could face the death penalty. His arrest drew international condemnation; the EU swiftly agreed to impose sanctions on Belarus and to bar EU-registered airlines from flying over the country.
Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, commented:
The Belarusian act is outrageous, criminal, reckless, and dangerous. It deserves the strongest condemnation. It is beyond all norms to deploy such means to go after a journalist. It is clear that the Lukashenko administration will stop at nothing in silencing dissent … Protasevich’s shocking arrest not only sends a chilling message to the independent voices in Belarus, but it also sets an extremely worrying precedent to those living in exile.
Protasevich’s detention is one of several alarming attacks on free speech in recent months. In early August, the Olympic athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was granted a humanitarian visa by Poland after two Belarusian team officials in Tokyo tried to force her onto a plane back to Minsk. She had dared to criticise the team’s management on social media. The Belarus Olympic Committee is headed by Viktor Lukashenko, the president’s son.
On 30 June, journalist Andrej Aliaksandraŭ, detained since January, was charged with high treason and faces up to fifteen years in prison if convicted. Aliaksandraŭ was previously accused of ‘organising and preparing actions grossly disturbing public order’ after allegedly helping to pay the fines of journalists and protesters arrested during the widespread anti-Lukashenko demonstrations.
The first anniversary of the controversial presidential election that saw Lukashenko returned to serve a sixth term in office fell on 9 August. Lukashenko chose the date to hold a media event he called the ‘Big Conversation’, where he spoke to journalists for over eight hours. BBC reporter Sarah Rainsford attended and enraged Lukashenko with her questions about sanctions, the legitimacy of his rule and reports of the torture of detainees. He responded by saying that these reports were ‘fake’ and telling her, ‘You can choke on your sanctions in Britain!’ On her return to Russia, where she is based, Rainsford was told that her visa would not be renewed, in retaliation for the UK’s refusal to issue visas to Russian reporters.
On the same day that Lukashenko held his media conference, the Supreme Court of Belarus ordered the closure of the Belarusian PEN Centre. Responding to the news, Jennifer Clement, president of PEN International, said:
That the Belarusian authorities moved to shut down the Centre on the one-year anniversary of the country’s disputed presidential elections last year is a tragic reminder of the myriad violations faced by the brave people of Belarus in recent months, and their resolve in the face of adversity.
Founded in 1989, the Belarusian PEN Centre was welcomed into the PEN community in May 1990 at the organisation’s international congress in Madeira, Portugal, and has been a member ever since. I visited Belarus in 2002 and saw for myself how PEN members courageously supported writers and journalists in prison, even though it was dangerous for them to do so. Accompanied by a PEN colleague and interpreter, I took the train from Minsk to the remote town of Osipovichi to visit the journalist Mikola Markovich. He was detained miles from his family and rarely received visitors. I remember him telling us the importance of messages of solidarity from abroad: ‘Sometimes we feel a lack of support in our own country, so when we hear warm words from people with totally different lives, it makes you feel much better and helps you through the ordeal.’ A few years later, the colleague who accompanied me was forced into exile.
Following the disputed 2020 presidential elections, the Belarusian authorities unleashed a brutal crackdown. Since then, they have arbitrarily detained over 35,000 people. Over 700 writers and artists have been persecuted and 360 detained. There have been thousands of complaints of torture and other forms of ill-treatment, none of which has been investigated. At least four protesters and one unjustly imprisoned opposition activist have died. The repression has escalated in recent weeks with the forced closure of over a hundred human rights and civil society organisations, including the Belarusian PEN Centre.
Readers might like to send messages of solidarity to the Belarusian PEN Centre via English PEN: englishpen.org/pen-writes/penwrites-pen-belarus/
You can follow the Belarusian PEN Centre on Twitter (in English and Belarusian): @pen_belarus
Readers can also show support for the Belarusian PEN Centre by signing PEN America’s petition protesting against its closure: actionnetwork.org/petitions/i-support-pen-belarus/